Herkenrode House and the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre

 1. A Cistercian Convent


The former Cistercian convent of Herkenrode is situated in what once was the County of Loon , a county corresponding more or less with the present province of Belgian Limburg .

The County of Loon was an independent county and existed as such until 1361, when there were no successors of the count left. It was annexed by the Princely Diocese of Liège and that way became part of the Roman Empire of the German Nation. Thus, the history of this region is different from that of the rest of Flanders . This situation remained unchanged until the French Revolution.

Count Gerard of Loon (1171-1194) supposedly founded the abbey of Herkenrode. The oldest deed in which Herkenrode is mentioned dates back to 1213. In it,  Count Louis of Loon (1194-1218) confirms his father’s gift  In the 12th century the counts of Loon had moved their residence from Loon to the more centrally situated village of Kuringen . The abbey of Herkenrode then became the official burial ground of the family.

The abbey was accepted into the Order of Citeaux in 1217 and it was the first nunnery of that order in  The Netherlands . Because it acquired the so-called Holy Sacrament of the Miracle in 1317, the abbey “of the count” moreover became an important place of pilgrimage. During the next centuries, the abbey’s importance gradually increased. It received a lot of  donations and its income belonged to the highest of the abbeys established in The Netherlands . It became an abbey to which only noble ladies were allowed as a full member and it had at its disposal vast farmlands, tithes and earnings. There were also sisters of common decent which performed domestic tasks. The growing wealth of the abbey naturally exerted its influence on the community: At times the religious spirit of the abbey strongly declined. Luckily, powerful abbesses were able to restore the situation and give the abbey the lustre worthy of it.

Several names can be mentioned here:

         - Mechtildis de Lechy (1519-1548)restored convent life and added a lot of buildings to the abbey.

         - Anne-Catharine de Lamboy (1653-1675) restored the abbey after the crossing of the

          French troops and regulated the matter of the material affairs.

         - Anne de Croy (1744-1771) intended to rebuild a completely new abbey, as was happening in a lot of other abbeys. She contacts        a                well-known architect, L.B. Dewez, who draws the plans. Only the so-called “Abbess’s Building” was executed.

In 1791 Jozefine de Gondrecourt was chosen as abbess. However, the outbreak of the French Revolution changed everything. The law of the first of September 1796 abolished all monasteries and convents and the nuns were forced to leave their convents. After six centuries, the abbey ceased to exist as an abbey. On February 19, 1797 it was sold publically in Maastricht . Its new owners were Pierre Libotton and Guillaume Claes. The latter became the sole owner in the course of the 19th century. Herkenrode remained  a centre of important agricultural exploitation and one of the first sugar refineries was set up here. The domain remained the property of the family till a few years ago. A large part of the buildings was pulled down by the owners because they could not be maintained anymore. In 1826 the church burned down, the remaining walls were pulled down in 1843. In 1884 a part of the

Convent buildings dating back to the 16th century were demolished.



 A new function

In the autumn of 1972, the Sisters of the Holy Sepulchre of the Priory of Sion in Bilzen, bought an important part of the historical site, the 18th century abbess’s residence with the park and ruins of the 16th century abbess’s residence. The 18th century residence has been carefully restored and functions as a place of retreat since Whitsun 1974. In 1982 the Infirmary and the remains of the dilapidated former 16th century convent buildings were also bought. In 1985 the building of a new convent for the sisters was started on the foundations of the former abbess’s residence. A year later the modern convent church was also built.

In May 1998 the Flemish Region bought the remainder of the Herkenrode site (105 ha), mainly a nature reserve. A nature development programme is being drawn up for this reserve, which aims at a restoration of the historical situation.

The farm buildings on the domain of the Flemish Region are managed by the Flemish Inheritance Council which cooperates with a lot of partners.



                                    2. Buildings

 The 18th century abbess’s residence, now a castle (white building).

This 50 metres long building in an austere French style from the second half of the 18th century, was drawn by the French architect  Laurent Benoit  Dewez (1732-1812). He was the architect of  Karel of Lorreinen, the governor-general of the Southern Netherlands . He built a lot of abbeys in our country, among others the abbey church of  Vlierbeek and the castle of Seneffe . The windows at the west (front) light two wide passageways, which run alongside the whole building on the ground floor as well as on the first floor. The rooms overlook the park. On the ground floor there are splendid drawing rooms with double oak doors: One of these drawing rooms is decorated with murals representing city views. The coat of arms of Augustine of Hamme (1772-1790), the last but one abbess, can be admired in the middle of the drawing room. In the wing of this building one can still find the large kitchen with its cooker and oven. An enormous china cabinet in Louis XV style is the showpiece of this kitchen



Behind the abbess’s residence lies a park which was originally a French garden but was transformed into an English park by its owner. In it there are beautiful and rare tree species. Originally, there were two garden houses in the park, one of which has disappeared.

A moat fed by water of the Demer surrounds the whole of the complex.


