Paul Francis Spencer C.P.

Our story begins, as no well-told story should, at its conclusions; what will follow is in a sense simply an explanation of this conclusion, which is also a beginning. Our story opens then with a letter written by the Rector of Mount Argus, Dublin to Anne Mary Lenssen, Munstergeleen, on 12 January 1893, to inform her of her brother’s death.

Madam,

It is with the deepest regret that I write to you, to give you the sad news of the death of good Fr Charles.

He passed from this life on the 5th of this months. His death, like his life, was that of a saint. During the whole time that his body lay in the church, crowds of people were filing past constantly, in order to have their rosaries and other objects of devotion touched against his body. There was an enormous multitude at his funeral. Nobody wanted to pray for his soul; on the contrary, all were ready to ask his intercession. It is true to say that in the opinion of the people he is already canonised.

Please accept my condolences, Madam, on this occasion.

Your servant in Jesus Christ,
Dominic O’Neill,
Rector

What Anne Mary’s reaction to this was would be hard to imagine; it was sad news indeed, but surprising news too: the death of ‘good Fr Charles’, her brother Andrew; a death like that of a saint; canonised in the minds of the people. She had not seen her brother for nearly fifty years. When he left home to join the Passionists, she was only fourteen years old. Anne Mary had often seen the words her father had written in his prayer book the day Andrew was born: ‘John Andrew Houben was born 11 December 1821. Glory and thanks be to God.’ In her own mind she added, ‘Father Charles of Saint Andrew died 5 January 1893. Glory and thanks be to God.’

~ • ~

MapThe village of Munstergeleen lies in the Dutch province of Limburg, where Holland meets the border of Germany and Belgium. Here it was that in the second half of the eighteenth century Arnold Houben from Limbrecht had come to find work. He was taken on at the flour mill and so it happened that, after a few years, Arnold married the miller’s daughter. When his father-in-law died, the mill passed on to Arnold and his wife, Mary Sibyl. right: small red dot about one-third from the top edge of this satellite map shows approximate location of Munstergeleen

In 1795 Arnold Houben died at the age of forty-four, leaving Mary Sibyl with eight children of whom the oldest, Mary Gertrude, was twenty-three and the youngest, Mary Christine, only a year old. The work at the mill was taken over the the oldest son, Peter Arnold. He was twenty-one years old and had to take his father’s place both at the mill and in the home, taking care of his brothers and sisters as well as the family business. Peter Arnold never married; as often happens in such circumstances, his brothers and sisters became, in a sense, his children.

One of Peter Arnold’s younger brothers was also called Peter: Peter Joseph Houben, the father of Andrew, known to us as Charles. Peter Joseph was only five years old when his father died. When he grew older he learned to work with his brother and the mill, but he did not intend to remain a bachelor like Peter Arnold. At twenty-six he married a girl from the village, Johanna Elizabeth Luyten. Johanna was just a year younger than her husband, whose elder brother was happy to have them stay in the house at the flour mill. It was a big house and there would be plenty of room for everyone.

The newly-married couple did not forget Peter Arnold’s kindness and when, a year later, their first son was born, they gave him his uncle’s name. Four years later, a second son was born; he was called John Andrew after Johanna’s brother, who was his godfather, but to the family he would be known simply as Andrew. below: the church where Andrew Houben was baptised

Village churchOn the day he was born Andrew was baptised by the parish priest of Mundergeleen, Fr Peter Delahaye. The church in which he was baptised has since disappeared, but the stone baptismal font was preserved and can be seen in the present church, as can the baptismal register in which Father Delahaye wrote:

On 11 December 1821 was born and baptised John Andrew, lawful son of Peter Joseph Houben and Johanna Elizabeth Luyten. Sponsors: John Andrew Luyten and Mary Gertrude Deverin, as proxy for Mary Ida Houben of Einighausen in the parish of Limbrecht.

Andrew’s first steps in this world were taken under the guidance of his mother and father and they were his first teachers in the faith, showing him how to pray and how to live. He never forgot his debt to them, as can be seen in a letter he wrote from Dublin seventeen years after leaving his family home. In the letter he prays for his married brother and sister, John Matthew and Anne Mary, that they may be like their parents, and in doing so he gives us a picture of his own childhood:

I pray for them, that if God grants them children, they will bring them up to know his peace, have them pray every morning and every night, and teach them to recite the rosary in the evening, and that the welfare of their souls will be the most important thing in life for them. We should be thankful to God for having given us such good parents.

