The Augustinians in Antwerp
The monks that settled in Antwerp in the beginning of the 17th century weren’t the first Augustinians to establish a monastery here. The so-called Augustine Observants of the Saxon Congregation had already arrived a century earlier. These Observants followed the rules of Saint Augustine more strictly that the regular Augustinians would eventually do.
In the beginning, the Observants had the support of their general superiors. That all changed, however, in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. Soon, it became evident that other observant congregations wanted to follow the Lutheran teachings as well. This was exactly what the church establishment didn’t want to happen.
A robber’s den
Jacobus Praepositus, the prior of the Antwerp Observants and a former student of Luther was also successful in preaching these theses. Around 1519 the entire monastery community was Lutheran. This of course had consequences. According to the state inquisition the monastery was turning into a robber’s den that was in need of drastic measures. In 1522 a long and terrifying history of persecution, confessions, retracted confessions, and new convictions began. The story came to an end in 1523 on the main square of Brussels, where two monks were burned at the stake as heretics. Praepositus, ‘the fat little Flemish one’ as Luther liked to refer to him, had, in the mean time, already fled to his teacher.
The monastery in Antwerp was torn down; the church reformed to a parish church- the current Saint Andries church. The first chapter of the Augustinians comes to an end.
The second time’s a charm
It’s no wonder that in the beginning of the 17th century the Augustinians had more difficulty establishing themselves in the ‘Sinjoren” city, that, after the fall of 1585 had became a bastion of the Counter Reformation. Although they made huge efforts to show they had nothing to do with the heretical Observants before them, they still encountered a long period of opposition. The strongest opponents were the Our-Dear-Lady-Chapter. However, this was not only for fear of new heretics. The cannons had a negative attitude towards the many orders looking for protection within the city walls. They saw the additional monasteries as a threat to their power and revenue profits. Any acceptance was only provided under strict regulations.
Expansion of the Monastery
The church had its entrance in the Cammerstrate, which meant Brewer’s street. During the French occupation, the name was incorrectly translated as Rue des Peignes and then re-translated into the Dutch, Kammenstraat. Until the middle of the 16th century there were many breweries located in this neighbourhood. The original building of the Augustinians had previously housed the brewery “De Ketel”. The breweries relocated one by one to the “Nieuwstad”-the area currently known as “Brouwersvliet.” Printers soon took the places of the breweries. Saint Augustine was in just the right place, being the patron saint of printers and brewers alike. The monastery established itself in the region between the Everdijstraat, the Kammenstraat, and the Oudaan. As a start, the monks purchased twelve houses with gardens in the surrounding streets. As of 1623 they started building the monastery proper on this terrain. After that, they bought many more houses, some for extending the property and some to rent out. By approximately 1678 the premises of the monastery were complete.
Eventually in 1608 the Augustinians were allowed to establish themselves in Antwerp. They were provided with a building in the Everdijstraat and, in spite of opposition from the Our-Dear-Lady-Chapter, they immediately transformed a section into a chapel. The fact that they didn’t build a church right away was a question of funding. Still, they were able to solve this problem rather quickly. In 1611, when their provincial superior insisted they build a proper church, they started on the construction as soon as possible. The work had already started by 1615. The donations from the Arch Duke and Duchess Albrecht and Isabella, the city, and many generous citizens of Antwerp came in very handy.
An important lesson
The Augustine monastery played an important role for education in Antwerp. Even the first renovations of “De Ketel” were not limited to the design of a chapel and residences for the monks. From the beginning, classrooms were also constructed. The very fact that the Augustine order provided education was one of the main reasons they were allowed in the city. In the end even the established church saw this education as a good weapon against the Counter Reformation. In 1608 16 students attended the first day of lessons. In 1625 there were already 190 students which gave rise to the establishment of a separate school building. The number of students was indeed lower than that of the other Augustine schools in the southern Low Countries. This was the result of competition in Antwerp with the reputable Jesuit schools. Even then, the qualitative standard of the school was to remain high.
Under the French regime the Augustine school together with the monastery and the church were shut down. This took place in 1797. The monks remained in the city to give lessons as regular citoyens, but, that same year they were even forbidden from doing this. The church, monastery, and all effects were sold at public auction. Although just four years later the concord between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII would be reached and in 1802 the first mass would be dedicated in the reopened church, the monastery was never to recover. However, this would only become clear twenty years later.