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    Born into a large family

    On June 12, 1823, Théophile Verbist was born in Antwerp into a large family of seven children. Guillaume, the father (1787-1854), native of Antwerp, got married to Catherine Van Honsem in 1813. One year later, a son, Pierre was born. The young mother died a few years later. In 1819, Guillaume married again with Catherine Troch (1797-1852), native of Dendermonde, daughter of a surgeon. Six children were born of this marriage. The first, born in 1821, was named Guillaume after his father. Then followed: Athanase (1822), the twins Théophile and Edmond (June 12, 1823), René (1826) and a daughter Élisabeth (1832). French was the mother tongue of the family Verbist; yet the children also knew Dutch.

    Diocesan Priest

    When the twins Théophile and Edmond were seven years old, they went to the Jesuits’ school in Antwerp. Later, they studied at the minor seminary of Mechelen. The twins separated in 1842, when they had completed their college studies. While Edmond started to study law to become a lawyer, Théophile wanted to become a priest. He had first two years of philosophy and then, he went to the major seminary of Mechelen to study theology for three years, as it was the custom in those days.

    On September 18, 1847, Théophile was ordained priest in Mechelen by Cardinal Sterckx.

    Supervisor at the minor seminary

    In the beginning of October 1847, Théophile Verbist was appointed Supervisor at the minor seminary of Mechelen. The students called him “good Mister Verbist.”

    Chaplain at the military school

    In August 1853, he was appointed Chaplain at the military school in Brussels and assumed this function for about ten years at the military school. As a rule, he was a bit reserved and cautious, but he could defend his point of view ardently and firmly. However, it was especially his kindness that caught the attention of many as a special.

    Chaplain of the Sisters of Notre-Dame de Namur

    Théophile Verbist was Chaplain of the Sisters of Notre-Dame de Namur. According to the sisters who watched their Chaplain, Théophile Verbist had a half-an-hour meditation before the Eucharistic celebration and after the celebration he had a prayer of thanksgiving. The sisters believed that he was really a man of Prayer.

    Director of the Holy Childhood

    In 1860, while Chaplain at the military school and Chaplain of the sisters, Théophile Verbist was appointed National Director of the Work of the Holy Childhood in Belgium. He probably accepted this appointment because it matched with his missionary vocation that he had been “nurturing for a long time.”

    Théophile Verbist’ Missionary Vocation

    In the beginning of the Annales de l’Œuvre de la Mission belge en Chine, we read that that a “happy event” decided on Verbist’ missionary vocation. This event refers to the news reported in the papers that the doors of China had been opened. An English-French military expedition, called the Second Opium War by the Chinese, ended up in the Tianjin Treaty of 1858. It was ratified by the Beijing Agreement between the Chinese Emperor and the French Emperor on October 25, 1860. This treaty also opened the doors of China to the missionaries. This news aroused great hopes among the missionaries in France and elsewhere. It also stimulated Verbist’s missionary vocation that he had nurtured “for a long time.” He soon mentioned it to Aloïs Van Segvelt, Frans Vranckx and Remi Verlinden, and together they got in touch with the Church authorities.  In 1866, thinking about his missionary life, Théophile Verbist wrote from Xiwanzi to his sister: “Here I am in China, dear Élisa (Élisabeth); the dream of so many years has come true. Every day I thank the good Lord for it, because I believe that here at least I shall be able to attain the goal I had in mind when becoming a priest: for love of the good Lord to work successfully for the happiness of his creatures.”

    Founder of the CICM

    As a member and sympathizer of the Holy Childhood and later as its national director, Théophile Verbist knew about the lack of orphanages in China and planned to found an orphanage there. He planned to do together with some Belgians priests. By strenuous efforts he overcame numerous obstacles, until his Belgian Mission in China was finally established.

    On November 28, 1862, Engelbert Cardinal Sterckx established canonically the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. After he consulted the other members, he appointed Théophile Verbist as the Superior General.

    On November 14, 1863, the Propaganda granted “the decree of praise” to the new Congregation and so it passed from diocesan right to pontifical right. This decree was the first degree of pontifical approval. Rome granted a temporal approval to the Congregation in 1888 and the final approval in 1900.

    Apostolic Provicar of Mongolia

    On September 12, 1865, Théophile Verbist is appointed Apostolic Provicar of Mongolia by the Propaganda.

    Departure for China, mission and death

    In 1865, Théophile Verbist and four other zealous companions made their final preparations for their mission in China. On December 6, they arrived in the village of Xiwanzi, in the Province of Inner Mongolia, north of the Great Wall.

    There they set up a base, getting to work immediately on plans to administer the vast territory that lay before them: organizing small Christian communities, attending to an orphanage and school, and training seminarians. “It's difficult. Such a pity that we are so few,” Father Verbist used to say to himself whenever he considered the vast task ahead of him. But guided by the Holy Spirit, he and his team were able to overcome the obstacles - notwithstanding the harsh terrain, the severe weather, the immense distances to be covered, and the local language. These missionaries also faced many critical situations, including famine, sickness, accidents, and martyrdom. Father Verbist himself died of typhoid fever at Laohugou, China on February 23, 1868, at the age of 44, less than three years after arriving in Inner Mongolia. His companion, Father Van Segvelt, had succumbed to the same dreaded disease a year earlier. The news of Verbist’ death was known in Belgium and in Holland only at the beginning of June.


    The remains of Théophile Verbist

    In 1930, Constant Daems, the Superior General decided to bring back the remains of the Founder to Scheut-Brussels “so that his tomb may be for everybody a privileged place of true apostolic spirit and total gift of self.” His remains were placed in a splendid coffin, Chinese in shape and oriental in decoration. It arrived at Scheut on Sunday, May 10, 1931.

    The Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Missionaries of Scheut), whose principal house is located in Rome, was founded by Rev. Theophile Verbist, a Belgian priest.  Appointed National Director of the Work of the Holy Childhood in 1860, he began to follow the missionary work among the Chinese attentively and with special interest”.

    CICM Constitutions, General Directory, “Decretum of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

    Although not a canonized saint, the fact that his foundation has grown to what it is today is testimony to the love and work of Father Verbist and the power of the Holy Spirit within him.