On 1 April 1572 a group called the Watergeuzen or Gueux de mer (water-/sea-beggars, i.e. rebels) rebelled against the Spanish Habsburg crown which ruled the Low Countries, and conquered Brielle and later Vlissingen and other places. The town of Gorcum (also Gorkum or Gorinchem) fell into their hands in June, and they captured nine Franciscan friars and two lay brothers, as well as the parish priest, his assistant, and two others. These fifteen endured much abuse and suffering in prison and were then transported to Brielle, being exhibited for money to curious crowds on the way. At Brielle they were joined by four others. At the command of William de la Marck, Lord of Lumey, commander of the Gueux de mer, they were each interrogated and ordered to renounce their belief in the Blessed Sacrament and in papal supremacy. They all remained firm in their faith – even those who had been less than perfect Christians before their arrest. The prince of Orange, William the Silent, ordered those in authority to leave priests and religious unmolested, but Lumey ignored this command and had them all hanged, in a turf-shed on the night of 9 July.
‘The hour is now at hand,’ Father Nicholas said, ‘to receive from the hand of the Lord the long desired reward of the struggle, the crown of eternal happiness.’ He encouraged them [his companions] not to fear death nor to lose through cowardice the crown prepared for them and soon to be placed on their brows. Finally he prayed that they would joyfully follow the path on which they saw him leading the way. With these and similar words he joyfully mounted the ladder without ceasing to exhort his companions until strangulation deprived him of the use of his voice” (contemporary account of the martyrdom).
There were especially two dogmas of the Faith that were attacked by the heretics of the 16th century: the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff. The Calvinists in Holland persecuted with relentless fury the confessors of the Catholic Faith. The holy martyrs gave their lives particularly in defense of these two fundamental doctrines.
When the Calvinists, who had set themselves against all ecclesiastical as well as civil authority, took possession of the city of Gorcum, they retained 19 of the clergy as prisoners, though they had promised to let the inhabitants depart from the town without being molested. There were four secular priests among the prisoners, four priests of other religious orders, and 11 Friars Minor of the convent at Gorcum. The latter were the guardian, Father Nicholas Pieck; his vicar, Father Jerome of Weert; Fathers Wilhad, an old man of 90; Theodoric of Emden; Nicaise Jonson, a learned theologian; Godfrey of Mervelan; Anthony of Weert; Anthony of Hornaer; young Father Francis Rod; and 2 lay brothers, Peter van Asche and Cornelius of Dorstat.
Cast into a filthy prison, they were cruelly treated during the first night by the drunken soldiers. They seemed to vent their hellish rage principally against the guardian, Father Nicholas. Taking the cord which he wore around his waist and putting it around his neck, they dragged him to the door of the prison and threw the cord across it in order to hang him at once. But as a result of pulling the cord back and forth against its weight, the cord tore, and Father Nicholas fell to the earth unconscious. In order to make sure that he was dead or just for the purpose of outrage, the persecutors took a burning candle and burned off his hair and eyebrows, applying the flame also to his nose and open mouth. With a parting laugh of derision, they then left the motionless body in order to torment the others. They struck the face of the aged Father Wilhad with savage blows, but each time he merely said, “Deo gratias! Thanks be to God!”
After the miscreants had departed, Father Nicholas regained consciousness, for he had only fainted. As soon as he was able to speak again, he encouraged his brethren, declaring that in defense of the Faith he was ready to undergo the same torments again, and even more cruel ones, if it so pleased God, and as often as it pleased God. “For” he said, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.”
On the following day several attempts were made to cause the friars, and in particular their superior, to apostatize. The Calvinists opened a discussion with them about the Blessed Sacrament and the primacy of the pope. But the heretics soon found themselves cornered by the clear proofs advanced by the guardian and his brethren. They hoped to be able at least to deceive one of the lay brothers, but he answered very simply that he was in accord with everything that his guardian had said.
