The monstrance, the thief and the Dominican nuns of Brussels
Stories from the archives of the English convents in exile
The English Dominican nuns of the second Order were founded by Cardinal Philip Howard at Vilvorde (near Brussel) in 1661; in 1669, they settled in what was to be their long-term house, locally known as the Spellikens, in Brussels. On 7 April 1705, the nuns were horrified to find that their monstrance, containing the Blessed Sacrament, had been stolen. For six weeks altogether, they prayed continually and sang the Great Litanies and the Litanies of Our Blessed Lady. Nine Masses were said in honour of St Joseph, and prayers addressed to St Antony of Padua, know to help recover lost objects. This is a poignant testimony of their profound belief in the effectiveness of prayer as a mode of action. The Bishop even ordered three prayer days throughout the entire town of Brussels, with an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. At the convent church, which was dressed in mourning purple from Easter to the Ascension, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for six days. Moreover, the nuns fasted on bread and water for two Fridays, and sat on the ground, regardless of age and infirmity, during the time normally dedicated to meals. This was done so ‘that God would be pleased to manifest to us the sacriledgous thiefe’.
On 16 May 1705, John Jacobs, Master and Deacon of his trade as a mason, was ceased and imprisoned in Steenport. The nuns were all the more put out because they had employed him, and his father before him, for thirty-six years as a mason; he even served their Mass, and they ‘confided in him like a Domestick.’ After three days in the gaol, he confessed to the theft. He indicated he had broken the monstrance, melted the silver and gold and sold a large part to various goldsmiths. What remained, he had buried in his garden; he was promptly taken out of prison in order to show the Amtpman and the judges the exact locations of these caches, which contained the rest of the monstrance and its foot. The search revealed he had planted trees over the holes, for better concealment. The scandal was such that ‘a multitude of people’ came to view the garden, and ‘the streets were covered with men, women & children, from four o clocke in the morning till nine at night’, looking through the hedges or even trespassing into the garden, so that soldiers had to keep guard against intruders. Some tried to bribe the soldiers to let them in, and this public curiosity lasted for ten days altogether – lapsing only with the thief’s execution. Yet John Jacobs did not confess to what he had done with the Blessed Sacrament, despite being racked for that information.
On 26 May 1705, John Jacobs was found guilty of sacrilege and sentenced to death. On that day, he wrote a letter (in Flemish) to the Dominican community and another to their confessor, Ambrose Grymes, then Provincial of England, begging their forgiveness. On 27 May 1705, the day after his sentence, John Jacobs was taken to the place of his execution in a cart. He was bareheaded and accompanied by a Jesuit, under the protection of armed soldiers who surrounded them on horseback. In front of the convent church which he had robbed, he climbed down from the cart, was stripped to his waist, tied to a post and whipped with three rods. Then he was placed in a pitch coat and put back in the cart, down to the market square where the scaffold had been erected. He asked the crowd’s forgiveness for his crime, and finally confessed to what he had done with the Blessed Sacrament, declaring: ‘Look or search no more for the holy Host which I stole, for I tooke it in my sinful mouth, for which I am sorry.’ At that point, his right hand was cut off, in punishment of the crime of theft; he was then strangled before being put to the fire. His burnt body was recovered from the ashes and taken to the Three Towers in the city, there ‘to be exposed to the view of all the world.’
John Jacobs’s sacrilegious theft and subsequent execution brought much public attention to the English Dominican nuns. Soon, benefactors abounded to help with the fashioning of a new monstrance; once complete, this was carried to the great church of St Gudule where it received the Blessed Sacrament. From there, ‘all the Orders met together’ and in a great procession of religious men and women, it was carried back to the Dominican nuns’ church. Throughout the entire procession, the nuns sang the Te Deum, the Cannons sang Tantum Ergo, and music was played with drums and trumpets and ‘Commers (wich resound as loud as Cannons). The church bell rang freely to welcome the return of the Blessed Sacrament. For such an exceptional occasion, convent and city were brought together in a common celebration; the great procession was the first of its kind in that street, which ‘was hung with Tapestrie & devout Picturs from the street’ all the way to the church doors; the church itself was ‘richly adorn’d, and severall new things made for the Alter express for this Solemnity.’ Later, the Pope granted a plenary indulgence for all the faithful who would come to the church on Easter Monday, where the Sacrament would be exposed all day. Those indulgences were to be renewed for seven years, thereby ensuring great public affluence on those days for the little English convent of Dominican nuns in exile.
For more details on the English Dominican nuns of the second Order at Brussels, see The Prioress and community of Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight (ed.), ‘Records of the Dominican nuns of the second order’, Catholic Record Society, Dominicana, vol. 25 (1925), pp.176–241.