Even a cursory reading of this well documented historical sketch of our Abbey, written by our confrere L. C. Van Dyck, will reveal important historical and political facts and currents to the reader. We should not be surprised at this. The life of a religious community evolves within the historical framework of its region and church. Even more importantly, the Abbots of Tongerlo wore the mantel of worldly authority during the Ancien Regime.
These facts evoke a preeminent consideration: The community of Tongerlo frequently felt compelled to distance itself from the spirit of the age, though in doing so it often found itself in a vulnerable position. Gathered together by Divine command, the confreres of the Abbey could not join the popular whim of the moment without contradiction. If at times the inhabitants felt committed to a popular trend, they were even more committed to the example of St. Norbert and the Rule of St. Augustine. Community life according to St. Augustine displays the indelible stamp of friendship and a priority to care for the common good. Pragmatic individualism does not carry any weight whatever within this lifestyle. This "Rule of Life" leads one in quite a different direction.
Another thought about the themes within this history is apropos. An author can only pass on to others what actually is, and never what one imagines things to have been. That is why the question often arises to what extent the Norbertine lifestyle and spiritual inspiration has altered daily life. Only a few casual references can be found in historical sources regarding the canons' daily life. Nevertheless, it is precisely in the conduct of their daily lives that the heart of any spiritually oriented religious community can be found.
The influence personal godliness lived out by various religious confreres on the daily activities of the Abbey cannot be established accurately or measured precisely. That is why this concise historical survey needed to be soundly based upon factual material documentation.
1. Images from Past and Present
There is no concise written history of the origin of Tongerlo abbey in medieval literature. For the earliest period of the abbey’s existence, we principally have to rely on charters, in which legal proceedings are recorded, or possessions and prerogatives confirmed. When we view these in their historical contexts, we notice that Tongerlo started within a framework of a wide ecclesiastical movement of renewal, which is referred to as the "Gregorian Reform."
2. The Medieval State of Affairs
Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), a Benedictine monk, wanted to curtail the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor because his influence in church matters had become too encroaching. After a bitter dispute concerning the appointment of bishops - called the Investiture Controversy - the pope succeeded in having his supreme authority recognized, free of any imperial claims.
Nevertheless the deep intertwining of spiritual and political authority had deep consequences. The clergy, possessed by covetousness, gradually neglected their spiritual duties. Gregory VII denounced their materialistic state of mind. In order to cure this evil only one remedy appeared to be adequate: to deny the clergymen worldly possessions. As ministers of word and sacrament, they ought to be satisfied with what they received from the common possessions of the Church. This drastic measure, however, seemed to be beyond reach. In only a few places was this innovation carried out. There, the members of the episcopal clergy, the canons, took vows to lead a communal life with a common purse as in the Rule of St. Augustine. In that way, a distinct monastic statute for canons regular (ordo canonicus) arose. It distinguished them from the monks (ordo monasticus) in that it entailed a great openness to the care of souls.
These efforts of Papal reform did not turn out exactly as planned. The clergy’s covetous behavior fired a suppressed resentment in many of the faithful. This resentment even displayed general anticlerical features. In the papal appeals for reform, the communion of goods - so characteristics of the earliest Christians - was cited as proof and example of the worthy goals of this renewal. The most practical of reformers did not wish to completely the early Christian model, but the more radical reformers took the words of Pope Gregory literally and seriously. All reformers, however, advocated a thorough renewal of the institute of the Church from the top downwards. Matching deeds with words, all their possessions went to the common coffer in a desire to live - if at all possible - in a solitude supported by the labor of their own hands.
This was the case with Norbert of Gennep, a nobleman and a canon at Xanten. This wandering preacher’s miraculous conversion and very strict way of life made him an authoritative messenger of evangelical renewal. The ‘converts’ who joined him actually wanted to live the live of the Gospel Christians according to the model found in their first communities. These men and women came from all social backgrounds, with and without intellectual underpinnings. This revolutionary model of living together cut across divisions in rank and social status, the ordines, in which medieval man felt so safe - as in a divinely ordained social structure. At the same time it aroused amazement and distrust. With this in mind, Norbert gathered his followers around a small chapel in the valley of Premontre, within the vast wood of Coucy near Aisne, France. Norbert himself continued his preaching journeys.
