Remembering Fr. Joseph Laenen, O. Praem.
The Rev. Joseph C. Laenen, a priest of Daylesford Abbey, died on July 30, 2019 at the age of 94. Fr. Laenen was born in Poederlee, Belgium on May 15, 1925. He entered the Norbertine abbey of Tongerlo in Belgium on Sept. 15, 1944 and was ordained to the priesthood on August 12, 1951 by Bishop Joseph Brems.
The following is from an article written in 2014.
50 years ago, in November 1964, a young Belgian priest, not yet forty, lay side-by-side with a confrere on the floor of a tiny prison cell in the town of Buta in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. The newly formed Congolese Republic was in turmoil, and the country was consumed in violence. Outside the window of their cell, the priests heard rifle shots ring out clearly as the Simba rebels continued the pitiless executions of all who opposed them. The two priests prayed as they waited for death, fully expecting to be dragged out and killed at any time. But God had other plans for Daylesford’s Father Joseph Laenen, and the Congolese Liberation Army arrived in Buta just in time to save him. Fr. Joseph and his confrere were set free, escorted to the airport, and the next day they escaped on a plane to the capital Kinshasha, and from there to Belgium to a joyful reunion with their families.
Although happy to be alive, Fr. Joseph’s leaving the Congo was heartbreaking. In the eleven years he served there, he had come to love the lush green land and its people. He had arrived in Africa in 1953, by way of Egypt and a visit to the pyramids, to serve with the Norbertine Missionaries in Buta, the diocesan capital of the region. Over the next eleven years, Father Joseph held many posts as a village priest and educator in the towns of Aketi and Ibembo. He was in charge of parishes, and of schools, and started and ran a flourishing boys scout troop. At one point Fr. Joseph was in charge of “the Brousse”, that is, the jungle. This entailed monthly excursions in an old pick-up truck with a cook and an altar boy to jungle villages large and small to say Mass, instruct Catechumens, hear confessions, pray over the sick, and give the last rites to the dying. Needless to say on these trips, which could last as long as a week, there was no electricity, cooling, radio or telephone. Father Joseph slept on a “kitekwale” which was a kind of bed used by the native people.
At the young age of 34, Father Joseph found himself the Superior and pastor of a large, thriving mission in Ngai, a remote part of the Congo, cut off completely during the rainy season. Here he cared for a large church, a hospital, a community of nuns and two large schools. As independence destabilized the country and the Sisters of the Holy Sepulcher left their convent and school, Father Joseph found himself wholly in charge of the girls’ school as well as the boys’ school. Undaunted, he supervised the curriculum, hired the teachers, and even set up a sewing workroom supplying it with material so the girls could sew their own clothes and uniforms. Father Joseph loved his mission in Ngai, and its people and he served them well. It was from here he was imprisoned in 1964 with many other religious, initially for one week, and then for a second time for over a month, before being freed by the Liberation Army. And so it was that Father Joseph left Ngai, directly from the jail, fifty years ago. He was unable to return to his office, to his room, to his church, to say goodbye or to gather precious possessions, books, or photographs.
But he had his clear memories of all he had seen and done in the Congo, and over the years his family shared his letters and photos that he had sent them. So Father Joseph has been able to keep the Congo alive in his mind and his heart and always in his prayers. The last Norbertine Missionaries left the Congo three years ago.
After recovering from his Congo experience at home with his family in Belgium, Father Joseph served in a Diocesan church in Northern France for two years, before going to a community in Canada near Montreal. It was from Quebec that he came on sabbatical to Daylesford Abbey in 1983, and made his “transitus”, that is, he officially joined the Daylesford community in 1986. He is, now in his eighties, in his own words “A happy priest, blessed by the Lord, a Religious grateful to Jesus, to the Church, to our Norbertine Community wherever I lived.”
And the Community of Dayleford is grateful for the blessing that is Father Joseph, and especially for the timely arrival of the Congolese Liberation Army at that tiny jail cell in Africa, fifty years ago.
-Kate Wunner, May 2014
Funeral arrangements for Fr. Laenen are as follows. Reception of the Body and Morning Prayer will be held at Daylesford Abbey on August 12, 2019 at 8:30 a.m. followed by public visitation and viewing. A Mass of Christian Burial will begin at 10:30 a.m. with final interment in the Abbey cemetery. Abbot Domenic Rossi, O. Praem. will officiate at the funeral liturgy. Donations in Father Laenen’s memory can be made to Daylesford Abbey, 220 S. Valley Road, Paoli, Pa. 19301.