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About De Abt

The fascinating history of De Abt

Home base of Ghent middle class, war hero and abbot of Orval

A picturesque building with a unique history stands in the shadow of the centuries-old St. Bavo’s Cathedral in the heart of Ghent. Before it got its current name of ‘De Abt’ (The Abbot), the building changed hands and purpose several times in the past centuries and decades.

In the distant past, the building served as a chapter house where the monks of the Ghent diocese would meet. It was subsequently acquired by the de Giey family, an influential and noble dynasty of large landowners. The Gieys used the house as a winter residence. But it was young entrepreneur Karel Van der Cruyssen who gave the building its current glory.

A club room for Ghent entrepreneurs

As a young man, Karel was dreaming he would become an engineer. Following the untimely death of his father, however, he had to renounce this career ambition. Together with his brother, he took over his father’s wallpaper business and developed the family business into a thriving construction company. At some point, he was employing several hundred people.

Karel turned out to be a visionary and driven entrepreneur. Together with a self-employed colleague, in 1883 he founded the first middle-class organisation in Belgium. ‘Dieu et Patrie’ or ‘God and Fatherland’ united the Ghent middle class with the Ghent bourgeoisie. Karel organised theatre performances, banquets and all kinds of activities. God and Fatherland thus became the precursor of the current UNIZO. The organisation was bursting at the seams, making the need for a club room all the more pressing. Karel acquired the building in the Lange Kruisstraat as a result. It became the epicentre for the Ghent middle class and small entrepreneurs.

From entrepreneur to war hero

Unfortunately, all those initiatives came to an end with the onset of the First World War in 1914. Karel joined the Belgian army, where he soon rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He convinced the sons of many Ghent entrepreneurs to follow his example. Many lost their lives in the conflict.

Karel was wounded in 1918 and brought to the field hospital of Zomergem. The Germans made him prisoner of war there, but he managed to escape before the end of the war. Following the Armistice, Karel Van der Cruyssen was commanded for his valour in many regards, making him one of the most decorated soldiers in Belgium.

Karel joins the priesthood

After the war, Karel was never his old self again. In 1919, he moved to Normandy, where he joined the monastery of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe. He was ordained priest six years later: from then on, Karel van der Cruyssen went by the name of Marie-Albert Van der Cruyssen. In 1926, with some fellow Trappist Cistercian monks he returned to Belgium with the task of rebuilding Orval Abbey. This 12th-century abbey was completely burnt down during the French Revolution and had since remained in ruins.

Brother Marie-Albert was facing a huge challenge. He travelled the length and breadth of the country to collect donations and finance the reconstruction. But Ghent entrepreneurs had not forgotten him and dug deep in their pockets to help fund the project. Ultimately, the Ghent middle class donated one fifth of the necessary capital.

Brewing beer to make ends meet

Donations alone were however not enough for Marie-Albert to make ends meet. Not to mention his duty to provide for the livelihood of the dozens of monks who came to live in the abbey. The publication of a stamp collection was one of the ideas he had to raise funds. His entrepreneurial instinct having resurfaced, Marie-Albert set up the brewery in 1931, followed by the cheese factory a year later. And hence the Orval Trappist beer was created.

Five years after founding the brewery, Marie-Albert Van der Cruyssen was ordained 53rd Abbot of Orval, making him the first abbot of the reconstructed Orval Abbey. In 1950, Marie-Albert resigned due to serious health issues and died in 1955. To date, Orval remains one of the world’s most popular and illustrious Trappist beers.

De Abt restaurant

The current restaurant and meeting centre De Abt opened its doors in late 2015. In honour of the Ghent visionary/entrepreneur and abbot Karel van der Cruyssen, the building was fittingly named ‘De Abt’. Providing a meeting place remains the venue’s mission. The restaurant can seat up to 90 guests, and the three function rooms on the first floor can also accommodate groups of up to 110 people. Associations, companies, families, friends, tourists, political parties… everyone is welcome here.

Yet, our connection with Orval Abbey goes beyond our shared history. As a tribute to Karel/Marie-Albert Van der Cruyssen, we created an exceptional Orval menu. And of course, you can enjoy a freshly poured glass of Orval beer in De Abt.

What does Marie-Albert have to do with the disappearance of ‘The Righteous Judges’ altarpiece panel? Find out here.

Trappist: not just a beer

There are only twelve recognised Trappist beers, half of which are brewed in Belgium. In order to deserve the label of ‘Trappist beer’, the beer needs to meet specific criteria. For example, the brewery must be supervised by a Trappist monastery and the beer may only be brewed within the walls of the abbey. Yet, monastic life must prevail, which implies that the brewery is only an incidental feature. A part of the proceeds goes to the maintenance of the monks, the remainder always goes to charity.


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