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Park Abbey at Haverlee

by Claire DEJAEGER

Another guided tour by Kristiaan on yet again a windy and rainy day was the perfect time for a visit to this other landmark in the Leuven area, Park Abbey at Heverlee, just south of Leuven. We pooled in two cars and arrived at the abbey site where Kristiaan awaited us and invited us inside the museum shop - to our amazement they sell besides interesting history books on the abbey also abbey jam and abbey honey!

Park Abbey is a Norbertine abbey, founded in the early twelfth century and the best-preserved abbey complex of the Netherlands. Today it is a nice 'family' spot to visit, to walk around, jog or cycle, a green domain of 42 ha, with woodland, agricultural lands, alleys, ponds, meadows, and gated walls, an oasis of religious calm, an architectonic jewel where romanesque, gothic, renaissance and baroque elements blend in harmoniously.

The present appearance of the abbey mainly dates back to the 17th and 18th century, but the ground plan of the site with the building patterns and the man-made landscape with the ponds are mediaeval.

The typical parts of the Ancien Régime abbey have been extraordinarily well preserved: the monastery building and church in baroque style built on an elevation, the separate provisor's (administrator's) office, the farm, the water mill (1534) and the gardens at the foot of the slope and finally a belt of gates and walls as an enclosure.

Under the Ancien Régime the abbey property extended over 3.500 ha. With the income of the lands the abbots financed the construction and maintenance of the monastery buildings, acted as Maecenas and more importantly helped the poor. The tithes allowed them to build churches and rectories, the basis of one of the main Norbertine tasks: pastoral and parish care. In the 19th and 20th century missionary work in Latin America was included in these tasks.

Towards the middle of the 17th century the abbey achieved both economic and spiritual success. Its landownership extended over 130 villages in Brabant and beyond. The abbot of Park appointed his canons as parish priest in 15 parishes, mainly in the Hageland, the region between Leuven and Aarschot.

Though under renovation we were allowed to have a look at the monastery library with the stunning stucco ceilings in three-dimensional bas-relief - the library holds over 6.000 old prints.

We visited the refectory with its splendid stucco ceiling showing the Last Supper, the dormitories, the cloister (1558-1642) with 6 beautiful stained glass windows depicting episodes of the life of St Norbertus - all panels were sold in 1828, the monastery being closed during the French Revolution and in financial need, but six of the 41 stained glass windows have returned to their original site!). We ended with the old archives (1129 - 2005), Kristiaan's sanctuary, where he spends his spare time inventorying the works and he showed us some beautifully illuminated books.

To our amazement there is no air-conditioning system, but the works kept here have survived for centuries under more or less the same atmospheric conditions and have apparently adapted and survived well under these circumstances.