Over the weekend I was perusing a book on contemporary architecture which showed examples of new uses for old, existing spaces. Some of the transformations were clever, and some we have become quite used to as a matter of course – such as the turning of old railway stations into art museums. However the transformation that caught my eye and held it, more than any other project featured in the volume, is located in the city of Maastricht. For there, a beautiful old Dominican church has been turned into a rather frightening-looking bookshop.
Although the Order of Preachers had already been operating in Holland for some time, we know that the Dominican Priory in Maastricht was formally founded by the General Chapter of the order in Barcelona in 1264. Construction on the church, dedicated to St. Paul, was completed in the late 13th century, although it was expanded several times and enhanced with additional decoration over the centuries, including the frescoing of the nave vaulting with saints of the Dominican Order, completed after the Reformation.
As a result of the upheavals brought about through the Reign of Terror, Bonaparte, and so on, many countries in Europe saw the physical destruction or theft of their Catholic heritage. The Dutch were no exception. The Maastricht priory was occupied by French Revolutionary troops in 1794 and two years later all religious orders in the city were abolished, much as Henry VIII had done two centuries earlier during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After the routing of the French, the church came back into temporary use as a parish, but the Dominicans never returned. Eventually the rest of the priory was torn down, while the church itself was used as a warehouse, a school, an arms depot, a rental hall for carnival parties, a bicycle repair shop, and a post office, among other uses.
It is often the case that, when an institution has to move, or ceases to exist, the buildings which housed it must be either torn down or put to other uses. This holds true for sacred architecture as much as it does for secular structures. For example, the Chapel of the Infant Orphans in Barcelona, which I have written about on my newly-redesigned site Catholic Barcelona.com, was not a very happy place for much of its history. With the disappearance of both the orphanage that built it and the subsequent orders of nuns who used it, the former chapel has subsequently been put to a secular purpose as administrative space.
In the case of the Dominican church, however, there is something very unappealing about the design of the shop which has taken over the space. Putting aside the natural revulsion one feels as a Christian in seeing a sacred building used for a secular purpose, a deconsecrated church turned into a bookstore or library is not the worst of all possible uses. It is not, for example, as skin-crawlingly bad as seeing a chapel turned into a nightclub. If in this instance, the building was simply lined with bookshelves, the thing would not be so awful – comparatively speaking – in terms of the renovation of a former religious structure.
The problem here is what was done to the former sanctuary of the church. In the space where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass once took place, the bookstore has installed a cafe. The analogy between a space used for a sacred meal and a space now used for the secular diner, in and of itself, is a little bit of an eye roll to yours truly. I recognize that reasonable minds could differ on this point, even if personally I do find it rather tacky.
However the designers of the bookstore have gone a step beyond poor taste, and into the realms of insult. For there in the center of the apse, right where the high altar used to stand, sits an enormous table in the shape of a cross. This sarcophagal object, which no doubt has crumbs and coffee spilled on it all day long, is not only poorly executed and cheap-looking, it is insulting both to the history of the place and to the legacy of Catholics in The Netherlands in the development of their nation.
The argument can, of course, be made that the building has not served as a church for a long time, but those who make that argument are entirely missing my point. The use of buildings changes, inevitably, and if a beautiful building can no longer serve its intended function, then better that it be rehabbed than allowed to collapse into ruin or deliberately tear it down. In this instance, placing a large table in the center of the bookstore’s cafe space would be one thing – it would be an understandable and logical use of the space available in the apse, if one *has* to use the apse. But there was absolutely no need – none – given where this particular cafe is located, to build such a central table to look like this.
The oftentimes moral relativist views and policies of the Dutch government are well-known on issues such as drug use, abortion, and prostitution. To some extent the adoption of such policies reflects similar attitudes on the part of at least some majority of the Dutch people. I would submit that this is also why the situation for the Church in The Netherlands is so dire, with significant priest shortages causing priests such as Father Roderick Vonhögen, founder of SQPN, at one point having to serve as pastor to half a dozen churches in his deanery.
Father Roderick of course, also shows us that Christianity is not dead in Holland by any means, and that the seeds of its renewal are there. Unfortunately, until they accept that it is their responsibility to stand up and say, “No,” the Dutch people shall have to put up with cheap and petty blasphemies such as this. Let this also be a warning to you, gentle reader, not to allow such nonsense to go on in your diocese without at the very least standing up and complaining very vocally about it. It is through our silence and inaction that we condemn ourselves, in this regard.