“Culture and nature come together beautifully at the Abbey”
Zeger Debyser is the chairman of the non-profit organisation ‘De Vrienden van de Abdij van 't Park/Friends of Park Abbey’. The Friends help to make the heritage accessible, to maintain the gardens, and to support the Abbey’s image. “Together, we make it even more beautiful here.”
Zeger (53) visits the Abbey frequently. “Even though I was born in West Flanders, I’ve been coming to the Abbey since I was a little boy. My grandparents lived nearby and I’d come walk here with my grandmonk. He knew the abbot at the time and always chatted with Jefke of Park, a legend in the region,” remembers Zeger.
Debyser studied medicine in Leuven, just like his monk. “My monk is also married to a Leuven local – who just happens to be the daughter of the landlord,” he laughs. “My wife Veerle and I have lived in the Spaanse Kroon district since 1994. Our house was built by the son of the Park Abbey cook at the time,” Zeger adds.
Nature guide training
Zeger and his wife have been coming to Park Abbey for about 25 years. “The Abbey site looked very different back then. A part of it was very neglected because Brother Frans had stopped running his farm there. I did a biotope study of the site at the end of the 1990s, while training to be a nature guide. This resulted in an inventory of valuable fauna and flora, after which I set up a working group to restore the nature reserve,” says Zeger.
Zeger found support for this with the Friends of the Abbey. He became a board member of the non-profit organisation and started a nature conservation working group with several volunteers, including the current domain manager Stefan Van Lani. “We first set up a clean-up campaign to combat litter. What a mess we all collected then... There were even car tyres here and there,” Zeger remembers.
The Premonstratensians agreed that the Friends would restore the old landscape. “The grasslands were overgrown: there were nettles, acacias, brambles, and more. We drew up a plan for that and also organised the first mowing weekend that summer."
Together with the city’s beekeeper Staf Kamers and the monks, the Friends also restored the vegetable garden, the orchard, and the convent garden with the pavilions. But sometimes, it was like balancing on a slack rope. “There were long lease negotiations, so we were not allowed to change too much on the domain. However, our plans were included in the management agreement later on. The Friends were also recognised by the City of Leuven as a nature association at the time: this allowed us to carry out even better nature management,” says Debyser.
“So, it’s also really an honour to do this,” Zeger continues. “We live in harmony with animals and plants here at the Abbey. Culture and nature come together beautifully at the site. The Friends now have around 300 members and together, we make it even more beautiful here.
"Together, we make it even more beautiful here."
What has changed most on the Abbey site? “The ponds. There was a fish farm here up until the mid-1990s. One of this company’s employees showed us the overflow constructions. They were completely overgrown. We then started fish management and also cut down the poplars, but that only enriched the landscape. For example, there are now reed beds and more biodiversity. There weren’t any frogs or aquatic salamanders here before. Plus, you can also see more rare birds…
“The landscape has also become much more beautiful,” Zeger emphasises. “The low meadow next to the Molenbeek, for example, was completely overgrown. There was only one pollard willow – now there is a beautiful row of them. At least, if the beaver (who has recently moved to the Abbey site, ed.) doesn’t nibble at them. That’s why we also keep an eye on the dyke, so that the beaver doesn’t make any tunnels between the ponds and the stream.”
Every first Saturday of the month, the Friends of the Abbey hold an outdoor working day. “Everyone is welcome to roll up their sleeves. It’s days like this when you really experience what a beautiful, spiritual place this is. The disciples of Norbertus have laid out everything here very well. The whole of the buildings, nature, the peace and quiet… I can understand why the monks want to sit out here,” Zeger concludes.
Want to know more about the Friends? Click here.