Cardijn’s mum: Louise Van Dalen

On 6 December 2023, it will be 100 years since the death of Cardijn’s mother, Louise Van Dalen. Cardijn spoke about her many times and was obviously very close to her. But how much do we really know about his mother? I’ll try here to compile her story as best as I can from the sketchy information that I’ve found so far.

Louise Van Dalen was born in 1850 in the town of Suvereto, nearly 90km south of Livorno in Italy, where her father managed a farm for a Belgian landowner for more than ten years.

The family eventually returned to Belgium to the Flemish town of Schellebelle, around 17km from the city of Ghent, where Louise attended school. Next the family moved to Brussels where they lived for another decade.

In 1875, the family moved again to Hal, which was 12 km from Virginal, the Walloon home town of Louise’s father, Joseph Eugène Van Dalen, who had now become a landowner registered in Belgian tax records as an “annuitant,” literally a “rentier” or a person living from the income derived from assets he owned. The family thus belonged to the Belgian “bourgeoisie,” albeit not to the wealthy “grande bourgeoisie.”

Whereas Joseph Eugène was thus French-speaking, Louise’s mother, Amelie De Ridder, was born in 1812 into a Dutch-speaking family.

As a result, the family was bilingual with Louise apparently more comfortable with French, probably having attended a French-speaking school.

In Hal, Louise and her family lived in the same street as the family of young Henricus Cardijn, also born in 1850. Romance quickly bloomed, it seems.

And so three years after she arrived in Hal, Louise and Henricus were married.

Soon after, the young couple moved to Brussels, where they worked for the Blondeau family who lived at 32 Chaussée de Haecht, Schaerbeek, as a coachman and a housekeeper.

Their first child, Jeanne, was born in 1881, the second was Léon-Joseph, followed by Victor in 1884 and Charles in 1888.

A difficult birth

Joseph’s birth on 13 November 1882 was difficult, so difficult it seems, that Louise almost died while the baby’s life was also in danger.

Henricus was so distraught and preoccupied with his wife and concerned to ensure that Joseph was baptised that he neglected to register Joseph’s birth until 21 November. Since births were required to be registered within seven days, he provided the birth date incorrectly as 18 November 1882.

Meanwhile, Louise also continued to suffer, as she later recounted:

I suffered a lot; recovery took months and months. The evening that I took Joseph in my arms for the first time I thought: “He is not my child; he is a child of God.” I said to God: “Do as You wish with this child but if he lives I will do everything I can to ensure that he remains your son.” God understood and Joseph lived. I raised him according to God’s will.

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert record the same story in these terms:

The caretakers to the Blondeau family, Haecht Street, Brussels, had just had their second child. His survival was in doubt and the mother was in a bad way.

These were the circumstances of Joseph Cardijn’s coming into the world. The midwife, a relative, saved the situation by taking the baby off to Hal, a market town of Brabant, whence his parents had originally come.

Henri Cardijn and his wife went on with their work, he as coach-man and gardener, the wife as chamber-maid and cook, in the same house. They went to live in Hal and recovered the child when he was five or six years old.

Cardijn later explained that his father wanted Joseph to be educated at Hal, presumably to make sure he learnt Flemish.

On the other hand, another more recent history published by the Belgian JOC in 2000 states that the family moved back to Hal following the birth of Victor in 1884 when Joseph was two.

In any event, this long absence from his parents seems not to have had a lasting impact on young Joseph. As Fiévez and Meert write:

In working-class families of that period there was often little real intimacy between parents and brothers and sisters; no exchange of confidences or expressions of affection. The family was all the same very united. They lived and went out together and were attentive to each others’ health and personal needs.

Once back in Hal, Henricus Cardijn bought a small business selling coal to local people while Louise ran a coffee shop from the front room of the house in which they lived. These circumstances evidently ensured that young Joseph spent much time close to his family, helping his mum in the café and also helping his dad bag and deliver coal to customers.

A formative influence

Cardijn himself never failed to credit the vital role his mother had played in his formation, repeating this on many occasions around the world:

Everything that I am I owe to my mother. Even before I went to school I knew the whole of sacred history, and I knew it because my mother taught me. Just as my flesh comes from her, so does my mind. You are made by your mother.

Fiévez and Meert also testify to this influence:

Busy woman as she was, Mama Cardijn held a central place in the family and had an exceptional influence over Joseph’s childhood. She was, it seems, a remarkable teller of stories. After supper, in their long night shirts, the children would settle down around the stove. Their little cousins from next door would often come in, too. Mother would tell them all the scripture stories, from the creation through to Pentecost. Other times, it would be Tom Thumb, Blue Beard or Little Red Riding Hood.

The children lived for these stories and the telling was all too short when it was time for bed. During these sessions Father pretended to sleep, but no detail escaped him.

All the feasts of the Liturgy were lived by the family with real fervour. Morning and evening, the mother prayed with the children by their bed-side and it was she who taught Joseph the Mass responses.

She was proud of her children and happily took them with her shopping. There was plenty of beggars in those days and mother would say: “Here, Jef there’s a penny. You can go and buy a bar of chocolate. But that poor man there has got nothing. But you do as you like . . .”

Clearly the child decided in favour of the poor man and when he came running back, his mother would say: “That’s good, Jef, that’s what you should do all your life!”

Joseph himself later told the story of the poor man in his own words:

I told you yesterday all that my mother had taught me. But she was a servant, she had not received very much education, but she told me first of all the story of the Child Jesus, then all the Old Testament. I remember one striking feature of her method.

We were going out shopping together when we met a poor man and my mother said to me, “Joseph, here’s threepence. You can do what you like with it. Buy chocolate, or marbles, or put it in your money-box, or give it to that poor man.”

