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Visiting the ‘Mémorial Kongolo’ at Gentinnes: A Dream Deferred

For many years, ever since I heard of its inauguration, I have felt a strong desire to visit the ‘Mémorial Kongolo’ in the Belgian hamlet of Gentinnes, but somehow a suitable occasion never seemed to materialise. For too long it remained a dream deferred. Until, that is to say, towards the end of last month, I was asked to collect Fr Henri Peeters, a fellow Mill Hill missionary coming on leave from Cameroon, at Brussels Airport. That felt like a now-or-never opportunity to finally make the trip, since Gentinnes is located only a few dozen kilometers southeast of Brussels.

And so, I left a day early to be able to take in not just the Mémorial Kongolo but to also pay an extensive visit to the recently revamped Royal Africa Museum at Tervuren. I was intrigued and gratified by the museum’s announcement a few weeks earlier that any object manifestly looted from Congo during colonial days would be returned to where it belonged. An example to be followed!

The Mémorial Kongolo is a special place of remembrance for the numerous missionaries in the Belgian Congo (currently named Democratic Republic of Congo) who died during the turbulent years immediately following the country’s declaration of independence in June 1960. It is named after the 19 Spiritan missionaries who were massacred in the town of Kongolo (S.E. Congo) on January 1st, 1962. Since a number of them were former pupils of the Spiritan run ‘apostolic school’ at Gentinnes in Belgium that location seemed a natural choice for a suitable memorial.

As the idea of a memorial matured it was decided to make it all inclusive and give it a distinctly ecumenical character. Thus, the memorial chapel honours not only the Kongolo 19 but all the missionaries who lost their lives during the troubles that followed the independence of Congo (1962 – 1964): Catholics and Protestants, priests, men and women religious and lay persons, Europeans, Americans, Africans. 217 names in all. (One cannot help but think of the many nameless victims – catechists, lay leaders, ordinary peace-loving folk – of the mindless violence that swept the country during those turbulent years)

The beautifully designed ‘Le Corbusier style’ Chapel features at its entrance a striking statue of a missionary in prayerful surrender with, on the outside wall, the 217 names arranged in the form of an egg – a symbol of life. Multicoloured stained glass windows suffuse the inner space with delicate light revealing on adjacent walls a Christ in glory on the Cross and a statue of the Virgin Mary offering her infant Jesus to the world.

The chapel was inaugurated and consecrated on May 7, 1967, in the presence of Belgian King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola. It has become a place of pilgrimage ever since.

My attraction to the place stems from my intimate involvement with the Church in Congo during the 17 off years I was privileged to work as a missionary in the diocese of Basankusu, beginning at the end of the 1960’s. The Mémorial Kongolo carries a deeply emotional charge since seven of the names figuring on the outside wall of the chapel are those of missionaries active in the diocese of Basankusu. Four of them (three sisters of the Belgian congregation of Ten Bunderen and a Mill Hill brother) died in a tragic accident on the Lulonga river whilst being evacuated at the start of the Simba rebellion in 1964. And three Mill Hill priests died elsewhere in the diocese at the hands of the rebels. Their story was carefully researched and faithfully recorded by Belgian historian Dries Vanysacker.

What follows below is his detailed account of what happened during those fateful months:

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“At the outbreak of the Simba Rebellion in early September 1964 all whites left the northwestern areas of Mampoko, Kodoro and Waka. During this action a dramatic accident happened on Wednesday 9 September. On that day, the Mill Hill Father Pierre Spanjers came to pick up the Mampoko sisters in a motor dugout canoe to take them to Basankusu. During the crossing of the wide Lulonga River, the motor canoe with Spanjers, Mill Hill brother Hugo – James Brits, boy Pierre Etumola and four sisters of Our Lady-ten-Bunderen (Sister Cypriana – Clara Vlamynck, Sister Marie-Loyola – Jenny Delporte , Sister Marie-Chantal – Maria Vanlerberghe and Sister Raphaël – Cécile Barbaix) near the village of Boginda was surprised by a formidable swell caused by a freighter sailing in the opposite direction. The canoe overturned and eventually three sisters (Sister Marie-Loyola, Sister Marie-Chantal and Sister Raphaël) and Brother Hugo drowned. On September 10, three victims were buried, while the drifted body of Sister Raphaël was not found until October 20, 1964 and interred in the grave of her two fellow sisters. The surviving Sister Cypriana arrived on September 19, 1964, along with five evacuated fellow sisters (Sister Clémentine – Valérie Masschelein, Sister Xaveria – Marguerite Brouckmans, Sister Marie-Grégoire – Germaine Verzin, Sister Agatha – Agnes D’Hont and Sister Marie-Elie – Simonne de Bel) and Father Pierre Spanjers from Mill Hill in Zaventem. Sister Bonifacia – Julia Timmerman left Basankusu with four Congolese sisters via Leopoldstad to Belgium. Msgr. Van Kester eventually stayed behind in Basankusu with three fathers from Mill Hill and with four white sisters and two native sisters from OLV-ten-Bunderen. Sister Leona – Maria Faes became the vicaress.

