Berchmanianum, the house with the empty hands

Between 1995 and 1999 I have been photographing in the monastery care home Berchmanianum (B.) in Nijmegen. My work consists of staged portraits of the priests who live and work there, but also still-life photos of the surroundings and the interior of the monastery. A monastery care home (KVH) is a complex institution. On one hand the devotion and rich symbolism of the Catholic faith, on the other hand the monastery is also the last station for many. Death is a reality for many of the men who live there. Especially the merging of a nursing home and a monastery made the subject interesting for me. The combination of a religious life and the consequences of aging makes the atmosphere in the monastery very intense. This, and the fact that these kinds of institutions are gradually disappearing, is the main motivation for the book about this special place.

From the moment you step into the door of the B. you have to take into account that time passes twice as slowly. Everyone has experienced this at some point in a nursing or care home. You talk more softly, sometimes even whisper, walk more slowly and approach the older people you meet in the hallway with respect. There is also something else you feel immediately upon entering one of these places and that is death, or rather the proximity of death. In places like that there is a blanket hanging over reality and everything underneath is muted.

However, there is a third aspect, which only occurs in places like the B., and that is religion. On my first visit to the B. it was as if I got a slap in the face. So much religion, death, erudition, spirituality and warmth in one place is a lot to take in. The Jesuit priests had to get used to me, too. Several times I was addressed in the hallway asking if I was a novice.

That the B. was a truly spiritual place soon became clear from the many meetings and discussions I had with the Fathers. One had been on a mission in Indonesia for 45 years, the other had taught in India for 37 years and they all had the most beautiful stories about the past. They also had a softness in their speaking, a kind of compassion for the years they talked about. They asked me about my work and the motives behind it, but also about my lifegoals and future plans. They weren’t satisfied when you gave a noncommittal answer, they kept asking until they were satisfied. Not out of curiosity, but out of a real interest and pure interest in a fellow human being. After a few days I felt like a different person, much calmer and more balanced. The urge to go outside to do all kinds of things was gone, the world was far away. Some men enter the B. and never go outside again. After a week I understood why.

Berchmanianum closed in 2016.

© Rob Philip, 2000
Text: Kees Fens, Paul Begheyn SJ, Gerard Jansen
Editor texts: Paul Begheyn SJ
Graphic design: Chantal Kortenhorst
Production: Annelou Evelein
Publisher: Valkhof Pers, Nijmegen
Printer: Veenman Drukkers, Ede
Edition: 1000