Hidden Catholic Churches in Amsterdam

One of our readers, Pieter-Jan van Giersbergen, who is one of the curators at the Our Lord in the Attic Museum has sent in the following article to LAJ at our request. Many readers of LAJ will, of course, be familiar with the English recusants, "priest holes" and hidden private chapels that came about as a result of the persecutions of Catholics during the English Reformation. In the case of Ireland, we tend to think of Mass rocks -- stones in remote locations that served as makeshift altars for the offering of the Mass. However, many may be less familiar with a similar sort of history taking place in parts of Northern Europe, in this instance, specifically Holland, where chapels were disguised within buildings that otherwise looked like regular buildings used for secular purposes. Today we will go over some of this fascinating and under-explored aspect of Catholic liturgical history -- SRT

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by Pieter-Jan van Giersbergen

The building directly left of the middle contains in its attic the clandestine Catholic church Het Hert. The building with the orange accents is the entrance of the museum. Visitors enter the monumental building via an underground passage.

Amongst the many reasons to visit Amsterdam, Catholics should pay extra attention to one particular place of interest. In the oldest part of the city at the Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40 stands the museum of Our Lord in the Attic. Visiting this museum will reveal a typical seventeenth century canal-side house with one surprising feature in the attic: a fully preserved clandestine Catholic church.

Interior of the clandestine Catholic church Het Hert, Our Lord in the Attic Museum.
Photo courtesy of Arjan Bronkhorst

In 1578, Protestants replaced the Catholic city government of Amsterdam. Catholic churches and monasteries were repurposed for use by the Dutch Reformed Church or received new public functions. This event is known in Dutch as the Alteratie, the Alteration. Soon after, in 1581, a law was promulgated that forbade all Catholic religious gatherings and any public expression of the Catholic faith. Breaking these laws was initially punished only with fines, but eventually confiscations followed. Despite this revolution in the religious landscape a large part of the Amsterdam citizens remained faithful to the Mother Church. No longer having any public places of worship, Catholic faithful came together in the houses of fellow believers.

The flourishing of the Roman Catholic Church in Amsterdam’ displaying clandestine Catholic churches as well as charitable institutions in ordinary houses, printed around 1805, collection of Museum Our Lord in the Attic.

The situation changed over the course of the seventeenth century. Local enforcers of the law were liable to corruption and, in exchange for bribes, promised not to enforce the penalties for breaking the anti-Catholic laws. Much to the chagrin of the Protestant leaders, Catholics were mostly left unbothered. Catholics could build fully-equipped churches inside ordinary houses as long as these were not noticeable from the street. The existence of these churches, called Paepsche vergaderplaetsen (Popish gathering places) by the officials, was an open secret. 

Clandestine Catholic churches often carried names which did not reveal their religious character such as Het Hert (the deer), De Boom (the tree) or De Lelie (the lilly). All but two were, either completely or largely, demolished over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most were replaced by public churches in neo-styles. The two clandestine Catholic churches which survived in their entirety are Het Hert, part of the Our Lord in the Attic Museum, and the Chapel of Saint John and Saint Ursula in the Amsterdam Beguinage.

Exterior of the Amsterdam Beguinage chapel

Interior of the Amsterdam Beguinage chapel, another fully preserved clandestine Catholic church. The church is currently used by fathers of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament

Looking at the interiors of these churches one immediately notices the common application of galleries. Galleries were needed in order to accommodate the many faithful in the confined spaces. The size of the sanctuaries were also affected by the lack of space, which made them unsuitable for solemn liturgies. The altars were typically decorated in a modest baroque style. Despite having to pay fines and bribes, Catholics of the wealthy city of Amsterdam still invested in their churches. Renowned painters, silver smiths and wood carvers were tasked with supplying ornaments and furnishings. Objects were often imported from Catholic art centres such as Antwerp, but were also made locally. The altarpiece by Amsterdam painter Jacob de Wit (1695-1754) at museum Our Lord in the Attic is an example of the latter.

A close up of the altar at Museum Our Lord in the Attic displaying 18th century silver ornaments by Jacobus Smits. These ornaments, which were made to frame a monstrance and tabernacle, are part of the original inventory of the clandestine church.

The situation in the Dutch Republic brought about the development of certain unique liturgical objects. One of these is the beaardingskistje (interment box). Since Catholic graveyards were no longer available after the alteratie it became impossible for Catholics to be buried in consecrated earth. This led to the usage of small, often coffin-shaped, containers designed to store consecrated earth. Priests brought these to the home of the deceased, where they would place three scoops of consecrated earth into the coffin. After this private ritual, the Catholic deceased could be buried in a public graveyard or church. A particularly lavish silver internment box is a part of the standard exhibition of Our Lord in the Attic.

Interment box for clandestine Catholic church De Pool, P.C. Ebbekin, ca. 1670, collection of the Our Lord in the Attic Museum

The clandestine church of Our Lord in the Attic survived thanks to the work of a circle of friends who wished to preserve the Catholic heritage of Amsterdam. They bought the church in 1887 and set it up as the second oldest museum of the city. The transformation from church to museum gave Het Hert an opportunity to continue its existence. Now hundreds of people visit the museum every day. There this historical monument offers a very tangible experience of this unique period in Catholic history.

For more information see the museum’s official website: https://opsolder.nl/en/  


The following is a selection of objects used in clandestine church Het Hert, part of the collection of Museum Our Lord in the Attic. Please note that some of these objects are not on display in the museum at the moment. 

 ‘The Baptism of Christ’, Jacob de Wit, ca. 1716 

Ciborium in Louis XVI style, ca. 1790 

Monstrance, 1703-1704

Eighteenth century altar frontal

Eighteenth century altar frontal

Finally, some interiors of demolished clandestine Catholic churches in Amsterdam:

De Boom (demolished in 1911)  

De Franse Kerk (demolished in 1912) 

Mozes en Aäron (demolished in 1839) 

De Ster (demolished in 1848) 

 Geloof, Hoop en Liefde (demolished in 1817)

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