Overview of this page
31 May 2020
Why would one like to have a church?! Why would Rens Swart like to own the Cornelius church? On this page I describe why I have always been fascinated by – primarily gothic revival – churches. And why I dared to dream about owning one. And finally how I made this dream come true by acquiring the Saint Cornelius church in Welberg.
(I love telling detailed stories. For a summary, see the section on the welcome page.)
A lifelong fascination for churches
From my earliest rememberings, I was impressed and felt at home in the Saint Boniface Church in Alphen-on-Rhine, 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. It is not a very 'luxurious' church: although it has brick cross rib vaults in the aisles, the nave is of the pseudo-basilica type (with no windows and a roof running to over the aisles) and covered with a wooden barrel vault. Apart from the shape and colours of the stone aisle vaults, which I always regarded as perfect, it was primarily the polychrome decoration in a beautiful colour scheme that made the Saint-Boniface impressively atmospheric.
I visited the church every week with my parents and on my fourteenth I became the organist. I practiced in the church, every now and then (say four times an hour) dreaming on and enjoying the atmospheric interior. I became a real enthusiast of late nineteenth-century religious, primarily gothic revival architecture. I became an active member of the Cuypers Society, my knowledge grew and my enthusiasm extended to all nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture. Elsewhere on this site I told what I did as a board member of the Cuypers Society and that it was very formative and inspiring for me – and slightly important for the country.
I have always been very much inspired by gothic revival churches, with their colourful, detailed, decorative, stylish, mystique interiors. In fact, I was never interested in white interiors and only very few protestant churches can interest me. It is all about atmosphere and religious art, and a bit about culture. Apart from that, craftmanship has always appealed to me. As an engineer I have always been interested in the technical aspects of building and architecture. It is this in which my view on architecture is different compared to most of my art historian friends. Primarily stone vaults have always impressed me. It is fascinating how one can lay bricks and span sometimes more than fifteen meters with what I describe as a 'flying garden wall'.
Living in my own church?
As soon as I stumbled across a church for sale, I started dreaming of living in it. Later on, I considered whether it would not be possible to combine it with the offices of my wife's and my companies. And if I could park my (then) two or three classic cars in it. Would there possibly be a way to make it viable? Well, not easily, or not at all, or at most if we could manage to buy only a part of a church.
By the way: it was clear to me that, if ever, I would try to buy (part of) a church as early in the value chain as possible, as I was not willing to pay a real estate developer for all the costs and profit he made. This consideration was a little because of the financial viability, but primarily because I would leave a church in its original state as much as possible. That's not only a lot cheaper, and it might not be conform the laws on housing concerning daylight etcetera, but it would certainly leave the interior more in its original state, which would be much more inspiring to me.
In around 2008, I saw an abandoned church for sale for about the price of a small villa. During the financial crisis, the builder couldn't afford to convert the church into appartments and tried to sell it. I was interested, but it was far beyond our financial abilities. After some years, it was converted to appartments. This nice church of architect Dom Bellot, with its typical polygonal wooden ceiling and polygonal apse, was about two-thirds of the size of the Cornelius-church in Welberg, but they managed to squeeze THIRTEEN appartments in it. If you hate churches that much, you shouldn't be allowed to buy one. Oh yes, it was a classified monument on the national heritage list!
Better examples of redevelopment leave the space intact. But why, why, why is the white disease in The Netherlands so dominant? Why has everything to be modern and clean, why is everything to be 'designed'? White is a lack of colour (OK, physically it is all colours combined), so for me white is a lack of taste. With respect to atmospheric old buildings, it is also a huge lack of respect!
Looking for a warehouse or building one
As described on the page on the use of the church, I have a nice and spacious warehouse (or business unit or industrial hall) where I can store and work on my cars and organs. Because the requirements and ideas of my co-owner and me on our warehouse developed in different directions, we decided in 2018 that he will take over my share in this industrial hall.
