By Phillip Walter Wellman
via the Stars and Stripes newspaper (DoD) web site
LIEGE, Belgium — The American veterans and widows whose donations helped build the towering Church of the Sacred Heart intended it to be an enduring reminder of the sacrifices of allied troops in World War I.
Less than 100 years later, however, the run-down memorial in this eastern Belgian city is about to be converted into a high-end restaurant and climbing facility.
The redevelopment has gained national attention since plans were announced earlier this year. Hundreds of Belgians have lodged complaints, with some saying the change would be disrespectful to veterans.
Historian Bernard Wilkin sits at his desk at Belgium’s State Archives, in Liege, Belgium, March 28, 2023. Wilkin has been a vocal critic of plans to convert the nearby Church of the Sacred Heart to an upscale restaurant and climbing facility. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)
“This isn’t just Belgian heritage; it’s international heritage, something allies of the First World War paid for and dedicated to the memory of all those who died in action,” said Bernard Wilkin, a historian at Belgium’s State Archives, who’s been one of the most vocal critics of the plans.
In the mid-1920s, the American Legion called on members to make voluntary donations to help build the memorial in Liege, the first city on the Western Front to resist German invasion forces. In addition to the art deco church, the monument features a roughly 250-foot tower.
The site was inaugurated in 1937 and cost at least 6 million Belgian francs to build, according to original reporting by local newspaper Le Soir.
Principal donors — including the U.S., the U.K., France and Italy — were asked for 1 million francs each, the French newspaper Le Petit Oranais reported in 1928.
At the time, the American Legion said the Liege memorial and a second memorial in the French city of Verdun for which it also raised funds would “hold forever to the sight of men visible reminders of all that (the two cities) mean to men living now.”
But in recent decades, the Church of the Sacred Heart, known locally as the Basilica of Cointe in reference to the hill on which it was built, has sat empty and decrepit.
Besides a small underground crypt that continues to be used for religious worship, the rest of the building has been closed to the public for some 20 years.
A fence prevents people from getting too close and risking injury caused by the crumbling facade. In 2014, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, white birds were painted on the exterior walls, but the intended enhancement accentuated the site’s deterioration.
Groupe Gehlen says its project, dubbed the Basilique Experience, will help ensure the building’s survival and allow people to enjoy the historic space once again.
The project aims to transform the cavernous church, which has roughly 130-foot-high ceilings, into the highest climbing hall in Europe. The three Olympic disciplines of climbing, bouldering and speed climbing will be on offer, in addition to a separate climbing area for children.
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