I am upset. Even angry. On reading the article published by the Daily Telegraph about the so-called basilica of Cointe: Row over plans to turn Belgian WW1 memorial church into restaurant and climbing wall (telegraph.co.uk), I wonder what the critics of the project to put new life into this massive church, are up to.
Being in charge of the church buildings of the diocese of Liège since more than seven years, I have experienced that nobody really cared about that sacred building. Being the property of a private association with no funds (which is exceptional in Belgium, where most churches belong to the public domain), it was out of order since years.
Whilst the allied memorial tower was restored in order to receive heads of state for the centenary of World War I in 2014, the church building was left to decay. When the Duke of Cambridge came to the memorial, the only thing which was done by the authorities to mask the appalling state of the church, was to paint some seagulls on its walls…
The authorities of the city told the diocese to find a solution, making it clear that they wouldn’t invest a penny in the project. We launched an appeal for candidates, making it clear that the choir would remain a place of remembrance. Two candidates came up with plans transforming the basilica into flats and offices. The Gehlen group proposed a lighter project, that of a climbing wall, which left the building untouched. What is more, sport and spirituality have a lot in common, climbing being a way of elevating oneself.
Of course, I much would have preferred to keep the whole building intact, serving as a place of prayer and remembrance (the crypt remains active though, as a parochial chapel). But times have changed. Everyone seemed indifferent about the sacred place. The church was but worth some painted seagulls…
Now that a new project is on its way, I hear these critics – so long silent – waking up and telling us that it is ’shameful and tasteless’… But I ask you: What is shameful? What is tasteless?
It would have been shameful and tasteless not to do anything. There would have been no critics and… no future for the building. A path of cowardice.