The Shetland parish has launched an appeal for 4,000 Euros to erect a stone monument in Bottelare parish church in Belgium. It is to commemorate 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 for eleven years here until his premature death of smallpox 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 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".
Fr Theophilus Verstraeten died of smallpox, contracted from a Belgian fisherman to whom he was administering the last rites. The circumstances are described in the magazine article reproduced above. The town council minuted a tribute to the late Catholic priest, noting how he had won the respect of all during his eleven years in Lerwick.
His body was taken back to the church of Bottelare in the Diocese of Ghent (Belgium) and he was buried next to his mother 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 intends to raise funds for 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 started making application for the necessary permits. The estimated cost is 4,000 Euros (approximately £3,500). Already we have raised one third of that total. If you would like to help us, you can leave donations in the cash box below the candle stand in the church or contact us directly through the contacts page of this 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.