Belgium has been an intensely religious country since the middle of the first millennium. In most families at least one son or daughter took Holy Orders as a priest or nun. However the Deneweth family of Wingene in West Flanders, about 17 km south of Brugge, was perhaps unusual in that 5 daughters, living between 1860 and 1930, became nuns.
Simple chapels (below) along roads and at crossroads were common places where ordinary folk stopped to pray.
But more elaborate pilgrimages also took place place:
scene "Candlelight Procession in
popular pilgrimage site in Flemish
Brabant1, was painted in 1903 by
F. Van Leemputten.
Adults and children with various afflictions, some leaning on canes,
are seen moving in a candlelit procession ('kaarskensprocessie') on a
path around the church, circling the church (now a Basilica) three
times or more. Note the woman carrying a sick infant and the nun
following the boy leading the procession. The people in the
foreground are probably praying for Divine help for those seeking a
cure or at least an amelioration of their condition. The mass of
people on the far side of the path and behind the wall at the back
indicates that this was a major event in the lives of these
Catholic countries there still are shrines/ chapels/ grottos that
'specialize' in various medical problems and diseases.
In the last century some people set up their own 'chapel' which sometimes had an interesting story. Below is one such tale telling of penny-pinching petty avarice mixed with naïve beliefs.
"When I was still a young man, old enough to vote but not married yet, I decided to make a glass chapel to display a small replica of the statue of the Virgin Mary in my favourite manifestation of her as shown in the Basilica of Saint Martin in Halle. This 'black' Madonna shows her sitting on the throne of wisdom. (Over the centuries her face and hands have turned black because their silver coating has become discoloured.)
neighbour named Pastoor (he was not a priest) liked my chapel and
said I should decorate it with flowers. So he and I walked (14
kilometers = 9 miles) to Mechelen. After getting lost in the city we
eventually found a shop on Katelijnestraat that sold artificial
flowers. While I was buying some wire and leaves to make a crown for
my statuette, I noticed they also sold packages of "Prayer to Saint
Joseph" cards, 100 for a Franc. So on impulse I bought a package of
Mr. Pastoor asked what I was going to do with the prayer cards. When I said I was going to just leave them at my chapel and give them away, he asked me if instead, I would let him distribute them. He said "I won't ask for payment and will say that the prayer on the card might be helpful for sick animals and to prevent such problems. If they ask the cost of a card I will say that it's free but a donation would be appreciated."
I agreed to his proposal and he had soon disposed of the cards. There was no one who failed to give something. Most gave at least 5 centimes but some gave as much as half a Franc. So now I understood his reputation of always being ready to earn something."
The people of
Flanders were converted to Christianity early in the first
millennium, but they reverted to paganism during the rule of the
Franks in the 4th to 6th centuries. However they again became devout
Christians because of the work of missionaries from Ireland (not from
Rome!) in the 7th and 8th centuries. Their devotion was reflected in
a close attachment to their priests who supported them in their
spiritual life, conducting and recording until near the end of the
18th century all their baptisms, marriages and burials. The Church
always supported the prevailing social order. At first this was the
feudal system with ordinary folk serving as serfs, by law, of the
local overlord. The overlords were replaced in time by landowners to
whom the ordinary farm folk remained attached as tenants, sometimes
becoming relatively rich.
The first parishes were organized in the 8th - 9th century. When people wanted a church for their community they had to donate 10% of their harvest as a stipend ('tithing') for the priest's maintenance and for the building and repair of a church. This relationship between the people and their Church continued until 1798 when the French rule under Napoleon began when revised laws, called the "Code Napoleon", were imposed. The registration of births, marriages and deaths from then on became the responsibility of the local governments. Municipalities set up the Civil Registers for each of those events; these have been used ever since. However, some priests continued to perform the christening, (illegal) marriage and burial rites beloved by the people but this had to be done surreptitiously until the 1802 "Concordaat" (see below).
The restrictions on the Church's activities under the French rule was a backlash against religion sponsored by the government. Instead of attending to their religious devotions the citizens were expected to venerate 'reason' and to study the thoughts of Napoleon. Churches were closed, their bells were stilled and Sundays abolished. Priests who performed illegal marriages involving men under 25 years of age5, were prosecuted. The quarter of Belgium's land that belonged to religious institutions was confiscated. Agricultural land, buildings, woods, houses, abbeys and even some churches were sold. Most of the land was not acquired by the peasants but by middle-class landowners who rented their newly acquired lands to the peasants. Such peasants still remained in fact, if not in law, serfs who remained a sometimes exploited class like the "share croppers" in the United States and Canada.
