For nearly 30 years, Frans Debonne has been collecting the Norbertine-related items that fill the former rectory where he makes his home in Zwevegem, Belgium. Yet the collection is not his main interest.
“My main concern is to live a life worthy of being a Christian. So daily prayer, attending the Eucharist, being helpful to others where needed …all these things are much more important than a collection, no matter how interesting and valuable it might be,” Debonne says.
His collection of Praemonstratensia grew out of his strong bond with the order, says Debonne, who in 1979 was a novice at Averbode, a Belgian abbey founded in the 12th century. He continues his affiliation with the order as a Norbertine associate attached to Averbode.
“I consider myself in fact as a Premonstratensian and try to live the unique spirituality of this order in my daily life as a Christian,” Debonne says.
A collector’s heart
As a child, Debonne started a coin collection which he later gave his twin brother after becoming interested in old postcards of Ypres, the Belgian city in West Flanders totally destroyed in World War I.
In 1982 he began collecting old prints about the Norbertines, which he passed to the community at Averbode Abbey until his mother insisted that he keep them for his own collection.
Debonne’s formal education ended at age 16 when he became a blue-collar worker for Bekaert, a Belgian company that’s a world leader in metal transformation, materials and coatings. Over the last 45 years he’s worked mainly in marketing and sales, invoicing and shipping.
He’s also taken theology courses and “acquired quite some knowledge about art history, mainly Gothic architecture and early Netherlandish painting – the so-called Flemish Primitives like Jan Van Eyck, Rogier Van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Gerard David.”
Aside from the collection, which he says is a way for him to “materialize” his deep spiritual bond with the Norbertine order, art is his main hobby and he has a “nice library of books about this subject.” Other hobbies are singing in the Gregorian Choir and participating in the liturgy at Holy Mary Church in Kortrijk, and helping friends organize classical music concerts in Zwevegem.
Some 124 houses of the order are represented in Debonne’s collection of Premonstratensia. He finds objects through public auctions, on the internet, at book fairs and at specialized dealers. The collection has grown to include some 300 original prints from the 16th to late 19th century, depicting abbeys; 150 pre-1800 books linked to the Norbertines by authorship, subject, ownership or publisher, including a 1599 book printed in the former Bohemian abbey of Louka (near Brno, Czech Republic); two 18th-century paintings; 400 postcards; 100 plaquettes and medals; Norbertine-related beer glasses; and brewery gadgets.
Debonne also collects engraved portraits and books that refer to the order’s commendatory abbots – persons benefiting from a practice dating to the early 16th century by which the pope, emperor or king would name a priest or bishop who was entitled to one-third of an abbey’s income.
“Unfortunately I have not made a decent inventory of the collection, and the longer I wait to start with it, the harder will be the job, I’m afraid,” Debonne says.
Because Debonne’s home is part of the cultural center of the city, he occasionally shows people attending meetings a small part of his collection. He’s also organized a special exhibition.
“My dream is that my collection could become part of a museum/library where it could be accessible to a broader public,” he says. And he has made it clear to his seven brothers and two sisters that the collection is never to be split up and/or sold.
Besides signifying his bond with the order, Debonne says his collection “is also a way to ‘bring back to life’ these many old houses, and the buying of old books is kind of ‘bringing these back home.’ This is also the reason why my collection(s) will never be brought back on the open market, and must stay together in one foundation.”
A fine association
Debonne represented the Norbertine associates of abbeys in the Netherlands plus Dutch-speaking Belgian abbeys at last summer’s General Chapter, held July 22-Aug. 4 at St. Norbert College. For this worldwide meeting of the order he wrote a 22-page personal reflection on the vows or promises he made as an associate.
He calls his nearly three-week stay at St. Norbert – abbey and college – “a truly unforgettable experience, and I must say that this period has undoubtedly been the most happy one of my entire life. This can sound a bit exaggerated but it is what I feel.”
Debonne says he was deeply impressed by the De Pere abbey’s deep roots in the community’s intellectual and social life, and by its hospitality, liturgical life and cordial relationship with its own associates.
“For sure, I hope to be able to come back to De Pere,” he says.
Those who know Debonne are equally impressed by his commitment to the order. Eleanor Dockry, an associate of the De Pere abbey who met him in Belgium and renewed their acquaintance in De Pere, calls him a “really wonderful guy, a prince.”
The Rev. Andrew Ciferni, O.Praem., ’64, chair of the Norbertines’ international commission for associates, says he first met Debonne at an international meeting in Europe.
“He is one of those people whose presence is always known when he is in a room. He is very energetic, speaks fast, and is very engaging,” Ciferni says. “He certainly loves the order and is willing to stretch himself to help our abbeys. I always enjoy being in his company because there is never a dull moment with him. Moreover, he inevitably brings to any meeting a fine assortment of the best Belgian chocolates.”
March 27, 2013