Thursday, October 20, 2011

The High Altar in the Abbey of Our Lady of Tongerlo (1858-2011): Part 1

Guest Article by Frater Anselm J. Gribbin, O.Praem.


There has been much discussion in recent years concerning the position of the altar in our churches, and where the priest should stand during the celebration of Mass. These are not only questions of aesthetics – important though they are – because they concern other fundamental elements relating to the nature and celebration of the Catholic liturgy. Should the celebrant face ‘ad orientem’ or ‘versus Deum’, for example, or use the ‘Benedictine arrangement’ of the altar, with the cross at the centre ? Both these arrangements indicate the real focus of priest and people during the liturgy ad Deum, and emphasise the sacrificial nature of the Mass. The centrality of the High Altar in the church highlights and points towards the centrality of the Holy Eucharist in our Catholic Faith, and the Holy Mass as the most important sacred action which concerns the actuosa participatio of every Catholic. This is also evident in the churches of religious communities with a choral office. The Ordinary Form of the Mass has a preference for one altar in a church. And yet even the presence of ‘side altars’ especially in the churches of religious communities – if they survived the liturgical turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s - does not detract from the liturgical unity emphasised in a particular manner by the High Altar, where all the community assemble for the conventual Mass, which Premonstratensians call the ‘Missa Summa’. Each Mass is the re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary, in an unbloody manner : ‘non confractus, non divisus : integer accipitur’ (St. Thomas Aquinas in the sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorem).

This is evident, too, at Tongerlo, when exploring the fascinating history of how our High Altar ended up between the transepts, or, to put it another way, between the choir and the nave. One might be surprised to find that it had nothing to do with ‘implementing’ the Second Vatican Council. Although the pros and the cons of its position could be debated, its ‘re-position’ actually occurred long before the council, and was a very practical measure, as well as a way to enhance the celebration of the Premonstratensian liturgy in our abbey church.

1. The High Altar at Tongerlo, 1858-1919

The present early neo-gothic abbey church, designed by Paul Stoop of Antwerp, came to be built after the return of the Premonstratensians to Tongerlo in 1840, about nine years after the enthronement of the first Belgium king, Leopold I. Previously, in 1796, the community – numbering 130 members - had been expelled by the French and its goods were ‘nationalized’

Tongerlo Abbey in the second half of the eighteenth century. This old print gives a good idea of the church before the expulsion of the community. The church, with the conventual buildings on the left, were demolished.

The abbey grounds, and its buildings, were divided and sold. The superior of the community, Fr. Evermodus Backx, was faced with the task of erecting a new church and conventual buildings, which had all been demolished. Only a section of the abbey grounds, with the remaining buildings, could be initially purchased at that time, which did not include the area where the former church and conventual buildings once stood. This explains why they could not be rebuilt on the original site. Work eventually began on the church on 22 June 1852, and on 15 August the foundation stone was laid by Mgr. Eustachius Gonella, archbishop of Neocaesarea, papal nuncio and visitor of the religious in Belgium. On 4 June 1858 Mgr. Gonella returned to Tongerlo, as enough of the church had been completed for him to consecrate it (i.e. its dedication). However much work had still to be done. Fr. Backx had asked Blessed Pope Pius IX for permission to erect seven altars, whereby the faithful could visit and the obtain the same indulgence as a visit to the seven basilicas of Rome. This was duly granted, and the indulgence was to last for ten years ‘sub conditionibus requisitis’. Paul Stoop had made designs for these altars, and we still have the initial designs for these altars in our archives, with initial plans for the church and conventual buildings.

Design for the High Altar by Paul Stoop, dated 1840.

Design for the church (the two altars at the entrance to the choir are not indicated.

The actual construction of the altars was carried out by J.B. Peeters and J. Goyers of Louvain. However Stoop’s elaborate design for the High Altar was greatly modified. A very simple High Altar (1854), apparently of white stone, with tabernacle, was ready for the consecration, at the very end of the choir, which faces north. It was dedicated to the Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, and the relics of SS. Donatus, Simplicia, Urban and the founder of the order, St. Norbert, were placed inside it at its consecration. Gradually side altars were added. The choir with its ‘choirstalls’ – which were more akin to long benches - were blocked off by two side altars, dedicated to the Sacred Heart and St. Anne.

This photo, taken between 1878 and (before) 1887, features the High Altar and altars of the Sacred Heart and St. Anne at the entrance to the choir.

Close-up of the High Altar, with the altars of the Sacred Heart and St. Anne. Notice the place for cantor and succentor in the middle of the choir.

At that time the abbey could not afford to commission neo-gothic choirstalls. Other side altars were added, in honour of St. Joseph, the Blessed Sacrament (chapel), Our Lady (chapel), and the apostles Peter and Paul.

Photo, probably from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, featuring the side altars (from left to right) of St. Anne, Our Lady, and Ss. Peter and Paul.

Close-up of the altar of the SS. Peter and Paul.

The process of erecting the side altars took quite a while, and we find that they were eventually all paid for at the end of January 1881. The relatively simple High Altar was replaced by Abbot Joannes Chrysostomus De Swert (1868-87) with a more ornate neo-gothic altar of white stone, sometime between 1878 and 1887, and was decorated with Marian themes, with small statuettes of saints and angels.

Photo taken in the last decades of the nineteenth century with the second High Altar of the present abbey church in Tongerlo. One can just see the chapels of the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady (far left and right).

Photo dating sometime between 1902 and 1919/20. Note the additions of a new organ, pulpit and more stained glass.

One of several postcards, from 1917, showing the interior of the church during the anniversary celebrations of the arrival of the relics of St. Siardus in Tongerlo (1617). Note the erection of a ‘nave’ altar for the Pontifical High Mass.

There was also an altar made for the sacristy (1893) and, in the church, in honour of St. Siardus, whose relics are kept there.

The altar of St. Siardus.

Altar currently in the sacristy.

To be continued...

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