A blackbird lands on the branch of a pear tree and sings, the notes of its melody reaching the ears of a passerby on Boeveriestraat, perhaps an oboist or a viola player on her way to morning rehearsal at the Concertgebouw nearby. The orchard lies open as a verdant map, its trees and grass well-cared for, a peaceful oasis in the heart of Bruges. The wind of West Flanders brushes the copperish-brown bricks of the Abbey of Saint Godelieve, a construction that has been an integral part of the city’s history since the 1600’s.
The Benedictine sisters of Gistel —a town located roughly 20 miles away from Bruges— left their convent and found refuge in Bruges. In 1623, they purchased the property and grounds on Boeveriestraat, and a handful of sisters moved in, while the rest continued living in their premises on Ganzenstraat. In 1626, a new convent was built with the assistance of the abbess of Douai Abbey, and all the sisters relocated to the convent on Boeveriestraat. Over the course of four centuries, the convent grew from a single little house to an impressive religious complex contributing to the architectural beauty and richness of Bruges.
Across from the Abbey, stands the Monastery of Capuchin Friars Minor, which was built in 1869 with the support of the rector of the Saint Julian’s Hospital. It is believed that the rector donated the beautiful altar, the communion bench and the pulpit from the old Capuchin monastery, which was located on the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday’s Market square), also known as ’t Zand square.
In 2016, the city of Bruges obtained a long lease from the non-profit organization Camino at Saint Godelieve Abbey. This ground lease expires in 2066. On the other side of the Boeveriestraat, the Capuchin Monastery is for sale. In 2018, the Capuchin Fathers informed the users of the monastery and the associated buildings that they wanted to leave the domain because the community of the Capuchins had become too small to continue living in the large monastery.
Now, Tourism Flanders has launched a pilot project by which the religious heritage of the two sites, the Abbey of Saint Godelieve and the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor, is repurposed and made accessible to visitors. Tourism Flanders reached an agreement with the city of Bruges for the pilot project, the length of which spans from the summer of 2020 until August 2023.
The implications of repurposing such religious sites are significant in more than one way. The buildings hold a unique place in people’s minds, they become the anchor to the identities of the people who live in the area. Churches and convents like these have witnessed the passage of time, they are the cornerstone of a community’s history and constant renewal. “Almost everywhere, people—who come together in parish teams and church administrations—feel a deep connection with their church and are prepared to take responsibility for its future,” wrote Kristof Lataire in ‘Towards a Future for Religious Heritage in Flanders’.
That’s why Tourism Flanders wants to make sure that every ‘placeholder’ — residents, visitors, business owners — has an equal say on how this three-year endeavor is conducted. A placeholder is someone who cares about a particular place, who cares about its future and will invest time, money or other resources to preserve it. They work on their behalf, but also for that of their community. The specific motivations of each placeholder might vary but all of them are committed to the preservation of both, the material and immaterial. They are the guardians.
Caring about the placeholder perspective, listening to the needs and concerns of everyone involved, falls within an initiative Tourism Flanders has labelled Travel to Tomorrow. “The tourism of tomorrow will be rooted in local communities. In neighborhoods, villages and cities that thrive and, as a result, enjoy welcoming enthusiastic visitors,” appears in the Travel to Tomorrow brochure. “A flourishing community is very much connected to its specific place; where people work together, where visitors can feel at home and residents can nurture and share their love for the place.”
The pilot project has been planned to be executed in four different phases.
Discovering ‘the soul’ of Saint-Godelieve Abbey
What are the stories of the place, who are its keepers today and who were they in the past? How did these places come about and from what inspiration? What was it like to live in these places? What does the environment around the place look like? What did this place mean for Bruges? What are the special stories?
Many questions that want to be explored to come to an integrated story of the place. In this way, in addition to the immaterial heritage, the story of the movable and immovable heritage of the abbey and monastery can also be told. To visualize all this we want to get started in an innovative & digital way. The inspiration comes from the people who talk about the soul of the place.
Timing: November 2020 to June 2021
Note: Only the discovery of the soul of the Abbey has started. The purchase of the monastery is delayed, and thus the discovery of the soul of the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor will start at a later stage.
Discover the visitor’s passion for religious heritage
Develop a knowledge-driven research trajectory in the search for a new future for St. Godelieve’s Abbey and the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor. At the same time, bring the perspective of the visitor into the co-creative research trajectory that follows this discovery trajectory. That is why, within the first study of the plan of approach for religious heritage (Tourism Flanders), there will be a focus on the religious heritage in Bruges and the expectations, intentions of the visitor with a passion for religious heritage.
