01 July 2014

A quick pilgrimage to Belgium

As I watched the World Cup match this afternoon between the United States of America and Belgium, I couldn't help but recall that one week ago today I was in Belgium. I went with another priest who lived at the Casa Santa Maria to make a quick pilgrimage to Tremelo, the birthplace of Saint Damien de Veuster, and to Leuven, where he is entombed.

The day began with an early rising to catch an early flight from Rome's Ciampino airport to Brussels' Charleroi airport. My fellow pilgrim arrived in Brussels the night before from Paris, rented a car, and drove to the airport to collect me.

Because the pilgrimage was put together at rather the last minute, we didn't have anything definitely arranged. A Google search indicated that the museum is not open in the afternoon on Tuesdays. With this in mind, we decided to head to Tremelo early and head to Leuven from there after visiting Father Damien's home and museum.

Getting around Belgium was very easy, in no small part because the country is orderly and clean (in many ways it is everything Rome is not) and we soon arrived at the museum:

It turns out the museum is closed and will not reopen until sometime in 2015. With some 13,000 inhabitants, Tremelo remains a quiet town whose citizens are clearly hard workers, somewhat serious on your first encounter with him, and yet friendly in a reserved way.

Father Damien's family - which is now the museum, if I understand the situation correctly - is today surrounded by facilities for the care of the elderly. Behind the museum is the parish church of Saint Damien:

The front doors of the church are no longer accessible as nursing facilities have been built along the front of the church. The side door somewhat visible in the photo above is now - so far as we could tell - the only way into the church. Though this door was open, interior doors leading to the church were locked and we could find none of the staff. Clearly, a visit to Tremelo should be made after initial contacts have also been made.

Having exhausted our reasons for visiting Tremelo, we returned to the car and drove to Leuven (thankfully Belgium is a very small country) and made our way to the chapel of St. Anthony (of Egypt/the Desert):

When the mortal remains of Father Damien were translated from his grave on the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai to his home country of Belgium, he was entombed below this sanctuary:


We were able to offer the Holy Mass at Father Damien's tomb (there is a small altar just to the right of the photograph).

The shrine also has a room filled with small statues of Saint Damien and even a few paintings. We were given a brief tour of the museum and had a good visit with one of the staff members (many Belgians speak very good English).

My initial impressions of Belgium were very good (not least of all because you can find both bacon and chocolate milk) and I look forward to returning next year when the Damien Museum reopens in Tremelo, and maybe even before.

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