Former abbess’s residence, dating back to the 16th century

This  16th century building has an 18th century  entrance gate. It was carefully restored, but at the same time embedded in the present time by  the addition of present-day elements and the change of its function. At present there are conference and administrative rooms in the building. A number of murals were found in it, representing a fantasized vegetable motif.  

New Convent  Church

This is one of the important new buildings. It is the spiritual centre, the link between the remains of the former Cistercian  convent on the one hand and the new convent buildings on the other. The central space of the church has the shape of a Greek cross, but clearly lengthwise directed towards the East ( Jerusalem ). The choir stalls were put in both the arms of the Greek cross. The central formation is accentuated by the structure, eight cruciform pillars (eternity) and the coffer ceiling of the square central tholobate. In this, the Greek cross is repeated. In the church a space for a grave is provided. This is essential to the Order of the Sisters of the  Holy sepulchre, as it is a link joining the church and the convent. Inspired by the old Hebrew graves, here also preference was given to a two-room grave, set in one of the armpits of the Greek cross. The spatial link between the grave and the chapel is realized by openings in the wall between  the front room and the choir. The modest light creates a subdued mood. One enters the church via an atrium with a central patio.


The New Convent

This building, joined to the 16th century abbess’s residence, has been built in an austere present-day style and uses a number of archaeological elements.


The Infirmary

The splendid infirmary is situated behind the new convent. It is a separate building where once sick and old sisters were nursed. It dates from 1658. Above the door’s arch stands forth the coat of arms of  Anne-Catherine de Lamboy. The play of bricks and natural stone reminds us of  17th century houses in the region of the Maas . The dimensions of the walls and the high roof give an impression of sturdiness and strength. Inside, on the ground floor, one can still see the altar where Mass was said for the sick.


                         3. Herkenrode House

 Herkenrode House is an oasis of rest and a place here one can find oneself and God. Here, people are welcome to spend one or more days either individually or in group. Herkenrode offers its own opportunities of contemplation and is open to initiatives and questions in accordance with the aim and spirit of the House.

Herkenrode is a place of modesty and prayer, of contemplation and peace. It is the house of the Sisters of the Holy Sepulchre, an order which originated in Jerusalem at the grave of the Risen Lord. The church with the empty grave, in which the sisters daily gather in prayer, is the centre of the convent and the house of reflection. The sisters lead a communal life and are unanimously searching for God. Their combined prayers make up their lives’ heartbeat. Carrying each other, supporting and encouraging each other is what they want to do in mutual solidarity. They want to share the happiness which friendship and the hope of eternal life grant them, with everyone they  meet. Their vocation appeals to them to bring peace in each restless heart.

 Their doors are open to anyone, to take pity on those in pain and doubt, to learn them how to listen to silence, which wisely answers a thousand questions. For each of us there is a way to and with God.

One could understand faith as learning to live with an inner force directed at “letting oneself go”. Believing is like swimming. Only those who stop thrashing about for hold, get to know the sustaining force of the water - wherever this water may take them. The message is: Float with the stream of stream of life. When this is what you are looking for, when you think you do not know how “to swim” anymore or when you just want to find inner peace and quiet, you can always come to us in Herkenrode. We offer you our prayers, salutary  peace and silence and we lend you an ear.


Route Description : E 313: Antwerp Liège / exit 27

Hasselt West > N2 direction Herk de Stad

Just beyond the Carrefour- Kuringen follow the

road signs to the right > Heusden Zolder

After 500 m, at the bend, turn right.

Bus: at the railway station in Hasselt


4. The Convent of the Holy Sepulchre

 The Order of the Sisters of the Holy Sepulchre sprouted from the ecclesiastical modernization of the 11th and 12th century, known as the Gregorian Reformation. Its aim was to start living as the first Christians did - one in heart and soul - and it was directed towards an ecclesiastical and social modernization from the inside. It strived for a return to the origins of the first Christian community. In Palestine this reformation mainly pervaded with the coming of the Crusaders. When Godfrey of Bouillon took Jerusalem in 1099 he installed twenty priests to attend to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Arnulfus, Patriarch of Jerusalem, made them accept  St. Augustine ’s rule in 1114. These first Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, also called keepers of the Holy Sepulchre,  took over the double red cross as well. Thus, the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre are originally linked to a church. They were charged with public worship in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, in particular with the singing of the hours and the reception of pilgrims, the care for the poor and the instruction of the religious truths.

From Jerusalem the Order of the H. Grave spread all over Europe . After the city’s downfall and later of that of Akko in 1291, their principal seat was moved to Perugia in Italy . The intact remains of the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre of Denkendorf (1129-1535) is a speaking example of their organisation and way of life and of the devotion with which they honoured the Holy Sepulchre and prayed the hours. Originally, they spread quickly, but in the course of time the male branch of the Order had to contend with great difficulties. A lack of unity and no central authority weakened the Order to such an extent that it perished during the religious wars and the political disturbances in Europe in the 17th and 18th century.

