Belgium had been a neutral country since 1839, its neutrality guarded by what were reputed to be among the strongest fortifications in Europe. Liège, for example, near the German border, was protected in 1914 by twelve forts (six on each side of the Meuse river), with a total of 400 retractable guns, the forts manned by an estimated 70,000 troops. It was at this point that the German Second Army, with something like 320,000 men, entered Belgium on August 5, in the first land battle of World War I. The forts themselves held out for 12 days; the city was brought to surrender on August 7 after the Germans called in a fleet of zeppelins, which by-passed the forts and rained aerial bombs on the city from above.
A tiny group of Latter-day Saints lived at Liège – so tiny that their entire priesthood corps consisted of one teacher and two deacons. Miles away at Seraing, another branch was home to a solitary elder, a priest, and two deacons. A few scattered Saints lived in the countryside. The Belgian Saints endured the bombardment, followed by what one member recalled as “a fortnight or more” of terror, when the invaders “bombarded the fort, burned the houses, and plundered and shot the inhabitants.” Even though the Saints at Liège had a rented hall, they were forbidden from gathering for ten months, until the city had settled down into a “wartime normalcy” of unemployment, famine, and occupation.
Liège’s lone teacher – its senior priesthood leader – was a 57-year-old man named Hubert Huysecom. Born in Liège in 1857 to a Belgian father and a Flemish mother, Hubert had gone to work in the coal mines as a child, rather than going to school; he had been a laborer for a half century. As a young man, Hubert had become converted to a Protestant sect – a courageous act of conviction in a strongly Catholic country where religion, as T&S’s Wilfried Decoo has taught us, governed (and still governs) occupational, educational, and social, as well as religious, life. Hubert became a lay leader in his church. He and his wife Augustine married in 1880; they had a son, Joseph, who lived to adulthood and a daughter, Françoise, who died at age 7.
In 1905, Hubert listened to LDS missionaries, and his life underwent a second upheaval. He was baptized in January, 1906, with Augustine following in March, 1907. Joseph, by then in his mid-20s, did not join. Hubert had to find new employment, he lost his position in his old church, of course, and family and friends turned against him. He became a missionary, both tracting door to door and speaking in public, wherever he could get an audience.
At age 50, to more fully qualify himself as a missionary, Hubert finally learned to read and write.
The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; and see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking; and see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty. And he is to take the lead of meetings in the absence of the elder or priest – and is to be assisted always, in all his duties in the church, by the deacons, if occasion requires. But neither teachers nor deacons have authority to baptize, administer the sacrament, or lay on hands; they are, however, to warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ. (Doctrine and Covenants, 20:53-59)
These scriptural duties assigned to teachers seem often inapplicable to boys of 14 and 15, under the current structure of the priesthood quorums. They were more fitting in the case of Hubert Huysecom, who accepted responsibility for the Liège branch during World War I. He indeed watched over the church, calling from family to family when wartime conditions permitted. After the ten-month ban on gathering imposed by the Germans had been lifted, Hubert arranged for the branch to meet, first in the homes of members for a year, and finally again in the rented hall that had been their pre-war chapel.
He was assisted in his work by the branch’s two deacons, Charles Devignez and Arthur Horbach, one of whom remembered later that “there was much irritation because of the lack of everything, misery and hunger often changed men into beasts.” Hubert did what he could to encourage a brotherly feeling among members. Because all of the members were thrown out of formal employment by the war, Hubert organized them into a missionary force to spread the gospel, fulfilling his commitment to “warn, expound, exhort, and teach,” although no one then had the authority to baptize. They organized a Sunday School. Hubert appointed Deacon Horbach (who could read the English records left behind by the missionaries) to keep the branch records up to date, and Deacon Devignez to teach the Sunday School.
Once during the war, when his branch members were approaching starvation, Hubert “found” a cow somewhere – he never would say where, or how – slaughtered it himself, hiding the carcass and spiriting packages of meat to branch members.
The war finally ended, and months later missionaries returned to take charge of the Liège branch. According to one report, they “found the branch in sound condition, and the members attending to their duties. Brother Huysecom, with deep relief, surrendered his charge, and accounted for his stewardship. During the war, perhaps no branch in Europe was better held together or more carefully looked after.” When church leaders praised Hubert for his efforts, his response was, “Oh, it was not much. I did all I could, but it was not much.”
Leaders of the European Mission called on Hubert in 1932 to give the dying man a blessing. “When we laid our hands on Brother Huysecom’s head to bless him, we felt that high honor had come to us; for were we not in the presence of a king – a true king?”
Most accounts of the survival of the church in Belgium during World War I feature the efforts of Deacon Horbach, whose name naturally appears prominently in the records he kept as branch clerk, or on the work of Deacon Devignez who became a long-time branch leader after the war – and both men did in fact do all in their power to preserve the church and aid its members. Hubert Huysecom, however – the teacher who accepted most fully the burden to “watch over the church always,” “to see that the church [met] together often,” and “to take the lead of meetings” in the absence of those with greater authority – is usually overlooked.
Not here at Keepa. Here, we like to remember and honor the humble Saints who “did all they could.”