REV. THEOPHILE VERBIST, FOUNDER OF THE CICM CATHOLIC MISSIONARY INSTITUTE
China always held a special place in the heart of CICM founder Fr. Theophile Verbist and in the hearts of those who came after him.
Born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1823, Father Theophile Verbist had ambitions to become a priest ever since he was a boy. So, while his twin brother looked towards becoming a lawyer, he headed into a priestly vocation. In the years after his ordination, he was a prefect in the minor seminary in Malines, a chaplain at the Belgian Military Academy, and a diocesan priest in the archdiocese of Malines-Brussels.
His first serious thoughts of being a missionary came when he was already 37 years old. Inspired by the work of the Holy Childhood Association which cared for abandoned children in the Far East and in other parts of the world, Father Verbist felt that he, too, should do something more for the poor and needy in China. By strenuous efforts, he overcame numerous obstacles, until his Belgian mission in China was finally approved by Pope Pius IX. The new foundation’s first formation house was located at an old site of pilgrimage called Scheut, in the municipality of Anderlecht, near Brussels, Belgium. Thus the name: ‘Scheut Missions or Missionaries of Scheut’.
In 1865, Father Verbist and four other zealous companions made their final preparations for their mission in China. They arrived in the winter of that same year 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 voice 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 – not the least of which were 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 in 1868, at the age of 45, just three years after arriving in Inner Mongolia. His companion, Father van Segvelt, a co-founder of the CICM Congregation, had succumbed to the same dreaded disease a year earlier.
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.
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations,” Christ said to his disciples…
Father Theophile Verbist lived by that command and continues to inspire others to do likewise to this very day.