Fascination is the key to quality

The 'Cornelius Basilica': the church of Rens Swart in Welberg English text Nederlandse tekst

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11 February 2021 – A huge, abandoned, old building is never completely empty. An entire army of fat spiders keep spinning their webs, mice hunt through the caverns, bats populate the attics, pigeons get lost, jackdaws have their endless chats … if you are lucky there might be beautiful protected species like the barn owl!

This is no different in the Cornelius Church. Particularly interesting are the couple of barn owls that appears to be living there and who also raised three owlets last season! Wow, beautiful animal, protected as well! But … this comes at a price. Those animals turn it into a terrible pigsty. And the jackdaws are no different. That is no fun and it does no good for the preservation of the monument. What to do?!

Read the news message here or read the complete story on the special page on church animals! Dutch only, but OK … you can always admire and abhor the images!

1 januari 2021 – I wish you a happy new year, a successful, enjoyable and above all a healthy 2021!

For three months you have heard nothing from me, so it is time for a concise update. Welbergians will have seen me carrying me hefty and continuously so I will have moved, but they also ask how the Neighbour's Day was. Between Christmas and New Year I have added quite a lot to the news page and I will summarise this below. My new year's wishes are illustrated there with a nice photo from a unusual viewpoint.

See the news page for more news, old news and new news (Dutch only at the moment).

Welcome

12 April 2020

The Saint Cornelius Church in Welberg, a small village near Steenbergen in the western part of the province of North Brabant (The Netherlands), was built in 1928. The architects, the brothers B.P.J. and A.W. Oomen from Oosterhout, built this church in the style of 'brick expressionism', in which brick was used both functionally and decoratively. The church has a wide central nave, spanned by monumental stone vaults, a high rising roof and a sturdy tower with a copper-covered square spire.

Due to declining church attendance and financial resources, the church was withdrawn from Catholic worship on 15 November 2014. The church was, with those of De Heen and Dinteloord, sold to an entrepreneur from the region. Since 4 December 2019, I, Rens Swart, am the owner.

Thank you for your interest in the Saint-Cornelius Church in Welberg! Perhaps the fate of this church is important to you as a villager, perhaps you feel involved in preserving this example of interbellum architecture, or maybe you are just as interested in architectural history as I am. Perhaps you are involved in the topical issue of the reallocation of heritage in general and of churches in particular.

I would like to show you the challenges I am facing. I have to adapt the church so that I can use it for what I intend to do in it. But I also need to know exactly in what condition it is and which maintenance work should be given priority in order to save the building from further decay and to pass it on to the next generation!

I am very enthusiastic about this beautiful building and I like to share my fascination for this building with you via my usual extensive stories. Working on the Cornelius Basilica takes a lot of time (actually much more than the one to two days a week that I stay there) and that is why I unfortunately do not always succeed in writing down everything I do here. For myself, I write everything down: for a hyperactive creative chaotic like me, that proves to be an effective means to put order in the gigantic quantity of observations, considerations, jobs and considerations. I also take a lot of photos. I would really like to share this fascination in a structured way by publishing articles on this website, but there are only 48 hours in a day …

If you want to stay informed or have a question, send me a message by clicking on this.

In a nutshell: where did you get the idea from to buy a church?!

March 2020

Nice to meet you: Rens Swart, born in Alphen aan den Rijn in the Green Heart of Holland (The Netherlands). I practically grew up in the Saint Boniface Church, built in 1886, and that gothic revival church had a decisive influence on my life in many ways. I was very impressed with the atmosphere, colours and building style. And I felt at home in the community and the liturgy, of which my parents were an integral part. I became an organist there when I was fourteen (see elsewhere on this website). No wonder I became a real enthusiast of late nineteenth and twentieth century architecture and organ building. After I practiced the organ for half an hour, I often explored the organ, the vaults and the tower. My curious and thorough nature caused that I gained quite a bit of knowledge about it.

