Nineteenth century clandestine burial of bishop in Tournai cathedral
Wednesday, 08 October 2014
On Monday, workers drilling in the basement of the Notre Dame cathedral in Tournai, currently undergoing building work, discovered a coffin situated under the ambulatory. According to a historian interviewed by the Courrier de l’Escaut newspaper, it would appear to be the coffin of Bishop Labis, Bishop of Tournai from 1835 to 1872, buried in secret in the cathedral on November 18, 1872 as described in history books.
The case made the historical equivalent of headline news at the time since there was an edict in place banning burials in churches and cathedrals. According to historian Louis-Donat Casterman, the bishop, who was very attached to ‘his’ cathedral, wished it to be his final resting place.
He was therefore buried secretly at night by cathedral staff a few hours before his official funeral, around what was then an empty coffin.
On hearing about this, a story which pitted clerics against anti-clericals, angry municipal authorities took legal action and asked for excavation to be undertaken, which the Crown prosecutor denied.
Legal proceedings were, however, begun. Dean Ponceau, who confessed to the crime, was found guilty, after appeal by the prosecution, and fined 600 francs in 1873.
Initial appraisals of the coffin have shown it to indeed be a coffin dating from the late nineteenth century. It would seem a mystery has been solved in Tournai, nicknamed the ‘town of the 5 bell towers’.