St Boniface, Antwerp

The history of the Anglican Church in Antwerp is intimately intertwined with the city’s history as a great trading centre in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. The first English settlers were cloth merchants in around the 12th century. Their guild, the Fraternity of St Thomas of Canterbury, received extensive privileges from the Duke of Brabant in 1305, and subsequently went on to establish its own chapel, staffed by guild-appointed chaplains and with furnishings imported from England. This chapel was probably dedicated to the guild’s patron saint, St Thomas of Canterbury (St Thomas Becket).

The early years of the 16th century saw Antwerp become a haven for English Reformers fleeing persecution. Among these was William Tyndale, whose famous translation of the Bible was to heavily influence the authors of the King James Version a century later. Antwerp’s authorities tolerated the presence of the Reformers because of the crucial importance of the English merchants for the local economy, but as Reformation politics played out across the Channel and tensions between England and the Low Countries’ Spanish rulers escalated, this situation became increasingly strained. Elizabeth I’s government had initially enjoyed comparatively warm relations with Spain, but these gradually deteriorated, not helped by English sympathy for Dutch Protestant rebels. The Company of Merchant Adventurers, the successor organisation to the Fraternity of St Thomas of Canterbury, introduced a statute insisting that all its members must become members of the Church of England, and reports were sent back to Phillip II branding the English merchants as ‘heretics’. A series of increasingly severe edicts against Protestants were issued, yet for a time Antwerp’s authorities continued to leave the merchants in peace. This lasted until the city became a key centre of the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule, in which England sided with Protestant rebels. When Spanish forces regained control of Antwerp in 1585 after a lengthy siege, Protestants were ordered to leave the city, depriving it of its most prosperous citizens. It was just one of many blows to Antwerp’s status as a great trading centre. In 1614, a dispute between James I and the Dutch Republic led to short-lived boycott of English cloth. Finally in 1648 the Peace of Münster – which accorded Dutch independence formal recognition – closed the River Schledt, the great artery linking Antwerp to the North Sea, to shipping. For this proud city, which just a century before had accounted for around 40% of world trade, it was the end of an era. Now, the merchants who had once been such a key part of its economy took their activities elsewhere, notably to Rotterdam and Hamburg.

Antwerp then remained without a sizeable British community, or a place of Anglican worship, for nearly 200 years. It was only with the reopening of the Schledt to trade following the establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 that British merchants slowly returned. At first, they held services in a room at the Bourse, but soon received permission to share a building, the Church of the Annonciades, with the city’s other Protestant denominations. Yet this arrangement entailed considerable inconvenience, and so they petitioned the government for their own church and a share of the Church of the Annonciades’ subsidy. On 13 June 1821, a royal decree put another building, the Chapelle des Tanneurs, at the congregation’s sole disposal, but the funding was made contingent on the services conforming to the rites of the Dutch Presbyterian Church, something they had to refuse on principle. They were therefore forced to fund the church themselves until the Belgian secession in 1830, when the new government accorded them the same subsidy granted to all other officially recognised churches.

The Chapelle des Tanneurs served as the home of Antwerp’s Anglican congregation until 1910, when it was replaced by the current building. The idea of constructing a new church was first raised in 1885 after it became clear that the Chapelle required urgent investment in order to fund repairs. Plans were drawn up for a new building, plus a vicarage and schoolrooms, and after much delay a plot of land was purchased in 1904. Sadly, the chaplain, the Rev Michael Kearney, who had done much to advance the project, passed away shortly before the church’s completion in 1910. He is remembered in a stained glass window in the south aisle. The congregation also went to great efforts to raise the money to build a church hall, which would have opened in autumn 1914 had it not been for the outbreak of World War I.

When hostilities began, many of the church’s members initially remained in Antwerp. Shelling of the city began shortly before midnight on 7 October 1914, blowing out the windows of the vicarage and the church’s East Window. An operation was launched to evacuate Antwerp’s 1,500 British residents by sea. When the city fell on 9 October, responsibility for the protection of British interests and property passed to the American Consul, Tuck Sherman. He took the church’s altar crosses, other brasses and Communion silver to his own home for safe-keeping and went to great efforts to ensure that neither the church nor the vicarage were left unoccupied. In the absence of a chaplain, he himself read either Matins or Evensong on a weekly basis, and his parents took up residence in the vicarage to prevent it from being requisitioned by the Germans. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Mr Sherman passed the church’s brasses and silver to the wife of the Danish Consul, herself British by birth, and the Dutch Consul assumed responsibility for safeguarding the buildings. In the latter part of the war, the Rev H.S.T. Gahan, the Anglican chaplain of Christ Church Brussels, was able to regularly visit British prisoners of war held in Antwerp.

The war left the congregation much diminished and the church initially facing not insignificant financial difficulties. However, despite this, and due in no small part to the dedication of the church’s members and certain individuals in particular, the interwar years nonetheless witnessed a revival. Many of the stained glass windows, donated in memory of past parishioners, date from this period, as does the mosaic situated beneath the East Window, the money for which was raised by the congregation.

The arrival of the Second World War and the threat of impending German occupation saw the majority of the congregation depart once again in May 1940. As 25 years earlier, the church was initially placed under the protection of the US Consul. Nevertheless, within just three months the vicarage and its garden had become overgrown and open windows left the interior exposed to the elements. As such Mrs Flandre, a member of the congregation who had remained behind, agreed with the Consul that she should move in to prevent it from falling into disrepair. Shortly thereafter, the Germans began using the church for their own services and their chaplain demanded the return of the Communion silver, which Mrs Flandre had hidden in the vicarage’s gas oven. She denied all knowledge of the silver’s whereabouts but, all the same, decided it best to find an alternative hiding place and so entrusted it to her doctor for the duration of the war. It remained in his possession until Antwerp was liberated by British troops in September 1944, when it was returned to its rightful home at the church. St Boniface then spent a brief period under the control of the British military authorities, with services conducted by army chaplains, until the pre-war chaplain, the Rev R. Wainwright, returned in February 1947.

St Boniface has recently celebrated its centenary and begun a major restoration project to preserve this recognised state monument for future generations. Amid this beautiful setting, the clergy and congregation aim to provide an open and welcoming spiritual home for both residents of Antwerp and visitors. Morning services are held weekly, with Evensong once a month. The church is also engaged in a number of charity projects and holds a series of social and fundraising events throughout the year.

Based on an article published on the St Boniface website.

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