25.03 > 23.04.2006.

Godshuis, Sint-Laureins (BE)

Translator: Magali Deplanter

Exhibition          Artists          Curator & Authors          Venue          Staff & Partners


The majestic “Godshuis” is situated in Sint-Laureins, a rural village on the border with Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (NL). The landscape here is characterized by vast polders and creeks, remnants of the sea. In the village centre, a surprising building catches the attention: it is a former hospital of 75 meters long and 56 meters wide (0.42 ha). As an earlier home and school for orphans, the sick and the elderly, and especially by its scale, the hospice – popularly known as the monastery – occupies a special place in this small community of 7,000 inhabitants. Even today villagers testify that during World War II fights (Operation Switchback) at the Leopold Canal, they took shelter in the reinforced cellars, with 1 meter wide walls. Furthermore, the “Godshuis” is etched in memory as, for generations of people, the site acts as a permanent reminder of this particular cultural heritage.

The idea for an exhibition grafted onto the spectacular transformation of this gigantic 19th century “Godshuis” into a 21st century hotel, catering & wellness complex. “The sacral character that manifests itself best in the chapel disappears in the new commercial complex in the making. The façade, the wings and the transept are open for parties, events and seminars since September, while the dilapidated rear still needs to be renovated. The restoration draws a line through the building, as if it was halved by time. The restoration and the visible caesuras open new perspectives on the phase between past and future.”

This affected Astrid David.  Being a native of Sint-Laureins she had been fascinated for years by this mysterious building, where she regularly wandered as a youngster. She was moved to further unravel the mystery of the building with a view on the creation of an exhibition, her first group exhibition. She visited the new building owners, politicians and people from the village. She reported on the historical, psychological, social and future plans of the building to artists, who asked questions and formulated new visions.

Many artists got inspired during site visits by the heroic and cowboy stories about the “Godshuis”. The participating artists were faced with the task of creating an in situ work that could withstand the vastness of the premises and saw the opportunity for monumental projects. Thus, the exhibition gradually evolved from a balancing act to a tight choice of interpretations and artistic answers, unfolding the inner dynamics of the “Godshuis”.The expo in the building created an interesting trail full of contrasts along the courtyards, the various rooms and floors. The title not only refers to the immense efforts to ‘conquer’ the building, but especially to the artistic efforts by the participating artists.



The artists were being invited to show existing work or to create new work. This has led to a surprising group exhibition including 7 new creations. Ambition and perseverance, faith in great achievements, reveries and fantasies of the two building owners were the central starting point during the creation of their works of art. From the heroic context of the authorisation for the construction of the “Godshuis” and its dimension, the emphasis lay on the stratification and the grandeur of the building, with a focus on change. Upon seeing the building and the rupture line, some artists longed for stillness and sacredness. They associated the “Godshuis” with a spiritual experience, with pureness and sacredness. Others experienced the restoration as kitsch and rape of the soul. The often conflicting

reactions of the artists on the building led to lively diverse works, idealising or destructive, parallel to the controversy that has been found in the discipline of heritage conservation, where reconstruction is juxtaposed against ruin. Franco Angeloni (*1967, IT), Ruangsak Anuwatwimon (*1977, TH), Guillaume Bijl (*1946, BE), Dirk Braeckman (*1958, BE), Geert Bisschop (1957, BE), Hugo Claus (*1929, BE),Yves Coussement (*1978, BE), Nick Ervinck (*1981, BE), Roland Jooris (*1936, BE), Tamuraj alias Valery Vermeulen (*1975, BE), Roger Raveel (*1921, BE), Renato Nicolodi (*1980, BE), Ignace Van Ingelgom (*1954, BE), Katleen Vermeir (*1973, BE), Kris Vleeschouwer (*1973, BE), Andy Wauman (*1975, BE)


Curator and authors

Astrid David, curator; Leen Verstraete, texts Persévérance; Nele Bogaert, Frank Geyssens, Willy De Buck.



Godshuis Leemweg 11 9980 Sint-Laureins

Astrid David comments on this. Expo Persévérance reflects, via contemporary art, on the dramatic shift the “Godshuis” is experiencing: from hospice to festivity hall, from a sacral to a commercial spot. To get an idea of the “Godshuis”, you’ll find the historical origin broadly outlined below. The research for that history, but also for the later usage was largely based upon oral and written testimonies. Oddly enough, no historical reference works about the “Godshuis” exist, the most beautiful and largest charity institution amongst the Flemish villages. The following fragments therefore become part of the sources in order to be able to make a reconstruction and to describe the complexity of the whole thing.



The “Godshuis” is a unique example of the combination of Flemish austerity and Italian proportion. The architect, Justin Bruyenne Tournai (1811-1896) worked with the reference work of Viollet Le Duc and managed to reconcile the principles of Brunelleschi with local materials. At the main entrance an imposing protruding façade with a triangular pediment has been produced. The walls are punctuated by flat pilasters, arch fields and niches. A double stairway, present at all sides, and a gateway are leading to the inside. The two courtyards with circular galleries are definitely Italian. The rooftop with tiles from Boom pans, the brickwork consisting of Scheldt Stone, Mechelen limestone and the ornaments in Tournai stone are Flemish. A concealed spiral staircase in the northeast corner of the courtyard ensures the internal circulation from the basement to the attic. Most impressive is the dome modelled on the dome of Sancta Maria in Florence and the lantern light. They symbolize eternal life in heaven.


“Godshuizen” (or alms-houses), were springing up like mushrooms in the newly found state of Belgium. After independence, the care for the poor and the sick became a responsibility of the state, but reality was saddening due to a lack of lay personnel and financial means. The initiative for the construction of the Godshuis is to be set in this context, amidst the religious revival (1816-1860) in the young state of Belgium.

