The heart of West-Brabant

The region flourished, thanks to Bovendonk

In a monastery, things aren’t always as they seem at first glance. And this also goes for Bovendonk. There’s the building itself, to begin with. At first sight you would swear it’s symmetrical. But when you look closely, you’ll see this isn’t at all the case.

A Cuypers’ prototype

Bovendonk was founded as a monastery branch: a farm run by friars. They both built and demolished a lot here. Spaces to live in, sheds for storages, rooms for prayer. A country house for the bishop of Antwerp. In 1853, the first bishop of Breda chooses Hoeven Bovendonk as his home. In the autumn of 1895, the diocese commissiones the construction of the seminary.

The seminary building you can see here today was designed by engineer Pierre Cuypers, an architect who designed hundreds of churches, including the Basilica of Oudenbosch, and who has defined the look of ecclesiastical building in the Netherlands. He designes and builds Bovendonk at the end of his career, when his style is already very defined. You’ll recognise elements from the Rijksmuseum (also by Cuypers) in Bovendonk.

It’s thanks to its eventful history, in which the monastery branch was even abandoned for some time, that this is the building by Cuypers that’s still the most true to its original form.

You won’t find symmetry here. Not a single line, surface or pattern is repeated. Cuypers’ goal was to create harmony. The coldness of symmetry would be detrimental to this. The pride the architect took in this monastery – and how big his ego was – is reflected in the number of self-portraits he incorporated in the interior.


Meek boys go to the seminary

The building was designed to house boys following priest training. Many people who visit it now, especially those without Catholic roost, walk around here with feelings of both admiration and disbelief. Why would a healthy young man with a whole world out there to discover come here, to the seminary? Such dedication to a pious and devout life!It’s not hard to imagine that one could believe in a higher power. But to give up so much for that? Hundreds of boys came to Bovendonk every year. After 6 years of training, most of them came out as priests. One in 5 did not make it to the ordination. These men had to pack their things and were silently shoved out through a side door in the early morning.

But nothing is ever as it seems. By far the majority of the students started priest training just because that’s what was expected of them.

Those who ruined their training or who were unable to resist wordly temptations, were a disgrace to their families.

Lands conquered by monks

Maybe by now you’ll think of the Catholic Church as a parasite to Brabant, with farmers having to give away part of their harvest and offspring. But that image doesn’t do justice to reality. Before the friars came here, this region was nothing more than a swampy marsh with a handful of peasants.

Everything that’s built here comes from prosperity brought by friars.

It’s thanks to the church that things grow here. The land was reclaimed by friars who settled on a higher, dry spot of land, a hill made of sand and clay. With little more than scythes and spades, they cultivated the wasteland that surrounded them.

Faith wasn’t the only thing the friars brought to the swamp. Their knowledge about agriculture also spread among the growing population. And the friars provided education. Many people in Halderberge learned to read from a priest.

Built by skilled hands

In the time the monastery branch was built, towards the end of the 19th century, everything had to be done by hand. Power tools, heavy machinery and pre-fab parts were not an option, for they simply didn’t exist yet.

Are you a fan of craftsmanship? Now that’s something that IS as it seems here.

All the woodwork you see at Bovendonk is handmade by carpenters, instructed by Cuypers. The bricks are all laid in fine masonry style. And the floors you walk on are all original, with carefully laid typical Cuypers patterns.

That the building has stood the test of time so well says much about the craftsmanship and materials that were used.

Peace, love and happiness

In the second half of the 20th century, the influence of the church starts declining, and so did the number of students who wanted to attend priest training. In 1967, the training is stopped and the seminary is closed. For a while, the building has no function.

After 12 years, the seminary is rescued by Toon Hommel, a liberal priest who, with some help, starts taking care of the building again. Like the friars who reclaimed the land, these people put their souls into the place. And since these were the 1970’s, Bovendonk was also used as a location for a few exuberant parties.

Hommel opened the doors to the community. People in Hoeven volunteered to help refurbish the building, local clubs used it as their home base and a growing number of villagers visited the church services in the chapel. In 1983, even priest training came back, though on a much smaller scale than before.

Where many feel at home

A monastery branch is home to all facets of life. On and around the hill, the friars provided food and shelter for themselves. Here they gave meaning to their spirituality with symbols and rituals, through exurbant worship and meditative rest.

Today, people come to Bovendonk to work, reflect, rest or party. There’s room for everyone and everything, in this respect not much has changed.

At Bovendonk you’ll find the inspiration you’re looking for. No matter what it is.