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Tributes to Belgian priest who helped children during Troubles

Fr Robert Matthieu
Brendan Hughes

A BELGIAN priest whose organisation helped thousands of Northern Ireland children get a break from the Troubles has been fondly remembered as an inspiration.

Fr Robert Matthieu died aged 96 last Saturday. His funeral was held on Thursday at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

He was the founder of Euro-Children, an organisation aimed at helping disadvantaged children across Europe by connecting them with host families for annual holidays.

The organisation benefited thousands of children from Northern Ireland during the Troubles, offering youngsters a break from home life and a chance to broaden their horizons.

Joe Cochrane (76) – a former west Belfast schoolteacher who helped set up Euro-Children's involvement in the north in 1974 – travelled to Antwerp for Fr Matthieu's funeral.

"We took 38 children across to Antwerp in 1974. I was very impressed with how he was doing it. He had these families and they were lovely," he said.

"After that year he asked if he could take more, and it just grew and grew."

He said that over the decades, around 14,000 children from mainly Catholic upbringings spent summer trips away from the Troubles, staying with host families in Belgium, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

Mr Cochrane added that Fr Matthieu would have regularly visited the north.

Also attending the funeral were James Moyna (44), a teacher in south Belfast, and Fr Darach Mac Giolla Catháin (45), a parish priest in the north of the city.

They were among the youngsters who benefited from Euro-Children, and are still in touch with their host families.

Fr Mac Giolla Catháin said of Fr Matthieu: "He spent his whole life working for those who were deprived in various ways. He was just a lovely, simple man who lived a very simple life."

Mr Moyna said Fr Matthieu inspired young people by creating an opportunity "for every child to go and find out what else is out there".

"He died a man who maybe helped people turn away from violence and stay in school," he added.

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