The final days as a parish church
However good the intentions of the former students of the Saint Augustinus School were, the church was never returned to the Augustine monks. It remained a simple parish church. Furthermore, even after the departure of the French occupiers, the Antwerp Augustinians were only allowed to take in novices upon permission from the government. Eternal vows were already out of the question. As a result the Antwerp monastery literally died out around 1820.
Protected but deteriorated
As already stated, the parish church would still know 150 years of a blossoming existence, enhanced by the many fraternities connected to it, some stemming back to the time of the Augustinians. In 1939 the church and its annexes were proclaimed a protected monument. This happened mainly due to the indissoluble connection between the building and the altar pieces of Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens. Unfortunately, that protection didn’t hinder the deterioration. Moreover, there was a risk in 1958 that the whole thing would collapse due to nearby work on the police tower. The choir was then reinforced and the three alter pieces were moved for security reasons to the Royal Museum of Fine Art. They were replaced with replicas.
In 1963 the first restoration dossier was filed. However, these works were scarcely carried out because of their complexity and the constant arise of new problems. On top of that, this was all happening against a backdrop of anti-religious sentiment. From the 70’s onwards the number of practicing Catholics was on the decrease.
Due to this combination of challenges the original idea was to make the church a museum for religious art. This caused the pace to pick up in the project. On May 14th 1973 the church was closed for services. Most of the art works at the location were housed in the Saint Jacobs and the Saint Joris churches or in a municipal depot.
In 1976 the real works on the exterior restoration started. Two years later, the church was officially placed in the hands of the city council.
Towards a new life as a concert hall
The first phase of the restoration was completed in 1982. This was more concerned with the church façade, the lead glass windows, various church roofs, the enforcement of the side bays and the conservation work of the furnishings, the organ, and the chapel (mold and mildew control).
In the meantime it became clear that a museum for religious art wasn’t feasible. From 1985, the building was used occasionally for exhibitions, but leading up to Antwerp 93, Cultural Capital of Europe, the call became louder to use the church for musical performances. The success of the interim summer concerts turned the idea into a solid initiative, officially announced in the summer of 1996. The Saint Augustine church would become a Music Centre.
The original plans to make the centre an instrument museum as well were dropped rather quickly. Therefore, the only option left was a concert hall, resulting in the further restoration and adaptation that could be carried out in a purposeful way considering the new function of the space.
Still, this has left room for a partial museum function. The church interior and the displayed art work make up an important permanent exhibit. This aspect meant special alterations during the remodelling and decoration as well.