So I had to look for another hall. And that turned out to be very difficult at this time. Most buildings and units have been sold past years or are for sale at very high prices. I am not looking for a former pig barn. And I am not interested in renting. I could afford a unit of at first glance the right square meters, but they mostly turn out to be a business hall with an office first floor, so ground floor surface is only half. And with neighbours that supposedly would not enjoy the sound of a large pipe organ next door.
I started to develop plans to build one myself. This would cost me a lot of time, but would save me tens of thousands of euros. And it would be fun. It would also have the big advantage that I wouldn't end up with a business unit in a 'bedrijfsverzamelgebouw' – one building divided into company units. It required the acquisition of a building plot for business units. The Municipality of Tilburg, for example, more or less refused to cooperate, apparently because they do not want to spoil small plots that could hamper selling plots of 100,000 square meter or even larger, which they apparently prefer. The Municipality of Oosterhout was exactly the opposite: they do not want to facilitate the "verdozing" ('boxing'): the tendency that the landscape is filled with extremely large boring building boxes, often even built before the developer has a renter. They were cooperative but had very limited plots and the allocation was severely delayed.
Not really looking for a church and then … acquiring the Cornelius church
Then I saw a few churches for sale on the site of one the very few real estate agents for this kind of uncommon buildings. Including the Cornelius church in Welberg. It was clear that it would not easily be financially viable, not even with my share in my company hall sold. But it looked very good. Some pros and cons.
++ beautiful brick expressionist style by the Oomen Brothers;
++ brick cross rib vaults over a wide nave;
+ large enough – to say the least;
+ wasteland behind the church that could possibly be sold on;
+ nicely located in a small village with enough space around;
+ not too difficult to convert an annex building to a place to stay during the works;
+ not classified as registered monument;
– not classified as registered monument;
– – asking price unaffordable;
– – the church clearly suffers from overdue maintenance, e.g. missing or broken slate shingles on the roof, bad painting of gutter boxes, proliferating ivy, damaged masonry and missing mortar joints;
– work to be done on a very large old complex building is always more than you imagine;
– too far to go there on bicycle for just an evening, like my current warehouse: Welberg is a 45 minute drive by car.
The Cornelius church was sold by the parish in 2016 to a local entrepreneur, together with the churches in De Heen and Dinteloord. The new owner did not have plans with the building himself and potential buyers 'came and went'. Some bizarre plans made it to the press. In the meantime, the new owner experienced that potential buyers would in general never get a mortgage on the church, as banks are not willing to take unknown risks with uncommon buildings, as I would put it. So a buyer would need to finance the acquisition of the church himself. Not many people are able to do that.
What is happening on a almost-non-existing market? Prices drop. I hoped that this would give me some negotiating margin. Churches are typically for sale for 5 to 10% of what they would cost to build. Sometimes they even cost nada, nothing, zero money, because they require (or one is obliged to) work for half a million euro. Or more.
Because of my large but limited budget , the owner of the Cornelius church proposed to buy the church without the wasteland behind it. He could then offer the wasteland for rent as gardens as it was in the past, or I could buy it later on. That was a cooperative suggestion.
I started planning to acquire it and did research on the situation and backgrounds of it in the small village of Welberg. I contacted the Municipality and the Diocese because I needed their cooperation to do in the church what I planned. The real estate agent however was not very cooperative. He was rather reluctant giving me information, even information or knowledge he had. Now, that's bad in general but very bad for a real estate agent (real estate agents … oh yes, of course!). In the end, I was given the opportunity to visit the church and with a friend I looked everywhere, up to in the spire. When I begged for an answer how to get an option to buy, the agent answered in a one-sentence message that the owner and he had just awarded the option to another buying candidate. I had wasted quite a lot of time.
Now, how to proceed? It is not easy to discover churches for sale. Only very few are for sale with estate agents. I did research on closed churches in both dioceses near my house, contacted the dioceses, parishes etcetera. Some churches would come for sale and even had a very thorough bid book, other churches … they were already in discussion, intransparent, endless, uncertain, inviable.
