The ‘Groene Kerkje’

Founded by Willibrord

The first little church that stood at the site where the present-day Groene or Willibrord Church stands dates from the beginning of the 8th century. The English missionary named Willibrord had traveled to this area from Ireland in the year 690 and had commissioned the Oegstgeest citizenry to establish a church. The first church in Oegstgeest was completed no later than 741. It was probably constructed of timber and based on an Anglo-Saxon design consisting of a modest rectangular nave behind which would have been located a smaller and lower rectangular chancel. Legend has it that Willibrord himself consecrated the church, after his death, with the help of a drizzle falling softly from a cloudless sky on the day of dedication.

Nothing is known today about this piece of ground before the church was built. Then it was also the highest piece of ground in the surroundings, a landscape composed of sandy subterranean embankments, salt marshes, and inlets. Perhaps people were living there and it was already considered to be sacred ground. It is known, however, that pieces from Roman antiquity were once found there, that the remains of a later Carolingian church supposedly contained Roman tufa stone, and that between the terp and A44 highway clues suggesting early habitations have been unearthed.

Nothing remains of the first church. According to tradition, the building was destroyed in 856 by the Vikings. Most likely a tufa stone Carolingian church stood at this site during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. It appears that the lowermost layers of tufa stone forming the ancient wall found under the floor beneath the present-day pulpit could be the remains of that second church.

The ‘Groene’ or ‘Willibrord-kerk’, from South-East perspective

The Carolingian church was replaced in the 12th or 13th centuries by a Roman example. It is not improbable that the decorative elements on the outer walls of the present-day building date back to this Roman church. This is certainly the case regarding the tufa stone foundation layer located beneath the pulpit. The nave was constructed at the same site as the present nave; there definitely was a tower and perhaps a simple apsis but still neither a transept nor a chancel. The tower was built at the site of the present entrance portal but was larger in circumference. At a later phase during the 15th century, a chapel was built along the south wall, possibly to serve as a tomb for priests; the foundation can still be seen. Later a somewhat smaller chapel, perhaps for baptisms, was built along the north wall of the tower. This construction existed until 1824 when the tower which had served the church well for six centuries collapsed.

The church after 1300


In the 14th century, the apsis of the Roman church – if indeed it had existed – was replaced by a Gothic chancel having the measure of the nave. Probably later still, in the 15th century, the transept was added. At the same time, the Roman nave was replaced. It is possible that this was achieved by constructing a new Gothic nave around the existing one. This might explain the irregular shape of the nave, the walls of which are not parallel. In 1510, and during the following years, the church underwent fundamental changes, including e.g. construction of a baptismal chapel. Thereafter the 80 Year War was waged, including the Siege of Leiden in 1574. During this siege, all buildings of any importance were demolished, either to destroy any place where the enemy might find shelter or to obtain a free field of fire from within the city. The church in Oegstgeest also suffered this fate, except that large parts of the outer walls were left standing which can still be seen on the south wall.

After the Siege of Leiden, it was not until 1593 that reconstruction began within the ruins of the nave for a temporary wooden church – for the first time a reformed church. One year later restoration began, first to reconstruct the tower. Taking into account that church membership had been reduced by half due to the Reformation (the other half remained Catholic), only half a church was needed. Only the nave was rebuilt with a wooden wall on the east side. That was completed in 1600, as we are reminded by that date carved in the rosettes in the arched roof. In 1662 reconstruction was continued on the remainder of the church. Thus the present-day Renaissance church took shape, as witnessed by the date 1662 carved in the wagon vaulting of the chancel.

 A crypt situated under the chapel on the south holds the last remains of Mayor de Kempenaer. When he bought the crypt, however, the chapel and tower had long been demolished. The mayor’s tombstone located within the foundations of the chapel has once again been made visible, next to the church’s entrance portal which was added after the war.

The little church withstood World War II successfully. During the first few days of the war, troops were quartered here, with straw upon which to sleep strewn upon the floor of the chancel. This had no more serious a consequence than causing cancellation of the celebration of Whitsun. Bombardment of the Postbrug, the blowing up of the bridge across the Oegstgeest canal, and the crash of Ditmarsch’s spitfire indeed occurred nearby but failed to harm the church. And just as so many others, the church bell was requisitioned by the Germans, although it could be retrieved and hung again after the war.

Thus the war could not be blamed for the large-scale restoration which the Groene Kerkje underwent between 1954 and 1956. Furthermore, the nave was extended externally by constructing a new facade outside the west wall, which had been totally rebuilt in 1830 after the tower had collapsed. The 17th century organ can now be reached using a stairway situated between this double-walled structure. During the final stage of restoration, it was decided to build an entrance portal against the new wall. The architect Piet van der Sterre (Star) placed his signature there by placing a star in the top of the rafters. During this restoration, the massive growth of ivy planted during the last quarter of the 19th century which gave the church its nickname ‘Little Green Church’ was removed. During the war, the church was still indeed a Green Church.