The Shetland parish has recently raised funds to erect a stone monument in Bottelare parish church in Belgium. It is to commemorate Fr Theophilus Verstraeten, the first resident priest in Shetland after the Reformation. He served in Lerwick from 1860-1871.
Fr Verstraeten joined the North Pole Mission while he was still a seminarian in the Diocese of Ghent. Soon after his ordination in 1859 he was sent to assist another missionary in the Faroe Islands. Within a year, his superior transferred him to Shetland and he served the Catholic community here for eleven years until his premature death of smallpox, contracted while giving the last rites to a Belgian fisherman, at the age of 39.
We have many reasons to be grateful to Fr Verstraeten. His labours in the islands, 150 years ago, laid the foundations of the modern parish. It would be over eighty years before Shetland had another resident priest. He had been fundraising for a Catholic chapel in Lerwick and by the time of his death had banked donations of £1,246 (more than £100,000 at current values). This was invested and ultimately contributed to the building of the present St Margaret's Church which was opened in July 1911. Fr Verstraeten was remembered even then by a correspondent to the Shetland News who refers to him as "the tall dignified gentleman with the gold-rimmed spectacles". His story is told in the magazine article reproduced below, written by a former parish priest of Lerwick.
Fr Verstraeten's body was taken back to his home village of Bottelare in the Diocese of Ghent (Belgium) and he was buried next to his mother outside St Anne's church. The grave has now gone, replaced after the second world war by a military cemetery, but we know that it was originally located by the crucifix to the right of this picture.
Hilde has told the story of how we traced the burial place of Fr Theophilus Verstraeten, and made contact with parishioners from St Anne's church in Belgium, in a blog posted on our website.
The Shetland Catholic parish now plans to erect a monument in the church at Bottelare to give thanks for Fr Verstraeten's pioneering work in Shetland and to commemorate our time in the North Pole Mission. The photo shows a mock-up of how the monument would appear in the church. It will be hand carved on a slab of white marble, to match the style of other monuments in this historic church, by a local stone carver. Our friends in Belgium have now obtained the necessary permits and the proposed date for the unveiling of the finished monument is Sunday 6th October 2024. This is a joint collaboration between the Shetland parish and the Belgian parish community of St Anne's Church.
CARVING THE MONUMENT
The design and carving of the monument has been entrusted to Filip Martin, a specialist stone carver who has been involved in creating and restoring a wide variety of funerary monuments in Belgium. These photographs show him working on other projects.
Other examples of Filip Martin's work can be found on the Letterkappers website.
THE NORTH POLE MISSION
As this project progresses, we will add links to extra pages here, giving more information on the 19th century mission which brought Belgian, French and German missionaries to the arctic shores of the North Atlantic.
Periodic reports on the progress of the North Pole Mission were published in Brussels to inform benefactors of progress made in the individual stations. PDF scans of these documents will be found here (in French):North Pole Mission Reports