In the meantime, it struck me that for me potential candidates were less attractive than that stupid Cornelius church in Welberg. Drawbacks I identified:
- Relatively high asking price, and at the same time restoration work necessary for € 200–300,000.
- A rather narrow nave. Yes, I am aware I sound like a spoilt child. Remember a Daimler is 500 centimeter long. In Welberg I could park a Daimler transverse on either side of the walkway in the nave.
- The past decades I appreciate post-war churches a lot, but some are simply not attractive and atmospheric.
- Gothic revival with plastered vaults; visible brick masonry is so much more attractive.
- Rough bricks and floor lead to rather bad acoustics.
But OK, every church is more interesting than a boring warehouse. Anyway, let's not forget that I am a lucky man in being able to afford whatever 'rather large building' to store my stuff and work on it.
After three months of looking into other churches and options for warehouses, the candidate buyer for Saint-Cornelius in Welberg could not lift his given option. Finance issues. No surprise. I was the first now and asked for a couple of weeks to do the quick procedure with the Municipality. The agent refused even that and put nasty pressure on me, otherwise he would go on with one of the said other candidates. Then we decided to buy. Well, the only good thing was that I rewrote their unusual 'strangle contract American style' and it was accepted. We signed the contract on 4 December 2019 and I was a tired but lucky man.
From December 2019 on, I had to do an incredible lot of work on the church. I had to do research into the state of the building, primarily on the leaks of the roof and gutters and the other overdue maintenance jobs. But I also had to prepare the building so that I can move all my tons of stuff from my current warehouse to the church. What am I going to do in the Cornelius Basilica?
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What am I going to do in the Cornelius Basilica?
Jobs to be done on the church: the Three Big Jobs and the fifty other jobs (Dutch)
The Saint Boniface Church is Alphen-on-Rhine was the church of the first half of my life. Its warm, decorated, colourful interior determined my love for gothic revival churches for the rest of my life. This is an old scan of an old analogue photo, apparently from about All Saints, judging the banners. Photos © Rens Swart, unless stated otherwise, like the one above
The brick cross rib vaults of the Saint-Boniface have always been regarded as perfect by me: colour, shape, material, light. Inspiring!
Colours and shades of this polychrome pattern paintings make up a very atmospheric interior. Sint-Bonifatiuskerk, Alphen aan den Rijn.
Couldn't I build a warehouse myself, like I have currently, a bit larger than the one on this photo? I look for at least 200 square meter. Photo constructiebedrijfvandecamp.nl
This church has been transformed to a house. A brave man did this almost on his own. The church is a rather small neo-roman building and I like it that the experience of space is still about present, but the infinite whiteness of the interior for me destroys every grain of inspiration of it. Photo Finesse Makelaardij
The church of the Nativity of Our Lady in Dussen is an interesting post-war (1953) building of the rather important architect Gerard Holt, combining traditionalism with brutalist concrete. The parish is negotiating about redevelopment and if this would fail, I could be a candidate – but this takes ages. Acoustics are not fine. There is an interesting basement under the floor (suitable for cars) and the church is not too far from home.
The church of Saint Cornelius in Den Hout is also not far from home and a nice example of a gothic revival church of P.J. van Genk (1878). The parish and diocese prepared a thorough bid book on the church. The nave is a little narrow, the vaults are plastered, the slate roof and lead and the crossing tower is bad and the asking price is therefore too high. It is a classified national monument and the interior pieces would therefore possibly severely limit my use of the space. I love to keep them, but I would store the pews in a corner. Photo © by Diana Nieuwold of kerkfotografie.nl
This very late gothic revival church (1926), the Theresia church in Waspik, is only 7 kilometer from my home, spacious and has stone vaults. It came for sale when I was looking for a church, so that's very interesting. However, it is part of a cloister complex that one prefers to develop as a whole. I was invited to make an offer on the church only, but there is almost no exterior space and the estimate is rather high.
I succeeded! On 4 December 2019 I got the keys of the Cornelius church in Welberg. I was a lucky man.