The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The prehistory

The first Jesuits in Antwerp (1562–1614)

Once upon a time… there was a student in Paris who had difficulty to pay for his studies, an enthusiastic man, of lower nobility, from the Spanish Basque Country. His name: Iñigo de Loyola (1491-1556). He visited the Low Countries thrice (1529, ’30 and ’31) to beg money from his wealthy compatriots. Formerly a bust with a chronogram at the corner of Lange Nieuwstraat and present Eikenstraat was a reminder of his stay in the commercial metropolis Antwerp. Now there is only a modest plate against the former churchyard wall at the southern entrance to Saint James’ Church. With his Latinised name ‘Ignatius’ he has become world famous as the founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the order of the Jesuits, which was acknowledged by pope Paul III in 1540.

When years later the Spanish community in Antwerp wanted a chaplain who spoke their mother tongue, they could appeal to the young, active order of Spanish origin. So, the first Jesuit settled here in 1562 and was soon followed by some foreign fathers for the pastoral service to the important Spanish and Portuguese communities. Five years later they were also active as army chaplains in the garrison of the Grand Duke of Alba, which was encamped in the brand-new citadel. For the time being the fathers rented a premise in Meir. In this way Antwerp became the third foundation of the Society in the Dutch speaking region, after Louvain (1542) and Bruges (1560).

They wanted very much to widen their scope of activities with a college for secondary education. Thanks to the generous support of numerous benefactors they bought the famous Huis van Aken, a late Gothic premise surrounding a square inner courtyard, for 34,000 florins in 1574. It was one of the biggest and most magnificent patrician houses in town, built by ironmonger Erasmus Schetz from Aachen at Korte Nieuwstraat and (the now gone) Spuistraat (at the present Campus Carolus of Lessius High School Antwerp). Do you see the narrow door and windows below a higher roof corner in the south-eastern corner of the church square? This is a remnant of it.

The costs of the adaptation works and the building of an aisleless chapel in the garden – another 10,000 florins – were completely borne by the well to do Spaniard F. Frias. Soon the college had some 300 pupils.

Because in 1576 the cruel Spanish Fury passed by their house, the reputation of the Jesuits as Spanish priests was reinforced. And they had to pay for that. For understandably Antwerp chose an anti-Spanish revolutionary rule, and soon this government became distinctly Calvinistic. The Catholic clergy who would not agree with the oath of loyalty to the Republic, had to leave the town, which the Jesuits did in 1578. That the ‘colonels’ of the revolutionary citizen guard settled in one of the college halls, could be a symbolic political move. Moreover, part of the furniture was claimed for William of Orange’s residence in the Citadel. From then the Calvinists would preach in the Jesuit chapel, which they ‘cleared’ of everything that was Roman-Catholic.

In 1585 times changed. After the siege by Alexander Farnese the town had only just been taken over by the lawful Spanish authorities when the next day the Jesuits took possession of their belongings and the third day they celebrated a jubilation mass in the presence of the governor. The college could reopen its doors.