The female branch of the Order knew a remarkable period of prosperity in the 16th and 17th century. Like the canons, they sang the hours and spent their lives, according to the spirit of the age, in prayer and mortification, but also at the service of their fellow-man, mostly through education and upbringing. More than 20 chapters were founded in The Netherlands and in France . With the exception of the already long existing convent of Zaragoza (1276), all these chapters owe their  existence to the convent of Kinrooi, founded in 1480 by Jan van Abroek. Originally, he was a canon in the monastery of Henegouwen (founded in Wimmertingen in 1145 and transferred to Henegouwen in 1312).

Thus, nunneries in our region were numerous: Hasselt (1638), St. Truiden (1559), Tongeren (1640), Maastricht (1627, former Museum of Bonnefanten ), Liège (three convents). One of the convents in Liège was called St. Elisabeth des Bons Enfants. That is why the sisters in Hasselt and in Maastricht got the name “Bonnefanten” (Bonnefantenstraat) or also “Sepulchrienen” (from their official name: Dames Chanoinesses du Saint Sépulcre). As a consequence of the French Revolution  all these convents were abolished in our regions.

After the French Revolution , the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre of Hasselt   was set up again (after an interruption of 40 years) in Bilzen in 1837. In the 20th century a number of new houses came into being: Nijmegen , Maarssen near Utrecht and St.-Odiliënberg in The Netherlands and in 1952 the abbey of Male near Bruges . In the past decade once again two new priories came into being: la Prieuré des Filles de la Résurrection in Mirhi ( Congo ) and la Priorado Lumen Christi in Campinas , Brazil .

The priory of Bilzen, to which Herkenrode belongs, has education as its missionary work. Herkenrode House depends on Bilzen, which was founded in 1974. Thus, the chapter of Bilzen has opted for a new form of mission, namely contemplative work, hospitality and reception. Wherever the Convents of the Holy Sepulchre are founded, one finds the veneration of the grave: Chirst lying in His grave. In the church of the Risen Lord in Herkenrode lies the empty grave with the inscription: “Et erit sepulcrum ejus gloriosum”. And his grave shall be glorious!

             5. The life of a sister of the Holy Sepulchre and the spirituality of the Resurrection

 To be able to understand the meaning and the value of the life of a sister of the Holy Sepulchre, one has to go back to their origins: A community of canons of the H. Grave in Jerusalem having the rule of St. Augustine as their guiding principle.


                    A community living in accordance with St. Augustine ’s rule

1. Community life or Comminio furthers the growth in unity and results in mutual solidarity. Materially, but also spiritually, the nuns find a home with each other, in God. This Comminio expresses itself through mutual care, reconciliation and dialogue.

2. Cult or celebrating liturgy: Each day they gather (4 times a day, at set times) and sing the hours to hallow the day, acknowledge God as the Lord of their lives and pray in the name of and for the world. That is why the church of the Risen Lord functions as the centre of this convent.

3. Caritas or practising pastoral work. In the first place this means mutual love, but also sharing attention and love with guests and visitors in  Herkenrode House: The sisters practise hospitality and lend an ear to each fellow-man they meet.



A community originating from the Church of the 
Sepulchre in Jerusalem


This community of communio, cult and caritas is closely linked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem , but also to the Church as living religious community. Because of its origin at Jesus’ Grave, they particularly emphasize their belief in the resurrection,  hence the empty grave in the church. This grave is an outward sign of the inner and spiritual force which they believe in and according to which they try to live. Christianity appeals to what happened to Jesus of Nazareth . He was dead and beholdHe lives, He rose from the grave, He is no longer here. This is the testimony of the first Christian community and for modern man this is often an incredible message.  

                                            6. Contemplation

Believing in the Resurrection means that one is convinced that through the man Jesus God shares our situation until the grave. Our suffering and death do not have the last word. God does not write off men. That is why a sister of the Holy Sepulchre devotes herself partly to bearing testimony but most of all to spreading her optimistic view on life which says that the world however damaged or falling apart, is not doomed to perish. Even the failing and ruined human being has a future with God. Her faith in the Resurrection is a personal engagement to her and even more a personal experience of love which will end in complete love and solidarity. Those who are willing to surrender to love will eventually be overwhelmed by it. Faith in the Resurrection means living now, with a warm and open heart, ready to heal each other’s wounds, to encourage each other , grant forgiveness and work miracles of goodness. Because of our faith in the Resurrection, we actually show that the impossible is possible: Restarting, pulling down old images and looking at each other through new eyes, creating new possibilities, freeing whatever got stuck in order to prepare new  paths. That is the meaning and aim of Herkenrode House.


The Cistercian Sisters built Herkenrode.

The Sisters of the Holy Sepulchre tried, loyal to their spirituality of the Resurrection, to let it rise again from its ruins.



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