Another person who was to have a deep influence on young Andrew was Fr John Christian Delahaye. He was appointed as parish priest of Munstergeleen on the death of his uncle, Fr Peter Delahaye, when Andrew was just two years old. On 14 May 1824 he arrived from nearby Sittard, where he had been a curate. The new parish priest was full of enthusiasm for his work. He declared that he was prepared to get his parishioners to heaven, even if he had to drag them there by the hair of the head! His preaching on Death and the Last Judgment made a lasting impression on his hearers, and not least on Andrew.

Fr Delahaye was a strong advocate of education; he promoted the work on the Confraternity for Christian Education, which Andrew was later to join. He encouraged parents to send their children to school and at one stage was able to say that out of six hundred parishioners, one hundred and twenty were attending school. Indeed so keen was he on this that he would not admit to First Communion any child who could not read and write.

Family home

As a boy Andrew attended the village primary school where, under the direction of Fr Delahaye, he made his preparation for First Communion, which he received on the second Sunday of Easter, 26 April 1835. Two months later, on 28 June, he was confirmed by Bishop Richard Anthony van Bommel. right: the family home at Munstergeleen, where Andrew was born

It was around this time that Andrew became an altar server and also join the Confraternity of Perpetual Adoration. Already at fourteen years of age he began to spend time adoring Jesus in the Eucharist. It became his usual practice to visit the Blessed Sacrament on his way home from school and often after services in the church he would remain behind to pray, so that at times his mother would have to send one of his brothers or sisters to bring him home for supper. Indeed, the family used to smile and say that Andrew knew only two roads, the road to school and the road to church. To those outside his family he seemed quiet and extremely shy, but within his own home he was always cheerful and full of life. His brothers and sisters described him as having been always content with everything and everybody, and they remember how he used to go about the house singing as he worked. His sister Anne Mary would later tell her children that she wished they would try to be like their uncle Andrew who, at their age,knew the catechism well and always said his prayers.

After his First Communion and Confirmation, Andrew left the primary school and began attending classes at Sittard, two miles from his home. A secular priest, Fr Kallen, had recently opened a High School in the old Dominican College buildings. Here Andrew was able to learn French and Latin, languages which would later be very useful to him. He worked as best he could at his studies, but the house did not provide a quiet setting for reading and writing. The noise of the mill together with the comings and goings of people from the village were a constant distraction to him. In addition, by this time the family home was bursting at the seams: there were ten children in the house, as well as their parents and Uncle Peter. Andrew’s mother’s brother, who was now Mayor of Munstergeleen, lived not too far away. He offered to left Andrew and his oldest sister Mary Sibyl stay in his house for a while. Sibyl could help about the house, while for Andrew, Mayor Luyten’s would be a quiet place where he could study in peace; at the same time, it was only a few minutes’ walk from their parents’ home.

In the autumn of 1837, shortly after Sibyl and Andrew had moved into the Mayor’s house, a new curate arrive in the village; Fr Henry Göbbels was no stranger to the place, having been born at Geleen. He had been ordained on 13 August 1837, and the curacy at Munstergeleen was his first appointment. He was twenty-four years old, eight years older than Andrew. The new priest needed a place to stay; Mayor Luyten was happy to take him in.

Until now the only priest Andrew had known was Fr Delahaye, a man much older than himself and quite distant in his manner. Now he found himself living in the same house as a young, newly-ordained priest who, as well as being nearer his own age, was from this very place. As he chatted with Fr Göbbels at the fireplace in the evenings or asked him for help with his homework, perhaps Andrew began to feel drawn to the priesthood not just as something to be admired, but as a possible way of life.

Progress in the College at Sittard was slow. Andrew worked hard but, as Fr Göbbels observed, he had great difficulty in learning, so much so that his parents tried to discourage him from continuing at the College. His mother, anxious for his health, would say to him, ‘But Andrew, does all this studying not make you too tired? Would you not like to put your books away and help your father?’ However, Andrew’s quiet determination pushed him forward, supported no doubt by the kindness of Fr Göbbels and Mayor Luyten. In later years he did not forget the help they had given him. Writing to his uncle long afterwards, he says:

My dear uncle, I am endebted to you not just financially but in so many other ways too; I hope you will forgive me if I have failed to pay you back.
~ • ~

The months and years passed by, and Andrew was still to be seen plodding along the road to Sittard, making progress in his studies steadily but very slowly, and at the same time not forgetting his visit to the church, growing steadily in his life of prayer. Somehow he knew that God wanted him to persevere in both of these; to what precise purpose he was not yet sure.