In 1124 this preacher of penitence found himself in Antwerp. Here, St. Michael’s Church was entrusted to him. A portion of the clergy there wanted to live out his ideal of perfection - possessing nothing of their own. This event marked the establishment of one of our country’s earliest Norbertine houses.
In 1126 the strict mode of life advocated by Norbert was approved by papal letters and gradually encouraged by ecclesiastical authorities. In this way, the group around Norbert was molded into a traditional monastic community living under the Rule of canons regular. After the departure of Norbert from Premontre in 1126, this process was accelerated because Norbert’s foundation was in danger of disintegrating. About 1131 the first draft of the documents outlining the Order’s internal organization were ready.
The backbone of this new communal observance became the sung choral office, sanctifying the day in a prayerful way. Further, it was decided to refuse any possession of church benefits or the tithes connected to them. Norbert’s followers wanted to support themselves by the work of their own hands.
Over time, hard reality caused the gradual abandonment of these lofty intentions. The first statutes or "constitutions" were approved at length by pope Adrian IV. In these precepts, the way of life of priests, lay brothers, and sisters was precisely described. The notion of an idealized equality of all members of the community was not feasible in reality. Besides, the onrush of pious women to double-monasteries was so great that sister- convents had to be constructed in satellite locations to better support themselves. The sisters of the abbey of Tongerlo - about sixty of them with their names recorded in the abbey’s necrology (before 1361) - stayed at the farm of Euwen under Broechem during the abbacy of Hubert (1156-1187).
The growth of the Norbertine Order was not due solely to the widespread spirit of evangelical revival. Another factor was at work: legislation within the Church in the spirit of the Gregorian reform. The prerogative of lay persons to own churches and church domains was changed into a Patronage. These former owners were permitted to keep certain claims (patronage rights) under the supervision of the local bishop. Many owners of churches soon gave their church domains over to abbeys which were authorized to possess churches.
These facts explain the historical circumstances under which Tongerlo was founded.
3. The Foundation of Tongerlo Abbey
Giselbertus the founder of Tongerlo was obviously seized by the rising spirit of religiosity at the beginning of the 12th century. This new movement away from the things of this world presumed that a person should limit his possessions to a bare minimum. In this way, without the encumbrances of the material, a person could grow nearer to God. They had their most inspiring model in Jesus of Nazareth himself, who in his poverty did not have a stone upon which to rest his head. Giselbert joined such a group of ‘the poor of Christ’ and donated his domain including a manor house (dominicatura) in Tongerlo.
From the description of this donation it can be inferred that Tongerlo must have had quite a number of inhabitants and a vast quantity of uncultivated land. Norbertines from St. Michael’s in Antwerp took the direction of this group of inhabitants upon themselves, and supplied the first superior of the house: Henricus. The abbatial dignity was granted to superiors of norbertine communities on December 18th, 1145 in a bull of Pope Eugenius III. Through this bull, he confirmed a decision of the General Chapter of the Order concerning superiors being abbots. The Pope requested that all bishops should be prepared to administer the abbatial blessing.
The donation of Giselbertus resulted in the new abbey receiving 50 hectares of land, a mill, and a number of farms in Tongerlo. In addition, it also owned farms in the neighborhood: e.g., the Wimpel-farm at Wiekevorst, from which the proceeds were rendered in money, a rather exceptional matter for the beginning of the twelfth century. Also, a piece of land is mentioned near Tongerlo which yielded 19 sesters of grain and 10 barrels of barley annually, required for brewing beer. The brewing of Tongerlo abbey beer goes back to the earliest days of the house.
The beginning of the abbey must be placed between the years 1130-1133. This dating may be derived from the foundation-charter, which is attributed to the bishop of the Diocese of Cambrai, to which Tongerlo belonged at the time. This document confirms that the canonical way of life was followed at Tongerlo after the fashion of Premontre. Further, the charter also records that permission was granted to freely elect an abbot. Finally, the charter describes the various goods from the donation of Giselbert in great detail. In that turbulent era, where justice often gave way to violence, protection was often needed against illegal appropriation.
