The Venerable Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament was probably founded in 1692 by Father Prior Michiel Kerstavont and Father Prefect Joannes Bervelt at the monastic church of the Dominican Fathers in Antwerp.
We have come to this date, based on the oldest known invoice to the Confraternity in that year, made out by Franciscus Wellens and Cornelius Pick. A beautiful historical story of a Confraternity which is still very much alive and still has the same mission.
Ever since the foundation of the Confraternity over three hundred years ago their goal has been unaltered. It is written in Article 1 of the Statutes, namely “the confession and adoration of the Divine Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist”.
Sometimes we are asked what activities we perform in the Confraternity. Our answer is always the same: look at what we are, that is more important than what we do. We are a spiritual fraternity, no service club, no social or cultural society, no club of friends nor a historical association.
We try to achieve the spiritual goal as a fraternity and this is a predominantly inner and individual action. Outer standards are an essential part but always remain of minor importance compared to the spiritual side. We care about keeping and passing on valuable traditions from the past although this is not the essence of the Confraternity. That will always be: finding a way to give the sacrament of the Eucharist a central place in our daily lives.
We find that taking part in the Eucharist gives a spiritual boost, a unique grace of a personal meeting with the Lord who gives himself, in the most intimate way, in the shape of bread and wine.
The history of our Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament is rather intricate. The exact founding date is unknown. We do know that the Confraternity emanated from the old Fraternity of the Sweet Name Jesus. This brotherhood was active in St Paul’s Church from the mid 16th century on. In the first quarter of the 19th century, the Confraternity got its definite form after the fusion with several fraternities that came over from the decommissioned St Walburgis Church.
Since their foundation in the year 1216, the Dominican Preachers fought idle and disrespectful use of God’s name. They damned swearers in the same ways they did heretics. Respect for God’s name took on a mystic dimension during the 14th century because of the influence of the Holy Henricus Suso, a Dominican theologian living in Konstanz.
In 1565, in line with the spirit of the counterreformation and with their church still under construction, the Antwerp Dominicans founded a fraternity of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. The name Jesus was not only ‘sanctissime’ (most holy) but also ‘dulcissime’ (the sweetest). This combination led to the changing of the name to Fraternity of the Sweet Name of Jesus. It was the first fraternity founded by Dominicans in Antwerp.
From the beginning the Dominicans made use of this new lay fraternity for the defense of the dogma “Praesentia Realis”, the real presence of God in the Holy Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine. This is not an accidental fact. Indeed the Dominican Thomas of Aquino, founder of the Scholastics, received a mandate from Pope Urbanus IV in the year 1264 to draw up the sacred text of the Holy Mess and the Officium.
The “Cultus Venerabilis” notably the public worship of the Holy Sacrament received in Dominican’s spirituality a central place next to the prior of the rosary.
Around 1609 the Venerable Chapel commissioned an altarpiece with P.P. Rubens, representing the Dispute of the Holy Sacrament (an oil painting on panel) for the altar in the southern transept of the church. The subject is surprising, as we would have expected a scene from the childhood of Jesus as a devotion to the holy name of Jezus. This seems to indicate that the cult of the Holy Sacrament at a particular moment had become the first goal of the fraternity.
And so in the 17th century the Fraternity of the Sweet Name of Jesus became the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament. How this happened is uncertain. The oldest known invoice to the Chapel dates from January 1st, 1692. As a consequence the Venerable Chapel must have existed before this date.
At that moment the Chapel had 28 chapel lords and was managed by a council of four ‘serving masters’ chosen amongst the members, on the Day of the Sacrament, for a period of four years. Detail: until the French Revolution, the treasurer was the manager of the Venerable Chapel.
Around 1670 it became practice in several Antwerp churches that communion was offered to the sick people at their home every fortnight in a solemn procession. Fraternities of lay men or seculofs were founded, who accompanied the Holy Sacrament with torches and banners. Such a fraternity was founded at Saint-Paul ’s Church in 1673.
With the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution a very difficult time starts for the fraternities. The Fraternity of the Sweet Name of Jesus was abolished in 1786 by a law of emperor Joseph II of Austria. The members of the fraternity consequently joined the Chapel Lords of the Venerable Chapel. In 1797, under French occupation, the Dominicans were expelled from Saint-Paul ‘s Church. Hence the activity of the chapels and the fraternities came to an end.
Due to the Concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII the city of Antwerp, in the year 1803, was able to buy the former Dominican Church and reopen it for services. Saint-Paul’s Church took over the parish rights of St. Walburgis, the old church near the ‘Steen’ castle. This church was sold and was to be demolished. After a year the Venerable Chapel was restored and 12 new members were appointed as chapel lords by reverend Stordeur a former Dominican.
The St. Walburgis Church also had a Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, the Venerable Chapel, that was much older than that of the Dominican Church. The first sign of this Chapel is found in 1499. Apart from this Venerable Chapel there was also a Confrerie of the Holy Sacrament. Both associations were brought over from the St. Walburgis Church tot Saint-Paul ‘s Church so that there were 2 chapels of the Holy Sacrament at the time of the reopening of the new parish church: one Fraternity of the Sweet Name of Jesus and one Confrerie of the Holy Sacrament. The 2 chapels existed next to each other and they all had the same goal: the eucharistic devotion.
It will last until the year 1820 before there was a fusion between the 2 Chapels and the Confrerie. The Fraternity of the Sweet Name of the Jesus continues to exist on its own but it will come to a decline in the following years. Our Venerable Chapel considers itself as the legal successor of the Venerable Chapel of the St. Walburgis Church.
