A village in the Diocese of Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), Holland, in which the dispersed religious of the confiscated Norbertine Abbey of Berne have created a new abbey and college
Heeswijk, a village in the Diocese of Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), Holland, in which the dispersed religious of the confiscated Norbertine Abbey of Berne have created a new abbey and college. The present name is the Abbey of Berne at Heeswijk. The Abbey of Berne, two miles southeast of Heusden, on the Maas, and about six miles northwest of Bois-le-Duc, was founded in the year of St. Norbert's death, 1134, by Fulcold, Lord of Teisterband, with a colony sent from Marienweerd under Everard, its first abbot. Numerous legends surround its foundation. One is that Fulcold, when hotly pressed in battle, made a vow to build an abbey, if, by throwing himself into the river Maas, his life might be preserved from the enemy. This prayer having been heard, Fulcold converted his castle at Berne into an abbey, and he himself became a lay brother therein. Blessed Fulcold died on April 12, 1149, on which day his name is recorded in the hagiology of the order. The Abbey of Berne has always been held in high esteem by the counts of Holland and the dukes of Brabant, as is proved by the privileges which they granted to it. It possessed the right of patronage over nine parishes, which were always served by priests from the abbey. In 1534 the abbot obtained the privilege of wearing the mitre. In the second half of the sixteenth century the abbey had much to suffer from the Dutch Calvinists, who plundered and partly destroyed it in 1572 and again in 1579. In 1623 the abbot bought the former convent of the Brothers of the Common Life at Bois-le-Duc, but at the capture of this town the religious were expelled and the property was confiscated. In 1648 the last of what the abbey once possessed in houses or in land had been confiscated. But the religious were not discouraged, and the abbot obtained a house at Vilvorde, near Brussels, from which he directed the spiritual and temporal interests of his dispersed community. Several of the priests of Berne, though compelled to remain in hiding and always in danger, continued to minister to the spiritual wants of their people, and if some parts of North Brabant and Gelderland have preserved the Faith, the result may be ascribed to the apostolic exertions of these zealous priests. The future of the community was provided for by the admission of subjects, who made their novitiate and continued their studies at Vilvorde or in one of the Belgian abbeys. In this manner the Abbey of Berne has been kept up, while nearly all monasteries, which had made no such provision, have died out in Holland.
At the end of the seventeenth century, the religious succeeded in renting the house of Heeswijk which had been confiscated by the State, and in 1786 they were enabled to buy the property. Though dispersed, the religious met frequently at Heeswijk or in some presbytery, and at the death of the abbot they always elected another, so that from the foundation of the abbey in 1134, there has been an unbroken succession of abbots. But at the end of the eighteenth century the French Republic confiscated the house at Vilvorde and so put an end to their refuge in Belgium. But novices were admitted as usual, who had their time of probation and made their studies either at the house at Heeswijk or in some presbytery of the order. With the arrival of better times Abbot Neefs in 1847 enlarged the house at Heeswijk and inaugurated the community life. The community grew in numbers, and in 1889 the abbot saw his way to open a college, the full staff of which consisted of priests of the abbey. In 1893 the abbot was able to comply with the pressing request of Bishop Messmer of Green Bay, Wisconsin, U.S.A., to send some priests whose special mission would be to minister to the spiritual needs of Belgian and Dutch settlers in his diocese, and to bring back to the fold such Catholics as had been deceived by the schismatic "Bishop" Vilatte. Prior Pennings, Father Lambert Broens, and a lay brother were sent in 1895, and were soon followed by other priests. So successful were their labors in the various parishes confided to them, that at present hardly a vestige of Vilatte's schism remains. In 1898 St. Joseph's church at De Pere, Wis., was transferred to the Norbertine Fathers, and from that time became the headquarters of the order in the United States. The first stone of St. Norbert's college for classical and commercial students was laid in 1901. At the general chapter in 1902 the house at De Pere was canonically created a priory, and was granted leave to have a novitiate attached to it. At present the priests of the De Pere priory have the charge of parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and in the Dioceses of Grand Rapids, Green Bay, and Marquette. They have also a mission among the Oneida Indians of Wisconsin. Some of the priests conduct missions for Catholics and non-Catholics. At the general chapter of the order in 1908 the priory was declared substantially independent of the mother-abbey in Holland, within limits specified by the constitution of the order. The Abbey of Berne at Heeswijk is at present very prosperous, being filled with active and industrious members, some fulfilling the usual duties in the abbey, some giving missions, while others teach in the college or write for newspapers and reviews, no fewer than five of these being published by the fathers.
F. M. GEUDENS