In a bull of March 15, 1146 Eugenius III ratified the establishment of Tongerlo. He placed its possessions under his papal protection and approved of the appointment of the Duke of Brabant, a deputy of the Emperor, as guardian of the abbey.
4. First Expansion of the Abbey’s Domain
The conversion of Giselbert and the donation of his goods were not isolated incidents. Soon after the abbey’s founding, Arnulf the Brabantine donated half of his allodium at Kalmthout and a farm (curtile) at Nispen to Henry, the first abbot. Soon after joining the abbey community, one of Arnulf’s three sons, Arnolf II, presented two of his domain-churches, Nispen and Zundert, along with their tithes. Arnolf’s brother Berner of Rijsbergen gave his entire allodium in Essen to the abbey two years later, in 1159.
Brothers Wibertus and Gerardus handed over the churches of Oirbeek and Binkom in Southern Brabant around Tienen where the clay soil is very productive. Wibertus, becoming a religious, and later abbot of Tongerlo,
traded these churches for the church at Vissenaken. Heilwidis, widow of Arnold, Lord of Diest, donated the church of Diest, a farm, and a number of houses in the town to the abbot of Tongerlo in 1163. To retain possession of this church despite the attempts of rivals to possess it, abbot Hubert looked for support from the imperial chancellor for Italy, and he even traveled to Lucca. There, the controversial donation was confirmed by the imperial ally, antipope Victor IV on April 14, 1164. To guarantee the claims of Tongerlo, the abbot solicited and obtained the privilege to appoint one of his religious as the parish priest of the Church of Diest - St. Sulpicius.
On the vast and increasing territories of the abbey (for example, one thousand hectares in the region of Kalmthout-Essen alone), new agricultural centers were established, or existing forms of management were assumed by the abbey. These agrarian enterprises were under the guidance of confreres from the abbey, and were also attended to by both lay brothers (of whom we know of 300 by name) and local inhabitants. From the middle of the thirteenth century, as the number of lay brothers began to drop and leasing of land by the abbey was on the rise, priests in local parishes would minister to the inhabitants as well as administer various economic and agricultural projects.
At the request of the abbot of Tongerlo in 1188, pope Urban III confirmed this situation and gave the abbot the right of patronage. A small community of three or four confreres had the task of administering these churches. The right of patronage gave the abbot -- who after all had the duty of pastoral care -- the right to receive tithes from local residents for the upkeep of parish priests.
The current circumstances in this first century of the abbey’s existence wove the fabric on which the further history of this institution would be embroidered. This fabric consisted of the following threads. The strict monastic framework of the abbey remained at the center of both a widespread spiritual revival, and a far reaching economic system. Within this monastic framework, the mystery of salvation was sung and brought nearer to the people through the annual liturgical celebrations day and night. Within this framework a life of strict abstinence, discipline, study and labor prepared future priests for their daunting task. Within this framework also was the residence of the abbot, from whose seat the entire community was supported as if by a father, and from whose abbey emanated numerous priests for ministries outside the walls of the house in the parishes. Here also resided the abbots direct administrative assistants who, along with the local stewards, kept a sharp eye on the goings on in the domain.
5. Parish Ministry
Since Norbert’s followers took care of parish churches through pastoral ministry, abbeys and chapters which were distant from their parishes in the vicinity began to hand over administration of these facilities to Tongerlo. In this way, the chapter of St. Martin of Utrecht entrusted the care of Westerlo and Olen to the Norbertines. The chapels of Ravels and Poppel were given to Tongerlo by the St. Servatius chapter at Maastricht, and the bishop of Cambrai donated the church of Oevel to Tongerlo.
A century after the foundation, Gregory IX issued his bull of March 1233. From it we learn that the Norbertines of Tongerlo have the care of 15 churches, that the center of management of their domains is to be found about the outfarms of Euwen (Broechem), Kalmthout, Essen, Ravels and Vissenaken. We also read in this bull that there are predial courts in Tongerlo, Diest, Vissenaken, Broechem and Essen where justice is administered to the local serfs living on abbey estates. Finally, in 1298, Duke Jan II of Brabant confirmed the possession of the goods of the abbey - scattered in 62 locations.