Meanwhile, the relatives of Father Nicholas, especially his two brothers, were making every effort to obtain his deliverance. But, like a good shepherd, the guardian declared: “I will not leave prison unless my brethren come with me, and even though there were only one detained, and he the lowliest of them all, I would remain here with him.” When his brothers declared that one could renounce the primacy of the pope without denying God, he showed them that he who separates himself from the pope, separates himself from the Church; and that he who renounces the Church, renounces Christ the Lord. And then he spoke with holy zeal: “I would rather endure death for the honor of God than swerve even a hair’s breadth from the Catholic Faith.”
Eight days later the confessors were taken to Briel, where the Calvinist leader had his headquarters. He had them all hanged there on July 9, 1572. With Christ they shared the disgrace of shameful death, but at the same time also a glorious ascension.
In 1865, at the solemn celebration of the day on which the holy Apostles Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom, Pope Pius IX canonized the martyrs of Gorcum.
There were eleven Franciscan friars or Minderbroeders, one Dominican friar or Predikheer, two Norbertine canons regular and a local canon regular, or witheren and five wereldheren (secular clergy). The nineteen put to death on 9 July 1572 were:
- Leonard van Veghel (1527), spokesman, secular priest, and since 1566 pastor of Gorkum
- Peter of Assche (1530), Franciscan friar
- Andrew Wouters (1542), secular priest, pastor of Heinenoord in the Hoeksche Waard
- Nicasius of Heeze (1522), Franciscan friar, theologian and priest
- Jerome of Weert (1522), Franciscan friar, priest, pastor in Gorcum
- Anthony of Hoornaar, Franciscan friar and priest
- Godfried van Duynen (1502), secular priest, former pastor in northern France
- Willehad of Denemarken (1482), Franciscan friar and priest
- James Lacobs (1541), Norbertine canon
- Francis of Roye (1549), Franciscan friar and priest
- John of Cologne, Dominican friar, pastor in Hoornaar near Gorkum
- Anthony of Weert (1523), Franciscan friar and priest
- Theodore of der Eem (born c.1499–1502), Franciscan friar and priest, chaplain to a community of Franciscan Tertiary Sisters in Gorkum
- Cornelius of Wijk bij Duurstede (1548), Franciscan lay brother
- Adrian van Hilvarenbeek (1528), Norbertine canon and pastor in Monster, South Holland
- Godfried of Mervel, Vicar of Melveren, Sint-Truiden (1512), Franciscan priest, vicar of the friary in Gorkum
- Jan of Oisterwijk (1504), canon regular, a chaplain for the Beguinage in Gorkum
- Nicholas Poppel (1532), secular priest, chaplain in Gorkum
- Nicholas Pieck (1534), Franciscan friar, priest and theologian, Guardian of the friary in Gorkum, his native city
A shrub bearing 19 white flowers is said to have sprung up at the site of their martyrdom. Many miracles have been attributed to their intercession, especially the curing of hernias. Their beatification took place on 14 November 1675, and their canonization on 29 June 1865. For many years the place of their martyrdom in Brielle has been the scene of numerous pilgrimages and processions. The reliquary of their remains is now enshrined in the Church of Saint Nicholas, Brussels, Belgium.
Each religious order holds its particular members of this esteemed group, understandably, especially to heart. I find the story of James Lacops, O. Praem, especially comforting and hopeful to a backsliding Catholic like me. 🙂 James Lacops, a canon of Middelburg, was born at Oudenaarde in 1542. He was an intelligent and charming young man whose success went to his head. His religious life was mediocre. When the iconoclastic Calvinists infiltrated the abbey in 1566, the 24-year-old James renounced his faith together with two others. His father and his brother, who was also a Norbertine, eventually brought him to reconsider. Touched by the grace of God, he returned to the abbey and was kindly received by the community when he asked forgiveness for his apostasy. Among other things, he had gone so far as to write a pamphlet attacking the Church, and had become a preacher of the Calvinist beliefs. His abbot sent him to the abbey of Mariëweerd for a prolonged period of penance of five years.
-SS, Adrian & James, O.Praem., two of the Martyrs of Gorcum, pray for us!
It is reported one of the secular priests, St Andrew Wouters, notorious for his unchastity, was tormented by his captors with this knowledge. His reply is famous. “Fornicator I always was. Heretic I never was.”