“She quietly presides at harvest feasts and farm to table events, she is with each of us who revere the earth and the ecosystems it engenders.”~Mary Petiet, Minerva’s Owls
In 1608 the English pilgrim William Bradford arrived in Amsterdam and was taken in by the family of William Brewster. The Brewsters were already in the city, and they meant to establish a church more pure than the one they had left behind.
Anyone who grew up in New England is intimate with the Pilgrim story. Plymouth Massachusetts, is America’s home town, Thanksgiving is sacred, and most of us spent our early years at school donning buckled hats and tracing our hands to draw turkeys. We know the Pilgrims, and the lead up to the Thanksgiving feast seems like a good time to follow them through Holland. It’s pretty well known that in Leiden you can walk Pilgrim footsteps, but have you thought of that in Amsterdam?
If it looks like a Pilgrim… Outside the English Church at Begijnhof 48
I never did. Yet the Pilgrims were here.
Amsterdam center boasts a street full of bookstores, including the English and American book stores, which are like food in a famine to the recent expat. If you manage to find the nearby Waterstones on Kalverstraat, you are very near an ancient building called the English Church. This is where the Pilgrims worshipped.
A modest brick structure, the church is hidden in a beautiful, quiet courtyard accessed by an unassuming passageway. The square is called the Begijnhof, which, in the fashion of most place names, hints at its past. In the fourteenth century it was home to a Catholic lay sisterhood called the Beguines. In 1578, when Amsterdam adopted Calvinist doctrines, the Beguine church was closed until its presentation to Amsterdam’s English speaking Protestants in 1607. These were the Separatist the Pilgrims joined in worship upon their arrival in Amsterdam.
Pilgrim plaque attached to the facade of the English Church
After much wandering around the center of Amsterdam, we found the hidden English Church on a rainy November afternoon. It was Thanksgiving weather, chilly and gray. The church was closed so I was unable to get a picture of the interior stained glass window depicting the pilgrims at prayer on a ship’s deck, with a windmill and billowing sail in the background. We did see plenty of history in the courtyard, which boasts the last wooden house in the city and a Catholic chapel, which was open and redolent of burning wax prayer candles.
View of the English Church, right, and the entrance to the chapel, white door, left
The Pilgrims did not stay long in Amsterdam. As controversies split the Amsterdam congregation and frustration grew with poverty and poor employment, they decamped to Leiden within nine months of Bradford’s arrival. Leiden was an industrial center with a Calvinist university, where Brewster printed religious tracts and Bradford was a member of the serge-weavers’ guild.
Leiden is the Dutch city more associated with the Pilgrims in the American imagination probably because they spent more time there. I visited the Pilgrim house in Leiden years ago on another cold day, this time in early spring, and it seemed far more comfortable than anything I have seen at Plimouth Plantation.
Exterior of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, dedicated to the Pilgrims who lived in the city from 1608 until their 1620 departure for America. photo credit By Herenld – Own work
Immigration to America ended the Pilgrim experiment in Holland. They left to guarantee their ability to worship freely away from the wars of religion raging through Europe, they left in hope of converting native Americans to their religion because apparently the Dutch weren’t having any, and finally, they left to keep their identities intact.
In my favorite passage from Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation, he writes of “the great licentiousness of youth in that country [Holland], and the manifold temptations of the place, [Pilgrim children]were drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents.” This expresses the fear Pilgrim parents had of their children becoming completely Dutch, fears justified by the assimilation experienced by families who did not emigrate to America.
What Pilgrim kids probably got up to. Fun On The Ice by Hendrick Avercamp
I realized after our trip to the English Chapel that the date was November 9th, the same day Cape Cod was sighted by the Pilgrims from the Mayflower in 1620. This Thanksgiving we are on the Dutch side of the Atlantic, and Bradford’s words about the children going native ring true today as my son tears through the streets on his bike with group of friends, the Dutch language following closely in his wake. Sometimes they burst into the kitchen demanding sandwiches, mostly they are out playing. When it gets cold I expect they’ll go skating.
I’ve cooked a lot of Thanksgiving dinners. If you’ve been at my table, you know who, and you know where. This year is different. This year the fourth Thursday in November will dawn like any other day, which has an authentic sort of Calvinist feel to it, I suppose, as Thanksgiving is not a holiday here. It is, however, a point of interest, and if you are in Amsterdam you can join several expat groups in celebration.
We have chosen to postpone ours to the first weekend of December due to a busy schedule and my daughter’s school exams. So far I have found four cans of Libby’s pumpkin pie filling and some cranberries, so confidence runs high.
We are grateful and give thanks.
Mary Petiet is a reporter, writer and story teller. Her work is frequently inspired by her native Cape Cod, where she covers the local farm beat for Edible Cape Cod magazine. Mary is the author of Minerva’s Owls, (Homebound Publications) finalist in the American Book Fest’s Best Book Awards 2017, religion and spirituality. Minerva’s Owls remembers the divine feminine to reenvision the world. Mary is currently dividing her time between Cape Cod and The Netherlands.