6. "That Calamitous Fourteenth Century"
At the end of the thirteenth century tension was building between the French King, Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII. The determined stand of the pope concerning royal taxes levied on church property sparked a struggle between them. Philip did not hesitate to use violence, and in due course imprisoned the pope in 1303 at Anagni. The pope did not survive this ordeal. After the subsequent papal election, the French candidate of the king ascended the throne of Peter under the name of Clement V, but moved the curia in 1309 to the papal free territory of Avignon in Provence.
This renewed struggle between papal and secular authority lead to the Western Schism during which the division within the church took on dramatic forms and also during which two or even three individuals claimed to be the true successor of St. Peter.
In the course of its first centuries of existence, Tongerlo had risen to an important place in the life of the Duchy of Brabant. This is clear from the influence of abbot Wouter Bac (1334-1366) at the ducal court. Through loans and liberal financial contributions, the prospering abbey of Tongerlo did not escape unnoticed. Wouter Bac became councilor of Duchess Joanna. In gratitude for his services, he obtained half of the higher jurisdiction in the seigneury of Tongerlo. Through this right, abbatial judges became administrators of justice in criminal cases.
7. The Burgundian Era
On the occasion of his journey to Rome during the Holy Year of 1390, the twenty-fifth abbot of Tongerlo Jan Brief van Grave seems to have obtained the privilege of wearing the bishop’s mitre. Whether this was in fact true or not, it is certain that abbot Jan Geerts (1400-1428) acquired this prerogative on January 1, 1411 from antipope John XXIII.
With Jan Geerts, a native of Zichem, we enter the era of the Burgundian dukes in Brabant. Like his predecessor, this abbot also became ducal counselor. As such, he got involved in various political and religious issues of his time. In 1409 and 1415 he was a member of the ducal delegation representing Brabant at the Ecumenical councils of Pisa and Constance. The purpose of both councils was ending the divisions within Christianity. At these councils, the question of whether an Ecumenical council had supremacy over the Pope or vice versa was discussed. Dirk van Andel, canon of Tongerlo and procurator general of the Order represented the German nation at Constance.
With the transition away from the Middle Ages toward the dawn of the Renaissance, Geerts was conscious of the challenge of growing rationalism and the crumbling away of the medieval way of living and thinking. In view of this trend, he sent around ten of his religious to the universities of Paris, Cologne and Dole in Burgundy, to study theology and canon law. The name of abbot Geerts is also connected with the foundation of the university of Louvain. He gave financial support to this institution and was entrusted with custodial care over the privileges of the university.
During the abbacy of Jan Geerts the old abbey buildings were renovated. Thanks to him, in 1411, Norbertine sisters could take up residence in a new enclosed convent -- "Besloten Hof" (enclosed garden) at Herentals. Dirk van Haren, who succeeded Geerts (1428-1447) and who was his close collaborator in all these efforts, continued a smooth, effective cooperation with the dukes of Brabant.
8. The Interference of the Pope in the Appointment of Abbots
During the 14th and 15th centuries the popes came to regard abbacies as a church benefice, and reserved the granting of them to themselves. This papal monopoly entailed enormous chancery expenses. In addition, there was also the enforced forfeiture of a portion of the abbatial income -- the annates -- which produced heavy debts for many abbeys.
The "double papacy" at both Rome and Avignon was skillfully exploited by the Burgundian rulers, who appointed themselves as defenders of the Roman Pontiffs. In so doing, they forced the pope to grant them privileges, increasing their political influence. This strategy meshed wonderfully with the Burgundian Dukes’ policy of expansion. They not only wanted to be the equals of the French kings, but to surpass him in both power and pomp. Their French rivals used similar tactics with respect to the popes at Avignon, who were employed for their political ambitions.
The concurrence of papal and ducal interests resulted in the origination of a type of abbatial appointment which would become an enduring plague: the commendam. At first, this sort of appointment had to do with the grant of an abbots benefice to a non-elected outsider as an interim bridge to a temporary vacancy. But under this hypocritical title (for commendare means to give in trust) a practice evolved which aimed only at material gain. Thus the receipts of a church benefice -- in most instances an abbey -- were skimmed, and the profit was remitted disguised as a sort of fee to both popes and governors.
