Oud Leuven: Ursulinenklooster - Justus Lipsiuscollege

Oud Leuven: Ursulinenklooster

  • Name in 1649:


  • Other names:

    Justus Lipsiuscollege

  • Current name:

    Justus Lipsiuscollege

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In the triangular parcel of land bordered by the Minderbroedersstraat, the River Dijle and its second arm also known as the Small Dijle (kleine Dijle), once stood the Convent of the Ursulines (Ursulinenklooster) from 1659-1798. Today, the location is occupied by the Justus Lipsiuscollege, owned by the KU Leuven University.

The property trailed along the trajectory of the old city walls on the Small Dijle, from the Waterpoort with the Twin Towers of the Justus Lipsiustoren and the Janseniustoren, to the Minderbroederspoort on the Minderbroedersstraat.


The Arrival of the Ursulines in Leuven

In the year 1659, seven sisters from the Order of Saint Ursula from the city of Hoei in the neighbouring Prince Bishopdom of Liège bought a house in Leuven. With the permission obtained from the city, these Ursuline sisters set up their convent that also organised girls’ education, including the training of house maids and female workers.

By 1671, the small community built their convent church on the streetside along the Minderbroedersstraat, which was before the inner city gate of the Minderbroederspoort , opposite the well-respected and well-known Franciscan friars of Leuven’s Minderbroedersklooster. Gradually the community expanded, significantly so in 1685 when the old city wall along the river were incorporated into the convent buildings. The sluice by the Waterpoort (west of what is known today as the Justus Lipsiustoren and Janseniustoren) that controlled the water into the Small Dijle came under the control of the convent, and was thus called the “Ursulinensluis“.

The convent reached its maximum expansion in 1753, where it dominated the streetview from the Minderbroedersstraat.

But the convent did not survive the French Occupation at the end of the century. On 13 January 1798, 23 remaining Ursulines were banned from wearing their habits, and on 1 June they were driven out of the convent. By October, the site and the furniture were auctioned off in Brussels. In 1799, the church and parts of the convent were torn down by their new owners who built private houses in their place. These houses are still there today.

What's so special about this place?

A New Lease of Life from Justus Lipsius

Around 1860, the Leuven University bought the convent site, with what was remained of the Ursulinenklooster.

The architect in charge of the reconstruction was Joris Helleputte (1852-1925). He was also the Minister of Agriculture and Public Works and the Minister of Railways, Post and Telegraphs, and he founded the Farmers’ Union (Boerenbond) in 1890 and helped founded the Belgian People’s Union (Belgische Volksbond) which advanced the Dutch-speaking nationalist movement.

Build in three phases – 1878-1879, 1899, 1911-1913 , the future college was dedicated to Leuven’s humanist Justus Lipius (1547-1606). The chapel, the west-south wing and the east wing formed a sober, red brick monument. The last renovation were done in the 1950s to the entrance.

In 1994, the site was declared a protected monument, with the inclusion of its 1950s additions which was an very unusual exception.

The Strange Tale of the Left Thigh Bone of Justus Lipsius

70 years after the dissolution of the Minderbroedersklooster, workers digging the foundations on the site on 14 April 1868 found a tombstone around 7 metres underground. The tombstone had an inscription that the body of Justus Lipsius laid beneath. After digging deeper, the workers discovered human remains, which they transferred immediately to the chapel of Justus Lipsius College. The inscription went:

MON : P.

Later that day, after continuing the dig, they found a complete skeleton on the same spot. Confused, the workers took the full skeletons plus other bones which they found on the spot to a mass grave at the Sint-Kwintenskerk.

However, a particularly long thigh bone was secretly kept by one of the workers named Philippe Van Hove.

In 1905, Professors Arthur Van Hamlets and Ernest Masoin confirmed that the remains first brought to the Justus Lipsius College actually belonged to three individuals, not one. And there was a strong possibility that the full skeleton found that day, and now in the mass grave in Sint-Kwintenskerk, could be Justus Lipsius himself.

The plot intensified three decades later. On 18 March 1937, police chief François Chevaillier received a letter from a Guillaume Van Hove, who claimed to have the thigh bone of Justus Lipsius, which he inherited from his grandfather Philippe Van Hove, one of the workers who found the remains.

The thigh bone was investigated by anatomist Gerard Vanderschueren, who thought the thigh bone probably did belong to Justus Lipsius. The bone measures 49cm, which means the man was very tall. The bone was kept in a separate shrine in the Justus Lipsius College where it remained until 1997, when Professor Vermeersch, head of the college, entrusted it to the Cultural Heritage Department.

Interestingly, a separate analysis of the remains interred in the mass grave in Sint-Kwintenskerk found that (some of) it belongs to the Leuven painter Dieric Bouts, who painted the “Last Supper” of Sint-Pieterskerk.

Current situation

There is unfortunately no trace of the former Ursulinenklooster in the current Justus Lipsiuscollege, although the foundation of the buildings along the Small Dijle was in fact built on top of the 12th century inner city walls.

The garden of the college however, is one of the most tranquil spots of Leuven, and is a protected city view.

The chapel as well as the refectory were beautifully designed, and are worth a visit should you ever have the chance to.

Many thanks to Mattias Vanderheyden and Kaat Bogaerts of the KU Leuven for the permission to take photographs of the site.




“Louvain dans le passé et dans le présent”, Edward van Even, 1895 (Image)
https://nieuws.kuleuven.be/nl/campuskrant/1314/03/gevonden-voorwerp–het-dijbeen-van-justus-lipsius (image)


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