In December 1964, the Simba rebels advanced from the east and were stopped by government forces in Befale, just 180 kilometers from Basankusu.

In the east of the diocese, contact between the population, the Europeans and the rebels was already a fact from the beginning of September 1964. On September 6, the Simbas invaded Bokutola. Three days after their arrival, they executed two ANC soldiers after torturing them for seven full hours in front of the Europeans. The latter, in turn, were threatened by the rebels. Two doctors and three plantation members suffered, but the crowd wouldn’t let them be killed. Between September 11 and 13, the rebels cracked down on the two doctors, breaking them with several fractures. A month later they repeated this when the doctors were unable to pay the amount of 100,000 to 200,000 francs demanded by the Simbas.

On October 28, 1964, a new commander arrived at the plantation along with a group of officers. Three people were brutally beaten. The Europeans were brought in front of the rebel vehicle and stripped of their vest and goggles. A panicked Belgian fled but was hit by a bullet in the arm. Compulsory military exercises were then imposed on the prisoners. As they did this, they heard a machine gun salvo: the Belgian who had tried in vain to flee had been killed by firing squad.

After the sack of Bokutola, the rebels took the two doctors and four other Europeans to Commander Bomisi’s headquarters, in the area of ​​Mompono. The doctors witnessed the terrible torture these four endured all night. The next day it was rumored that Bokutola had been taken by the Americans. As a reprisal, the three Dutchmen and the Portuguese were shot. The doctors were later – perhaps after November 10, 1964 – taken to Djolu, where they found other European prisoners: five agents from the Lilenga plantation, a planter and a trader from Bongila and two Dutch missionaries from Mill Hill from the mission post of Yamboyo, Father Jan Groenewegen and Brother Piet Vos.

The latter had been ambushed in their mission on November 8, when Father Groenewegen was celebrating mass in the presence of Brother Vos. The rebels from Djolu, 25 kilometers away, said their chief had banned any religious ceremony and demanded food immediately or they would kill the priest. When Groenewegen calmly replied that it would be best to do so outside, the rebels handcuffed both Mill Hillers to execute them. Just at that moment, Father Bertus Santbergen came to meet them and demanded that the Simbas kill him as the longest present on the mission. After a first shot hit only his glasses, a second shot through the head was fatal. The moribund Father was immediately riddled with a hail of bullets. His colleagues were left stunned. Two days later, the rebels took them to Djolu.

Between November 12 and 19, 1964, the entire group of hostages was taken to Simba’s mission on the road between Djolu and Yahuma. The purpose of this was to send them to Stanleyville and house them with the other hostages. Perhaps other motives, events or personal reasons must have prevented this. The fact is that only the two doctors have arrived in Stanleyville. No trace has been found of the others, including the Mill Hillers. According to Congolese eyewitnesses, they were transported in the direction of Elisabetha before the capture of Stanleystad on November 24, 1964 and afterwards were handed over to the population of several villages (Yabongengo, Yaboseo and Ligasa-Mangala). They may have been cut up and eaten by the tribes”.

(Translated from Dries Vanysacker: Vergeten Martelaars. Missionarissen in het oog van de Simba-opstand in Congo 1964 – 1966, Acco, 2015)


  1. I was very happy to see the tragic events of 1964 in the Congo remembered; poignant memories for the Diocese of Basankusu. Hugo Brits and the ten Bunderen sisters are buried in Mampoko.
    Bart van Santbergen is buried in Yamboyo; though unfortunately Jan Groenewegen and Piet Vos were never found.
    But I would like to add a happy postscript to our keeping of these memories. When the diocese changed the names of its deaneries (moving from the geographical ones to more specifically Christian ones), the Djolu deanery, which includes Yamboyo and Simba, was named the deanery of the Apostle Bartholemew . This is a delicate way of honouring Bart and all the others involved.

  2. Forever held in memory by generations. Our missionary spirit shone brightly in many troubled spots worldwide – remaining alongside those who suffered. This spirit continues in our own times as violent situations erupt causing death and mayhem. The Kongolo memorial stands as a tribute to the many who have given their lives in the service of the Gospel. We remember them. GS

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