MAURICE PRIEST ONCE CONDEMNED TO DEATH
But Ex-Belgian Patriot's Life Is A Busy One Today
By Jim Scott
Advertiser Staff Writer
MAURICE, July 7 - The grey-thatched priest peered over his spectacles and pressed another bit of clay into the form he was moulding. On the tall table before him was the beginning of a religious artwork, a small head of the Christus.
This was Rev. Maurice Veeckman's, pastor of St. Alphonse church in Maurice, one of the oldest priests in the diocese ... and a man of many surprises.
This was kindly, scholarly Father Veeckmans - who was once condemned to death by the Germans as a confessed forger.
The well-lighted studio in the rear of the rectory was crammed with the tools of a craftsman. An easel stood in one corner, a large draftsman's table in another. The table was piled high with blueprints, pencils, and all the paraphernalia of the artistic-minded. A box of oil paints and several brushes lay scattered about.
Father Veeckmans wiped his hands, smiled and sat down to chat.
The blueprints, he explained, are the plans for a re-constructed St. Alphonse church ... a new parish house or community center is already in the building stage. Outside, the clang of hammer blows and the whine of a power shovel mixed with the shouts of workmen bore evidence of a newer and far greater House of God.
A TASTEFUL BUILDER
Father Veeckmans has been pastor now for five years. During this period his efforts have been great and unrelaxing ... his goal, to erect a church in harmony with the surroundings. Landscaping and the planning of a flower garden have already been accomplished.
He smiled rather proudly when during the course of the conversation, the matter of the new parish house arose.
"That," he said, "was originally an old barn in the rear of the property. High winds, winter storms and the weather had just about wrecked it. I decided to salvage what I could and have found that most of the lumber is quite usable."
On the walls in every room were paintings in oil, pencil and ink sketches and clay sculpture. Yes, the good father admitted that these were his handiwork. Some painted years ago in Belgium, others of more recent date. While most were on a religious theme, others depicted everyday happenings in a work-a-day world. In addition there was a group of oils contributed by friends who also considered painting as a hobby.
It was difficult to believe that this man of the cloth, a gentle priest, had once engaged in cloak and dagger activities on behalf of the Belgian government.
"But it's true," Father Veeckmans protested, "although it happened many years ago ... during the first World War."
The amazing story unfolded after gentle prodding. The priest was reluctant to talk about his exploits.
"I was ordained in Belgium in (unreadable word). Shortly after the war broke out and the Germans invaded our country, I was called upon to assist my government in getting the youth of the land away from German domination."
FORGER, AS A PATRIOT
Father Veeckmans told how he worked in Belgian Intelligence and found proficiency as a falsifier of passports. During these hectic years it was necessary to obtain a passport to travel to the adjoining towns. To leave the country was out of the question by ordinary procedures.
The priest's expert passport forgeries resulted in the saving of many young Belgian lives - enabling those who possessed the documents to travel unhindered from town to town and eventually to reach the Netherlands border. Here the difficulties became greater as it was necessary to breach the electrified wire barricade between Belgium and Holland.
Toward the close of the war, when the German position became desperate and the Allies were closing in, Father Veeckmans was apprehended and flung into prison.
The story of his capture caused a brief grimace or remorse to flicker about his lips.
"We were attempting to cross the border after having gotten safely through several towns. It had snowed during the night and my friends and I were forced to seek refuge in a haystack. Next morning in the gray light of dawn we tried the crossing, slipping onto the wooden bridge and steadily venturing forth ... one man at a time.
"Something went wrong ... the guards starting firing and we were put into retreat. I dropped from the bridge into the chill waters of the canal and succeeded in keeping my head above the water. This was a mistake. A Germen patrol men fired into the water around me and finally came too close for comfort. Then suddenly I felt a hand grasp my collar and blows rained down on my head. The last thing I remembered until I awakened in a prison."
His memories of five German prisons are not pleasant. The priest told of the brutality, the starvation and torture accorded him and others who were caught in the attempted break-through.
"We were forced to stand against a wall with our nose and toe-tips touching. This went on for hours. When someone finally weakened and fell back, he was beaten and thrown into solitary confinement.
"I was in solitary many times."
The reverend paused for a moment and resumed his story. He told of assisting at the mass of several friends who were condemned to death ... and daily awaiting the firing squad himself.
"I was sentenced to death too, but somehow it was always postponed. They kept moving from prison to prison, the poor food and beatings began to take their toll after a while."
After five postponements of his death sentence, Father Veeckmans was removed to an old, little-used prison near Brussels. He was flung into solitary confinement in a dungeon under the moat and was put on black bread and water rations. Many times during the night guards roughly awakened him, and flashed bright lights in his face.
A LITTE TRUTH HELPS
The interrogations were endless. But I believe the only thing that saved my life was the fact that I told the truth about one thine and lied concerning the rest."
He explained that he denied all groups, gave fictitious names of connections with any subversive communities where he had helped young Belgians. But he did tell them that he had falsified many passports. When arrested he had five such illegal documents on his person. The arrogant Germans, who believe in the "big lie", couldn't understand how this was true and kept him for further questioning.
Eventually he was released. The years in prison had made their mark. Where before he was a strong, young man with a head of black, curly hair, ... now his face was drawn and lined with the strain of his experiences. His hair was flecked with white.
For his services in Belgium, Rev. Veeckmans was awarded the Order of the Crown by King Albert. This only one of several such medals given the priest for his work in army intelligence circles.
After the war, Father Veeckmans emigrated to the United States and to Louisiana. His first church was in Leroy, "Our Lady of Perpetual Help."
It was in this setting that he found inspiration for a painting that now hangs on the wall of the rectory. It shows an old barn, with the Holy Family just inside the door. Overhead a group of angels watches over the new-born Christ Child.
"I was lonely during those first weeks at my new parish. It seemed that no one was coming to church, times were difficult and I was discouraged.
"Glancing out a window, I saw across the street an old barn. In my mind's eye I could picture the great moment and decided to capture it in oils. That's the canvas you see here." He looked at the painting and then indicated that the interview was about over.
But today, sturdier material than canvas concerns the good padre. He watches with interest the reconstruction of St. Alphonse church, the improving of the gardens that flank the rectory and church-grounds, the building of a new community center.
This is the realization of a five-year dream ... a battle to gain a house of worship that is both inviting and lasting.
What happens when this project has been completed?
The works of the church are endless ... there'll be more improvements ... additional building going on in the parish. And then there is always the helping hand extended to those in need.
Lafayette Daily Advertiser 7/8/1951.