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Brussels church converted into climbing gym

21:19 22/06/2023

A church in Brussels has undergone an unusual transformation from a house of worship into a climbing gym.

Saint Anthony of Padua Church in Forest will offer climbers a unique setting to practise their sport, Bruzz reports.

The church had been struggling to stay operational due to high maintenance costs, including a hole in the roof that let in rain and made the space impossible to heat during the winter. Repairs were unaffordable and so the church turned to the municipal authorities.

“The intention was for the church to continue to serve the city,” said auxiliary bishop Thierry Claessens. “If not through religion, then with something else that we really need in Brussels.”

Housing was not an option because of the church's location in an already densely populated area.

Stéphane Dandois, who had already started another climbing gym in the Anderlecht neighbourhood of Brussels, recognised a chance to fulfil his ambitions of creating a 20-metre-high climbing wall.

“It wasn’t easy to find buildings that qualified,” Dandois said. “When I heard the congregation was looking for a solution for the church, I called right away.”

The municipality and the church agreed to Dandois' proposal for partial repurposing of the church into a climbing gym and together with co-founders Kyril Wittouck, Nicolas Mathieu and Martin Simon, it took just over a year to improve the foundation, repair the church's roof and give the building a second life.

The original state of the church was preserved as best as possible, meaning neither the altar nor the stained glass windows were changed. Other symbols of Christianity were removed per the request of the church’s management, including the confessional booths and pews.

“Our older relatives did find it strange at first – a climbing gym in a church,” said co-founder Nicolas Mathieu. “But after my explanation, they saw that this is how the church can make money and how we can preserve history.”

The Maniak Padoue climbing gym required an investment of more than €2 million to complete.

“It was a very big challenge,” cofounder Kyril Wittouck said. “The church was in a very advanced state of disrepair. We had to really think about how we could make the most of the space to offer our customers the best possible climbing experience.”

The gym can accommodate up to 150 people at any one time.

The Catholic Church has the most licensed religious institutions in Brussels by far, with 102 churches compared to 26 mosques, 21 Orthodox churches, 13 Protestant churches, 1 Anglican church and nine synagogues, according to figures from the office of Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort (PS).

But church attendance has been declining for years, according to the Catholic Church's annual reports, and high maintenance costs are therefore sometimes difficult to justify.

Only part of Saint Anthony of Padua has been converted into a climbing gym, with worship still possible elsewhere in it.

“For us, it's extremely interesting,” said Thierry Claessens, head of temporal services for the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels.

“We end up with a smaller place of worship, of a size suited to the community, in good condition, with a regular income to pay for insurance and heating.”

Written by Helen Lyons