René was born on the 9th June 1929 at Essen in the countryside around Antwerp not far from the Dutch border. He came from a farming background. There were ten children in the family. He attended the Junior Seminary of Hoogstraten before entering the White Fathers at Boechout in September 1948. He was following in the steps of his uncle, Piet Koninigs (+1986). His younger brother, Herman, followed him in turn into the Society.
René began his novitiate in Varsenare in September 1950 followed by theological studies in Heverlee. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 10th July 1954 followed by priestly ordination on the 10th April 1955. His professors found him a bit shy. He had good judgment and was a prudent and resourceful person. He was a conscientious worker and was open and friendly even if he could often be sceptical. In community, he was an agreeable cheerful confrere, who liked to tease. He seemed to be happy and content with a solid piety.
René was appointed to Burundi and left on the Sobelair flight on the 8th April 1956; destination Gitega Diocese. He began as curate in Gisuru before moving to Jenda some months later where he got down to some serious study of Kirundi. His shyness did not make this task any easier especially when he needed to assert his authority with the teachers in his charge. However, he stuck it out. During his home leave in 1963, he did the Long Retreat and returned to Burundi by boat in October. He was appointed to Ruyigi for pastoral work but he also served as chaplain to the prison, the hospital and CHIRO (a Catholic Youth Movement). When it was his turn, he visited the outstations, but as the Regional, Fr. Braekers, noted, he did so without any great enthusiasm because conditions were very basic and this did not please him very much. At Ruyigi, also, his relationships with the teachers were not so good. In 1965, René was transferred to Kibumbu. His health was becoming a cause for concern, he needed to sleep a lot and his stomach was very delicate. However, the confreres appreciated his presence in community. In July 1967, he was appointed to Bugenyuzi. A couple of months later, he learnt that his father had just died.
After returning from home leave in August 1968, René went to Bukirasazi where he was also given the bursar’s job. The confreres appreciated the food he put on the table and a sorghum mill kept the finances afloat. However, he complained more and more of feeling tired. After a year at Nyangwa where he witnessed the massacres that the country suffered in 1972, René returned to Belgium for treatment which lasted for some time. While following a programme of psychological revaluation, he was given the job looking after relationship with the families and the promoters of our missionary calendar and our Flemish language missionary magazine ‘Wereldwijd’. In the meantime, he stayed with our community at Berchem. He was also able to give some service especially at the week-ends in the Parish of Saint Joseph at Mortsel. In October 1976, he followed the session retreat in Jerusalem. Little by little René prepared himself to return to Burundi something he deeply desired. At the last minute, he followed a session on Marriage Encounter because many couples at Mortsel had talked very positively about it.
Taking his courage in his hands, René set out again for Burundi in January 1977. He began again as curate in Mubimbi in the Archdiocese of Bujumbura. However, as everybody knows, things had changed in the country and the political climate had deteriorated seriously under President Bagaza. Religious practice was forbidden. On the 11th June 1979, as with many other confreres, René was officially thanked and told to leave the country within 48 hours.
We do not know Fr. Konings’ reaction to this expulsion. A letter dating from September 1980 indicates that he still had hopes of returning to Burundi. Anyway, René went to help out without delay our parish team in the Sacred Heart Parish in Antwerp. Not for long however, because at the beginning of 1980, he joined our community in Keizerstraat. He also gave a helping hand in the office of ‘Nieuw Afrika’ and, at the weekends, said Mass in St. Joseph’s Parish near the Central Park of Antwerp. In fact in March 1981, he officially became a member of the Parish team. This meant adapting to the particular style of an urban parish with a strong participation of the laity. The Dean, Fr. Hamels was very happy with René’s excellent collaboration.
In 2004, René reached the legal retirement age for priests. He accepted the post of chaplain in the Retirement Home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor while still residing at Keizerstraat. In the beginning, he went there by bicycle. He participated at the 70+ session in Rome in 2005. He was fortunate in that he could always count on a confrere to replace him at the home. When, in the beginning of 2010, the work of chaplain became too much for him, he retired and could finally begin to enjoy his retirement. He remained the same agreeable, joyful, self-effacing, spontaneously curious man anxious to understand what was happening in the world.
During his final years, he began to forget, missing out on names, getting lost on his bicycle, not being able to preside at the Eucharist without some sort of slip-up. When his health really became a problem, he was transferred to the Nursing home of Our Lady of Antwerp a couple of steps from our house on Keizerstraat. In his final days, he did not recognise anyone, but the nurse looking after him emphasised that he retained his sense of humour. On Monday morning, 17th July 2017, René died peacefully.
The Liturgy of the Resurrection took place on Thursday 20th July in the parish church of St. Charles Borromeo in Antwerp. He was buried in the cemetery of our house in Varsenare
Jef Vleugels, M.Afr.