By Tine Van Osselaer
‘The parish has the body, without the skull, they should be content. They can exhume the body – that would even be wise, since the head was decomposing because of the water touching the side on which it rested.’ Staring at this letter of chanoine Armand Thiéry (1868-1955) of January 1943 and reading the lines a few times, I am somewhat shocked. I admit that Louise Lateau (1850-1883) is one of my ‘favorite’ stigmatics, so I might be taking this too personally but, … did he really take the skull? From the letter I can derive that Thiéry once owned the secularized cemetery of Bois-d’Haine where Louise’s remains rest (eh, well, more or less) and that there has been an exhumation years earlier. A picture in one of the other files shows a skull on a window bench, rays of light dropping in – a very Shakespearean scene. The back reads ‘skull of Louise Lateau’ and mentions a photo studio in Louvain, hometown of Thiéry. It looks like Thiéry kept Lateau’s skull amongst his own possessions and seems to have taken great comfort in having it. In a way, this should not come as a surprise since Thiéry had experienced a miraculous cure in 1910 that he attributed to the intervention of the stigmatic of Bois-d’Haine.
Nonetheless, it is the first time I hear anything about a missing skull and my mind starts wondering. No study on Louise Lateau (as far as I know) notes that the skull is no longer in the grave like the rest of the body. Did the head return or is it still out there?
Ill.1 The skull of Louise Lateau (Tournai, Archives of Louise Lateau, G.4.13)
My interest is kindled and I want to find out what happened. On one of my next visits to the archives I find a report on the exhumation that took place at the cemetery of Bois-d’Haine on the 19th of September 1919. Thiéry was present during the digging. He had just bought the site at the request of the bishop of Tournai who wanted to make sure that the tomb and mortal remains of Louise Lateau would be reserved. A small group was present when they opened the coffin in the sacristy and noted the damage the water had caused. Apart from the head four smaller pieces of the body were kept aside, as were thirteen teeth. The rest of the remains were buried again. Thiéry had taken the initiative to open the coffin: he wanted to see if the body was still intact. An incorrupted body would have confirmed his perception of Louise Lateau as a ‘saintly person’. If he was disappointed, the letters do not show it, the dominant narrative therein is that the chanoine decided to take the skull home to keep it from decomposing any further. In February 1950, Armand Thiéry described in what condition he had found it and illustrated his argument for taking the skull home with a rather compelling picture:
Ill.2: The skull of Louise Lateau in a letter of A. Thiéry, 11/2/1950 (Archives of the Seminary of Tournai, Louise Lateau, B.1.2)
Knowing how the skull could be removed from the grave and how it ended up on a window bench does however not get me any closer to the current location of the head. I have no choice but to follow Thiéry’s steps and have the good fortune to stumble across an intense correspondence about Louise’s skull that dates from the 1940s. Apparently, there was not a lot of commotion about the canon’s removal of the skull at the time of the exhumation or in the decades after. It was only when Thiéry started to fear his approaching death and wanted to settle the ownership of the cemetery of Bois-d’Haine and the house of Louise Lateau, that the skull became a matter of interest again. As noted above, Thiéry was not planning on giving the skull up. One of the correspondents – a little frustrated by Thiéry’s stubbornness – noted ‘he is bizarre, and he will remain bizarre’. But for Thiéry, it was a relic, one of his most precious possessions, and he kept it in a specially designed reliquary in his sacristy (as documented in the photograph below).
Ill.3. Photograph of the reliquary with the skull of Louise Lateau in the sacristy of A. Thiéry (ALL, I.9)
In 1953, a few years before the death of Thiéry, the skull still had not returned and by then, apparently, its location had become less clear. Two possible new owners are mentioned but nothing seems certain. The intel given to the pastor of Bois-d’Haine came from an informant who worked for Thiéry for several years. A small note is attached to the envelope, it reads cryptically: ‘she knows where the head is’. I’m left with two options and both indications are rather minimal. The skull was in 1953 either in the possession of the Augustin order, or in the hands of a lady from Heverlee. My hopes are on the Augustin order, at least they have archives and I have a place where I can start. I realize that whether or not the skull has been preserved depends on how it was perceived by the new ‘owners’. Did they see it as a precious relic of a non-official saint as Thiéry did?
Before I contact them, I decide to prospect another set of archival files. I’m lucky: Willem Smeets who was the pastor of Bois-d’Haine in the 1970s seems to have engaged himself in a similar quest and contacted the Augustinian order in 1971 to settle this ‘rather obscure’ and for him ‘somewhat embarrassing case’. He found out that the Augustinians did indeed have the skull in their possession and whilst they were willing to give it to the parish of Bois-d’Haine (not ‘give it back’, so they specified, since they had obtained it legally) they suggested that the parish priest buy the precious reliquary. They were willing to part with for 100.000 Fr, but the price was open for discussion. Smeets negotiated the sum and eventually paid 25.000 Fr with the help of the Dames de Sainte Croix and the money he gathered amongst his parishioners. He took the head of Louise Lateau back to her home town and put it in the sacristy refusing to display it publicly as he did not want to stimulate the development of a cult.
Ill.4: Photograph of the reliquary with the skull of Louise Lateau in the sacristy at Bois-d’Haine (Tournai, Archives of Louise Lateau, G.11
I am puzzled: so the head returned? It is in Bois-d’Haine? But then why did no-one mention it to me when I visited the museum of Louise Lateau?
I am gathering my things in the archive and am chatting a little with the person who is going to close up after me. I talk about my interest in the material and visual culture surrounding Louise Lateau and he walks to the cupboard next to me. He opens it and takes out a linen bag. ‘Look what we found on a flea market’ he says gently pulling an object out of the bag. I stare at the skull in the reliquary. Throughout its post-mortem history it has been looked at as a relic of a non-official ‘saint’, a body part that needs to be returned to the rest of the remains, and as an object that can be sold at a flea market. Each of these perceptions had an influence on where I could find the relevant information for the next chapter. For me, the skull has been something similar to the ‘holy grail’ in Louise Lateau’s story (and, quite tellingly, it seems to have been sitting by my side the whole time). My quest, my hunt, has ended, not with me gloriously detecting the whereabouts of the reliquary, but the other way around, with the skull finding me.
Ill.6: Photograph of the reliquary in August 2018