The Vrouwekerk ruins in Leiden, the Netherlands
© Alan Rogers
What is at stake are the ruins of the Church of Our Lady, used by the Huguenots (also called Walloons—French-speaking Calvinist refugees) and where some of the Pilgrims worshiped during their exile in Holland.
Ironically, a major sponsor of the shopping center is the giant Dutch holding company Ahold, which owns the Stop and Shop, Giant, Tops and Bi-Low supermarket chains in the United States.
"The remains of the church where the Pilgrims worshipped before their epochal journey to New England ought to be a permanent memorial," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, United Church of Christ president. "It's almost the last physical evidence in Leiden of an event that changed history and continues to be a major factor in the cultural ties between the United States and the Netherlands. It is an international cultural monument and must be treated with respect."
The church in its heyday
As ruins go, these aren't much to look at: Just a 40-foot wall with the outline of a portal and a few faint traces of the rest of the foundation. It is the target of graffiti artists and is used as a public toilet. But, says Jeremy Bangs, an American historian, "it is one of very few remaining structures directly related to the Pilgrims, and for that reason it deserves to be preserved."
Also surviving is a medieval hospital where Myles Standish recuperated from wounds received fighting the Dutch. This, too, will be demolished.
Bangs, who heads the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum Foundation, has instituted legal proceedings to save the historical site, and until the Dutch Council of State renders a decision, the city cannot go ahead with demolition.
City fathers, however, are cool to keeping this site. Those who write enquiring about the ruins receive a form letter, noting that the church was torn down 300 years ago and that "the pieces left are in the middle of the centre, so it is not possible to create a park around it. There are a lot of other nice objects in Leiden, which will remember the Pilgrim fathers."
Bangs points out that all of the Pilgrims' houses have long ago been torn down, the last, Gov. William Bradford's, in 1985. The memories are marked by a few site markers attached to modern buildings.
The city's plans do not call for new construction where the church wall is. A row of 20 medieval and 17th century houses will be bulldozed for that. The designers simply want to leave a large square devoid of any structures.
What Bangs and other supporters propose is to have the "Vrouwekerk" ruins incorporated into the shopping development, perhaps with some benches and landscaping added.
Bangs brings considerable expertise to the project. He was previously chief curator of Plimoth Plantation, the recreation of the Pilgrim colony in Plymouth, Mass.
Not only is the site sacred to the descendants of the Pilgrims, but it is also the church in which some of colonial America's first families worshipped, including ancestors of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, George H.W. Bush and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Pilgrims left England in 1608, settling first in Amsterdam then moving a year later to Leiden before sailing to America in 1620 on the Mayflower.
The Church of Our Lady, their principal place of worship, dates from the 14th century. After 1584, it was used by the Walloon Reformed community.
Readers of United Church News can play an active role in helping to save a piece of Congregational history by expressing their support for preservation. Letters can be sent to:
The Honorable Dr. Jan Postma, Mayor, Stadhuis Plein #1, Postbus 9100, 2300 PC Leiden, The Netherlands;
His Excellency J.M. Voss, Ambassador of The Netherlands, Royal Netherlands Embassy, 4200 Linnean Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20008; and
Dr. C.H. van der Hoeven, President of the Board, Royal Ahold, N.V., P.O. Box 3050, 1500 HB Zaandam, The Netherlands.
Additional information about the Vrouwekerk ruins can be found online at www.delanoye.org/Vrouwenkerk.cfm.
The UCC Office of Communication is collecting signatures on the UCC website at www.ucc.org/pilgrims for a petition urging the Leiden City Council to preserve the remains of the Pilgrims' church as a cultural memorial.