The tradition of conservative rebellion: the church of S. Willibrord in Utrecht and the legacy of neo-Gothicism

Exactly 52 years ago, there was a great unrest among the parishioners of the Willibordus church in Utrecht because of the ‘theft’ of the relics of S. Willibord. Two clergymen of the Catharina church, the cathedral, performed the transportation of the shrine with the bones in the rainy dark evening hours of November the 5th, 1969 and brought it to the cathedral with the permission of the archdiocese in the context of the desacralisation of the Willibrordus.

I retell this incident to introduce what I wish to call the ‘conservative rebellion’ of the faithful of the Willibrordus church, consecrated in 1877, concerning the legacy of the neo-Gothic. The modernity of nineteenth century Catholic Christianity’s retrieval and appropriation of ‘Gothic’ elements have been among the most dynamic social forces in Western European religious spaces, which continue to resonate to this day, not least because the modern is not just rational, secular, or politically engaged.

In the Netherlands, the restoration of the episcopal hierarchy by pope Pius IX in 1853 marks the beginning of the emancipation of the Roman-Catholics within the early democratic society, resulting in a flow of church building, of which the Willibrordus is an interesting example. The workshops of Wilhelm Mengelberg (1837-1919), the topic of my thesis, contributed intensively to the decoration of the interior.

My research indicates that this church is a Gesamtkunstwerk with a strong bond with the Utrecht community, both Catholic and non-Catholic, resulting in an ongoing care for the neo-Gothic and, the Tridentine Mass of the 1962 Roman Missal. The priest performs the mass in Latin ad orientem, which means that he stands with his back to the congregation and gives communion on the tongue to the kneeling faithful.

My paper focussed on the liturgy and the use of Latin. The display of multiple Latin texts in the choir is a striking example of this conservative rebellion in a time when the use of vernacular became common. The building, its floorplan, the spaces, and the decoration were meant to be used within the liturgy of the Tridentine Mass. Regarding the interior, the sagging choir needed renovation already in the first decade of the 20th century. The city council helped financial to realise this restauration, a true momentum in heritage making.

In recent years this ‘conservative rebellion’ and a newly form of restoration within the church came together in the appointment of the Willibrordus as the Apostolate church of the ‘Society of Pius X,’ a society situated on the very right side of the Vatican. The ‘Society for Latin Liturgy,’ connected to conservative forms of Catholicism, also took her seat in the church. Pope Benedictus XVI initiated this movement of restoration, and the archdiocese followed his line, as it has always done from 1853 onwards.

A sacrilegious play performed with the consent of the ‘Foundation of Cultural Events St. Willibrordus’ in 2014 caused the desacralisation of the church anew. For a brief period, this foundation, with more than seventy highly educated volunteers used the church as a space for interreligious and intercultural dialogue for a broad public. This development is not unique for the Willibrordus: increasingly secular or religious indifferent people in Europe became interested in religious spaces and pay visits, often in the context of cultural tourism or are interested in various forms of reuse. The introduction of the Society of Pius X as the official tenant of the church however, caused a major protest among the citizens of Utrecht fearing the loss of interreligious dialogue.

In this stage I want to note within the above-mentioned pedagogic context that the church developed from the beginning a museum, or shop window- like character and served an educational purpose. It functioned as an instructional sampler for less well- appointed churches in the Netherlands and the former colonies watched over by a special society, connected to the Willibrordus.

In this stage of my research, I conclude that the spirit of conservative rebellion of different shareholders made this church in all respects a special form of Gesamtkunstwerk. A pre-existing, close-knit, newly assertive community with a clear identity that took care of the financing of the entire project built this church. In the process of decoration, individual members could contribute under strict regulation, if they enhanced the prestige of the entire church. The ongoing effort to preserve this church is a strategy to protect identity by communities, that invents, adapts, and reinforces their heritage for this purpose, even in the face of other coalitions within the same church or city.

Maastricht, 8-12-2021

Paper held for the NGG Conference Amsterdam November 2021

Annelies Abelmann