Timing: November 2020 to May 2021
Day of reflection on religious heritage
As indicated in the large-scale plan of approach on religious heritage from Tourism Flanders, a ‘reflection day on religious heritage’ is organized every year in June. On this day, there is a conversation about visitor access, tourism and religious heritage. Every reflection day takes place in the Saint-Godelieve’s Abbey & the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor. The goal of this activity is to spark the motivation for working towards an intangible, movable and immovable religious heritage in Flanders.
Timing: June 2021
June 2021 meeting day
Everyone who is connected in one way or another to the Saint-Godelieve’s Abbey & the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor will be invited. The day will be divided into two parts:
- Festive opening/welcome to the direct residents around the abbey and the monastery, the former placeholders, choir that is still active in the monastery, minister, the mayor.
- Guided tour and program for anyone who wants to be connected with the soul of Saint-Godelieve’s Abbey & the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor.
On this meeting day, the following activities are foreseen:
- People connect to the result of the ‘discovery trajectory the soul of Saint-Godelieve’s Abbey & the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor.
- Proposing this plan of action. We explain the research & design trajectory of the pilot project.
- People can register to contribute to the future of the abbey and the monastery.
- Collecting stories from visitors that make the soul of the place even richer.
Timing: June 2021
2. Research Project
After an exploration trajectory, a co-creative research trajectory will begin. The principles of Travel to Tomorrow will be deployed.
In the research project, the new destination and tourist accessibility of St. Godelieve’s Abbey and the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor will be investigated. The project into four sections:
- STEP 1: Process towards the future and brand book
- STEP 2: Day of return
- STEP 3: Scenario discussion (individual) with experts/future partners/members of the steering group
- STEP 4: Ambition session with pilot project steering committee
Timing of the route: June 2021 to January 2022
3. Design Process
Creation of architectural design
From the previous trajectory, it is understood what the future must be for St. Godelieve’s Abbey & the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor. In order to do the design, the services of an architectural firm will be contracted. Based on a co-creative process, this firm must set to work in order to make the future concrete and shape it into an executable design. The architectural firm must be present from the start of the research process. That way, the firm will know the various partners and can respond to the research process and vice versa. The architectural firm must be able to design together with a number of partners, defined on the basis of the ambition session in this project.
In a first phase, it should become a searching dialogue where a spatial concept design based on a number of concrete design scenarios will be found. In a second phase, the concept design will be further developed into an architectural plan.
Timing of the process: January to June 2022
Designing a master’s and business plan
Parallel to the creation of architectural design, a master and business plan will be created. It will enable the sustainable exploitation of the St. Godelieve’s Abbey & the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor in one project. A plan in which all actions linked to investment and exploitation budgets are brought together. This document is intended to give direction to the future and will therefore be drawn up in close consultation with the steering committee of the pilot project.
The group consists of the architects from the previous part of the project, some members from the steering group, POM West Flanders, business developers, entrepreneurs, PMV, financing, facility experts, real estate heritage. The group will be composed by the steering group.
Timing of the process: January to August 2022.
Day of reflection on religious heritage
As in 2021, in June of 2022 a ‘reflection day on religious heritage’ with Tourism Flanders will be organized. This will be the starting signal for the Living Labs. As an inspiration for these Living Labs, participants will be introduced to the research trajectory completed from June 2021 to June 22. In addition to the focus on the route, additional people will be included in the future plans for the abbey and the monastery.
Timing of the process: June 2022
4. Pop-up route
During the period after the acquisition of the abbey and the monastery in the summer of 2020 and January 2022, both sites will be open for pop-up initiatives. These are events or activities that can take place for a short or long period of time on one of both sites.
Timing: January 2021 – January 2022
Research pop-up trajectory
At the beginning of 2023, both an architectural design and a master & business plan will be on the table. There will be a focus on learning concretely from experiments. Free pop up initiatives will stop, and there will be an effort to look for initiatives that want to experiment on the site. The pop up initiatives will be critically assessed with regard to their purpose, usefulness and values.
Timing: January 2022 – until the start of the renovations
Day of reflection on religious heritage
On a third reflection day on religious heritage during this legislature, participants will look back on their own successes in researching and unlocking religious heritage in Flanders. Once again, the project and the results achieved in opening up St. Godelieve’s Abbey and the Monastery of the Capuchin Friars Minor should serve as an inspiring and motivating example.
Timing of the process: June 2023
End Note: Through this ambitious pilot project, Tourism Flanders aims to collaborate with every placeholder on a sustainable new future for these two unique jewels of religious heritage in the magical city of Bruges.