The first abbot of Tongerlo who faced the commendam was Jan Kinschot. After his valid election in 1470 this descendant of a famous family of lawyers and magistrates from Turnhout found a rival in his way. Paul II, at the request of Charles the Bold, had already granted the abbots seat to a favorite of the duke of Burgundy, Ferry of Cluny, Member of the Great Council of Malines, the highest juridical court in the Burgundian Netherlands. Kinschot did not give in and with the assistance of Diederik of Tuldel, the Tongerlo jurist, who had become abbot of Park near Louvain, the commendam was avoided through the payment of an annual "allowance."
A commendam abbot who knew and cared nothing for the community could indeed be a disaster for an abbey. The normal administration of a religious community could become paralyzed. This situation was especially pernicious at a time when the abbeys of Brabant were in the midst of a spiritual revival after a period of laxity. In order to actually occupy the abbot’s seat to which he had been elected in 1477, Kinschot’s successor Werner van Halleer, had to litigate for three years against the in commendam abbot Philibert Hugonet, archbishop of Macon in Burgundy. This sort of situation is why means were sought after to avoid such calamities. The best protection was offered by the presence of an abbot coadjutor, if possible possessing the right to succeed. After abbot Jan van Westerhoven, his relative Pieter Mans van Westerhoven (1501-1504) succeeded at once, keeping things firmly under control.
9. The Golden Age of Tsgrooten and Streyters
After the death of Abbot Mans in 1504, Antoon Tsgrooten, the son of a blacksmith from Oistgerwijk in North Brabant was elected almost immediately and confirmed by Rome. However, since the abbey had already been given in commendam to Alphonse of Aragon, archbishop of Zaragoza, it was necessary to pay an annuity to him.
Abbot Tsgrooten was destined to be one of the greatest abbots of Tongerlo. This canon lawyer had taken his doctor’s degree at Cologne. Afterwards, he had been provost of the St. Sulpicius Chapter at Diest for years. On becoming abbot, the internal attempts of the Order of Premontre to institute reforms had gained the force of law through the Constitutions of 1505. Abbot Tsgrooten immediately did his best to put these reforms into practice immediately and to uproot abuses which had crept in to the best of his ability. The rebuilding of the venerable abbey church and the renovation of various monastic buildings are attributed to him. In 1528 he had choir stalls consisting of 90 seats made by the woodcarvers Mattheus de Wayer and Christiaan Swaluwe from Brussels.
On March 27, 1482 the Spanish Hapsburgs had joined the duchy of Brabant to their possessions through the wedding of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria. Their growing interference in abbatial affairs met with increasing opposition from the abbots of Brabant. When Charles V, like his French rival Francis I, had the privilege of appointing abbots granted to him by the pope, opposition grew significantly. It rose to a fever pitch in 1519 when Charles determined to grant St. Michael’s abbey in Antwerp in commendam to the prince-bishop of Liege. Tsgrooten resisted openly and with every fiber of his being against the Spanish ordinances, which ordered a halt to any possible territorial acquisitions by abbeys. His rebellion was punished firmly in 1527 by the governess by the seizure of all goods of the abbey. Around 1522 the aging abbot wrote to the pope that the future of the abbey caused him the greatest concern. At all costs, Tsgrooten wanted to safeguard his succession in order to perpetuate his work for the future. Several candidates for the succession were prepared by him. The first abbot coadjutor appointed by Rome was the canon lawyer Jan Hubert Huismans Van der Staelen of Stael, from Heusden in North Brabant. Unfortunately he succumbed to plague in 1525 at Louvain. The second coadjutor was Arnold Streyters, also a canon lawyer, who was appointed by the pope on April 16, 1526. These appointments came about quite smoothly because they were patronised in Rome by an influential Curia-cooperator Willem van Encevoirt, a Dutchman from Mierlo Hout, a parish of Tongerlo.
