It may not look like it today, but the northern part of what is now the Netherlands, especially the provinces of Groningen and Fryslân, were once a monastic heartland. Much of the land reclaimed from the sea was the result of the work by monks or promoted by them. They established massive monastic complexes, of which the town of Aduard is perhaps among the best known.
One of the monasteries was Oldeklooster (which simply means ‘old monastery’) near the village of Feldwerd, near the shores of the Dollard sea arm. This was established by a man named Hathebrand (although the second ‘h’ in his name is sometimes omitted). Hathebrand’s monastery housed both male and female religious and, after a difficult first start, which, the story goes, even included one or more attempts on the life of its founder, the monastery flourished. Hathebrand went on to establish two more monasteries: Merehusen in East Frisia (now northwest Germany) and Thesinge or Germania in the vicinity of the city of Groningen. According to monastic records, Hathebrand died on 30 July 1183.
In 1594 the fortunes of the monasteries turned. The city of Groningen, which controlled much of the lands surrounding it, fell to the forces of the Dutch republic and quickly became Protestant. The Catholic faith became illegal and the monasteries fell empty. Over time, they turned into ruins which were later demolished. In the countryside of Groningen, there is very little that remains of the once ubiquitous religious foundations.
The remains of Hathebrand, by then deemed a saint, were moved to the Catholic south, ending up in Antwerp. While the north forgot about him, in what is now Belgium he was venerated as a saint and helper in need. The Belgian town of Mortsel still has a street named after him. The relics of Saint Hathebrand found a final resting place in the church of Kortrijk-Dutsel. And there the story ends. Until recently.
In the words of reporter Reinder Smith, writing for RTV Noord:
“He had stopped hoping. Edze de Boer from Uithuizermeeden is almost 92 years old, and has been looking for Saint Hathebrand for more than fifty years. Last March he received a letter from the parish council of Kortrijk-Dutsel.
“De Boer was born in Katmis near Holwierde and knew from his youth the stories that there had been a monastery on this dwelling mound. He started to study the history, and so learned that the physical remains of Hathebrand had ended up in Belgium.”
“Former teacher De Boer had already visited [Kortrijk-Dutsel] in 2002, but the relic could not be found then. But the board of the church of St. Catherine kept looking and after 16 years a small chest appeared from the back of a closet, with in it, among other things, a part of the bones of St. Hathebrand.”
Today, those few remains returned home. Not to Hathebrand’s monastery, which is long gone, but to the dwelling mound of Feldwerd, and then to the church of Krewerd, for a public presentation, including a look back on Mr. de Boer’s search for the long-lost saint, medieval organ music, an address on the rediscovery of the saints following the restoration of medieval churches and the related study of medieval church interiors, and a brief word by Catholic priest Fr. Arjen Jellema.
Saint Hathebrand’s return is a temporary one, however. After a brief visit to his native lands, Hathebrand will return to Belgium.