Bargee have their own parish church. The Saint-Joseph Church Ship that is moored in the Houtdok, near to Antwerp city centre, serves the boatmen and boatwomen that sail on our rivers and canals. The concrete vessel that was built by the German occupiers during the Second World War was intended to be used as a supply ship for Hitler’s navy. The ship is the only church ship in Flanders and one of just three such place of worship in the whole of Belgium.
During the Second World War steel was in short-supply and ship-builders started to look for alternative materials. Reinforced concrete provided a viable alternative for steel. In the 19th century engineers had experimented with reinforced concrete and during World War I some vessels had even been constructed using the material.
In 1942 construction of the almost 96-metre long concrete tanker got underway in occupied Rotterdam. The vessel was to be a supply ship for the German Navy. The choice of reinforced concrete for the construction of the ship was not only in order to save steel, but also to protect it from the dangers posed by magnetic sea mines.
The hull of the ship was ready in the spring of 1944 and the 3,800-tonne vessel was towed from Rotterdam to Antwerp. It was there that the ship’s engine would be installed and that it would be fitted out to make it ready to enter service. However, the Allied advance that brought with it the liberation of Antwerp in September 1944 meant that the ship was confiscated as a war trophy by the Belgian State. The ship that was still not fully ready remained idle for several years.
Then the coal merchant Antoine Vloegberghs bought the vessel that he hoped to use for the transportation of coal. However, the ship proved to be cumbersome and impossible to steer. Albert Vloeberghs donated the ship to the Mechelen Diocese and it was converted it into a church.
In 1950 the Diocese decided that the ship should become a church that could be used by the sailors at the port of Antwerp. On board there was to be an almoner’s residence, a canteen and a small chapel. Mass was celebrated on the ship for the first time on 5 October 1952. A church hall was opened on the ship in 1956 and the large ship’s chapel was consecrated in 1960.
The Saint-Joseph was anchored in the Kanaaldok for more than 40 years. In 2012 it was giving new moorings at the Houtdok to the north of Antwerp City Centre. Its latest location, near to the centre of Antwerp, means that it is more easily accessible for visitors.
The ship has been given nautical heritage status and is one of the few concrete ships of its size in the world that is still afloat. The roof on top of the ship’s wheelhouse has been renovated. The next stage of the renovation will involve the expansion of the museum that is housed on the ship and the opening to the public of the engine room where the ship’s unique concrete structure is visible for all to see.