Soldier

When Andrew was nineteen years old he was enrolled for military service in the First Infantry Regiment. Although enrolled on 2 March 1840 and not dismissed until 10 March 1845, he was in active service for only three months. Having made a general confession to Fr Göbbels before leaving home, he arrived in the Markiezenkoph Barracks at Bergen-Op-Zoom on 9 July 1841. Here with the other new recruits he went through a programme of basic training. It was obvious to his companions that Andrew’s heart was not set on a military career. They used to say that the miller’s son would not make a good soldier because he spent too much time in church. It is said that on occasion during his time as a soldier there was a disturbance in the town; the army were called out and ordered to fire. Afraid that he might hit someone, Andrew pointed his rifle the wrong way and narrowly missed shooting his superior officer.

Whether this story is true or not, Andrew was certainly not thinking of spending the rest of his life in the army. His mind had started to move in another direction. His biographers tell us that it was while he was in the army that he first heard of the newly-established Passionist community at Ere in Belgium, through another conscript called Raaymakers, whose brother had been received into their novitiate. In fact Brother Anthony Raaymakers did not arrive at the Passionist house to become a novice until 2 August 1842, almost ten months after Andre had finished his active service. Was he himself the conscript with whom Andrew discussed this new group of religious, recently arrived from Italy? How did either of them come to hear about this monastery which was hundreds of miles from their homes in the southern, French-speaking part of Belgium? Unfortunately we have no definite answer to either of these questions. However, we can put forward one possible sequence of events.

On 1 May 1841, the Journal Historique et Littéraire, a magazine published in Liège by a priest, Fr Kersters, printed an article about the Passionists at Ere. The curate, Fr Göbbels, who had been ordained at Liège, may well have received a copy of the magazine and given it to Andrew to read. The article appeared just five weeks before Andrew left home to begin his military service. It is possible that he arrived at Bergen-Op-Zoom with the idea of joining the Passionists already on his mind and that he found a sympathetic listener in his companion Raaymakers.

The article in the Journal Historique et Littéraire had stated that the Passionists had recently established a novitiate at Ere, near Tournay; it described their mission in these terms:

The purpose of this institute, founded by Venerable Paul of the Cross almost a hundred years ago, is to bring about the conversion of sinners. In particular the Passionists devote themselves to hearing confessions and giving retreats in villages, towns, seminaries and religious communities. In all their houses they receive priests and other gentlemen who wish to make retreats. They do not refuse to work among pagans and heretics whenever called upon to do so, and it could be said that this is their greatest wish.

The author described the lifestyle of the Passionists as being extremely austere: going barefoot, wearing sandals only; sleeping on straw mattresses; rising at midnight to chant Matins; devoting long periods of time to meditation every day.

This information, whether it came to him from the magazine article or from his fellow soldier, certainly gave Andrew something new to think about: a life of prayer and penance, in which he would be helping others to come close to God, with the possibility of going as a missionary to some other land to spread the Faith. As he sat in the army barracks with his friend Raaymakers discussing what they would do after their military service, he became more and more convinced that this was what God was asking of him: he would indeed be a soldier, but a soldier of Christ, under the banner of the Cross. Like other soldiers before him — Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola and Paul of the Cross himself — he now realised that he was to put on the armour of the Lord.

On 9 October Andrew’s period of active military service came to an end and he returned to Munstergeleen. On leaving home three months earlier, he had received from his parents a belt containing a sum of money which he now brought home intact; but he also brought home something which for him was of greater value, a sense of purpose. If he was to achieve that purpose and join the Passionist community, he would have to continue his studies, particularly Latin and French. The College at Sittard had been closed due to the death of Fr Kallen, so Andrew turned to Mr Schrijen, a schoolmaster living at Broeksittard, who agreed to take him as a pupil. Now almost twenty years old, Andrew found in Mr Schrijen an excellent teacher and also a friend. He discussed with him his desire to become a Passionist. Mr Schrijen had heard about this community and he gave Andrew every encouragement. A remarkable change began to take place: the student who had been so slow and apparently stupid started to make rapid progress. Mr Schrijen himself described the difference between Andrew’s previous school record and his newfound success as truly amazing. Andrew had gained two assets by which he discovered a new enthusiasm for education: a relationship of trust and understanding between himself and his teacher, and a specific aim towards which his studies were directed.

