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As a child I always wanted to go to the mission - interview with Father Koen Impens

Father Koen Impens was a priest for 60 years on March 17, 2022. A long time in which he has been through a lot and done a lot. It is also a great opportunity to look back on that.

'I was born in Dendermonde. I was the middle child in a family of 9 children. It was, and still is, a warm family. I wanted to become a priest when I was about seven years old. We were a religious Catholic family, so it wasn't that strange at the time. I didn't just want to become a priest, I also wanted to go to the mission. When I was going to secondary school, and I also had to think about which order I could join, I thought more about the Oblates. However, there was a zealot of Saint Rita from Kontich who told us that the Augustinians also had a mission. Within a week a Father Augustin showed up on our doorstep.´

Father Koen as a novice on the far left

I went to Sint-Rita College in Kontich and I had a great time there. After college, I entered the order of the Augustinians together with three others and did my novitiate in Bouge. When they asked me what religious name I wanted, I said: “I am Koen and I will remain Koen,” and that is how it stayed. I then followed philosophy for two years in Ghent and then went to Heverlee for theology. The study went well for me.

On March 17, 1962, I was ordained a priest in Heverlee by Monsignor Boleslas Sloskans. That was a Latvian bishop who was in exile in Leuven and who is now in the process of beatification.

Ordination of Koen Impens by Mgr. Sloskans

To the mission

I wanted to go to the mission and in September I finally went to Congo. I had grown my beard because that was part of going to the mission. I was hardly prepared for that. I had had French, but that was school French, and I had to learn the local language there, they said. In the beginning I felt homesick for my family because I didn't know anyone and I couldn't make myself understood. Luckily I learned the language and was busy. After a while I almost felt a little guilty that I was thinking much less about my family.

I ended up in Doruma. In 1964, violent riots broke out in the provinces of Kwilu and Kivu. Very quickly, Eastern Congo was conquered by the rebels. They mainly targeted foreigners and Congolese intellectuals. Two days before the feast of Augustine they also invaded Doruma. We were grounded for a few days, and spent four months in prison, and had to take off our glasses and watch, and take off our shoes. One evening they come and tell us that we would all be killed the next day. These are exciting moments. Father Joris gave us general absolution and we waited for what was to come. Yet I was not afraid. Fortunately the guard was kind to us, he had a sister who was religious. Many people were well disposed towards us. Finally we left for Dungu and were also liberated. I went to Isiro, but working in the mission in Eastern Congo was no longer possible.

Koen Impens ready for the mission

In 1966 more was possible again and I became director of the College Notre Dame. I was happy to do that. We started to focus on the education of the people. In the meantime, I was also a pastor in Bangadi for a while, alternating as a pastor for the interior. We were responsible for 68 villages and you were supposed to visit those villages three times a year. Of course that didn't work because if you were in a village, you were there to celebrate mass, baptize and have conversations. That lasted two or three days. But I liked doing it. The roads were impassable at times and we had a Land Rover to get from one place to another.

In 1979 I was responsible for the Center de Formation Catechetique in Balele. Precisely because we could not be in all the villages, it was important that we had catechists on site. All this time we were mainly concerned with the formation of native priests for the diocese. We were not yet trying to interest young people in the Augustinians. When at one point there were already 27 native priests, we decided to start a juniorate. Boys were trained there who wanted to become Augustinians. In 1987 I became director of the junior school in Dungu. It was great that I could help with their formation: Father Guillaume, who now lives in Ghent, was one of my first pupils.

Fortunately, I was also able to visit my family in Belgium once in a while. They couldn't come to me, Congo is too unsafe for that. Over time, my asthma became more prevalent and I needed regular care.

Back to Belgium

In 2004 I came to Belgium permanently. I felt sorry to leave all those people behind because I enjoyed being there. I was able to experience the saying 'ora et labora' during the mission in Congo.

I have not been idle in Belgium. I moved to our convent in Bouge near Namur. We have a shrine of Saint Rita there and many people come there. I went to help both fathers there in pastoral work and the volunteers who are active there. I also enjoyed doing that, the conversations you have, what people come up with.

After a few years I moved to our convent in Heverlee. I was still able to be active in the parish by celebrating Mass and by being provost of the OKRA. It's a good place to be. But my heart is certainly still in Congo, I already had that as a child.

I find the beginning of Augustine's rule a beautiful guideline, one of heart and one of soul on the way to God. I have always wanted to build something together with other people. You also need someone else and fortunately I have always found people along my path with whom I could do that.'

Koen Impens at a communion party in Congo