The archive’s volunteers
“Sometimes we discover real treasures in the attic"
The Park Abbey has a rich past. The thousands of books and notebooks in the archive are the silent witnesses to that. On a voluntary basis, local residents are ensuring that this wealth of information is being made accessible. “We’re still learning more and more every day”, is what you hear from Christine, Kristiaan en Leo.
We meet the three archivists on Tuesday afternoon, when all the three of them are very busy. Leo digitises, Kristiaan transcribes and Christine takes stock. They do it several days a week. On a voluntary basis, but very meticulously and with an eye for detail.
Getting to know the abbey
Leo Janssen of Antwerp got to know the abbey in the late nineties. “The Kredietbank, as it was then, had published a booklet in 1979 about the abbey, which also contained an article about the stained glass windows. I inherited a stained glass window about Lange Wapper from my father, and that’s why I asked if I could rummage around a bit here.”
Kristiaan Magnus, a former teacher at the SKLO school for nursery and primary education, knows the abbey even longer. “I came here with my class to make drawings, look at books... Depending on what project we were working on, the prior received us. He would then unroll parchments from the 13th, 14th century... A unique experience that was.”
Christine Vanthillo knows the abbey the longest, because she got to know the site as an art history student. “I really enjoy visiting abbeys, even on holiday. Their serene atmosphere always does me a power of good. I love the austerity, the silence and the aesthetics of the Park Abbey. After my studies I went to live in Sint-Truiden, but I often came back. I stayed in contact via the Friends of Park Abbey and after I retired, I sounded out whether I could work here as a volunteer.”
Working in the archive
Christine started by taking stock of the archives of the Vrienden van de Abdij van ’t Park and then those of the churchyard. “I have seen all gravestones, noted the inscriptions and made an overview. As that work progressed, I learned a lot about the symbolism of the scenes. There are also quite a few notables in the churchyard: rectors Paulin Ladeuze en Pieter De Somer, Jan Baptist David (of the Davidsfonds, ed.), former prime ministers Geens and Eyskens, cabaret singer Zjef Vanuytsel...”
For Leo it wasn’t the churchyard, but banana boxes. "Domain manager Stefan Van Lani asked me if I could have a look at some prints,” he recalls. “I was given a suitcase stuffed with some 4,000 prints. I was a collector of art calendars, so I did know something about it. I also received help from art historian Thomas Matei. Together, we have scanned and documented those images.”
In his turn, Kristiaan delved into to the wealth of documents in the abbey's archive. “I thought I could make a difference to the abbey’s library, but they had then only just made a catalogue,” recalls Kristiaan. "Stefan therefore suggested that I take a look at the archive, because there was still a fair amount to do there. And there certainly was quite a bit to be done here,” laughs Kristiaan.
From books to electricity cabinets
Kristiaan first organised the archives from the mission in Brazil, in Montes Claros. "Those documents went back to 1890. In the archive, each rack had a separate inventory, so there was no comprehensive overview. There were also countless boxes of old documents and books in the attic. Together with the archivist, I then worked out a new schedule. Every item of property was numbered and placed in an acid-free folder. Without exaggeration, that has taken 10 years. During that period, I learned to read Middle Dutch, which comes in handy when I am here.”
While Kristiaan shows us a book of hours in Middle Dutch, Leo tells us that the work is not just to be found among the archive boxes. “I have also taken stock of the electricity and fuse cabinets. An abbot, who had been a missionary in Brazil, had installed them in the abbey without diagrams, as was the case in the mission. The fuses for the corridor of the building, for example, are located at the top of the church. I have mapped all this, after which we also drew up an emergency file.”
Leo also put his energy into the search for the stained glass windows of Jan De Caumont. "Thanks to Edgard Goedleven, member of the management committee of Park Abbey, I have been able to contact their owners, even as far as the United States. In the meantime, almost all the stained glass windows have returned to the site of the abbey.”
A good team together
So the three of them are unlocking the archives. “You need to have a certain passion for old documents, and to sense when you are stumbling onto something valuable. But we form a good team”, says Leo, “I am an engineer by training, Kristiaan was a teacher, Christine studied art history... We are by no means experts in the field, but can complement each other well.”
The archivists closely follow the renovation of the abbey site in all respects. “The fact that we are there is also useful: we can provide a lot of information, whether it’s about the walls or a bridge,” says Kristiaan. He has also assisted in emptying the library. “We have cleaned 15 cubic metres of books, wrapped them in ageing-resistant silk tissue paper and acid-free boxes. They are all in an air-conditioned storeroom, until the library can be reopened.”
Treasures in the attic
What are the nicest things they have rediscovered? “Sometimes we discover real treasures in the attic, such as photos from 1880 or negatives of the original stained glass windows. But it is just as much fun to read medieval notes from our abbot, who had to adjudicate in the case of a Norbertine brother caught with a nun in an orchard”, smiles Leo.