Andre L. De Bels, a former missionary in Mozambique who later taught at Cardinal Gibbons High School, died of a dementia-related disease Feb. 27 at the Charlestown Retirement Community. The Catonsville resident was 92.
Born in Bruges, Belgium, he was the son of Fernand De Bels, who worked with Belgian tax collecting services, and his wife, Esther.
While in his teen years, he witnessed the German army’s occupation of his country beginning in 1941. The front of his house was bombed during World War II. The German soldiers forced him and other teens to dig trenches. As a form of resistance, he threw the soil he had cleared back in the trench at the end of the day.
According to a biography supplied by his family, Mr. De Bels entered the Missionaries of Africa seminary and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1949. After his studies, he went to Mozambique as a missionary and spent 20 years as professor at the Catholic Zobue Minor Seminary. He was also rector of his seminary.
“He said Masses miles away from the seminary and would go miles by motorcycle, truck and an old plane,” said his wife, Bernice Rauceo De Bels. “During that time, oppression by the Portuguese colonial government caused discontent and eventually a rebellion. The young seminarians were opposed to the government, but they did not want to be associated with the rebels because of their Marxist leanings.”
She said the seminarians approached Fr. De Bels for his assistance to escape the country.
“Through a network of contacts he was able to steer the students to countries that would help them to continue their studies abroad. He advised them on how to avoid getting caught by the secret police,” said his son, Mark De Bels of Ellicott City. “Some of the students went to the neighboring country of Malawi where, with the help of the American embassy, they received scholarships and emigrated to the United States and became students at Howard University.”
His family said the Portuguese government discovered he was helping these students and arrested him. He was flown to Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, where he was placed under house arrest for one month. He was taken daily to a police station and interrogated.
He was released later and spent time in Switzerland. He returned to Africa, in the Belgian Congo, which was then also experiencing a revolution. He then went to England, learned English, and came to Washington, D.C. While there, he contacted his former students and helped them get established.
“When I decided to leave school, it was he who made it possible for me to get a scholarship to continue my education abroad,” said Ernesto Mujorra, a retired microbiologist and resident of Philadelphia. “Mozambique did not offer opportunities to blacks to acquire higher education because, for the colonial power, highly educated blacks presented a big threat to white power.”
After arriving in the U.S. Mr. De Bels decided to leave the priesthood. He settled in Catonsville and taught French, Spanish, German and Latin at Cardinal Gibbons High School until his 1989 retirement.
He then opened a tax preparation business at his home. He retired a second time in 2006.
Jeff Goethals, retired Notre Dame Preparatory School teacher, said Mr. De Bels “loved tax preparation because he enjoyed solving problems. January to April were his happiest months. He started his business with just two clients and ended up 16 years later with over 200.
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“His clients loved him because he was conscientious, thorough, and above all ethical,” said Mr. Goethals. “He ensured that his clients received every penny they were owed. At the same time, he did not flinch from telling them the truth if they owed taxes.”
“Andre was always kind, and modest. He had a great sense of humor, and a great laugh that I will always remember. Andre did not speak much, if at all, about his amazing history in Africa. He adored his family,” said Firmin DeBrabander, a family friend who lives in Baltimore.