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Eighty-year-old letter in matchbox found during church restoration

Contains message for future generations

Painter pointing to the keystone where he found the matchbox while restoring the ceiling of Sint-Jacobskerk Church in Antwerp, Belgium. -Photo: City of Antwerp Courtesy Photo

By Tami Stevenson

A story that went viral last fall in the Ag Vespa, a local newspaper in Antwerp, Belgium, tells a story of four men that wanted to leave a message for future generations almost eighty years ago.

During the restoration of the Sint-Jacobskerk (St. James’s Church) in Antwerp, Belgium, which is still underway, while working on the vaults on the west side of the building, a painter found a matchbox with a letter that was hidden in a keystone, an ornament that connects the points of the vaults.

The workers wrote their message on the back of two activity coupons from the Dienst der Stadsgebouw (Service of the City Building) It reads here as translated:

July 21, 1941

“In 1941, the ceiling of the church was glued with a rolling scaffolding 26 meters high for the service of city buildings.
If that ceiling will be painted again, we will no longer belong to this earth, we must tell our descendants that we did not enjoy our lives. We have experienced two wars, one in 1914 and one in 1940, that can count, right !!!

We stand here to work hungry, they squeeze us down to the last cent for a little food.

I advise our descendants when it comes to war again. In the course of life, make sure to keep a supply in the house, such as rice, coffee, flour, tobacco, wheat, grain for you to keep alive !!! Enjoy life to the fullest, take another wife in time, for those who are married, just get home !!! Salut men !!!

Done July 21st of the year 1941 by the painters office of the buildings John Janssen, Jul Gyselinck, Louis Chantraine and Jul Van Hemeldonck.”

The notes were hidden in this matchbox.
-Photo: Courtesy from the City of Antwerp, Belgium

The workers wrote their message on the back of two activity coupons from the Dienst der Stadsgebouw (Service of the City Building). -Photo: Courtesy from the City of Antwerp, Belgium

Werner Pottier from the Antwerp city archives reconstructed the story of the four men who left the message and it was published in the Ag Vespa.

In it, Pottier said, “It is July 21, 1941. The atmosphere outside is sometimes tense. It is forbidden to celebrate the National Holiday. Also for the men in the Sint-Jacobskerk there are no parties, the work just continues. Still, they will not let this July 21 pass by and make sure that they are remembered almost 80 years later. They write their message on the back of two blank activity coupons from the Dienst der Stadsgebouw, fold both sheets neatly together and put them in an empty matchbox. The gem disappears for a long time in a keystone of the restored ceiling, where it was recently discovered.

When they write their message, Antwerp has been occupied for more than a year and the food supply is faltering. Prices on the black market are soaring. They often had to choose between being hungry or paying a lot for little food. It is therefore significant that the four workers cite both world wars. Wars that made them “not enjoyable” in their lives.”