The Reformation gained its foothold in the Netherlands in opposition to the Catholicism of the Spanish princes of the country–not primarily for religious, but rather for political reasons. Anti-Spanish and Calvinist soldiers banded together into lawless armies of pirates, and, unpaid and disillusioned, foraged for themselves in the seaports, looking for plunder.
Reproached by the clergy, they turned on the Church and one band of pirates led by the Gueux laid siege to the city of Gorkum, capturing it in June 26, 1572 after a struggle. For reprisal– because of the city’s determined defense–they gathered all members of the clergy in Gorkum into one miserable prison and set about taking revenge on the priests for their own grievances against the Spanish crown.
The priests were tortured, subjected to all kinds of indignities, and offered their freedom if they would abjure Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and the primacy of the pope. Angered by the endurance of the priests, the Calvinist increased their abuses. Some of the religious were very old and infirm, but one and all, even to an aged Augustinian who was so weak he could barely stand, they bore their martyrdom with patience and sweetness for ten terrible days.
They were repeatedly asked to deny the Real Presence, and just as repeatedly refused, which brought on more and more dreadful tortures. When they continued to refuse, despite a letter from Prince William of Orange ordering their release and protests from the magistrates of Gorkum, they were thrown half-naked into the hold of a ship on July 6, and taken to another city to be killed in the presence of a Protestant nobleman, Admiral Luney, a man noted for his hatred of Catholicism.
After being exhibited to the curious townspeople (who paid to see the spectacle) and subjected to every type of torture, the 19 priests and religious were hanged in an old barn at deserted Ruggen Monastery on the outskirts of Briel. Stripped of their habits and made, like their Master, “the reproach of men and the outcast of the people,” they benefited by their Christ-like sufferings and deaths. Their bodies, mutilated before or after death, were callously thrown into a ditch. The 19 martyrs included eleven Franciscans (called Recollects), two Premonstratensians, one Dominican, one canon regular of Saint Augustine, and four secular priests.
Two of those who died had led less than holy lives, but by their heroic constancy in the hour of trial blotted out the stains that might otherwise have kept them out of heaven. Sadly, there should have been 20 martyrs of Gorkum. One, who weakened and was released after he had denied the Real Presence, lived but 24 hours to enjoy his wretched freedom.
The other 19 gloriously went to heaven. The scene of the martyrdom soon became a place of pilgrimage, where all the Christian world reverenced the men who were so courageously obedient until death. Accounts of several miracles, performed by their intercession and relics, were used for their beatification and published by the Bollandists. Most of their relics are kept in the Franciscan church at Brussels to which they were secretly conveyed from Briel in 1616.
St. John’s companions were:
* Adrian Beanus, O. Praem.
* Adrian van Hilvarenbeek
* Fr. Andrew Wouters, OFM, was a priest at Heinot near Dortrecht. He led a scandalous life, but when the Calvinists tried to compel him to renounce the Catholic faith, he expiated his past by a brave confession, was imprisoned at Briel with the others and hanged.
* Fr. Antony van Hoornaer, OFM
* Fr. Antony van Weert, OFM
* Fr. Antony van Willehad, OFM, from Denmark
* Cornelius van Wyk (near Utrecht), OFM, was born at Dorestat near Utrecht. He took the Franciscan habit at Gorkum as a lay brother.
* Fr. Godefried of Mervel, OFM, was a painter and the custos of the Franciscan house at Gorkum.
* Fr. Godrey van Duynsen, native of Gorkum, was captured with Leonard Vechel and Nicholas Jannsen in Gorkum and sent to Briel, the Netherlands, where they were hanged. Previously, he had been the rector of a school in Paris.
James Lacops, O. Praem., was a native of Oudenarden, Flanders. He was a Norbertine at Middelburg and in 1566 apostatized, wrote, and preached against the Church. Then he repented, returned to his abbey, and was martyred by the Calvinists.
* Fr. Jerome Weerden, OFM, was born in Werden, the Netherlands, in 1522. He spent several years in Palestine as a Franciscan missionary. Jerome was a powerful preacher against Calvinism and at the time of his capture was the vicar of the friary of Gorkum under Saint Nicholas of Pieck.
* Fr. John van Hoornaer, OFM
* John van Oosterwyk, OSA, was a native of the Netherlands who joined the Augustinians at Briel. He was the director and confessor of a community of Augustinian nuns at Gorkum when the town was taken by the Calvinists.
* John of Cologne, OP, was a Dominican religious of his convent in Cologne, Germany who performed the duties of a parish priest in Horner, the Netherlands. When he heard of the plight of the poor priests captured in Gorkum, he left the relative safety of his parish and entered Gorkum in disguise to render whatever assistance he could. Several times he entered the city to dispense the sacraments, and to bring consolation to the priests who were being cruelly tortured. Eventually, he also was taken prisoner and subjected to torture.
* Leonard Vechel (Veehel, Wegel, Wichel), the elder pastor at Gorkum, was born in Bois-le-Duc, Holland. He studied in Louvain, where he earned a great reputation in his theological studies under the celebrated Ruard Tapper, was ordained, and became a parish priest at Gorkum known for his uncommon zeal, piety, eloquence, and learning. He had a remarkable ability to solve difficult problems. He tenderly cared for the poor, especially those that were sick, giving of himself as well as of his substance. He reproved vice without respect of persons, but his meekness and patience disarmed many who had been long deaf to remonstrations. He was in active opposition to Calvinism. He and his assistant Nicholas Jannsen Poppel of Welde, Belgium, were among those seized by a Calvinist mob at Gorkum.
* Fr. Nicholas Janssen Poppel (van Heeze), OFM, a native of Heeze, Brabant, from which he derived the name Nicasius van Heeze, was an associate pastor to Vechel. He was captured with his pastor, Leonard Vechel, and Godrey van Duynsen.
* Fr. Nicholas Pieck–Nicholas was the guardian of the Observant Franciscan house at Gorkum. This eminent, 38-year-old preacher was a native of the Netherlands who studied at Louvain and made missionary activities among the Calvinists his life’s work. He had an intense zeal for holy poverty and mortification, yet his constant cheerfulness rendered piety and penance itself amiable. He is known for repeating, “We must always serve God with cheerfulness.” Fr. Pieck had often expressed an earnest desire for martyrdom, but considered himself unworthy for that honor. He and four other priests were among the first seized when Calvinist forces opposed to the Spanish rule seized the town in June.
* Peter of Assche, OFM, from near Brussels, Belgium, was a Franciscan lay brother at Gorkum.
* Fr. Theodore van der Eem, OFM, from Amersfoort.
Born: Born in Germany in the 16th century
Died: burned, beaten, hanged and mutilated in 1572 at Gorkum, Holland
Canonized: Pope Pius IX canonized them in 1867.
Representation: elevating the Eucharist as he wears a rope around his neck