It is this interest that ultimately led to an eleven-year semi-professional board membership of the Cuypers Society: see the pages about it on my site. This association is unique in that we collect high-quality architectural-historical knowledge and publish about it, and that we at the same time use this knowledge to substantiate legal actions at the cutting edge to preserve such architecture. Among other things, I set up a membership administration and a financial accounting, was the founder and editor-in-chief of the Cuypersbulletin magazine, but I also pled in monument-related lawsuits, both in court and the Council of State (the highest court) and I even won from a lawyer! This was a very inspiring and instructive activity for me, I even think it is the most important thing I have done in my life so far. It also took me an incredible amount of time.

But then you still have to earn a living … I was good at science and studied Astronomy in Leiden. I eventually graduated from the Delft University of Technology as an engineer in Geodesy: the science of observing and measuring the surface of the earth, for example with satellites. After working with TU Delft and Rijkswaterstaat, I set up a consultancy company in this area. At the moment, I am commissioned by the Dutch space agency to work with TU Delft and other institutes on the development of a number of small radar satellites. In addition, I work as an organ builder, in particular on organs built between 1880 and 1960 that fascinate me, both technically and artistically.

A long time ago I exchanged my public transport card for a Rover 3500 Vanden Plas and later a Daimler Double Six (a classy Jaguar with V12) was added. In my home town Dongen, with a partner, I was able to buy a nice industrial hall. There I started collecting cars and auto parts and it is also a nice place to work on it every now and then. When pipe organs subsequently became available because of the closure of churches, I also disassembled some organs, also with the idea of building one large organ in my warehouse. All this has gotten a bit out of hand, as could be expected from a hyperactive, broadly interested enthusiast.

Because the requirements and ideas of my partner and me developed in different directions, we decided in 2018 that he will take over my share in the industrial hall. So I had to look for another hall. And that turned out to be very difficult at this time. Now I love to go off the beaten track and as an enthusiast of religious architecture it is not difficult to imagine that I came up with the idea to realise all my activities in a church … Actually it has been a dream for at least ten years to have an inspiring church to work in, to work on our hobbies and to live in it. Eventually I discovered the Saint Cornelius Church in Welberg, certainly not next door but still very attractive to me.

For me, the qualities of the Saint Cornelius Church are mainly the expressionist brick architecture, with the technical masterpiece of the beautiful parabolic vaults. Add to that the stained glass and apse paintings and it becomes clear that the interior is inspiring. My goal is to leave the space intact as much as possible, in order to enjoy the religious architecture in addition to working on organs and cars. After intensive consultation with the diocese of Breda, who still has a say in about what is and what is not allowed in the church, and the Municipality of Steenbergen, I finally managed to acquire the church. I am the owner since 4 December 2019.

Read the extensive story on my lifelong fascination for religious architecture, the dreaming on living in a church and how the need for a warehouse ultimately led to the search for a church and the acquisition of the 'Cornelius basilica' on a separate page:

The story of my lifelong fascination for churches, dreaming of living in one, and how the need for a warehouse led to the acquisition of the Cornelius church

What am I going to do in the 'Cornelius Basilica'?

Basilica?! The church is no longer a consecrated religious space and I was looking for a characteristic name and so we came to 'Cornelius Basilica'. You can read the background of that name here. Incidentally, some people speak of the "former St. Cornelius Church", but I always leave that "former" out. For me and other enthusiasts here in Welberg it is still just the Cornelius Church, whether he has been withdrawn from worship or not.

My goal is to leave the space intact as much as possible, because apart from being a space for working on organs and cars, it is above all an inspiring monument of religious architecture. I will emphasize the beautiful stone vaults by lighting them from below. The wooden decks on which the pews now stand will be replaced by concrete floors (possibly with underfloor heating), and I will park my cars on it, but also racks with parts from cars and organs. The existing organ will be integrated into a large organ, composed of parts of disassembled organs, which will be placed in front of the existing organ. One or more organ consoles and possibly small pipe organs will be installed in the choir. At the moment I think that I will keep all the oak pews (from a monument conservation point of view), piled up in the north transept, and that warehouse and pallet racks with organ and car parts will be placed in the south transept. In the crossing (the center of the cross-shaped church) there is then room to work on cars and organs. I may be able to clear this central space for public activities.

