Church in Need: the first partner organization
“The key to happiness is believing in the positive”
Aid to the Church in Need was already at Park Abbey, long before the restoration of the Abbey site even started. As a Catholic charitable organisation, it supports believers all around the world. “We try to awaken the positive through dialogue and communion.”
The Belgian branch of Aid to the Church in Need has its registered office in the beautiful Coach House on the Neerhof at Park Abbey. The charitable organisation was founded on the ruins of the Second World War. “Our founder was the ‘Bacon Priest’, Werenfried van Straaten. He was a Premonstratensian, which explains how we ended up here,” says Uma Wijnants, the director of the Belgian branch of Aid to the Church in Need.
Marina Coomans, her assistant, adds: “First, we were at the Abbey in Tongerlo. And when we moved here in 2005, Park Abbey was neglected. It was pitch black out in the courtyard, the Abbey mill was about to collapse… Our entrance hall was still an open colonnade back then! Fortunately, a lot has changed since,” she laughs.
“Actually, we were the first organisation here, with the exception of the monks, of course,” explains Marina. “I remember that Prior Swarte was very happy to have us here. We helped to upgrade the building and now we assist in safeguarding the religious character of the Abbey.”
Aid to the Church in Need provides development aid for the Roman Catholic Church. “We support believers all around the world. This can range from support for refugees or the poor to emergency aid after floods, earthquakes, etc. This aid is then distributed by the local bishops,” Uma explains.
The organisation exists thanks to donations from private individuals. “We have about 12,000 benefactors in Belgium. We regularly invite them to an activity and always provide information on how their money was used. This building was also restored thanks to one of our benefactors,” Uma continues.
Dialogue and communion
The Belgian branch of Aid to the Church in Need organises activities for the general public, such as communion days. “On these days, we try to awaken the positive through dialogue and communion. You can only put things into perspective when you hear stories from other people who have come from places and lives much different than our own. We Belgians are sometimes far too stressed, which also makes us negative,” adds Uma.
Every year, Aid to the Church in Need also receives a large number of seminarists. “We have seminarists from India, Nigeria, Congo, South Sudan, the Philippines, etc. You’ll hear practically every language in the world when walking around here,” laughs Marina. “Leuven is an adventure for them. One of them was very surprised about the milk machine because milk is very costly for them. And their expressions as they listen to the Peace Carillon play are just priceless!
“Believing in the positive”
Some seminarists are shocked by the religious experience in our region. “They mainly see older, quiet people in the churches here, which is completely different from a church in Nigeria, for example. Our Nigerian seminarists sing and dance as a prayer of thanks for the food. But this still isn’t something they take for granted because enormous atrocities have taken place there under the yoke of Boko Haram. These young people are now studying to improve the world. They become missionaries in this way, including here in Belgium,” Uma explains.
The Roman Catholic Church has been going through difficult times for years. “The Church is a church of people and people make mistakes,” Uma says. “There have been many scandals, but we at Aid to the Church in Need are convinced that we can make a difference. The key to happiness is believing in the positive.”
Does the tranquillity of the Abbey site help them believe? “Absolutely! I enjoy this site every day. And we’re not the only ones enjoying it; I’ve also seen monseigneurs jogging around the pond here,” laughs Uma. “We may take it a bit for granted, but this really is a beautiful place to work.”