As you enter the Marble Chapel (from the main rear entrance) and look up to the left, the first person you see is St. John of Cologne. Not much is known about him, from what I have gathered, though it’s likely he was better known in times past. Some sources give John’s last name as Heer, some as Van Hoornaer, though having been born in Cologne, Germany, it would be more accurate to call him Jan or Johannes Heer. No date is given for his birth, so it is assumed he was born early in the 16th century and attended the University of Cologne, a highly esteemed academic institution in John’s day. Western Germany in the 16th century, along with Belgium and Holland, was dominated by Calvinist thinking. Many today might view that positively, but the story of John’s life takes a grim turn, due to the overzealous militant Calvinists of his day.
While at the University of Cologne, John joins the Dominican Order, though he rarely (if ever) wears his habit in public due to the Calvinist persecutions of Catholics. Soon after completing his training at university, the Dominicans send John to the Netherlands, in the small village of Horner, where he serves around twenty years.
In the spring of 1571, instead of young men’s fancies turning to thoughts of love, many Dutch Calvinists turn their thoughts to harassing and torturing Catholic priests. Tensions are certainly high throughout the region, as this was in the middle of what we now call the “French Wars of Religion.” A group of Calvinists allied with pirates (some of whom were among the Waterguezen, “Sea Beggars,” who had captured Briel in April) pillage the countryside, leading to the sack of the town of Gorkum in June. 15 priests, mostly Franciscans, are imprisoned and tortured. As soon as he hears of this travesty, John disguises himself and smuggles the Eucharist to the imprisoned priests, with the help of three other priests. That John smuggles them the Eucharist is quite poignant in this story, since some accounts relate the priests were primarily being tortured because of their view of the sacraments – the Calvinists were trying to get the Catholic priests to deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (as well as the primacy of the authority of the Pope).
John’s attempts to alleviate the suffering of his fellow priests (though none were fellow Dominicans, interestingly enough) do not last long, however, for soon he and the three other priests are discovered and imprisoned as well. From June 26 to July 6, the Calvinists abuse the nineteen priests and enjoin them to deny the tenets of their orders.
On July 6, the nineteen are transferred to Dortrecht – along the way villagers pay to see the priests being tortured. At the Dortrecht prison, the priests are asked one last time to deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the primacy of the Pope, but all remain steadfast in their beliefs. The next day, Admiral Lamaye of the Waterguezen orders the prisoners to march, half-naked, the twenty-six miles to Briel. William of Orange, grandfather of the “William & Mary” William of Orange, and the magistrates of Gorkum order the inhumane treatment of the priests to cease, but to no avail. Lamaye gives the priests one final opportunity to renounce the pope, which they all refuse. The nineteen Gorkum Martyrs are tortured again and hanged on July 9, 1572. With William’s flag above them at Briel yet William’s order ignored, their demise is possibly even sadder. It is hard to tell how fast news of this spreads, though it is somewhat understandable if this event played a role in the “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” six weeks later.
Becoming a Saint
John of Cologne and the other eighteen Gorkum Martyrs are beatified by Pope Clement X on November 24, 1675. Since they were martyrs, they did not need to show evidence of miracles to be deemed blessed in Heaven by the Catholic Church. Pope Pius IX canonizes all nineteen martyrs to sainthood on June 29, 1867. Pius describes John as a “great athlete for Christ,” I suspect mainly for his eagerness to enter into the distress of his fellow priests and endurance through a horrific end.
The depiction of St. John in the Marble Chapel is typical of many of his portraits. The gallows is somewhat anachronistic, but the noose of course represents his untimely end. The cup represents the Eucharist, for which he sacrificed himself for his fellow priests. The palm branch represents his martyrdom. And that is St. John of Cologne.
A Lesson Learned
It is difficult not to be at the least embarrassed by this treatment of Catholic priests by Protestants, if not downright ashamed. Of course our zeal for God and His truth should lead us to love others and not hatred or mistreatment of those who disagree or disbelieve. I know for myself I will have a much better appreciation for John from now on when I seem him in the Marble Chapel. He is a powerful reminder of perseverance in the face of persecution – may that persecution not come from us.
Boran, F.D. S. “Martyrs of Gorkum.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd Ed. Eds. Thomas Carson and Joann Cerrito. Vol. 6: Fri-Hoh. Thomson/Gale: Washington, D.C. 2003.
“Saint John of Cologne“. CatholicSaints.Info. 17 September 2018. Web. 18 February 2020. http://catholicsaints.info/saint-john-of-cologne/
“St. John of Cologne.” LBP Communications. Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. 21 Feb. 2020. https://www.nashvilledominican.org/community/our-dominican-heritage/our-saints-and-blesseds/st-john-of-cologne/ Wikipedia contributors.
“William the Silent.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Feb. 2020. Web. 21 Feb. 2020.