10. The Reformation and the Decline of the Abbey
While the Protestant Reformation continued to simmer just below the ashes of the anti-Spanish resistance, abbot Arnold Streyters from Diest (1530-1560) continued the building activities of his predecessor. The university education of his religious was very close to his heart as well. Recent research has established that from 1400 to 1570, a period in which the training of priests was generally insufficient, between 65.9% and 75% of the parish priests from Tongerlo working in North Brabant had the benefit of an academic schooling.
In Streyter’s notes we read that new candidates were tested regarding their orthodoxy. At any trace of Lutheranism, they were refused entry to the community. As a member of the States of Brabant he was also active politically. In 1553 and 1555 he had the honor to administer Baptism to the two eldest children of William of Orange, then the stadtholder of the Spanish King in Burgundy, Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht.
The second half of the sixteenth century was the opposite of the first half, which had been prosperous for the abbey in many respects. The formation of the new dioceses in the Spanish Netherlands from 1559 onwards meant an upsetting of all plans. Jakob Veltacker from Diessen, duly elected in 1565 and appointed by the king of Spain, had to resign in 1569 after Pius V allotted the abbot’s benefice at Tongerlo -- with all its goods -- to the first bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Frans Vanden Velde van Son. No pains or expenses were spared to put an end to this incorporation of Tongerlo with Den Bosch. This unhappy situation which caused discord and confusion in the community lasted thirty years. Meanwhile, the Eighty Years War raged with its lack of food and spreading disease.
With the advance of Calvinism, the task of parish priests in Northern Brabant became physically risky. Three Norbertines were murdered by wandering gangs of robbers -- or "Beggars." These martyrs were Arnold van Loedt, alias van Vessem, parish priest of Klein Zundert, murdered July 19th 1557; Henricus Bosch, parish priest of Nispen, murdered August 23rd; and Petrus Janssen from Kalmthout, parish priest in Haren near Den Bosch, murdered April 16th 1572.
11. The Catholic Reformation
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) heralded the Catholic Reformation as an answer to the Protestant Reformation.
It was the intention of the council of Trent to restore ancient religious rules and traditions completely. The reflection on these traditional characteristic values by the Norbertines in Brabant in the early seventeenth century contributed directly to a new consciousness of their specific vocation and task. Several authors St. Michael’s Abbey, Antwerp and also from Tongerlo spread this spiritual revival. Their books and writings had an apologetic tone. They also published the lives and pictures of Norbertine saints and blesseds.
The council hardly touched upon the pernicious practice of the "in commendam." The result of this evasive and hesitant council decree was delayed for quite awhile. Sadly, the prerogative of the king to appoint abbots, preceeding the papal granting of the abbot’s benefice, was maintained undiminished. Only in 1592 did the abbey succeed in liberating itself from the bishops of Den Bosch. After that, the aged abbot Nicolaas Mutsaerts (1592-1608) steered a more peaceful and spiritual course for abbey life after all the tumult.
In 1607 archduke Albert and archduchess Isabella granted abbot Mutsaerts permission to have Adriaan Stalpaerts elected as his abbot-coadjutor and successor. The wise Adriaan Stalpaerts (1608-1629) embodied the new godliness that had developed from the council of Trent. He attached much importance to the strict observance of religious vows and to expert schooling of devoted priests for parish ministry. Between 1618 and 1630 this invigorated piety was set down in the new Constitutions of the Order of Premontre. Stalpaerts’ international contacts had made clear to him that a permanent representation of Norbertines in the pope’s city was indispensable. On his initiative and with his financial support, St. Norbert’s college was established in Rome for young religious from the abbeys of Brabant. Several abbots of Tongerlo would be recruited from this institution, which was only a short distance from the Quirinal, at that time the location of the papal residence.
We have to place the abbacies of Stalpaert’s successors in the same category. During the abbacy of Theodoor Verbraecken (1629-1644) from Helmond -- parish priest from Mierlo for almost a quarter century -- the members of the community had to seek shelter at Malines from 1637 until 1640. Calvinist troops commanded by Frederik Hendrik forbade their presence in the bailiwick of Den Bosch after their conquest of the town. The abbey population of priests and clerical students swelled up to 100 during his term as abbot.
