There has been a sizeable English community in Rotterdam since the days of the Reformation, when many Reformists fled Catholic England and established themselves in the comparative safety of Holland. At the time, Rotterdam’s status as of the main centres in which these refugees settled earned it the nickname ‘Little London’. Later, during the Netherlands’ brief period as an English protectorate between 1585 and 1588, some of the 6,000 troops sent by Elizabeth I were stationed in the town of Brielle, just outside Rotterdam.
It was around this time that cloth traders, some of whom had had their activities displaced from Antwerp further down the coast, began to settle in the city. By 1635, this mercantile community had grown and developed to such an extent that it began holding its own religious services, sharing St Peter’s Church in Hoogstraat with Rotterdam’s French inhabitants. As such, St Peter’s became known as the French and English Court Church. However, it was an arrangement that was short-lived – within just a few years the majority of the English traders had moved to nearby Dordrecht, taking their chaplain with them.
There were no more Anglican services in Rotterdam for some time. Yet a contingent of English merchants stayed and, in 1699, 17 of these remaining families agreed to guarantee the stipend for a new priest, to the tune of Fl 450 per annum. Services began in a converted warehouse, but over subsequent years enough was raised through donations to construct a purpose-built building, ‘The English Church of St Mary’s in Rotterdam’, consecrated in 1708. The new church could count some extremely distinguished figures among its benefactors, including Queen Anne, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Marlborough, and the chaplain’s stipend was paid by the British government. There was also a close link to the seafaring community, with the money for the organ (installed in 1733) donated mainly by the captains of London and Dublin vessels.
The congregation initially flourished in its new home. However, the Napoleonic invasion in 1794 saw many from the English community leave Rotterdam, including their priest, the Rev William Williams. The few who remained attended either the Scots Church or the English Presbyterian Church. St Mary’s, meanwhile, was used by the occupying French forces as a prison, a naval arsenal and a granary. In 1808, its possessions were confiscated and divided equally among Rotterdam’s other churches, and in 1811 the wardens were ordered to surrender the church registers to the authorities. Even after the city’s liberation, things did not immediately improve; Russian soldiers used the building as a stable. Thus things were in a rather sorry state when the church council regained possession in 1816, and it was only with the assistance of the British and Dutch governments that they were able to return St Mary’s to its intended purpose, with services resuming the following year.
Yet the church’s run of misfortune was far from over. In 1864, the tower had to be demolished after being struck by lightning. At the same time, subsidence was found to threaten the rest of the structure and could only be remedied through costly repairs. Finally, in 1873, the British government withdrew its vital financial support. It took St Mary’s until 1878 to find a new patron, the Colonial and Continental Church Society (today the Intercontinental Church Society), an organisation which still owns the building to this day and retains the right to appoint the chaplain.
This new source of funding marked the tentative beginnings of another renaissance for the church. With a growing number of sailors passing through Rotterdam’s busy port as a result of booming international trade, St Mary’s established a seamen’s centre together with the Scots Church and, from 1893, the Missions to Seamen. St Mary’s original facilities now being beyond repair, it was decided to build a new combined church and seamen’s club on a donated plot of land in the district of Delfshaven. The interior of the old church was duly sold and the building demolished in 1913 (a move berated by the British journal Architectural Review as an act of ‘vandalism’), and a replacement built, based on a neo-Gothic design by Dutch architect J. Verheul Dzn.
Yet Europe, and with it St Mary’s, was soon plunged into the turmoil of the two world wars. In each of these, the occupying German forces requisitioned the church and put it to use for military purposes. In the First World War, St Mary’s was used for the internment of prisoners of war. The then chaplain, Rev H. Haworth Coryton, who remained in the Netherlands during the hostilities, regularly visited prisoners held at Groningen prison camp in the north of the country in order to minister to them. During the Second World War, the church’s possessions were confiscated and its building was used first as sleeping quarters for German troops and then as a place for storing motorcycles and petrol, before finally becoming the German Naval Garrison Church in late 1940. Meanwhile, the remaining members of the congregation were displaced to the Old Catholic Church, where they worshipped until the end of the war and the return of St Mary’s to them.
The post-war years saw the church flourish as Rotterdam regained its importance as a trading centre and as a consequence of a large number of Anglo-Dutch marriages. The 1950s saw the installation of stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel and of a peal of bells in the tower, and the 250th anniversary year in 1958 was marked by a visit from HM Queen Elizabeth II, HRH Prince Philip, HM Queen Juliana and TRH Prince Bernhard, Princess Beatrix and Princess Irene.
St Mary’s has recently undergone extensive restoration work to preserve this wonderful church for future generations. In 2008, it celebrated its 300th anniversary at an event attended by HM Queen Beatrix – an honour which underscores the important role St Mary’s continues to play in Rotterdam’s social tapestry. Services are held twice weekly, on Sundays and Thursdays, and are open to people of all denominations.
Based on a number of articles on the St Mary’s website.