old Laeken church doorway

old Laeken church doorway
Big church
Image by historic.brussels

A little-known remnant of the mystical and religious mediaeval past of Brussels, Belgium, dating from approximately the year 1275, still stands today in the middle of the Laeken Cemetery (Cimetière de Laeken – Begraafplaats van Laken).

A place of history and pilgrimages, visions and miracles, this remnant of a great mediaeval church, is only a few dozens of metres behind one of the grand sights of Brussels – the relatively new but impressively gothic-styled Our Lady of Laeken church (Notre-Dame de Laeken – Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Laken) with its origins in the 1850s. It is also not far from the palace residence of the Belgian royal family.

These are photos from the daily life of writer and political refugee from the US, Dr Les (Leslie) Sachs – photos documenting my new beloved home city of Brussels, Belgium, my life among the people and Kingdom who have given me safety in the face of the threats to destroy me. Brussels has a noble history of providing a safe haven to other dissident refugee writers, such as Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Charles Baudelaire, and Alexandre Dumas, and I shall forever be grateful that Brussels and Belgium have helped to protect my own life as well.

(To read about the efforts to silence me and my journalism, the attacks on me, the smears and the threats, see the website by European journalists "About Les Sachs" linked in my profile, and press articles such as "Two EU Writers Under Threat of Murder: Roberto Saviano and Dr Les Sachs".)

The origins of the churches in this locale are shrouded in legend and myth.

The Laeken neighbourhood is part of modern Brussels, but it is a couple of kilometres north and a little west of the old city centre. When the first city walls were being built around 1000 years ago, the Laeken area would have been a village a number of hundreds of metres beyond those Brussels defensive ramparts.

According to legend, the first church on this spot, dates from the personal consecration of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Leo III (c.750-816, elected pope in 785). Leo III was the same Pope who crowned Charlemagne (c.747 – 814) to be the new Emperor of a new Western ‘Holy Roman Empire’. Charlemagne’s throne was at Aachen in what is now Germany, not far from the modern Belgian border, and thus not very distant from Brussels.

It is not known if this legend is correct, that the Pope himself had come to honour this place in the time of Charlemagne. But it is very clear that by about 1000 years ago, this was a place of pilgrimage and religious devotion, focused on Mary the mother of Jesus.

Pilgrims and travellers came to pray here. People had religious visions. Miracles were said to take place here. With all the traffic and attention, the early places of prayer gave way to larger construction, until a quite substantial church was built here in the later 1200s. What you see here in the photographs, is the portion of that original church that still stands today.

This remnant that still stands is a significantly-sized church building, but it is actually only a fraction of a much larger edifice, most of which was demolished in the 1800s.

The first King of the Belgians, Léopold I (1790-1865, crowned king in 1831), fulfilled an agreement to marry the French princess Louise-Marie d’Orléans (1812-1850), who thus in 1832 became the first Queen of the Belgians. When Queen Louise-Marie died in 1850, the project began, to build a new and great church on this site, to honour her memory and also to be a fitting church for the royal burial crypt. This new grand church was completed after many decades, and is currently undergoing a major restoration and cleaning of the stonework.

This modern gothic church, Our Lady of Laeken, often lit up at night, is the ‘really pretty big church’ seen by many Brussels travellers in a beautiful vista from roadways or public transport. The vista looking up the grand boulevard toward the church, is especially nice from the De Trooz tram stop by the canal, along tram lines 4, 23 or 94.

But with the building of the great new church, the old church on the site, no doubt in some disrepair after something approaching 600 years, was set for demolition, its former footprint to yield space for more tombs and monuments in the cemetery. But the decision was happily made, to not destroy all of the old structure, but to save a key part of the old mediaeval church, and perhaps in time to make some other use for it.

Here then, are some pictures of this rescued remnant, of what was a major holy place, a place of prayer and pilgrimage and reports of miracles. In the photo of the old church doorway, there appears to be papal symbolism above the door, giving form to the legend that it was a pope who founded the first church here.

One photo has the back of the new Our Lady of Laeken church being glimpsed from a corner of the old church. And then there are two photos of the new Laeken church by itself, one of the upper front after cleaning and restoration, and the other from the side showing the work in progress.

To get to these churches by public transport, take tram 94 to the Princesse Clémentine – Prinses Clementina stop, turn north up the cross street and in a few dozens of metres you will be walking past the now unused Laeken railway station, and the grand new church will be looming up before you, the old church in the cemetery behind it.

The map with this Flickr photo set will show you how to walk to the Laeken Cemetery.