Sustainability and community spirit: moving past the empty words

Ingrid Van Wateghem

As I park my car at Averbode Abbey, the magic of the place overwhelms me. A man in a long, white habit, brother Eric Seghers, comes to welcome me. ‘Shall we sit on the terrace or find a spot in the abbey café?’ he asks. In effect, this is a choice between the unique view of the abbey and the surrounding meadows or sitting at the robust, long tables in the sombre atmospheric abbey café with a few contemporary twists. I choose the latter option. Over the next hour, brother Eric tells me all about the abbey and The Moment, the abbey’s tourism/educational experience centre. He explains the cornerstones of the abbey: communio (community spirit), cultus (prayer) and caritas (servitude) and tells me how these are given a more modern interpretation. I notice remarkable coincidences with the flourishing community, a concept which has an important place within the Travelling to Tomorrow concept.

In gesprek met Eric Seghers -  broeder-econoom van de Abdij van Averbode

The Moment, an experience centre which focuses on sustainability and community spirit

Eric Seghers: “The visitor’s centre called ‘The Moment’ was created as a result of a lucky turn of events. We began a new economic activity with family and cooperative companies. We made beer, cheese and bread and were considering doing something more with these products within the abbey walls. As we walked past the listed but run-down service buildings on the Westpoort with the brewer and his spouse, we came up with the idea of opening up this part of the abbey site to visitors and tourists, offering them the chance to taste abbey products. Thanks to the Merodeproject, the buildings were restored and given new life as: The Moment, a tourism/educational experience centre where crafts could be practised and developed. The buildings are home to an abbey café with a house-brewery, a cheese ripening space, a bakery and an abbey shop. Information boards enable the visitor/tourist to find out more about abbey life, the publisher and the traditions of agriculture and food.”

In gesprek met Eric Seghers -  broeder-econoom van de Abdij van Averbode

“We want the visitors and tourists to feel welcomed into the abbey community within the café. It is easy to access and has its own, unique appearance which reflects the abbey’s refectory. People eat and drink together at long tables according to the communio (community spirit), one of our abbey’s cornerstones. The architecture is pared back and exudes calm and simplicity. It’s definitely not a noisy, clattering café like you may find elsewhere. Sustainability is certainly not a throw-away term for us. Both in the café and across the whole site, we have implemented an ecological policy with regard to energy and water purification. You can also find this sustainability in our furniture; the long tables are robust and have been bought to last for a very long time, even though this meant a significant financial investment.”

“In the café, visitors and tourists can taste our simple, honest and tasty abbey products. The fact that we offer food is not such a strange concept. Our abbey community has maintained a tradition of producing sustainable food and drink for many centuries. It has been home to a bakery, cheese-making facilities and a brewery for centuries. Its dairy farm contributes towards responsible agriculture. So, in effect, it was a logical step for the abbey community to develop its centuries-old economic activities in a new, contemporary way, with top quality foodstuffs such as beer, bread, cheese, ‘speculaas’ (spiced biscuits) and ‘peperkoek’ (gingerbread). The income goes to charitable projects, educational publications with social added value, and heritage projects.”

In gesprek met Eric Seghers -  broeder-econoom van de Abdij van Averbode

Our kitchen must have a ‘face’

Eric Seghers: “In the abbey café, we want to step away from standard products and fast-food. We want our abbey and locally made products to play a greater part and offer more seasonal meals. We must make bold choices and not just offer these tasty products from the local area on the plate, but also showcase them on our menus. Why offer spaghetti bolognese if we can offer spaghetti with our own abbey cheese? Our latest dessert is a delicious apple cake made with apples from Hageland. We also work with wines from nearby Kapittelberg and products from local farms. We want to stand out, without waving all sorts of labels around. And also on the basis of honesty. We aim to be as sustainable as possible but are under no illusions that we are perfect in this regard.”

In gesprek met Eric Seghers -  broeder-econoom van de Abdij van Averbode

Engagement with society

Eric Seghers tells me that running The Moment has been outsourced to Sense, a cluster of hospitality outlets with socially challenged individuals. And it comes as no surprise. The abbey has always connected spiritual life with community engagement.

Eric Seghers: “Alongside caring for our own community, we also look out for the people in the surrounding area. We always employed people in agriculture and, later, in the publishing house. And we still employ people in agriculture and the publishing house. Even those with limitations, whatever they may be. Our intention is to develop them so that they can then join the regular circuit of permanent employment. To give them a new start and the chance to build a new life. Our sous-chef came to us as a refugee from Afghanistan, via the asylum-seeker’s centre in Scherpenheuvel-Zichem. He started working here and was offered a permanent role in the kitchen. He recently bought a small house for him and his family.”

In gesprek met Eric Seghers -  broeder-econoom van de Abdij van Averbode

The term ‘community spirit’ (or communio) has been mentioned before but is now reiterated.
Eric Seghers: “One of the cornerstones of our brotherhood is community spirit or the communio. It means that you, as a person, connect with God but also with others, i.e. the community. We aim to realise, with our employees and volunteers, a people-focussed climate and a good group-dynamic.   To show our appreciation, we welcome them to our abbey once a year and all eat together in the monastery refectory.”