Miss Antonia Vandamme’s father (1797-1879) had gathered his fortune during the French Revolution by the purchase of confiscated ecclesiastic and monastic goods. By devotion and to earn the salvation of her soul, Antonia put her heritage to the disposal of canon Andries (1796-1888). He was a priest in Middelburg (OVL), who got sacked after the Belgian independence because, as a member of the National Congress, he kept on claiming that Sluis, Oostburg, IJzendijke, Axel and Hulst belonged to Belgium. His biggest concern was the establishment of the correct boundary between Holland and the new state of Belgium. The anger of the Dutch was so great that they threatened to kidnap him. For the construction of the “Godshuis” in the same border region, he also struggled for 10 years.  Along with priest Van Den Berghe, canon Joseph Andries continued to strive for permission. The priests performed several lawsuits against the Commission of Civil Hospices who blocked the construction plans, but they got allies from the Catholic setting because people had to travel to Bruges or to Ghent for healthcare. The breakthrough came when a document was found in the St. John’s Hospital in Bruges in the 13th century in which it was stated that a hospice may be established in the region Maldegem, Sint-Laureins and Adegem. Afterwards a large-scale enterprise was launched. The building material was delivered from Mechelen and Boom into Balgerhoeke. The remaining part of the route was travelled by horse and cart and even with wheelbarrows to Sint-Laureins. Two horses could carry six to seven hundred stones with difficulty; forty stones were the heaviest load for the sturdiest workers and peasants who helped to realize the work of Antonia Van Damme. The construction was a gigantic job, 7,000 stones were needed to build one arch.



The “Godshuis” was inaugurated in 1849 and from then on run by 6 Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus, led by Sister Ignatia Clement. The elderly, the orphans, the sick and disabled who could not provide for themselves received assistance in the monastery. The two wings were respectively reserved for men (right) and women (left). Around the “Godshuis” were about 18 hectares of land which enabled the community of sisters to provide for food by running a small farm. The holy Rufinus was honored along with a host of saints in the chapel. The “Godshuis” also accommodated a school and a boarding school.  Started as a small community, the hospice became a place with about 100 beds. The Almshouse served the regions Meetjesland and Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and became a haven where prayer, devotion and care were central. Capacity grew so fast that, in the late 19th century (1863), Antonia Van Damme handed over the hospice to the Public Poverty Commission (PPC) with guarantees for the livelihood of the Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus and the preservation of its functioning.

Besides the “Godshuis”, smaller municipalities also set up their hospices from the late 19th century onwards, but it took more than a century before the hospital began showing signs of decline. Since the 1980s, it was no longer possible to maintain the “Godshuis”. The PPC, later the PCSW (Public Center for Social Welfare) could no longer offer decent housing to the residents. The grandeur of yesteryear was no more and the building was on the point of dying. On July 10, 1990 it was permanently closed and the sisters left a year later, in 1991. Due to a classification decision, the convent was rescued from demolition. Finally the vacancy lasted until 1999 when the Lofting Group purchased the building and started the renovation. The integration and operation of a hotel and event space is a challenging task. Perseverance and determination are the drive to succeed.



DE POTTER, Geschiedenis van de gemeenten der Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, reeks 2, II.

STROBBE, K en SUENENS, K., Zusters Kindsheid Jesu 1835-2010, KADOC en Zusters Kindsheid Jesu, 2010, 327 blz.

FOCKE, MP; conversation

VAN DEN BUNDERT, TH; conversation

VERHEECKE, P., Kan Europees geld Godshuis redden?, In Standaard, vrijdag 22 april 1994. See attachment

In: Appeltjes van het Meetjesland.

In: Inventaris van het bouwkundig erfgoed, Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, Gemeenten: Assenede, Eeklo, Kaprijke, Maldegem en Sint-Laureins, Bouwen door de eeuwen heen in Vlaanderen 21N, (unpublished working papers).


Staff and Partners

With special thanks to the staff: Bas Bogaerts (files), Robin Boone (Helix vzw), Peter Catrie (text), family David-Focke, Steven De Dapper, Christine De Ketelaere (representative Franco Angeloni), Björn Lemmens (‘t Cafe en Compagnie), Jimmy Soetaert, Jan Van Woensel (curator), Giel Vandecavey (advice), Hans van Heirseele (advice), Lode Vandemaele (assembly), Tom Verbrugge, Vic Ysebaert, host families (Standaard-Vandevoorde, Genbrugge) and many other volunteers.

Fundraising: Frank Geyssens develops, in collaboration with COMEET, an art- and poetry route in honour of the Meetjeslandse Taalminnaars (Meetjeslandse Language Lovers). This is based on the

finding that the cradle of many supporters of the Flemish language appeared to have stood in Meetjesland. Artist Philippe Aguirre y Otegui realised the project ‘Statue for Flanders’ as an assignment in this project. On the occasion of the opening of Persévérance, three new concepts by Philippe Van Isacker, Maen Florin and Hans De Pelsmacker were presented. These artists, along with Luc Tuymans, will debate on art in Meetjesland, during the opening festivities (moderator Kurt Van Eeghem). Frank Geyssens provides the necessary funds.

Partners: Province of Oost-Vlaanderen, the provincial commission for visual arts, city council Sint-Laureins, Rudy Leroy and team Godshuis with Björn Mervilde, Nele Bogaert and team COMEET with Veerle Van de Veire and Sylvia Matthys, Luc Vandevelde (GB Eeklo), Drukkerij De Eecloonaar, the united serviceclubs at Meetjesland, TSAT, Plan B vzw (Jürgen De Wever, Tim Bottelberghe), Bert Vanaken (design newspaper), Adrem (folder).