Antwerp, Churches and Tourism
Tourism Pastoral, Diocese of Antwerp (TOPA vzw)

Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation

The Antwerp Dominicans and their pastoral activities

The Antwerp Dominican convent, engraving, Reinier Blockhuysen, in Antonius Sanderus, 'Chorographia Sacrae Brabantiae', 1659 © Universiteit Antwerpen, Bibliotheek van het Ruusbroecgenootschap (RG 1055 A 5)

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Antwerp Dominican convent was the largest and the most flourishing one in the Southern Low Countries. Next to Louvain and Douai Antwerp was the third convent to train aspirant Dominicans. After one probationary year the candidate, or ‘novice’, could take his vows. Even more Dominicans came to the Antwerp convent attracted by the courses in theology and philosophy on an academic level. This Studium Generale, founded in 1641, was supported by scholarships from the Capello family, formalized as such in 1670. As a result some eighty of the seven hundred members of the Dutch Province lived in Antwerp. In 1786 Joseph II forbade the Dominican study centre to continue after he himself had founded the general seminary in Louvain. In 1796 there were fifty three Dominicans in the convent, not including the missionaries in the Dutch missions.

As was the case elsewhere the main activities of the Preachers were giving sermons, hearing confessions and writing spiritual and devotional literature. One can form an image of the sermons when reading the devotional literature. For the history of mentality it is certainly worthwhile to plough through this literature. Sermons were given in the churches on Sundays and Christian holy days, mostly in the afternoons, separate from the services, which were held in the mornings.

The confessionals in the church testify of the practice of confession. However artistically elaborate they may be, they do not tell us from whom the Dominicans took confessions, and even less of what they heard or which spiritual advice they gave. The secret of the confessional must be respected.

Exceptionally we have been informed ‘better’ about one conversation in the confessional, but truly it was a very controversial kind of confession. When the Calvinists were the majority in the Antwerp city council and expelled the monastics, father Antonius Temmerman was one of the few Dominicans to stay in the city to continue the Catholic spiritual care. Because Temmerman knew French and Spanish, the Basque Juan Jauregui came to him to confess and to ask forgiveness for his intention (!) to murder William of Orange. Remorse, which however is a condition sine qua non for acquittal of sins and sacramental reconciliation, was out of the question. Still father Temmerman granted him absolution (forgiveness). Jauregui executed his plan in Antwerp on 18th March 1582, but the prince survived the assault. Jauregui was killed on the spot. The documents he was carrying proved father Temmerman’s involvement, who, even on the rack would not have violated the secret of the confessional. Temmerman was hanged and afterwards drawn and quartered. Catholics considered him a martyr for the secret of the confessional. His skull, with the ear he had heard the confession with and an arm he had blessed Jauregui with for absolution, were kept as gruesome relics in the Antwerp Saint Paul’s church until they were transferred to the new Antwerp Dominican convent in Ploegstraat in 1928. In 1973 they disappeared from the church after a burglary.

More currently ‘Catholic’ were the confessional conversations of for instance Pieter Paul Rubens with father Michaël Ophovius, and of archduke Albert, early 17th century, with father Hyancinth Choquet, from Lille but a member of the Antwerp convent.

Specific devotions want to emphasize a concrete focus within religious perception. Some of them have become more prominent due to the foundation of a fraternity such as The Sweet Name of  Jesus, the Holy Sacrament, Our Lady of the Rosary, the Fraternity of the Palmers, which mostly made use of an altar of their own.

Because among others it was the city council that called the Dominicans to the town, they were also the chaplains of the Town Hall’s chapel, possibly already since 1324, but certainly from 1401 until 1538. At least until the middle of the 15th century the city council treated the Dominicans to a (festive) dinner at the occasion of the chapters of the Teutonic province in Antwerp. It may be a coincidence but when the old Gothic town hall was pulled down in 1565 its flight of steps was reconstructed at the Dominicans’, near the cellar stairs at the northern end of the northern wing (as can be seen on a small etching of the convent).

Soon the Dominicans became active among the troops of the Duke of Alba’s new citadel. The provisional chapel, consecrated in 1568, was replaced by a bigger church as early as 1574.

In the Waasland the Antwerp Dominicans served so-called stations, for instance in Beveren (1688-1777), Melsele and Haasdonk. This included mainly preaching, possibly followed by an offertory and/or hearing confessions.

After 1585 Antwerp was responsible for some five missionary posts in the so-called Holland Mission, the apostolate in the officially Protestant Northern Low Countries. One of the last Antwerpians in that mission was father Theodoor Broeckaert, vicar in the Kerck de Tooren in Amsterdam, where in 1800 he was buried in the Protestant (!) Oude Kerk. In his honour a memory medal was issued. Further the Antwerp Dominicans took care of other missions in the North, such as in Denmark and Norway. It is known there were even plans for Russia.

After they had been asked to do so by bishop Johannes Miraeus, they opened a Latin School in 1605 in Dries, until the magister-general preferred a theological school. Then the pupils were transferred to the Jesuit college in Prinsstraat.

The convent of the Dominican nuns in the nearby Predikerinnenstraat [Preacheresses Street], which was devoted to Saint Catherine of Siena, was under spiritual guidance of a Dominican father, who was also the regular confessor there, from 1635 until the abolishment by Joseph II in 1783.