In 1999 the anniversary of ‘500 years Chapel’ was celebrated with a Holy Mass with Mgr. Van Cauwelaert, bishop of Inongo, in presence of His Royal Majesty Queen Fabiola. From 1804 onwards 209 serving masters of the Venerable have been appointed.
Questions and answers
Who are these ladies and gentlemen in their long black robes?
They are members of the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament or the Confraternity of our Lady of the Holy Rosary. They are called chapel lords. A rather less known word as it is a typical Antwerp phenomenon originally used in the monumental churches of our city.
Why this long black robe?
We are a spiritual fraternity where age, race, origin, educational level or social status do not matter. This stands for an important principle: within our Confraternity we are all equal. The robe is a sign of humility.
What is the Chapel?
The word chapel derives from the Latin cappa (cloak, mantle). It refers to the cloak of Saint-Martin, bishop of Tours (316 – 397). Saint-Martin gave half of his mantle to a beggar. The reason why he only gave half of his mantle is because a Roman officer had to pay for that half himself, whilst the other half was paid for by the emperor. The mantle of Saint-Martin became a relic and as a consequence the place where this mantle was kept was named capella or chapel. First a repository of a relic, the chapel became a place for prayer.
What do we do for the community?
The Venerable Confraternity is totally embedded in the parochial community of Saint-Paul’s. As a consequence our members are encouraged to take part actively: management of the church building, relief for the poor, reception of tourists, catechism, music etc. Our Chapel has a human potential of knowledge, experience and work power, all of which the parochial community can use to be a church in this time in our city. These ways of engagement remain distinguished from the membership of our Confraternity, as it has a specific quality.
Is the dedication of the Confraternity still relevant?
We are convinced that our dedication in a context of extreme secularisation is still relevant and, even more: necessary. Possibly fewer people will come to church in future, but in the meantime a lot of people will continue looking for meditation and contemplation.
The future relevance of praying at places of worship will probably not be measured by structures or numbers anymore. The remaining important thing will be the authenticity of their inspiration. “Where two or three people are united in my Name, in their midst I am” says Christ (Mat. 18,20). Whenever our Confraternity comes together to celebrate the Eucharist, to pray together, to take care of people, we form The Church.
Our mission is to preserve and enhance Saint Paul’s Church with its historic tradition and the radiation of its liturgy and music as a special place amongst the churches of our diocese. This should make it possible to welcome searching people and show them God’s face. Our Confraternity and a lot of other organizations will continue to strive for this.
The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (Venerable Chapel) in the parish church of Saint-Paul’s at Antwerp is an old Roman Catholic fraternity whose purpose is the confession and glorification of the Divine Presence in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Rubens en de Kapel van het Heilig Sacrament
In 1609 the “Capelle van den H. Soeten naam Jhesus en den Heiligen Sacramenten” (Chapel of the sweet name of Jesus and the Holy Sacrament) commissioned an altar painting from P.P. Rubens. Originally the painting was to present a circumcision but it was changed to: “The disputation over the Holy Sacrament”.
On the altar table, Rubens depicts a monstrance with the consecrated Host. The Host symbolises the Son whilst, way up in the sky, the Father and the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove complete the Holy Trinity. Rubens repeated this theme many times, for example, when he designed the models for a series of tapestries, called “The triumph of the Eucharist”.
Listen to Chapel lord Peter De Vos in a clip of 2019, recorded in the context of the region wide exhibitions of that year: “Flemish Masters in situ” by Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen.
For the Venerable Confraternity the Holy Day of the Blessed Sacrament is by far the most important day. In Saint-Paul’s church we have tried, for several years, to celebrate this with resplendence on the first Sunday after Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity).
The churches’ very own music chapel performs a big orchestral mass followed by a solemn reduction with adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. This takes place in a timeless tradition of the ‘cultus venerabilis’, as formulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.
On Maundy Thursday, the Roman Catholic church commemorates the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. It is an important day for the Blessed Sacrament but it gets complete focus on another day, in order not to interfere with Easter. That is the reason a special Holy Day of the Blessed Sacrament was created.
It is the Cistercian nun Juliana of Mont Cornillon, near Liège (1192-1258) who pleaded with the authorities of the Roman Catholic church for a special commemoration to be added to the liturgical year. Pope Urban IV, former archdeacon of Liège granted this.
He commissioned the Dominican Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274) to compose the Office for the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours to celebrate the Most Holy Body of the Lord (Corpus Christi). In the year 1264 Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi by the bull Transitus.
His death on October 2 in 1264 ended the publication. Only in 1311 Pope Clement V confirmed the decision of Pope Urban IV for the entire Roman Catholic church.
The practice to venerate the Holy Sacrament in a vase or monstrance only started at the end of the 13th, beginning of the 14th century.
And that is why you see a monstrance in the logo of our Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.
If you want to share art and culture for free, you have an obligation to look at the financing of it. The well attended orchestral masses at Saint-Paul’s are free.
Costs run high for such a mass with a full choir and orchestra. The Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament takes part in the financing of these masses and pays for the concert mass fees of the Holy Sacrament day, which forms a necessary contribution in order to make it happen
We endeavour to present heavenly music to the many lovers of these masses and they can meet at a reception party afterwards.
Artists like the soprano Elise Caluwaerts and Wilfried Van den Brande, bass-baritone perform at their best during such moments.
Every year we try to surprise and spoil our musical fans.
‘Confraterneel’ is the newsletter of the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. Several times a year chapel lords pick up their pens and paper and write about matters going on in the church and in their confraternity in particular.
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We send a weekly newsletter with activities and information from the Saint Paul’s community.