Recently I introduced you to a new country walk near Leuven: the Vijvers of Bellefroid. You could combine a morning walk around the Vijvers with an afternoon visit to the Park Abbey in nearby Heverlee.
Although part of the centuries’ old Park Abbey looks like a building site – a major renovation project is ongoing – other parts have been lovingly renovated and are open to view or visit. These include a new museum, the church, watermill, wagon house, and gatehouses. You can have a look at what’s going on in the abbey farm, take a walk around the fishponds, return via the expansive and fascinating cemetery, and enjoy a snack with a locally brewed beer in the brasserie. I am delighted to be able to share some more of Marijke Vaernewyck’s beautiful photos (@Avemarijke on Instagram).
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PARK ABBEY
The abbey was founded in 1129 upon the request of the Duke of Brabant, Godfrey I the Bearded. One hundred years later, the Saint-John-the-Evangelist Church was added. Its 18th century tower is one of the highest points of the domain. During the late Middle Ages the abbey was developed further, and the large ponds were built to enable the Norbertine canons to pursue their interest in fish farming. During the terrible 1566 Iconoclasm and the ensuing religious war, the canons fled the abbey, only returning in 1589. This was followed by a period of reconstruction and growth during the Counter Reformation. During this period the Park Abbey achieved its high point spiritually, culturally and economically.
The Park Abbey then extended its parochial network. It became the centre of a large farming area covering 16 parishes from Archennes to Tremelo. In 1718 a guest house was built on the site.
It all changed again in 1797 when the abbey was closed under the French revolution. All 46 canons were forced out. Their land and goods were nationalised and sold. However, the canons moved their art and literary collections to a safe location. But it wasn’t long before the church could reopen, in 1803. Throughout the 20th century, pastoral workers from the Park Abbey were active in parishes, hospitals, rest homes and schools in the neighbourhood and in Brazil. Luckily the abbey was spared too much heavy damage during the two world wars. However, the carillon in the belfry was damaged beyond repair.
In 1997 the Centre for Religious Art and Culture (CRKC) was established in the abbey. Its activities include making inventories of the heritage in churches and monasteries, and developing a museum to look at the interaction between religion, art and society. In 2003, much of the property came under the management of the City of Leuven. This signalled the start of a major maintenance and renovation project.
Their first project was completed in 2005 with the restoration of the Wagon House. It now houses the headquarters of the charity organization Aid to the Church in Need Belgium.
By 2013 the abbey’s watermill had received a makeover. It became the site of the Brasserie De Abdijmolen. Four years later, the beautifully restored western wing became PARCUM, a dialogue museum for religion, art, and culture. The museum hosts temporary exhibitions focusing on religious themes that engage with society.
On 11 November 2018, the Peace Carillon was once more heard across the Park Abbey site; a replica of the original carillon destroyed in 1914. The video below gives a fascinating insight into the playing of a carillon. The audio is in Dutch, but if you don’t understand Dutch it’s still worth watching the skill and artistry involved.
In 2020 the old tithe barn, dating back to 1633, was once more put to good use. It forms part of educational hands-on organic farm De Wikke.
By 2021 the library and refectory with their stucco ceilings should be restored. And by 2025 the restoration of the Park Abbey should finally be complete.
WHAT TO DO AT THE PARK ABBEY LEUVEN?
- Follow this very nice Virtual Tour to discover more about each component of the Park Abbey
- Take one of the guided tours on offer
- Read up about the new Braxatorium Parcensis Abbey Brewery that opened in 2020
- Sample the Abbey Brewery’s Heverlee Beer – and enjoy a meal – at the Brasserie De Abdijmolen on the site of the Park Abbey.
- Visit the PARCUM museum
- Walk around the park. Below is a map (downloadable here) that starts and ends at the nearest bus stop (Heverlee Abdij van Park). If you are arriving by car, turn into the road marked Abdij van Park and there is a car park on the right-hand side. From there you can walk around the lake and through the woods. It’s a very pleasant walk suitable for young children and buggies. More details on RouteYou.
I hope you enjoy your visit to the Park Abbey Leuven. And did you combine it with a walk around the Vijvers of Bellefroid? The Park Abbey isn’t the only abbey in Leuven. In a future post I’ll introduce you to a cycling route that visits four abbeys in Leuven! If you want to get new posts like this in your inbox, add your email below.
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