The Carthusian Monastery is situated in the south-west of Louvain, near the ring road. The Mariapark, which is still open for visitors nowadays, lies within the boundaries of the former monastery. It is surrounded by the Bankstraat, Heilige-Geeststraat and Tervuursevest. The official address of the monastery is Bankstraat 75, but you can also reach it true Tervuursevest. Both streets are connected true the Sint-Franciscusweg. The Carthusian Monastery was inhabited by Capuchins from 1920 until the end of twentieth century, but during the preceding ages it belonged to the order of Carthusians. This monastic order was founded in 1084 by the saint Bruno of Cologne. It is as a strict contemplative community where the hermit’s life is combined with a modest and limited community life. It is still considered to be one of the most strict orders of the Catholic Church. The monks might live in their own community, however they spend the majority of their time in complete solitude in their cells. While there are no other Carthusian communities in Northwest Europe, there are still 22 monasteries in the rest of Europe with all together more than six hundred members.
HISTORY OF THE CARTHUSIAN MONASTERY
Fifteenth and sixteenth century
To elaborate on the history of the Carthusian Monastery, we have to go back in time for 500 years. At the end of the fifteenth century Walter van Waterleet (also called Woutier Wetelet) bought the domain and accompanying farm for 1100 florins. For the sake of his own religious background as chaplain of Charles the Bald and Saint Peter in Louvain, he would donate the domain to the order of Carthusians three years later. The peaceful grounds assured him of the solitude and silence that he cherished so much. Maria Magdalena was chosen as their patron saint. She was often associated with a jug and herbs, which you can find on the seal of the monastery as well. The Carthusian Monastery was considered to be very unique in that period of time for two main reasons. Firstly, it was the last remaining monastery of the twenty Carthusian monasteries in the Netherlands. Secondly, it was the only one that was built within the walls of a city.
The construction of the monastery was partly due to Margaretha of York (1446-1503), the widow of Burgundian Duke Charles the Bold. After her passing, her heart and intestines were donated to two other Carthusian monasteries since the department in Louvain was not finished yet. It would remain a construction site until the end of the thirties. In 1492, the monastery was involved and a new congregation was born. To finance its first segments, they relied upon donations. Every cell was named of the benefactor that financed its construction. The first new building was finished early on in 1500; the second and third part followed later that century. In the area between both buildings, a church, a priory, a dining room and a library were erected. Likewise, they established a south and east wing. In its highlight, about thirty clergy and their staff inhabited the monastery. In other Carthusian monasteries a more open atmosphere reigned: the monks were involved in founding the Collegium Trilingue and helped spread humanism within the university of Louvain.
Therefore the monastery was associated with the university in 1521. Around that same period of time, some very valuable leaded lights were installed in a few rooms which pointed out that monastery was very stable financially. However, it is striking that since 1511, when there were only thirteen monks in the monastery, there was a loss of moral values. According to several reports, disobedience and violation of the monastery policy were very common at the time. The monastery was labelled as ‘secular, depraved and insubordinate’, probably partly because some Carthusians had spent more time in the university than in the quiet of their cell.
Seventeenth and eighteenth century
By the start of the seventeenth century, the situation improved: the monastery flourished again because of the purchase of new grounds. After a few decades, new problems arose. In 1746, during the War of the Austrian Succession, French troops seized Louvain and transformed the Carthusian area into barracks. About ten years later, the monastery faced financial problems again because the empress Maria Theresia decided to reduce the donations to monasteries in general. Since the Carthusians were already living of donations for over two hundred years, they had to make drastic decisions to survive and teared down parts of their building. In 1614, a similar situation occurred: since the Carthusians were desperately seeking cash after a fire, they were forced to house soldiers under their own roof.
The monastery had been the most religious place of the city for over three centuries. Emperor Jozef II failed to acknowledge the Carthusians since 1783 which caused the seizing of their most precious furniture and artwork. Those were partly sent to Austria afterwards. or sold to the Park Abbey. The monastery was already serving as an army base and depository of Austrian and French troops. Due to the decreased number of monks living in the monastery, several wings of the building were demolished. Consequently a number of stained glasses vanished: some were destroyed, others were put up for public sale to British collectors. A couple of those stained glasses are currently located in European and American museums. In April 1783 the last monk left the monastery which caused it to change into an ammunition depot.
Nineteenth and twentieth century
The nineteenth-century history of the monastery is rather miserable. The deterioration already began at the start of the eighteenth century. During the French period gunpowder was stored in the monastery and this was not without consequences. It was not the first time that they had suffered from explosions because of collected munition. Around the turn of the century, parts of it were sold to individuals or continued to be destroyed. The released grounds, which were loaded with clay, lend themselves to the production of pottery and remained during the entire nineteenth century in the hands of neighbouring farmers. Guillaume Leunckens, a Louvain brewer and the then owner of the monastery decided to demolish whatever was left of the church in 1806.
Since 1912 Canon and professor Thiéry (1868-1955), associated with the Institute of Philosophy, started to restore the monastery. He hired architects to protect and reinstate its gothic character. The enormous fortune that his family had collected true international trade of clothing was used to buy artwork to embellish the monastery. Fifteen years after starting these operations the building was sold to the Louvain Capuchins. From 1921 onward the monastery was inhabited again. The current owner is KU Leuven itself. Occasionally they organize repetitions of the University Choir of Louvain or set up religious meetings here. The monastery is deserted again since 2004 but they commenced major renovations again in 2006.
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Maria-Magdalena-onder-het-Kruis (ca 1489/91- 1783), Cartusiana.org, 2018 (http://www.cartusiana.org/node/51).