Empty churches get second life in Belgium

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Across Europe, the continent that nurtured Christianity for most of two millennia, churches, convents, beguinages and chapels stand empty and increasingly derelict as faith and church attendance shrivelled over the past half century.

“That is painful. I will not hide it. On the other hand, there is no return to the past possible,”Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp, told the Associated Press.

Something needs to be done and now, ever more of the once sacred structures are repurposed for anything from clothes shops, wall-climbing clubs and night clubs.

It is a phenomenon seen over much of Europe’s Christian heartland from Germany to Italy and many nations in between.

It really stands out in northern Belgium’s Flanders which has some of the greatest cathedrals and the finest art to fill them.

If only it had enough faithful.

A 2018 study from the PEW research group showed, in Belgium, that of the 83% that they were raised Christian, only 55% still consider themselves Christian.

Only 10% of Belgians still attended church regularly.

On average, every of the 300 towns in Flanders has about six churches and often not enough faithful to fill a single one.

Some become sores in city centres and a constant drain on finances for elementary upkeep.

Mechelen, a town of 85,000 just north of Brussels is the Roman Catholic centre of Belgium and has two dozen of them, several huddled close to the unmatched St. Rumbold’s cathedral.

Mayor Bart Somers has been working for years to give many a different vocation.

The city has a former Franciscan church turned into a luxury hotel where music star Stromae spent his wedding night amid the stained glass windows.

The interior of the church was gutted to make place rooms that offer bed headboards resembling organ pipes and a breakfast room next to the altar where gold leaf wafers hover overhead. With its understated luxury, it offers contemplation, and more.

In nearby Brussels, a wall-climbing club will open at the end of the week in a disused church, a first in Belgium according to Kyril Wittouck, co-founder of Maniak Padoue climbing club.

The work inside the church took nearly two years and cost over a million euros to refurbish the roof and the foundations.

Everything has been done to keep the structure and the remains of the church as untouched as possible.