Augustinus Wichmans (1644-1661) from Antwerp, theologian, pastor, Marian devotee, author, and former parish priest at Mierlo and Tilburg contributed splendor to his reborn abbey. The appointment of abbot Ursino was political and did not satisfy the wishes of the community. He was the son of an Italian nobleman from Pavia in Spanish military service at Oldenzall, Overijssel province. This distinguished former parish priest of Roosendall, having his entries in State circles at The Hague, mediated between the Spanish governors in Brabant and the rulers from the North about pending diplomatic questions during his brief term of office (1663-1664).
His successor, Jakob Crils (1664-1695) from Halsteren near Bergen op Zoom governed the abbey for over thirty years. He was a quiet and mild man, who not only enjoyed great esteem in his own community but also was renowned outside the abbey as well. In 1682 he was appointed vicar of the abbot general for the Brabantian and Frisian provinces of the Order.
12. The Era of Enlightenment
The year of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) was a turning point in the cultural and political history of our region. Reason continued to liberate itself from the constraints superimposed by religion. During the eighteenth century the Catholic church as well as the various Protestant religious communities encountered a common enemy in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which gained ground among the formerly faithful. A strong craving for knowledge was also developed at Tongerlo. In this century religious were living here who were engaged in scientific research at a high level, from archeological exploration to many types of historical investigations. In this way it happened that Tongerlo was in a position to take over and manage the publication of the Acta Sanctorum after its originators, the Jesuits, were outlawed in 1773. It was also in this particular period that the political implications of Jansenism made themselves apparent. The value of candidates for membership in the abbey was often gauged by their opinions on this matter, as well as their positions on ecclesiastical and political issues. Gregorius Piera from Malines -- of Spanish descent -- formerly a student of St. Norbert’s College in Rome, carried the day with the government in Madrid and was appointed abbot on March 30, 1695. Piera followed the trend of the times and had the late medieval church interior refashioned into baroque style. The massive library of the abbey was also reorganized and many of the ancient books rebound. 1695 was also the tragic year of the devastation of Brussels by French troops during the war of the Spanish Succession -- a war fought principally on Brabantine territory. The peace of Utrecht eventually put an end to this conflict and made the Duchy of Brabant a possession of the Austrian Hapsburgs.
13. Under the Austrian Hapsburgs
Piera’s successor, Joseph Peter Van der Achter (1723-1745) from Oirschot still draws the attention of today’s visitors to the abbey. His eloquent coat of arms with tortoises and deer, and his device "Festina Lente" (that is, "hurry up slowly") a funny hint at his surname, can still be admired on the fascade of the abbot’s house. The house was built between 1725 and 1728. A few painted portraits show him as a solemn, severe dignitary. Yet it is a known fact that he was a dedicated and charming confrere.
French expansionist policy ignited yet another war in Brabant, from 1740 to 1748. This time it was directed against the young Queen of Hungary, Maria Theresa, who also happened to be the Duchess of Brabant. While Brussels was besieged yet again in 1745, the Austrian rulers appointed as abbot the parish priest of Westerlo, Siardus Van den Nieuweneijnde, a native of Antwerp. Gregorius Van Rijckevorsel was passed over because he was not born on Brabantine soil belonging to the Austrians, but came from ‘s Hergogenbosch in States-Brabant.
At length Godfried Hermans (1780-1799) was placed in the abbots seat. The Austrian administration at this time ordered a far reaching centralization of all ancient civil and ecclesiastical institutions to unify and simplify the great patchwork of political, economic and social units. This policy met with determined but constrained opposition from the population. The people resisted to safeguard their traditions and long acquired privileges. When the clergy succeeded in branding this centralization of Emperor Joseph II as hostile to the church, the inhabitants of Kempen openly rose up in a massive revolt. Abbot Hermans did his utmost to avert a closure of the abbey, which threat hung like a sword of Damocles over the institution.
Ever more severe resistance to the centralization measures eventually involved abbot Hermans himself in the revolt. He was seduced by the surrounding population and geography into commiting himself to the Brabantine revolt of 1789/1790, an adventure with an outcome far out of his control. At the expense of the abbey, troops were recruited among the population of the countryside, and two regiments of Kempen troops were armed to fight the Austrians. Hermans himself became head chaplain of the patriotic troops and several of his religious were with the troops in the thick of battle. At one point during this rebellion, the United Belgian States seemed within reach of achieving independence. However, with the return of the Austrians in force, Hermans’ abbey was placed under sequester. The revolt had exacted a high toll not only with respect to monastic discipline, but also materially.
