How appropriate it was then, that I should find myself living in Belgium, a country with so many remnants of the beauty and theatre of the Catholic Church! Religious imagery and architecture are on show everywhere. In addition to the churches and shrines, many of the larger towns in Belgium had a beguinage, compounds where semi-religious women’s communities flourished in the 13th century. There was even a small roadside chapel or kapel across from our farmhouse. In Brussels, we discovered the “Musée du Coeur” devoted to the heart in religious iconography
On one of our many weekend antiquing excursions, we met a jolly Flemish man named Jan and his wife, Marcelle. They graciously invited us to their home which adjoined the medieval town walls of Mechelen. Inside was a miraculous collection of antique religiosa-statues, chapelets (crucifixes), and bénitiers (holy water fonts). The couple had even built their own chapel next to the wall in their garden.
Elsewhere in Belgium, we encountered other religious souvenirs. Near Antwerp cathedral is “Het Elfde Gebod” (Eleventh Commandment). This unique café offers its patrons sanctuary in an interior illuminated with church candles, and packed to the rafters with effigies of angels and saints.
The more we looked, the more new collecting passions were born within us. We trawled the antique markets and brocantes for delicate paper lace holy cards, ornate silk priests’ vestments and miniature travel reliquaries. The inspiration for my Sacre Bleu necklaces (from The Parrott Collection) with tiny blue enamel medallions, comes from this time. Frankincense and myrrh, purchased at a monastery shop near the Vatican, brought home the memory of the smoky-scented church interiors of Italy. The ancient pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence was a miss, but it is on my must-see list.
It is comforting to know that so many former religious buildings have been born again. In Australia, and other locales down-under they have the right spirit when it comes to reusing these structures. One example is the imposing Convent Gallery in Daylesford, Victoria, (once The Holy Cross Convent and Boarding School for Girls), whose shop was the source of my slender and graceful beeswax church candles. Near Melbourne is Abbotsford Convent. Eleven heritage listed buildings, once the cloister of the Sisters of the Order of the Good Shepherd, now shelter artists, writers, small organizations, a restaurant and a radio station. On New Zealand’s South Island at the Old Convent bed and breakfast in Kaikoura, we swam with the dolphins by day, and slept in a former classroom of the church school by night.
Long ago, I gave up my calling to become a nun. That doesn’t mean that I don’t weep watching Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, or Donna Reed, the good sister in Green Dolphin Street as she takes her final vows.