However, there was a counter-backlash in 1798 in Flanders, the "Peasants' War" (Boerenkrijg) which, in Brabant, was a revolt of farm folk led by their priests against the French laws that restricted the activities of the Church and the conscription of young men who were considered 'minors' until the age of 25 years!
However in 1802 a "Concordaat" was signed between Napoleon and the Pope reducing the restrictions on religion. One of its stipulations was that, as a compensation for their loss of income from the former "tithing" of the peasants' crops, the priests began to receive a wage from the government. Also, priests now could again perform legally the christening, marriage and burial rites beloved by the people.
The Church long fought for control of education because it believed that the State and the Church should have the same leadership. Nowadays neutral-toward-religion, secular schools are funded and operated by the Flemish government in Flanders and by the Wallon government in Wallonia. But these governments also provide some funding for other so-called "Free" i.e. Catholic schools.
This is a story of mixed religious fervour, innocent credulity and boy psychology, in a semi-autobiographical book "Jeugd" by Ernest Claes about a boy's misadventure with a village priest near Zichem, about 4 kilometers north of Scherpenheuvel and about 6 kilometers northwest of Diest in Flemish Brabant.
a boy the narrator suffered from nightmares in which he often felt
exposed to great dangers which would make him
scream loud enough to awaken the whole family. When this happened his
father would hold him securely and try to comfort him. About this he
"I would be aware that I was being held and comforted by my father. But I usually woke up fully feeling wet after my mother generously sprinkled me with Holy Water!
"But not all my dreams were nightmares: How many strongholds had I taken in battle! How many walls did I storm and how many knights did I make bite the dust and how many noble maidens did I save! Among them the prettiest of them all was: Mathilda, daughter of the Count!
"My family didn't know what to make of my thoughts and 'adventures' in dreamland. After working all day in the open air they all slept soundly, except when I screamed. Otherwise when they awakened in the night all they could hear was the deep breathing of the others, the ticking of the big clock and sometimes the horse in its stall rattling its chain for 15 minutes at a time. These noises disturbed no one as we were as used to them as the soughing of the wind in the trees.
"But my screaming! Often I would hear them say 'There must be an evil hand behind all this; there is no other explanation. It will need the attention of the priest.' I myself found it interesting that I might be hexed a bit. But a less pleasant result was that I was now prayed over by people I did not like and that on Sundays I was sent on foot, praying all the way, on a pilgrimage to St. Cornelius' shrine at Blauwberg, a hamlet in Nieuwdorp. It was a two hour walk through the pine woods of the Count of Merode to get to Blauwberg where there were only a few houses around the new Church which was so deeply hidden in the woods that it could easily be missed. Going to the shrine of St. Cornelius was not an old established pilgrimage. However the local people depended on the Saint, especially for help with children's problems. He was known to protect altar boys.
to the shrine of the holy bishop St.Cornelius at Blauwberg were
considered good for all children's diseases: convulsions 'thick-ear',
measles, German measles, croup, itch, pin worm, and possibly for
other conditions for which Doctors could do nothing, such as
frightening dreams, the evil hand, screaming in the night and bed
wetting. For these St. Cornelius was the people's unfailing resort.
But if the boy would not help himself because of ill will, then
neither devotions nor pilgrimages would help. But because the Saint
was often called on to cure bed wetting, nightmares, etc. all scamps
in the district were embarrassed when sent on a pilgrimage to his
shrine. Because of this his statue was often missing from processions
to Veerle and Vorst because the school boys refused to carry it and
the statue certainly was too small to expect young men, just over the
throes of puberty, to carry it.
"Over and over again when I had 'spooked' the whole household with a 'terrible night', the next Sunday I was sent to Blauwberg. It was always Hein, my oldest brother, who went with me. We departed immediately after the others came home from the early Mass. Hein led the way with his long steps, his head bowed slightly, never speaking a word to me. That is how we sauntered through our town, Averbode. Between the early and High Mass a few young 'he men' usually stood around, leaning again a house front or sitting on the curb of the cobblestone road smoking their pipes. Some boys of my age usually hung around while Hein chatted with his friends so I sometimes was worried that he might say 'I'm going with our little one to Blauwberg.' When he did that, by the next day all my school friends would of course know about it.
