History of the Abbey of Our Lady of Refuge

The Trappists arrive in the Netherlands

During the period of the French Revolution, the new policy was unfavourable to abbey life, and this to such an extent that the survival of many monasteries was under siege. At the end of the 19th century it appeared as though this would become a reality for the Northern French Trappist Monastery of Mont Des Cats (Katsberg). It was for this reason that the abbot dispatched one of his monks to seek a place of refuge abroad. They found it in Tilburg, where the Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven was founded in 1881. The abbey soon flourished and it was not long before the idea emerged to found more abbeys in the Netherlands that could serve as places of refuge for monks threatened with expulsion.

The foundation of the Abbey of Our Lady of Refuge

An opportunity to found a new monastery arose in 1897, when Miss Anna Catharina van Dongen from Zundert gifted a piece of land to the Abbot of the Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven. The Abbot at the time, Dom Willibrord Verbruggen, decided to build an abbey on that land. Since it was intended to be a place of refuge for French monks, the new project was called ‘Our Lady of Refuge’.
In the autumn of 1899, two monks set out for Zundert from Tilburg – Father Nivardus Muis and Brother Dorotheüs de Vries. The tenant farmer of the small farm ‘de Kievit’, Bart Nouws, provided them with temporary accommodation. They were followed by more brothers from Koningshoeven.
Building for the first monastery began on the site where the present guest house stands today. The Abbot of Tilburg inaugurated the chapel on 24 May 1900, Ascension Day. And it was with twelve monks, shepherded by Father Nivardus Muis, that Our Lady of Refuge officially started to function as a monastery.

Temporary shelter in the Abbey of Westmalle

On 22 June 1909, the brothers received word that they had to immediately leave their monastery. The Abbot of Tilburg had landed in such dire financial straights that serious consideration was given to selling all of their goods, to include those of Zundert, to pay off a mortgage debt. The brothers of Our Lady of Refuge left with their horse and cart in the direction of the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle, where they were warmly welcomed by Abbot Ferdinand and his community.
Meanwhile the Order’s superiors sought a solution. They were encouraged in their endeavours by Mrs Maria Ullens de Schooten, for she had promised to donate a large sum of money to build a church at Our Lady of Refuge, should the monastery manage to stay alive. Finally an arrangement was made: Dom Willibrord of Koningshoeven stepped down and was succeeded by Dom Simon Dubuisson. The brothers of Zundert were able to return to their monastery having preserved their spiritual institution

Expansion of the monastery

Upon their return the brothers got started with construction. Because of Mrs Ullens de Schooten’s generous donation, they were able to first start with the church’s construction. Initially they limited their efforts to the church nave. Shortly thereafter, the money they saved with this approach was used to build workplaces behind the monastery: a bakery, laundry and a forge. A large storage shed was built opposite the workplaces. The final piece to be completed was the construction of the monastery’s chapter wing, creating expanded space for housing. An additional donation by Mrs Ullens de Schooten made it possible for them to complete the church, adding the altar space and the chapels arounds it.

The priory becomes an abbey

On 14 September 1938, the priory of Zundert was elevated to the status of an abbey. And on 19 October the very same year, Father Nivardus Muis was chosen by the brothers to be the first Abbot of Our Lady of Refuge. Dom Nivardus passed away in 1942 at the age of 67.

50th anniversary

In 1943, Brother Alphonsus van Kalken was chosen to be the abbot. Under his leadership, the abbey’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in style. An organ was built in the church for the occasion. In 1950, the abbey’s community also reached its greatest numbers: it was home to 80 monks for a short period of time. Dom Alphonsus stepped down in 1958 at the age of 76.

Modernisation of monastic life

In 1958, Brother Emmanuel Schuurmans was selected to be the third abbot of Zundert. The new abbot had a great many ideas concerning modernisation. The church’s interior was fully renovated, but the rest of the monastery was also decorated in grey stucco. Another significant innovation was that the lay brothers, who mainly worked the land, were increasingly considered equal to the choir monks, who devoted themselves to study and choral prayer.
During the 1960s, the liturgy was also revised and gradually switched from Latin to Dutch. The activities of the Inter-monasterial Working Group For Liturgy (IWVL) provided serious incentive in this respect.
During the same period, Ida Gerhardt and Marie van der Zeyde had begun their work translating the Psalms. The translations were set to music and entered into use in 1975.

The introduction of Zen meditation

The first Zen meditation sessions were held in the abbey during the 1970s. This form of meditation was introduced to the abbey by Dom Jeroen Witkam, who had become the fourth abbot. He had become interested in meditation, largely because he ad also become acquainted with yoga during his studies in Rome. Zen meditation became part of abbey life for a number of brothers and also for many guests over the years.
In the mid-1970s, completely new quarters were built at the site of the old monastery. Each brother was allocated his own room, to observe the necessary silence and solitude.

New vocations and new activity

The Eighties were a fairly quiet period. There were some entries, but the majority of young monks left the abbey. For a brief time it appeared as if the community of Our Lady of Refuge was without future; however, the tide turned in the Nineties. Sixteen young men have entered since them, several of whom have remained. In 1998, the brothers decided to stop intensive dairy farming and switched to ecological cattle farming.

Renovation work

A year before Dom Wiro Fagel was chosen to be the fifth abbot in 2001, the community made plans to completely renew the guest house and the gatehouse and fully renovate the existing buildings. Work started in 2002. A brand new guest house and gatehouse were erected. All the other residential buildings and the church were given an overhaul. Renovation work was completed in 2005. A period of major building work had come to an end and peace and silence were restored.

A brewery replaces the cattle farm

In 2007, Dom Daniël Hombergen was selected to be the sixth abbot, and the cattle farm came to an end. Eventually, at the end of 2011, long-term care of the land was entrusted to Natuurmonumenten (Society for preservation of nature monuments in the Netherlands). This event led to the restoration of the land’s historic name ‘Kievitsmoeren’.
At the same time it was decided that the monks would start a home brewery: Trappist Brewery De Kievit. Following extensive preparations, the plans were implemented between October 2012 and October 2013. The brewery was built within the existing contours of the former farm buildings. These buildings also house the workplaces. ‘Zundert Trappist’ beer was introduced on the market in December 2013. Five years later the ‘Zundert Trappist’, which from now on is called ‘Zundert 8’, got a little brother, the dark en strong ‘Zundert 10’ which at once won the golden medal at the Dutch Beer Challenge 2019.

Creative vulnerability

As many other communities also Maria Toevlucht becomes smaller. That requires much creativity concerning renovation en accommodation, but is even a source of new energy and dynamic. In 2017 Guido Van Belle is nominated as superior en in 2020 elected by the community te be the seventh abbot of Maria Toevlucht. This as a encouraging sign of the community to be approaching the future with spirit en confidence.