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Marist Bulletin - Number 203


Marcel Popelier, Marist, missionary in Orore, Kenya

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Brother Marcel Popelier is a Belgian Marist Brother who only waited about fifty years before being able to realise his dream of becoming a missionary in Africa! How perseverance and enthusiasm are often rewarded! After teaching Biology in Belgium for many years and also being involved in many artistic activities, Brother Marcel chose to start a new life in his retirement by being with the poorest of the poor with a loving heart and a convincing smile. Recently, he passed through Rome which gave us the chance to have this interview.

Brother Gilles Beauregard

How did you first sense your missionary vocation?
I was born in a small village in western Flanders (Belgium): ARDOOIE. It only has about 8000 inhabitants but it is a very rich area for vocations. At the age of eight, I wrote in a small composition at school, Later, I am going to Africa to help the little black children. I have kept this piece of writing with me for the past sixty-three years. It was also one of the things that I had shared with my best childhood friend who was called Marcel and was also my cousin. That is why I have kept the name MARCEL even though I was called Denis as a child.

First there was a Marist vocation. How did that start?
I had first gone to the sisters school, but my parents sent me to the Marist Brothers school at the age of seven. I really liked this school, but I was a mischievous kid. During class time, I was very attentive, but after that I would lose myself in nature by going fishing, hunting birds and also insects that I collected. Our house was often like a little zoo. Because of all these extra activities, my school results were not very good and I was often punished. In Year 6, a brother came to speak to us about the missions and that awakened my dream. Due to my mischievous character, I avoided most of the brothers, but on that day I had the courage to introduce myself to the brother in the parlour and say, I want to be a brother… I wasnt even twelve years old! I entered the Marist Brothers and my parents were happy to have a child who would give himself to God. My father made sure that he wrote to me regularly to let me know what was happening at home, but it was mainly to encourage me.

So you became a teaching brother. I suppose you were already very active.
Yes! I have never been scared of work. During my first year of teaching, I had eight-five students in my class. I was also Director of the primary school at the same time. One day the Superior General, Brother Charles-Raphaël met me; he tapped me on the shoulder and encouraged me by saying quietly, Brother Marcel, you never have the right to be tired. These words flattered me and I have never forgotten them.

But had you put your missionary vocation aside?
Not completely. In 1958, I wanted to go to the Congo but the circumstances were not favourable. I resigned myself to this and my career as a teaching brother continued serenely in Belgium, in the very flat area of Flanders with its strong winds coming from the North Sea. I was first at Brussels, then at Pittem and then at Zele. I had twenty-seven very happy years in this last school. Despite having a fulltime teaching load, I also had the responsibility for the DE MINNEZANGERS choir, the KOREO PIKO dance group and the ALLEGRO musical ensemble. These groups are still going today and I am very proud of them. As well as a scholarly education, we gave a cultural and artistic education as well.

So how did your missionary dream come about?
In 1994, I was the only brother still teaching in this thriving school. The Marist Province in Belgium was thinking about withdrawing the brothers from Zele to help another mission. My missionary instinct started to awaken, but I was looking for a mission that would have plenty of substance for me. Brother Joseph De Meyer, the Provincial at the time, suggested that I could work at MIC in Nairobi. To his great surprise I immediately said YES. Africa at last! I had to think about it for three months. In May, the Provincial returned and my answer was still YES.

How does someone start their missionary life at the age of sixty?
You need to be a bit daring. In August 1994, I got on a plane for Nairobi. I did not know two words of English, but I started… and today communication in English is easier. I arrived one Saturday around one in the morning. The roads became worse as we travelled further from the airport. At one point I wondered, Marcel, why have you come here? The following morning I was surrounded by African faces, very kind, very hospitable. Its strange to say, but I had never met so much kindness in my life. I started to give lessons in art and decoration, but my most important task was the maintenance, the care of the environment and the development of the farm.

What encouraged you in your work?
I particularly liked working with the poor mothers. They were generous and expressed their happiness so well… and their pains. I also had some good confrères who helped me a great deal. Brother Paul-André Lavoi chose me as his driver. He was the Director of the community and thanks to him my knowledge of Nairobi (which I still need to improve today) developed very quickly. Brother Giovanni Bigotto was my right arm in helping the poor. Without him, I would never have had the happiness of working with them. Its marvellous! It was Brother Powell Prieur who pushed me along this way to happiness and I will always be grateful to him. Dont think that this has always been easy… it has sometimes been rocky, but simple signs of joy make you more enduring. I will never forget Brother Charles Howard who once came down the stairs to be able to talk with me and to encourage me in my need.

But, today you no longer live in the city. On the contrary, you are far away in the bush. Why?
You are usually at MIC for six years. I had the good fortune of having eight years there. But I had to leave. I had already visited three Marist missions in Kenya: Roo, Ramba and Orore. Rwanda and Tanzania also tempted me. Orore seemed to me to be the most beautiful flower to pick. I used to meet Brother Gilles Beauregard each month when he came to do the shopping for this community and I was secretly a bit jealous of him. As I was more and more taken by the idea, I offered my services… and the Good Lord sent me. I am happy there. I teach French there to the aspirants and for the rest of the time I do development work. The poor work with me. They are so beautiful, so happy and so simple.

How would you describe Orore in a few sentences?
It is a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria. It has about one thousand inhabitants who are very poor. There is no electricity, telephone, drinkable water or cars and very few bikes. Most of the people move about on foot in the dust among the stones. It is hot and dry. However, there can be sometimes torrential rain that destroys their housing and crops. If the wet season finishes too early, there is a famine for several months. The people die from a lot of illnesses, for example AIDS. You too often hear the funeral chants coming from the neighbouring hills for weeks on end. The people must use water contaminated by animals and by the dead bodies to prepare their food and to drink.

What can you do to help these people?
One of my heart-felt projects is to provide drinking water for the people. We have done a lot of work to bring the water from the lake to the brothers community and to the school. We have also dug a well that is six metres deep, but that is not enough. We need a water purification station so that the brothers, students and people can have drinkable water. We would also then be able to save a lot of human lives. I am sure that Divine Providence will give us the necessary means to realise this project.

Brother Marcel, people would say that you have made a vow to be happy. However, you work in a difficult and demanding environment. Is there a secret to your happiness?
Its my dream, my vocation, my life in Africa! Each morning, I light a candle to thank the Good Lord, the Blessed Virgin and all my friends in heaven for the grace of being one of those who has been called. I am always very happy and very grateful for all the gifts received in the Marist family.

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