Traditional civil society is diminishing; new ‘passionate communities’ are emerging

“The majority of our visitors and tourists are still part of traditional civil society”, explains Eric Seghers, “but this is rapidly diminishing.”
”A new group of visitors is emerging: people who are focussing on an interest or activity, whether that be art and heritage specialists, walkers, cyclists, or those seeking peace and quiet.”

Eric Seghers: “People who are passionate about religious heritage are offered a tour around the church and the abbey buildings. People who are less interested in the religious aspects and prefer to focus on abbey life and traditions are offered a tour around the abbey itself. We tell them all about the abbey and today’s abbey community, walk through the farm and wash-house to the publishing house and onto The Moment. We visit the cheese-ripening area, the bakery and the house-brewery and finally the Moment, where we offer a tasting of the Averbode products. In the near future, we will offer other experiences, such as bread-baking courses. It’s all about two different types of visitors that you shouldn’t really confuse. I have already mentioned that the gate between the Moment and the mirrored-lake at the abbey may look a little austere. Perhaps, in the future, we need to find a suitable solution.”

In gesprek met Eric Seghers -  broeder-econoom van de Abdij van Averbode

More and more cyclists and walkers are finding their way to this spot on the interchange between the provinces of Antwerp, Flemish Brabant and Limburg. The Abbey is one of the gateways to the Merode region, which was created when the Prince of Merode sold 1,500 hectares of his woodland and natural space. Today, it is a hugely popular nature reserve with a scope that is unique in Flanders. You can cycle and walk through woods, fields, heath land and fens. It’s always a different experience. Walkers can tackle the walks of Abbot Jos and economist Eric on their own, or join guided walks or walks in silence.

Eric Seghers: “We have been a place of prayer and contemplation right from the start. Over the past few years, we have seen more and more people who are seeking calm and a chance for reflection. As well as opening the abbey to guests who wish to study and pray, people from education, and final-year students who come here for contemplation, we also welcome people who practise yoga and zen-meditation. We have also been in touch with people who organise mindfulness training courses. Although this new form of experiencing calm and reflection and the corresponding change project is still in a very early stage, it offers hopeful perspectives for the future.”

“The stratification within the range of visitors and tourists is encouraging but also presents us with challenges. The visitor who comes to walk in silence is seeking an experience that differs from the tourist who visits with friends to taste the abbey beer and cheese. The question is how we expand the offer for one without this becoming a hindrance to the other. We want to retain the unique atmosphere and the living environment of the abbey site and avoid the area being trampled underfoot. In terms of the future, we are considering a temporary art route, but we also have to think about how we can realise this without it getting in the way.”

“A group of people we have not yet reached out to includes businesses and multinationals. To start with, we heard rumblings that they were interested in coming here with their foreign visitors and showcasing our unique heritage and Burgundian character, but so far they’ve stayed away.”

In gesprek met Eric Seghers -  broeder-econoom van de Abdij van Averbode

Alleviating concerns is one of our priorities for the future

Eric Seghers: “We have not yet lost our vitality but realise that our community is getting smaller and older. Alleviating those concerns and monitoring the situation are priorities on our agenda. We want to pass on our centuries-old traditions in the future and are therefore seeking new partners who we can trust to carry out this task. It’s not always an easy task and one person may find it easier than another. It is a grieving process for some of the brothers. Some of the tasks have already been taken on by employees and volunteers. They provide the welcome in the guests’ quarter at the contemplation centre, or conduct the tours of the abbey. We can’t grumble about a lack of interest.”

“With Sense, we have all the experts we need for the hospitality aspect; the tourism element of the site is another, separate discipline. We know that there are many other opportunities with respect to tourism, both at the abbey itself and also with the many partners in the broader surrounding area. All help and expertise is welcome in order to create the flourishing destination.”

Portrait pictures Eric Seghers © Marcel Van Coile

Eric Segers

Eric Seghers was born in 1965. He studied Applied Economic Science at the UFSIA and worked as a credit-checker with Bank J. van Breda & C°. In 1991, he entered the Abdij der Norbertijnen in Averbode. He was ordained as a priest in 1998 and worked as a leader of contemplation classes. In 1999, he became prior of the abbey and, in 2008, abbey economist and a parochial priest in Meerhout-Laakdal. For over 15 years, he has been a Spirituality Mentor for the Business platform ETION Kempen.

Author Ingrid Van Wateghem was born and raised in Brussels. She is devoted to the city and the endless opportunities it offers on both a cultural and gastronomic level. Ingrid began her career with VISITFLANDERS as a prospector for the brochure ‘Vlaanderen Vakantieland’ (Flanders – Holiday Destination) and later developed to become a product developer. For the past four years, she has worked as product manager in the Flanders for Foodies team. She decided to become a story-weaver due to her curiosity about the challenges thrown up by the Tourism of Tomorrow and the partners’ corresponding vision.