The old parish church in Rekem was easy to find – it sits right on the square, the castle on one side and the restaurant where we ate lunch on the other. The fourth side of the square was a brick wall, 8 or 10 feet high. Now a museum, the church opened at 1 pm, so we sauntered over after our lunch.
I don’t know why so many churches in the lowlands have become museums, except for the obvious fact that both Catholics and protestants claimed them. Turning them into historical sites instead of religious ones may have been a way to cut the quarrelling. Then again, as populations moved out of the old villages and into more modern and convenient quarters, church attendance may have dropped off, making the old parish impractical to maintain.
We entered St Peter’s museum/church. A woman sat at a desk behind the altar rail. She was painting her nails and chatting on a cell phone, and ignored us.
This was the parish church of the elder Vanderdoncks. The plain brick exterior gave no hint of the baroque interior. There was little on display, except pamphlets about the surrounding area. And no records were available at the church; they’re all in the town hall of Lanakan, the city which absorbed Rekem. I got an email address from the lady with the nail polish for the town historian, but I can’t make out the address and I haven’t followed up yet.
Leaving the church, we wandered around the little town, and at one point stopped dead in our tracks.
Here was a small brick building, its once large entrance reduced to a small door and even smaller window. The sign said “Belgish Tol Kantoor. Bureau de Douane, Belge.” This was the customs office – the very office in which Boniface Vanderdonck would have worked. Like many buildings in Oude Rekem, it was not open on a weekday in October, so we had to content ourselves with imagining Great-great-grandfather Vanderdonck going to work there, day after day, until his retirement.
We wandered around outside the town looking for the cemetery, but found only a large roadside crucifix and some perfectly contented-looking sheep.
Back in town, we saw a workman heading into the castle, and asked him if he knew where the cemetery was. He gestured behind the brick wall; it had been paved over years ago. We looked though a gate and saw a large field covered in cracked asphalt.
The workman wanted to know what we were doing in Rekem. (He had no English so our conversation took place in Dutch, German, and French.) We showed him the doodbreif, and he said, “Vanderdonck, Vanderdonck,” thoughtfully. Then he remembered: he had seen the name on some old envelopes, inside the castle. (The castle is now used as a conference center, and contains a restaurant that is used for groups. Tours are available only for pre-booked tour groups, and only in the summer.) The man took my email address, and said he would look for the envelopes again, and if he found them, would let me know where in Rekem the family had lived. It’s been almost two months now, and I haven’t heard from him. I doubt I ever will.
So, there is more research to do in Rekem someday. But we were on our way again, off to find, if we could, Alexis Dieudonne Vanderdonck’s birthplace, the town of Beek.
And Cathy, I promise, no more cliffhangers.