Flanders lets citizens decide on the reuse of religious heritage

The Abbey of Saint Godelieve in Bruges reveals its new destination. The heritage site will become a meeting place that remains true to its spiritual past. The pilot project is part of the larger mission of the Flemish government to revalue heritage. 

In Flanders, too, the religious order is steadily dwindling. Many abbeys and monasteries have been empty for years and it seems that this trend will only increase. There are only 6000 religious left in Belgium. Their average age is 85 years. That means that a lot of religious orders will have to look for a new use for their buildings.

"The religious have been the guardians of heritage and now often have to conclude with pain in their hearts that they no longer have enough means to maintain it. Religious heritage is therefore under pressure. Many of these sites are under a glass bell jar. We want to put our shoulders to the wheel and pass on our heritage in good condition to future generations”, says spokesman of Tourism Flanders, Stef Gits. 

Over the past few years Tourism Flanders has invested in two abbeys and three castles to breathe new spiritual life into the vacant sites. These are Rubens Castle in Zemst, Poeke Castle in Aalter, Maasmechelen Castle, Herkenrode Abbey in Hasselt and Sint Godelieve Abbey in Bruges. 

The Abbey of Saint Godelieve is the first project when it comes to religious heritage. Last year, 16,000 visitors came to the monastery and the garden that had been hidden for 400 years in one month. They were asked how they saw the future of the site. In the end, more than 5,000 images of the future were analysed with the help of AI, assessed by experts and compiled into a single image of the future. This made the survey the largest study on immovable and movable heritage. 

"The most important challenge in the revaluation of religious heritage is to create new communal support", says project leader Kristof Lataire of Kapittel. Everyone must be able to make their voice heard. We have to listen to everyone involved in a proper way. That's different for every project. 

The new future of a church is different from that of an abbey. You ask different questions. It's about the soul of the place: who lived and worked there. And how can it be interwoven with the new world? The community of the abbey that is leaving also has to be involved. Nobody lived in St. Godelieve Abbey any more, but the abbess is still alive: Sister Sabine. She was able to tell us a lot about the values of the abbey."

The future picture therefore builds on the authentic story of the nuns. For example, a picnic can be enjoyed in the orchard. Short-chain products can be bought on the spot. In the farmhouse, residents and visitors can learn about the rich history, traditions, customs and spirituality of the abbey. There will also be workshops for craftspeople and artists. The vegetable, herb and flower garden will become a collective workplace where people will sow, harvest and cook, under the guidance of a farmer. In the former sleeping cells, people can form communities around meaningful themes, around craftsmanship, science, religion and art. And the seventeenth-century abbey kitchen will soon smell as it did before. Although the visitors decided that it cannot simply become a commercial restaurant.

Tourism Flanders, together with local entrepreneurs, craftsmen, artists, investors and local residents, will now lay the future of the abbey in a final fold.

"We are very proud to be able to present the possible future of the abbey together with all the partners involved today," says Flemish minister of Tourism Zuhal Demir. "But the search for a content strong future story is of course only one element. We must also ensure that the future plans for the abbey are also economically feasible. I foresee sufficient investment resources through Tourism Flanders. But we are also looking for entrepreneurs who want to co-invest in this unique religious heritage pearl." ​ 

Together with these candidate entrepreneurs, the architectural plans for the site will be further refined so that the work can actually be started at the end of 2023. 




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