All welcome at Antwerp’s only English-speaking Mass
The Holy Family Parish has grown in its 40 years and invites newcomers to meet the international anglophone congregation at its annual barbecue picnic next month
Every continent covered
According to Father Francis Peerlinck, “the whole family should come, as the parish has a lot to offer.” He explains that the congregation is made up of about 40 families, including native English-speakers and those who speak it as a second language.
Parish president Graeme Stephan adds that, out of that 40, “there’s upwards of 30 nationalities, including Belgian, Hungarian, German, French, Canadian, American, Ecuadorian, South African, Thai and Australian.”
So that’s every continent (bar Antarctica) covered. This diverse congregation welcomes expats from the entire world heartily, and, indeed, multiculturalism was a topic at a recent Mass.
Unlike weekly Mass, the picnic and special Mass on 15 June will be held at one of the parishioners’ houses in Brasschaat. “Newcomers are welcome to stay for the barbecue picnic as well,” says Stephan. The event is a prime example of how active the Holy Family Parish is in the Antwerp community and beyond.
Holy Family donates to local charities, has funded Father Peerlinck to work in Uganda and supports students at the Don Bosco Institute in Kabarondo, Rwanda. “One of our parishioners has very generously donated the proceeds from a book he recently published, which they will then use to build a classroom at the school,” says Stephan.
The congregation is noticeably young, and the entire flock, young and old, has an infectious vitality about it. The parish – which is looking for more people to join its choir – has swapped the typical church organ for a pair of acoustic guitars, making hymns much livelier than in a traditional church. After Mass members stay to socialise rather than going straight home.
Father Peerlinck is the stalwart, the building block of the church
Youth is well cared for by the parish: It celebrates Baptism and prepares children for First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation. Babysitting, children’s catechism and liturgy are also provided. There is also a good relationship with the English-speaking International Protestant Church of Antwerp, with which the parish organises activities for younger members; the two come together each year for a joint ecumenical service.
Peerlinck has presided over the Holy Family Parish since its founding, and Stephan describes him as “the stalwart, the building block of the church”.
Peerlinck was ordained in Leuven and studied in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and Tübingen, Germany, where he knew Professor Josef Ratzinger, who went on to be Pope Benedict. Peerlinck gained a doctorate in systematic theology in 1969 and became pastor at the University of Antwerp.
He knows the history of the parish well and says with a smile that “everything has changed in the course of 40 years”. Founded in 1972, the parish has humble origins, when it had quite a different congregation from that of today.
Come a long way
“We started with six American families,” Peerlinck recalls. The first English Mass was celebrated in the dining room of the Our Lady of Lourdes Institute in Ekeren. But the parish grew quickly and moved six times by 1996, finally settling at the Don Bosco Chapel in Schoten.
Everything has changed in the course of 40 years
The size of the congregation “has fluctuated over the 40-odd years,” mentions Stephan. “It depends on the economy.” In times of economic trouble, many expat families go back home, whereas in times of prosperity, the parish grows as families feel freer to migrate.
Average attendance at Sunday Mass, for instance, reached 65 people at one point, but it dropped to about 20 after the economic crash of 2008. With the global economy on the rise, numbers can be expected to grow again. Those who move away often keep in contact, with some youngsters returning years later with children of their own.
On 15 June, Mass will be said at 11.00, with roughly 40 people expected to attend. The picnic costs €7.50 for adults and €5 for under-12s; babies aged two and under are free. 22 June sees the last Mass before the summer vacation, and the new parish year begins on the last Sunday of August.
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Photo: The confirmation of young members of the Holy Family congregation by bishop Jan van Cauwelaert and Father Frans Peerlinck in the Don Bosco Chapel in Antwerp