To visit the Park Abbey (“Abdij van Park” in Dutch) has always been one of our favorite walks in Leuven. What I have known about it previously that it was founded by the Premonstratensian order or ‘White Canons’ in the 12th century. At its apogee owned around 8600 acres of land in more than 130 villages, of which 103 acres remain today. They are covered with meadows, orchards, a garden, four fishponds and several buildings from the 17th and 18th century in a vast walled precinct. Apart from the monastery proper, there is a church with a churchyard, a farm with a huge tithe barn and stables, a water mill, and four gates.
When I lived in Belgium for 15 years the Park Abbey was invisible it led a secret life, but a heaven of peace quietly withering away. Things are changing rapidly as more and more building has been restored and ‘given a new purpose’ to attract more visitors. In the meantime, the grounds are a building site with a huge crane and mud. The water mill (1534) and St. John’s gate have been already converted to a restaurant and café and St. Mary’s Gate now houses the International Centre for the Study of Music in the Low Countries. A new museum and an activity farm for children are planned. On a Sunday in July we even found a flea market on the lawn, complete with beer truck and all. Sellers had been allowed to plough through the grass to park their car next to their stand. A sad sight. To top it all, heavy rains had caused a dyke burst and, as a consequence, one of the ponds had emptied itself completely.
Park Abbey (Dutch: Abdij van ‘t Park; also Parc Abbey) is a Premonstratensian abbey in Belgium, at Heverlee south of Leuven, in the Flemish Brabant.
The Annales Parchenses were written here in the 12th century. The abbey was founded in 1129 by Duke Godfrey, surnamed “Barbatus” (“the Bearded”), who possessed an immense park near Leuven and had invited the Premonstratensians to take possession of a small church he had built there.
Walter, abbot of St Martin’s, Laon, brought a colony of his canons and acted as their superior for nearly three years, until the canons, now in sufficient number, elected Simon, another canon of Laon, as their abbot. The canons performed the general work of the ministry in the district of Leuven, in opposition to the heretic Tanchelm.
In 1137 the abbot was able to found the Abbey of Our Lady and SS. Cornelius and Cyprian at Ninove. Godfrey made the Abbot of the Park and his successors his arch chaplains. Simon died on 30 March 1142 and was succeeded by Philip, whose correspondence with Saint Hildegard of Bingen was preserved in the Park Abbey archives. Philip and his successors enlarged the buildings and prepared the land for agriculture. At the time there a canon living in the abbey, Blessed Rabado, whose devotion to the Passion was attested by miracles.
Abbot Gerard van Goetsenhoven (1414–34) had much to do with the establishment of the Catholic University of Leuven, and was also delegated by John IV, Duke of Brabant to transact state affairs with the King of England and the Duke of Burgundy. Abbot van Tulden (1462–94) was successful in his action against commendatory abbots being imposed on religious houses in Belgium. Abbot van den Berghe (1543–58) managed the contributions levied in support of the Belgian theologians present at the resumed Council of Trent.
The abbey frequently suffered during the wars waged by William of Orange and the Calvinists. Abbots included Loots (1577–1583), van Vlierden (1583–1601), Jean Druys (1601–1634), Maes (1635–1647), De Pape (1648–1682), and van Tuycum (1682–1702). They all favoured higher education at the University of Leuven, and academic study flourished in the abbey.
Under Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, the abbey was confiscated, because Abbot Wauters (died 23 November 1792) refused to send his religious to the general seminary erected by the emperor at Leuven. In the successful revolution against the emperor, the religious returned to their abbey. Wauters was succeeded by Melchior Nysmans (1793–1810).
Under the French Republic the abbey was confiscated again on 1 February 1797. At the request of the people the church was declared to be a parish church and was thus saved. The abbey was bought by a friendly layman who wished to preserve it for the religious, in better times. One of the canon, in the capacity of parish priest, remained in or near the abbey.
When Belgium was made a kingdom and religious freedom was restored, the surviving religious resumed community life and elected Peter Ottoy, then rural dean of Diest, as their superior.
In 1897 the abbey undertook the foundation of a priory in Brazil.
Since Park Abbey is within walking distance of the city centre has become very popular lately. Unfortunately, the bridge over the railway (“Parkwegbrug” or “Tivolibrug”) -allowing pedestrians and cyclist to reach St Norbert’s Gate from Tivoli Street,- has been closed for safety reasons. But you can detour via Geldenaaksebaan and enter by the Lions Gate. Or you could take a bus (for instance N. 4 or 5). Get off at Heverlee Pakenstraat. Park Abbey is also a stop of the tourist train on wheels leaving in the centre (Bondgenotenlaan N.7) on Wednesday and Thursday at 1.30 and 3 p.m., on Friday at 3 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. and 12.30, 2, 3 and 5 pm. This ancient abbey has been under construction for the last couple of years and has gained in charm. Ideal for walks in the park, work outs, lovers dating & if possible in winter ice skating.
Food and drink
We ate in the old mill, which was converted to a Brasserie, called De Abdij Molen. The dishes were reasonably priced. And my husband had the opportunity to taste the Heverlee beer. I ordered the coocoo of Mechelsen with parnspip purée. It was excellent. By the way during the weekdays the restaurant offers menu!
Ingredients: 1 pound parsnips, peeled and sliced, Salt, 2 cups heavy cream, 2 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 head garlic, cut in 1/2 horizontally, 4 ounces unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil, Freshly ground black pepper
Put parsnips in pot, season with salt and cover with water. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook until tender – the tip of a paring knife should easily go through without resistance, approximately 15 minutes.
In a medium saucepan place the cream, thyme sprigs and garlic clove over low heat and bring to a simmer.
Drain parsnips and reserve cooking liquid. Place parsnips in a food processor with butter, or extra-virgin olive oil and a couple of tablespoons of reserved cooking liquid. Begin to process and add strained heavy cream mixture. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and puree until very smooth.