I will regularly do my office work in the church or in the adjacent buildings. In order to carry out my work efficiently, I also need to be able to stay there for several days.

It cannot be ruled out that we are eventually going to live in the church. To leave the spatial experience intact, I for this purpose could build three floors in the south transept. While maintaining the large stained glass window …

On these plans, on my 'user requirements' on the building and on how I plan to use the Cornelius basilica, I made a separate page.

My requirements on a building and what I am going to do in the Cornelius Basilica

Work to be done!

Before I can start doing the things in the church I just described, a lot has to be done. It was immediately clear that I had to start making an inventory of the maintenance jobs that need to be done to protect the building from further decay. This primarily concerns emergency repairs, such as detecting and repairing leaks and cleaning the gutters (located at a great height). Later we can see in which order we carry out the other maintenance and restoration work.

But I also had to think about what I have to do to be able to move: that move is fixed. The most difficult problem is that I cannot move until the floor has been renewed. I have to decide whether I make it suitable for underfloor heating, if I decide so, it must of course be done now. But it is expensive and should be ready in September 2020.

In order to work a bit conveniently and comfortably on the Cornelius challenges, I first had to make a place suitable to stay. Initially I planned to start making the sacristy habitable. This turned out to be too much work for now, so I started with the 'pastorieke', the annex to the right of the tower.

For an overview of the jobs, the prioritisation and ultimately the execution, see this page. You can also view a selection of my many hundreds of photos there! To start with, I will describe the difficult trade-off between The Three Great Jobs!

The technical problems of the Cornelius basilica and the maintenance jobs to be done

As mentioned, I keep a logbook to get order in the chaos of findings, observations, considerations, reasoning, choices and actual jobs and I take hundreds of photos. I want to share this with you on my website, but only after drastically tidying up my notes. But you guessed it … that turns out to take a lot of time. Keep an eye on the website, subscribe to my communication, there is certainly hope!

Buy a building plot?!

The plan is to make the 'wasteland' behind the church suitable for building two or three detached houses. Buying this site and developing a spatial planning plan (which I have to do myself) is initially a substantial investment, but must then yield enough money to pay for major maintenance and the necessary renovations such as floor and heating in the years to come. If I do not succeed, I'm afraid I will eventually lose the battle to save the Cornelius Basilica from further decline …

I will make a separate page later about the building plans behind the church.

Activities in the church?

In almost every village or city where a church is closed, it can be noticed that such a building is very dear to people, even though they honestly hardly ever came there on Sunday. Similarly in Welberg. A community center or village house, as is often suggested, often proves unfeasible for various reasons: just like in Welberg. The previous owner, who owned the building for three years, entrepreneur Hans van Trier, was looking for a destination that preferably also had significance for the village and made the church available to the 'Leisure for Welberg Association' (OVW), which included a spooky event on 'Halloween' (which is an American misunderstanding based on what we call All Souls' Day) and a Christmas market. I knew the latter, because I just got the keys of the church when I received an upset phone call from people who were busy with the organisation of the Christmas market. It was nice to see how they did this while I was walking around unaccustomed in my own church.

If I manage to finish the work on the floor of the church and the moving of my cars and organs in time, there should still be a bit of floor left in the crossing and the choir to be able to organize activities. Maybe and hopefully already in November 2020.

Meanwhile, people have also advised me to look into organising activities in the church that somehow bring in a little money. Because to save this building from decay is also a hugely expensive issue. If you have ideas, let me know!

Ideas about public and private use of the Cornelius Basilica. And 'rent-a-church'!

Een van de drie kerkuiljongen in de nestkast

Inderdeed … the nest box on the vaults of the Cornelius basilica was inhabited in 2020! Our couple of barn owls raised three owlets. It came with an incredible mess.

Een van de kerkuilen op het gewelf Een mooi dorpsgezicht van de Corneliusbasiliek bij sneeuw

A nice view on the Cornelius Basilica with remains of snow, 12 February 2021.

