Visiting Rekkem, Belgium: Sint-Niklaaskerk (12th C.) and the Dutch language, abiding presences in a Flemish symbiosis

Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Flag of Flanders
Flag of Flanders | Source
Sint-Niklaaskerk, Rekkem
Sint-Niklaaskerk, Rekkem | Source
Sint-Niklaaskerk, Rekkem
Sint-Niklaaskerk, Rekkem | Source
Poet Jozef Deleu
Poet Jozef Deleu | Source

Seemingly always there

I struggled to rationalize this article. In terms of constitutional law and in terms of ethics also, there is no formal link between Dutch — the language of Flanders — and the Roman Catholic Church. I myself lived in Belgium and I am not Roman Catholic, and would resist all attempts within frameworks of law or ethics to define some kind of mandatory linkage between a language and a religion.

In the case of Flanders, however, the strength of the Dutch language in a country where a huge minority of its citizens do not speak it, and the relative strength of the Roman Catholic Church in a Western Europe that is widely known for its secularization, offer some evidence that, in some nebulous, hidden way, the perceived interests of the Dutch language and the Roman Catholic Church have tended to walk hand in hand.

And so to Rekkem. At this West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen) village, which since 1977 has been part of neighbouring Menen, its principal landmark is arguably Sint-Niklaaskerk. Parts of this substantial structure, including the stone tower, date from the 12th century. The building suffered damage over the years and centuries, not least during war, particularly World War One, but also at the hand of French troops in the 17th century.

A brick extension in Neoclassical style is a mid-19th century addition. Evidence of the widespread adherence to the Roman Catholic Church locally, especially in the 19th century (1), is given by the fact that so many parishoners in Rekkem used to crowd into the building that an extension to Sint-Niklaaskerk had to be built. The extension is characterized by a striking pediment, beneath which there is a circular window (if not exactly a rose window).

When I visited Rekkem, Sint-Niklaaskerk seemed very much a still, brooding presence.

Rekkem is well-known for being where a Dutch language and culture publishing house known as Ons Erfdeel (Our Heritage)(2), is based, which publishes a number of journals. Strongly linked with Jozef Deleu (1937-)(3), poet, essayist and editor, he was succeeded a number of years ago as editor of the journal — also known as Ons Erfdeel — by Luc Devoldere (1956-)(4).

This publishing house, which has received many accolades, and Royal visits from King Albert II and Queen Paola, and Queen Fabiola.

So how are Sint-Niklaaskerk and the Roman Catholic church more widely linked with Ons Erfdeel at Rekkem? Formally they are not linked whatsoever.

But both represent highly significant aspects of Flemish culture. The fact that Rekkem is situated so closely to the French border town of Halluin (Dutch: Halewijn)(5) brings into heightened focus some of the cultural distinctives for which Rekkem and Flanders are known.

Interestingly, nearby Ardooie (distance from Rekken: 26.4 kilometres) was the home town of Flemish poet and Roman Catholic priest Cyriel Verschaeve (1874-1949) whose blood and soil fantasies somewhat resemble the theory of integral nationalism espoused by the French writer Maurice Barrès (1862-1923). Among famous lines written by Verschaeve are the following: 'Hier liggen haar lijken als zaden in het zand. Hoopt op het oogst O Vlaanderland!' (Here lie their bodies like seeds in the sand. Await the harvest in hope, O Flanders!, MJFenn, transl.) It is ultimately hard to separate elements of purgatory and ancestor cult which are present in both Verschaeve and Roman Catholic tradition.

Jozef Deleu himself is a native of Roeselare (distance from Rekkem: 19.8 kilometres), a place strongly identified with Guido Gezelle (1830-1899), a highly influential Flemish poet and writer and Roman Catholic priest.

Since 1977, Rekkem has been part of the municipality of Menen, in West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen) in the Belgian Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest).

March 8, 2016

Notes

(1) At the hamlet of Risquons-Tout, which used to be attached to Rekkem, there was a border incident in 1848 when exiles, full of revolutionary zeal, attempted an incursion with a view to overthrowing the Belgian monarchy, but these were soon put down in a sanguinary way. Local clergy were indeed noted for their enthusiasm in countering republicanism. Secular revolution according to the style of French republicanism, has traditionally not found a great deal of support in Belgium, least of all in Flanders. There has been a definite link between the innate conservatism of Flanders — especially in rural areas — and the strength of the Roman Catholic Church.

(2) See also: http://www.onserfdeel.be/en/about

(3) The prolific Jozef Deleu has notably the author of thought-provoking writings about the psychology of frontiers (see also: http://www.amazon.com/Vivre-frontiere-Jozef-Deleu/dp/2825112674), and has published widely on Dutch language and culture according to its widest definition.

(4) Interestingly, Luc Devoldere has in his writings sought to discount somewhat the influence of the Roman Catholic church in Flemish and Dutch culture, claiming for example that Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker) and the multiculturalism which he espoused are and ought to be more representative of Dutch culture than the renowned Renaissance scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam who was strongly identified with Christianity. (See also [in Dutch]: http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_ons003200101_01/_ons003200101_01_0170.php)

(5) In fact, a significant part of the French Nord department is regarded historically as a part of Flanders in its broader definition; and there are still small pockets of Dutch-speakers along the border areas of the Nord deparment adjacent to the Belgian region of Flanders. (One of Ons Erfdeel's publications is a journal known as De Franse Nederlanden - Les Pays-Bas Français, which covers Northern France's relations with the Dutch language area.) In fact, the town of Halluin, close to Rekkem, occupies territory which is partly surrounded by territory of the town of Menen in Belgium, the limits of which form an inverted 'L' shape: thus, as the crow flies, a straight line from Sint-Niklaaskerk to the Leiebrug — a major Menen landmark — actually passes over French territory. It is clear that the cultural and linguistic boundaries in these localities (as opposed to the political and administrative ones) have been very blurred. Indeed, a local historian (Michel Hastings, Halluin la rouge 1919-1939 , Lille: Presses universitaires de Lille, 1991) has written of French police reports in Halluin, from several decades back during times of industrial unrest, which complained of workers speaking Dutch among themselves!

Map location of Menen, West Flanders, Belgium
Map location of Menen, West Flanders, Belgium | Source

Also worth seeing

Menen itself has a noted Town Hall (Dutch: Stadhuis) with an octagonal tower, various parts of which date from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

At Halluin (distance from Rekkem: 3.2 kilometres), Saint-Hilaire church is a striking neo-Gothic structure by Charles Leroy; Le Manoir-aux-Loups has a noted arboretum.

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How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Menen (distance: 116 kilometres). The Belgian railroad company NMBS/SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Menen. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

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