14. Abolition and Reconstruction of the Abbey
The age-old existence of Tongerlo abbey came -- at least temporarily -- to an end on December 6, 1796. For several years war taxes had been levied which had brought the abbey to the brink of ruin. French revolutionaries dealt the abbey a final blow when they summarily expelled the 130 religious. All abbey possessions were nationalized. The buildings and goods were sold off. Half of the abbey was razed to the ground by one of the buyers, and in this way the sixteenth century church and convent buildings disappeared forever.
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands continued and endorsed the French laws regarding abbeys -- that is, to let them die gradually. The abbey community nearly did die out.
After a diaspora of forty years, a restoration at last seemed possible due to the Belgian constitution’s guaranteed right of free association. In 1835 the surviving members of the community were permitted to resume recruiting, and in 1838 the canonically restored abbey community made a fresh start. At first they rented the castle "Halmalehof" also called "Bossensteyn" at Broechem, but from 1840 onward they occupied part of the former abbey buildings at Tongerlo.
Exceptional efforts were undertaken to rebuild the ancient abbey settings during superior Backx term of office (1839-1867). The new church at the abbey was constructed from 1853 on. Backx did whatever he could to restore the parish ministries of the abbey confreres. He also made contacts with Premonstratensian abbeys abroad to restore the federative links of old.
It was Backx’s successor, Joannes Chrysostomus De Swert (1868-1887) who fully succeeded in reviving the abbacy and the main structures. Under Thomas Ludovicus Heylen (1887-1899), the future bishop of Namur, the abbey started missionary work, first in Anglican England, and from 1898 on in the Congo.
The number of confreres increased as did the activities undertaken. In 1924 Tongerlo founded the Holy Trinity Priory in Kilnacrott, Ireland. After the fire of 1929, Tongerlo re-established the abbey of Leffe near Dinant. In 1948 a peak of 234 religious was reached. In the period between the two World Wars, the Archconfraternity of "The Mass of Reparation" developed into a widespread Eucharistic-Liturgical movement and was centered at Tongerlo.
The periodical "Algemeen Nederlandsch Eucharistisch Tijdschrift" (that is, General Dutch Eucharistic Periodical) -- with editorial staff at the abbey -- studied the scientific aspects of liturgical piety. Also, a more popular magazine "Het Heilig Misoffer" (that is, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass) was published. The eucharistic-liturgical spirituality of the Norbertines was spread far and wide under the inspiring guidance of Father Antoon van Cle in "Massweeks" and "People’s Missions" in Flanders as well as in the Netherlands.
The post-war needs of occupied Germany led Father Werenfried van Straaten to mobilize and channel charitable assistance for priests working among vast numbers of displaced persons. The missionary work in the Apostolic vicariate Uele, later Buta Diocese in the Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) came to great fruition. Our membership list of 1959 mentions 75 priests and brothers active in the Uele mission.
In 1872 the first English foundation in Crowle (Great Britain) was begun, followed later by establishments in Spalding and Manchester. In 1949 under abbot Emiel Stalmans twelve confreres were sent to Canada to establish a priory, a jewel of Catholic life in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, near the border with the United States. In 1968 this priory was moved to Saint-Constant near Montreal. In 1952 the priory of Storrington in Sussex, England was taken over from our French sister abbey of Frigolet. In 1966 several former missionaries from the Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) went to Chile in South America, where in 1979 they started a monastery with parishes in Chiguayante and Santiago.
The Second Vatican Council stimulated a vigorous reflection on the meaning and task of the Order in the post Conciliar era. This consideration resulted in the publication of the new Constitutions of the Order, which were issued by the general chapter of 1968/1970. In so doing, an attempt was made to translate the ancient spirituality of the Order into a way of life, adapted to today’s social milieu. In keeping with their vocation and mission, today’s Norbertines want to cooperate in building Christ’s Church by living the faith of the apostles and through their willingness to serve.