As we started off on our pilgrimage I began wondering how things would work out with St. Cornelius. The priest of Blauwberg, a cloistered white Norbertine Canon knew us well. I saw him more than once at our house where he chatted with Father , but only about apple trees and dahlias. I myself found that strange since a priest, as I understood it, he should say something from time to time about holiness and good behaviour. So I considered him just an ordinary person and that was not helped when he teased me about my white hair and pulled it to see how strong it was. I did not dare cry out when he did that, although I was strongly inclined to punch him in the belly.
"As we walked along I would say "Hein, you should say clearly to the priest that my problem is just bad dreams, OK?
"And there is no other problem.
"No, little man.
"Because the priest might think it's something else. . .
"And if you make sure you say that I'm making a pilgrimage only because of bad dreams, I'll give you...
"If you damn
well don't shut up I'll chase you back home, you little scamp
just keep saying your 'Our Father' prayers!
I recited loudly the prescribed number of 'Our Fathers' prayers, one
after the other and they rang loud and clear through the pine woods,
so it would be clear that I was praying only about bad dreams so that
the priest at Blauwberg would not think that it was not about
'something else' (bed wetting).
We arrived early for the High Mass, mostly because Hein could go have a drink. And after the Mass I had to kiss the relics of St.Cornelius at the communion rail, then walk praying three times around the statue of St. Cornelius that stood in the middle of the church, then three times around the church. Then Hein had to make an offering, half a Franc, I think.. Then I said another three 'Our father' and three 'Hail Mary' prayers? Then across the street from the church for a pint of Diest beer and a raisin bun.
"Going home along the sandy path through the pine woods, around noon, it was blazingly hot. The smell of turpentine was strong and oppressive, there was not a bit of breeze among the trees, leaving one feeling so lonesome as you dragged one's feet with effort through the hot sand. Hein found that difficult that we had to pass completely through the woods to reach "De Oude Eik", a café, for him to have a pint of beer.
"The pilgrimages to St. Cornelius came to an end rather suddenly because of the priest. On a certain Sunday I was the only visitor. Kneeling at the communion rail after High Mass I was ready to kiss the relics. Hein was standing behind me when the priest came out of the sacristy looking angry. Without even looking at me, but pointing a disapproving finger at me he asked Hein: 'Still not watertight at night?'
"In my fury I jumped up, kicked away a prayer stool in front of me and left the church with Hein shouting after me: 'Listen you scamp, first you must kiss the relics!"'
"'Kiss them yourself!' I screamed. Having no need of a pint of beer or raisin bun, I went home alone along the sandy path. Since at the time that nasty priest was still a friend of my father, and could chat only about dahlias and apple trees, instead of about Our Dear Lord like a real priest should, I thought: 'Because I went primarily to St. Cornelius for my bad dreams, I was misdirected and sent to the wrong place to kiss the wrong relics!'
That evening I was severely punished for my sacrilegious behaviour, but the priest of Blauwberg and St. Cornelius had instantly lost me for a client, and the picture of the Saint immediately disappeared from my prayer book.
this time St.
Jan Berchmans was just
becoming the most popular Holy One in our district. He came from
Diest, a short one-hour walk from our place to his
and my mother and I went
there to pray. Since my mother has witnessed that St. Cornelius had
no effect on me and so I became a regular visit and friend to this,
the Most Holy One in Demerland.
1Described at http://www.business-sites.be/zuidwest-brabant/Toerisme/Beziensw/Halle/habmarti.htm . Another popular pilgrimage was to "Our Lady of Fevers" http://www.kuleuven.ac.be/kadoc/kdchist.htm established in Leuven in the Middle Ages.
2This is one of the stories drawn from the book "Tremelore 1900" by Rik Wouters.
3Much of this information was provided by Jozef Smits <email@example.com>.
4Additional insights from "The Fair face of Flanders" by Patricia Carson, E.Story-Scientia, Gent, 1969.
5Men under the age of 25 years had to be be kept 'available' to serve (to be conscripted) in the French "Revolutionary Army".
6This story was sent by Jozef Smits who also provided an insight into its autobiographical source. Much of the story was translated by Jules Vanhaelemeesch who also provided valuable insights in a young boy's psychology in rural Belgium at the turn of the century.