Welberg met de Corneliusbasiliek in de sneeuw, december 2010. Foto Walter Vos

A nice atmospheric image to start the new year with! The Cornelius Basilica and a part of Welberg in the snow from an unusual viewpoint. I got the photo, taken in December 2010 from a platform, from Walter Vos. Behind the church you see the former kindergarten, the former football field, the cemetery, the new dog field, the Laurentiusdijk and in the upper left the curve in the provincial road to Dinteloord.

Corneliuskerk

In september 2020 the pews were set aside, the wooden decks have been sawn to pieces, the concrete floor reinforced and supplied with a nice red concrete egalisation layer. Ready for the move! All photos © Rens Swart, unless stated otherwise

Corneliuskerk

The Saint Cornelius Church is a monument of brick construction from the Interbellum. The stone vaults span the 13.70 meter (centres) wide central nave. Here you can see a preview of what I intend to do: illuminate the vaults. For this I placed a double fluorescent luminaire on the floor.

Corneliuskerk

The Cornelius Church at the Kapelaan Kock Street in Welberg. On the left the former monastery of the Franciscan Sisters of Dongen, on the right the former rectory, now Thomashuis. This photo is still from de makelaar

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Here you can clearly see that the interior of the church is dominated by the brick vaults, which rise much higher than the aisles. This, together with the stained glass windows, makes the church very dark.

Corneliuskerk

The architecture of the Oomen brothers is very well conceived. The vaults of yellow IJssel bricks are supported by parabolic arches that show a strict hierarchy in terms of size.

Corneliuskerk

The apse and the triumphal arch were beautifully painted in the late 1940s with scenes devoted to Mary. The fact that the church has been withdrawn from worship has led to a somewhat crude demolition fury of everything that made the church a church. Was that really necessary?

Corneliuskerk

The choir and absis floors are covered with beautiful little 'butterfly tiles'.

Corneliuskerk

Except for one, in the 1940s all windows of the Cornelius church were decorated with beautiful stained glass by the Tilburg artist Piet Clijsen. This window depicts the flight to Egypt of Mary and Joseph with the newborn child Jesus.

Corneliuskerk

Well, this is the beginning. If there are parks like this in the gutter, the rainwater drainage is in a bad state. This is at a height of seven meters, that's unavoidable with churches. Fortunately, most gutters are in good condition and this is pretty much the worst I have come across. But … much to my frustration, the moisture problem a few meters below was not resolved. So?!?!

Corneliuskerk

I am experimenting with high power LED lighting to replace the not so efficient high pressure mercury lamps with their ugly blue-green color. There is also a 1-10V dimmer. Oh yes, this is on the vault.

Corneliuskerk

Here you can clearly see that the masonry of the vaults has a very 'plastic' shape (is that correct English? I mean: the form is very outspoken). The top of the vault panel is more than half a meter higher than the top of the keystone. I use to call them 'elephant backs': they look exactly like them. This is an engineering trick to keep these flying garden walls from collapsing. I wouldn't walk on them, they are only 8 centimeters thick! Here you see the vault of the crossing. As far as I could safely reach, I cleaned the vault and the ribs and keystone: the garbage bag contains no less than 13.3 kilos of dust, grit, debris and bird shit.

Corneliuskerk

Assembly and disassembly of the lighting. You can walk safely over the walkways. To get to the lighting of the side aisles is another story. First 61 steps to the nave (9 times in one evening, oops), then scramble down the transverse arches, to the dividing wall between nave and side aisle that you do not see in the church and then carefully go down a meter to the beams over the side aisle vault. Do not stand on the vault! Messing around with the lighting is not that easy.

Corneliuskerk

There are various leaks or moisture damages in the church. Using a strong flash turns out to be a good way to properly assess them. Leaks are always bad because you are aware your monument is affected by it, but it becomes even more complicated if ultimately remains unclear where the water is coming from: the gutter (leak? clogged?), the roof (where the water can run twelve meter along before it goes downwards) or … the masonry?

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View on the village of Welberg, with the St. Gummarus Church in Steenbergen in the background. Also note the blooming Magnolia in front of the church and the copper roofing of the spire.

Kind regards,
Rens Swart