U.S. coalition appeals to Dutch queen to save Pilgrim church

The Dutch city is about to raze the remains of the church where persecuted English and French-speaking Protestants worshipped before sailing to New England to found New York City.

"The demolition is imminent," said Andy Lang, spokesman for the United Church of Christ, which is leading a U.S. coalition urging that the bit of American heritage be spared.

"We have the support of the U.S. Embassy in The Hague, but with the transition of the new administration, this would be a convenient time for officials in Leiden to tear it down," he said.

That is what Leiden city officials, after a Jan. 23 meeting of the Council of State, have promised to do. However, other Dutch officials said an unresolved 1999 court appeal assures that no wrecking ball will swing soon, but that the waist-high church wall has become an eyesore in a city that showcases its history.

"We are very careful with our monuments," said Madelien De Planque, spokesman for the Embassy of the Netherlands in Washington.

A U.S. church coalition with Pilgrim roots appealed to the queen of the Netherlands on Tuesday. The coalition includes the liberal Unitarian Universalists and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, all in the Congregational tradition established by the Pilgrims.

At issue in downtown Leiden's "old marketplace" is part of the wall of the medieval Vrouwekerk, or Church of Our Lady, in which French Calvinists, or Huguenots, and British Puritans worshipped before sailing to North America.

The band of British Puritans, called Pilgrims, set sail in 1620 on the Mayflower after an 11-year sojourn in Leiden to arrive near what today is Boston.

Huguenots who led the Leiden church arrived at Plymouth on two subsequent voyages, and later 55 Huguenot families crossed the Atlantic and in 1624 arrived in what now is Manhattan.

The U.S. coalition supports a proposal to preserve the church wall as a monument incorporated into the shopping center, office and discotheque complex for downtown.

A fact sheet issued by Leiden city officials states that all but a few "wall fragments" of the church have been demolished since the early 1800s, and that a 1979 restoration of the wall has created a graffiti-ridden hangout.

The developers propose to let the "historic contours of the [church] foundation" — minus the wall —show through in the stone work of a new plaza.

Though the Vrouwekerk ruin is a registered national monument, city leaders were "unaware of the Pilgrim connection when they decided to demolish it," said Jeremy D. Bangs, director of the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden.

"The only hope is the many people in Leiden who want [the wall] saved and who understand its meaning for Americans," he said.

Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the George Bush family all trace their ancestries to the Pilgrims. The father of that future lineage arrived on the Mayflower and the mother, with a nephew, arrived on one of the subsequent two journeys.

"These presidents come from one interrelated family," Mr. Bangs said.

The coalition's appeal to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands emphasized the demolition's effect on U.S.-Dutch relations.

The Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, said in the appeal that preservation of the wall will recall "historic ties" between the Dutch and Americans.

"It reminds us of the hospitality and kindness with which the people of the Netherlands sheltered the Pilgrims and other refugees of the Reformed faith," he said.

Mr. Thomas said the Royal Ahold Corp. of the Netherlands, which had planned to invest and build in the commercial development and which owns supermarkets in the United States, pledged in November to withdraw if the church wall was razed.

Supporters of the commercial plan argued that Pilgrims also worshipped in another church, the Pieterskerk, or Reformed church of St. Peter, whose building had been preserved.

But Mr. Bangs said the Pilgrims met only in their homes, their minister's house or at Vrouwekerk —"the only other building where some Pilgrim families are known with certainty to have worshipped."

The city said its mandate is to strike a balance.

"Time and again, we must weigh up the historic importance against the interests of the current and future users of the city center," said city officials