The confessionals where generations of Belgians admitted their sins stood stacked in a corner of what was once Sacred Heart Church, proof the stalls — as well as the Roman Catholic house of worship — had outlived their purpose.

The building is to close down for two years while a cafe and concert stage are added, with plans to turn the church into “a new cultural hot spot in the heart of Mechelen,” almost within earshot of where Belgium’s archbishop lives.

Around the corner, a former Franciscan church is now a luxury hotel where music star Stromae spent his wedding night amid the stained-glass windows.


According to the Associated Press, Across Europe, the continent that nurtured Christianity for most of two millennia, churches, convents, and chapels stand empty and increasingly derelict as faith and church attendance shriveled over the past half-century.

“That is painful. I will not hide it. On the other hand, there is no return to the past possible,” Mgr. Johan Bonny, bishop of Antwerp, told the Associated Press. Something needs to be done and now, even more of the once-sacred structures are repurposed for anything from clothes shops and climbing walls to nightclubs.

It is a phenomenon seen over much of Europe’s Christian heartland from Germany to Italy and many nations in between. It really stands out in Flanders, in northern Belgium, which has some of the greatest cathedrals on the continent and the finest art to fill them.

If only it had enough faithful. A 2018 study from the PEW research group showed, in Belgium, that of the 83% that say they were raised Christian, only 55% still consider themselves so. Only 10% of Belgians still attended church regularly.

On average, every one of the 300 towns in Flanders has about six churches, and often not enough faithful to fill a single one. Some become eyesores in city centers, their maintenance a constant drain on finances.

Mechelen, a town of 85,000 just north of Brussels is the Roman Catholic center of Belgium. It has two dozen churches, several huddled close to St. Rumbold’s cathedral with its UNESCO World Heritage belfry tower. Mayor Bart Somers has been working for years to give many of the buildings a different purpose.

“In my city we have a brewery in a church, we have a hotel in a church, we have a cultural center in a church, we have a library in a church. So we have a lot of new destinations for the churches,” said Somers, who as Flemish regional minister is also involved in repurposing some 350 churches spread across the densely populated region of 6.7 million.