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History of the museum


At the end of the 12th century, many cities in the Netherlands had a shelter or hospital where the sick, weak, homeless and pilgrims could find a place. The main raison why people founded those hospitals was charity, the Christian ideal of ‘caritas’. But there were also social-political reasons. By helping the less fortunate, the founders tried to prevent social unrest and agitation.

Following in the footsteps of larger cities, the hospital of Geel was founded shortly before 1268 by Henry III Berthout, Lord of Geel. Here the old, the sick and the pilgrims were nurtured by the lay brothers and sisters. There was no convent order then.According to tradition Henry built the hospital in 600 on the same spot where Dimpna suffered martyrdom because she refused to marry her father. Dimpna, victim of random violence, was honored and became ‘Saint Dimpna’, who was worshiped to heal those who were ‘ill of mind’.

At the end of the Middle Ages, abuse arose in many charitable organisations, including in the hospital in Geel. The situation escalated. Abuse when admitting patients, financial mismanagement and a slackening of discipline caused a crisis. Reformation was inevitable.

In large cities, reformations of convents and religious institutions took place around 1500. In Geel, John III of Merode, Lord of Geel and Jacob Busschere, first director of the college of ten vicars of the St.-Dimpnachurch took the initiative to lead the reformation of this hospital. Both benefactors provided the necessary financial resources. Robert de Croÿ, bishop of Cambrai, approved the reformation and in 1552, he sent the Augustinian sisters to Geel to put the reformation into practice. The sisters were from Malines, where these reformations were already carried out in 1509. This is how the Augustinian hospital sisters first came to take care of the ill in Geel.

Besides implementing new rules of life (statutes), the sisters also expanded the hospital in spite of their difficult financial situation, constant wars and contagious diseases like the plague. They restored the hospital chapel from 1476-1479 and the ward that was located there. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the hospital was expanded with a new convent building (1663), a barn (1705), stalling(1718), a new crafts building (1728) and commensal rooms (1671 and 1754).

Exterior of the museum
The French Revolution (1789) put an end to the many institutions of the ‘ancien régime’. In their fight against the church power, revolutionaries mainly targeted institutions where religious people worked, like in education and nursing. But due to a lack of experienced personnel, the government had to tolerate religious staff in for example nursing jobs. Hospitals and their staff were secularized and the hospital in Geel became a civil hospital. The Augustinian hospital sisters could continue to nurse the patients and take care of the daily management of the hospital, but as nurses, as civil staff. The hospital property was confiscated and handed over to the ‘Burgerlijke Gestichten van Liefdadigheid’, the precursor of the ‘Commissie voor Openbare Onderstand’ (COO), currently known as the ‘Openbaar Centrum voor Maatschappelijk Welzijn’ (OCMW), the Social Service Department.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the buildings for nursing were expanded. Until 1840, sick stayed in the back of the chapel. In 1840, a second ward was built behind the chapel and in 1860 a third nursing room was built, which was called ‘Rode Zaal’ or red room. In 1918, a new hospital was erected in De Billemontstraat, next to the existing building complex. This is, however, not a part of the building complex that was mentioned before. The number of sisters rapidly increased in the 19th century: from 12 sisters in 1801 to 15 in 1900 to 40 on the night before World War II. From then on the number of sisters constantly decreased.

In the mid-1960s, people within the COO considered demolishing the historical buildings of the old hospital and dividing the plot in lots, though the old hospital had been protected as a monument in the Royal decree (KB) of 23 March 1938. Thanks to the Augustinian hospital sisters, this unique patrimony of Geel was saved. In 1971, the sisters bought back a large part of the old hospital and decided to preserve the old buildings as a museum.