I looked at her, but could not hesitate for long and I gave it to the man. That is what she taught me. No one can take a mother’s place, for she can give that first education which influences the whole life of the child. And she is irreplaceable. The poorest mother can do it.

Joseph, who also evidently knew the story of how Louise had promised him to God, also credited her formative influence with his priestly vocation:

It is difficult to specify the day and especially the means that Christ used to call me to his service. I believe that from the womb of my mother, and that she raised me in what all my family, all my entourage, the city and Lady of Hal, my masters and teachers, everything helped my mother first of all, a simple worker, who taught me about Holy History from creation to the Church taught me especially to love the poorest than me and them.

Seminary for Joseph

And it was clearly with great emotion that Louise (and Henricus) learned of Joseph’s desire to become a priest. We all know the story of how Joseph was due to go and start work at the age of fourteen. Summoning his courage one evening in 1897, he descended the stairs to speak to his parents:

Father, I have something to ask you. Speak…

Let me continue studying.

But, my child, you know well that you are the eldest, that we are counting on you, your mother and me to help us raise your brothers and sisters.

Yes, I understand you, but…

Then in a few burning words, little Joseph revealed his big secret to them.

Father, listen, I heard God’s call, I would like to be a priest.

At these words, the mother turned pale with emotion and joy. Then, after a silence, the father turned to her first, fighting back the tears that were welling up in his eyes. Woman, he said, we have already worked a lot to have such happiness, we poor workers, well! we will work even more if necessary. Go to sleep my child; we’ll talk about this again tomorrow.

And the parents did indeed work even harder to suppose Joseph’s studies at the minor seminary.

A widow

Unfortunately, six years later, on 24 May 1903, when Joseph was 20, his father Henricus, exhausted from overwork keeping the family business going, died at the early age of 53, leaving Louise a widow at the same age. Cardijn no doubt experienced a strong sense of guilt that the cost of his studies had perhaps contributed to his father’s fate.

Although still young, Joseph’s brothers, Victor, then 19, and Charles, only 14, took over the coal business, while Louise and Jeanne continued to run the cafe. Sadly, Victor died of tuberculosis just five years later in 1908, leaving Charles, then 20, alone to carry on, which he did until his own marriage several years later.

By now, Joseph was a priest teaching himself at the Minor Seminary of Basse Wavre, 30 km away in Wallonia.

With Charles married, Joseph sought to take on greater responsibility for his mother, who was now approaching sixty.

It appears that this was also one of the reasons that he applied for the position of curate at the parish of Our Lady of Laeken in 1912.

As a result, he was able to rent a modest house near the parish church which he shared with Louise and his sister, Jeanne.

Sadly, only two years later, however, war broke out following the German invasion of Belgium with Cardijn jailed twice for his protests against the occupying power and for his involvement in spying activity.

This in turn caused great stress for Louise, as Cardijn also recalled:

Alas, on 6 December 1915, I was arrested by the German police and locked up at the Saint Gilles prison. My mother, who lived with me went mad with worry. It was a great test but incredibly fruitful.

Thanks to this strategy, I remained in contact with the Laeken leaders and drafted what eventually became the Manual of the JOC. Freed in June 1916 and later arrested again, I remained in prison until the armistice and rejoined the militants who were committed to winning the postwar period.

Indeed, the greatest test may have been for Louise, who seems never to have fully recovered.

Thus, on 6 December 1923, eight years to the day after her son was first imprisoned, she died at the age of seventy. The sad news reported very briefly in the December issue of La Jeunesse Syndicaliste:

Our comrades have learnt of the death at Hal of the mother of Fr Cardyn.

We respectfully offer our Christian condolences to our dear director.

I’m not aware of any record of Cardijn’s own reaction following her death but we can easily imagine the devastation her loss must have caused.

Indeed, for the rest of his life, he never ceased to pay tribute to her both as mother and domestic servant:

My mother was a poor domestic servant, and I say, the Church says, that the poorest girl in the world – she may be black or white – should be respected as I respect my mother. One does not know the meaning of respect, unless one can respect the poorest boy or girl in the world. We cannot respect our Holy Mother, Mary, without respecting the poorest girl in the world.

And on another occasion:

When I have before me two or three hundred little servants from the big city, I say to them: “My mother to me, sixty years ago, my mother was a servant like you, and we must respect the little servants so that they can become mothers of priests, apostles and give to the country the most beautiful of its citizens?

No doubt it was her example and the challenges of her own life that inspired Cardijn’s own lifelong concern for domestic workers.

In 1913, one of his earliest published articled entitled “L’ouvrière isolée” (The isolated female worker) addressed the plight of such workers. The early JOCF also made great efforts to reach these young female workers.

Nearly fifty years later, in the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate at Vatican II, Cardijn again raised the problems of young domestic workers.

What’s more so well known was Cardijn’s concern for young domestic workers and his love for his mum that Chilean priest, Archbishop Bernardino Piñera, who was also a JOC chaplain, founded a Louise Cardijn Institute precisely to assist young domestic workers in their education. As Archbishop Bernardino recalled in the video below (French), Cardijn was greatly moved by the fact that someone had so honoured his mum.

So too let us honour Louise Vandalen Cardijn on the centenary of her death.

Stefan Gigacz


Joseph Cardijn, Background

Joseph Cardijn, Beginnings

Joseph Cardijn, A YCW of the masses to the scale of the world

Joseph Cardijn, English YCW Rally

Joseph Cardijn, Person, family and education – Lecture 2 – The family and its mission

Joseph Cardijn, Person, family and education – Lecture 3 – Formation and education

Joseph Cardijn, Why did you become a priest?

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn, Chapter I – Birth 1882

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn, Chapter 3 – Laeken