He was to spend another four years at home, studying with Mr Schrijen and, when he could, helping at the mill. His under Peter, who as a young man carried the burden of the family business, was gradually becoming more feeble and less fit for work. Finally on 17 January 1843 he died at the age of sixty-nine; he had been like a father to Peter Joseph, his younger brother, and to his nieces and nephews he had taken the place of the grandfather they had never known.

Uncle Peter’s death was not the only sorrow to touch the Houben family during those years. Almost exactly a year later, on 19 January 1844, Johanna Elizabeth Houben, Andrew’s mother, died. She was just fifty-two years old; Andrew was twenty-two. The experience of the death of someone we love brings us face to face with the fragility of our human existence and can make us question the value of what we are doing with our lives. For young Andrew there must have been a struggle with this grief as he attempted to reconcile his feelings of loss with his faith in a loving God. Some fifteen years later, when his brother John Peter died, he wrote to his family:

He was so good, kind and loving to our family. His death must have caused you all great sorrow. Yet I am happy to hear from you and he led a most exemplary life.... Let us thus console each other and let us realise that it is the will of God, and that he died as one predestined, having been strengthened by the last sacraments.

We can easily apply these words to Andrew’s mother and see in this letter the fruits of his own experience; he acknowledges the great sorrow that is felt and at the same time, without suppressing the pain, allows it to co-exist with the realisation that this is willed by God and is part of his plan for those whom he has predestined in love.

On 18 February 1845 Andrew’s period as a reserve in the army came to an end and he was formally discharged. He was now free to take the step he had thought and prayed about for so long. He made contact with the Passionist community at Ere and informed them that he wished to enter the novitiate. It was agreed that he should arrive at the beginning of November.

When the time came for him to leave home, Andrew went to each of his brothers and sisters in turn to say goodbye; for each he had a word of encouragement or advice. His eldest sister Sibyl, who had been his companion during the years in his uncle’s house, was afraid that in his heart Andrew would have preferred to stay at home; even she, who was perhaps closest to him found it hard at times to be sure of what he was thinking. ‘Are you really going away of your own free will?’ she asked. ‘Ah Sibyl,’ Andrew replied, ‘for our Lord I would do anything; I would even go and live at the bottom of a well.’

On that last evening at home the family sat down at the kitchen table to have supper together. It was a sad moment for his brothers and sisters; some of them began to cry. His father made a last vain attempt to hold on: ‘Andrew, there’s enough to eat for all of us; one more won’t make any difference. You don’t have to go away to that monastery.’ Andrew answered quietly but firmly, ‘I’ve said that I will go to the monastery and I’m going.’ With a last embrace for his father and his brothers and sisters, he set out with his uncle, Mayor Luyten, on the journey to Ere. As they crossed the bridge to leave the village, Andrew stopped for a moment, looked back and said, ‘Goodbye, Munstergeleen.’

Note. Peter Joseph Andrew Houben (born 15 February 1790) and Johanna Elizabeth Luyten (born 6 March 1791) had eleven children:

Peter Arnold, born 3 August 1817, died 30 July 1878; Mary Sibyl, born 28 October 1818, died 20 October 1896; Mary Christine, born 22 January 1820, died 26 April 1871; John Andrew, born 11 December 1821, died 5 January 1893; John Peter, born 25 May 1823, died 24 January 1859; John Matthew, born 26 May 1825, died 1 December 1907; Peter Joseph, born 9 February 1827, died 18 August 1883; Godfrey, born 9 June 1829, died 7 July 1892; Anne Mary, born 5 Marcy 1831, died 5 March 1912; a tenth child, still-born, 27 September 1833; Mary Helen, born 3 May 1835, died 23 March 1917.
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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - all rights reserved

From the Web publisher:
This biography, paper-published in 1988 at the time of Father Charles’ beatification, was how I became acquainted with the life of Father Charles. Although you will find the entire text at this site, I encourage you to look for the new paper edition of the book, which will be available in bookshops in mid-2007.