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Blessed earth and stone powder against diseases and other discomforts (part 1) 

(Use in The Netherlands and Belgium)

Already a long time ago it was a popular tradition (popular belief and folk medicine) to use blessed earth (sand, clay, and so on) and stone powder as a medicine against diseases and other discomforts. Stone powder and earth could get these qualifications in different ways: a priest blessed them or they came from the (immediate surroundings of the) grave of a holy person. They could also come from the place where a holy person (a saint) did something special or from the place where he died. People could get stone powder for example by scratching it from church walls or stone crosses. Probably we could say that the church authorities wouldn't have liked this way of scratching that stone powder because it resulted in damaging the churches and crosses. Actually such stone powder and earth have similarities with relics. For example Catholics in The Netherlands and Belgium know the use of relics in connection with their saints. There we also have the connection with blessed earth and stone powder. Although the number of places where you can get such earth and stone powder in these countries diminished, the habit still exists. In The Netherlands and Belgium we found six of those places.  

Churches and chapels with blessed earth 

The Sint Gerlachuskerk - Houthem-Sint Gerlach
We find the Sint-Gerlachuskerk (church) in the Dutch province Limburg in Houthem-Sint Gerlach (municipality Valkenburg aan de Geul). Approximately in the middle of the church we find the tomb of Saint Gerlachus. In the open space under the tomb lies a heap of 'sand' (image 1). An information sign explains us this is 'blessed sand'. When we take a closer look, we see that it isn't actually sand but limestone powder that origins from limestone sediments in the region. This limestone was deposited about 65 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous. But for the use it doesn't matter that it's limestone powder and not sand. Next to the heap of limestone powder lies a trowel and there are little plastic bags available. Believers can put some powder in the bag and take it home. There is also a hand brush available to clean the floor if some of the powder is spilled.People use the blessed powder to cure sick animals. They also believe that if some of the powder is mixed with their corn supply the mice and rats will stay away. They say that if a little bit is thrown in the stables, the cattle and horses stay healthy. It's even good for plants and flowers if it's added to the soil in which they grow. Summarizing: according to the people who use the powder it's good for many things. At the origin of this all we find the knight Gerlachus who lived during the twelfth century. At a certain moment Gerlachus decided to change his life. After many years of penance he became a hermit on his estate in the neighborhood of Houthem-Sint Gerlach. According to the tradition small miracles happened around his grave after he died. Now the people began to take home little bits of the earth from his grave because they believed it had special power. Even parts of his mortal remains such as pieces of bones were desirable objects. Such phenomena were not uncommon in the past. Nowadays we still find remains of saints as relics in churches. At a certain moment the practices around the grave in Houthem-Sint Gerlach got a more structured manner. Since that moment the 'sand' became available in a decent way.  

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Image 1. The tomb of Saint Gerlachus with the blessed 'sand' in Houthem-Sint Gerlach (The Netherlands)

The Sint Gerlachuskerk - Banholt
In Banholt (municipality Eijsden-Margraten) in the Dutch province Limburg we also find a Sint-Gerlachuskerk. The 'sand' (here also limestone powder) is blessed in this church each year on the Name day of Saint Gerlach in January. With the blessed powder they fill 150 little plastic bags and then deposit them around the statue of the saint in the back of the church (image 2). When we visited the church in March only ten of these bags were left. It seems the powder is still very popular! People use the 'sand' to throw it in the stables to keep the cattle healthy. In Banholt people ask Saint Gerlach to protect them and their cattle and other animals against sickness and diseases. 

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Image 2. Little bags with blessed 'sand' in the Sint Gerlachuskerk in Banholt (The Netherlands)

The Sint Catharinakerk - Montfort
In the Sint Catharinakerk in Montfort in the Dutch province Limburg (municipality Roerdalen) Saint Anthony is worshipped. Next to his statue in the back of the church we find a bucket with blessed sand (image 3). With the trowel in the bucket the worshippers - who come from near and far - can take some sand. They throw this sand on their fields to make them more fertile. They also throw it in the stables to protect the cattle against sickness and evil. The blessed sand in the bucket is building sand. It's bought in a D.I.Y shop. In the church the priest blesses this sand. 

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Image 3. The bucket with blessed sand in the Sint Catharinakerk in Montfort (The Netherlands)

The Goddelijke Zaligmakerkerk - Hakendover 
Hakendover lies southeast of Tienen in the Belgian province Flemish Brabant. The place is well known under Catholics because of its 'paardenprocessie' (horse procession) that happens each year on Easter Monday. On that day pilgrims and animals are blessed by the priests en there is a horse race over the fields. Pilgrims can take some blessed earth on the cemetery that lies around the church (image 4). They can use this earth to protect against all kinds of evil and disaster. They also throw it on the fields and mix it with the food of the cattle. We find this blessed earth on the cemetery at the back side of the church under a roof. In the past this construction was closed with an iron fence. There you could at certain moments buy a little bit of earth from a woman who stood inside of the construction. Nowadays you don't have to buy the earth anymore. You can take a little bit of it when you visit the cemetery. 

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Image 4. The blessed earth lies under a roof at the cemetery of  Hakendover (Belgium)

The Sint Evermaruskapel - Rutten
Rutten (municipality Tongeren) lies in the Belgian (Flanders) province Limburg. In the Sint Evermaruskapel (chapel) of Rutten we can see a small pit in the floor that is closed with a tile. This pit contains blessed earth which the people can take home in little bits (image 5). They put it in the food of sick animals to cure them. They also throw it on the fields. But the people who believe in the effect of the earth also use it themselves to help against diseases and discomforts. A woman who visits the chapel tells us the earth is good for nearly everything. She puts it in a small bag under her pillow when she goes to sleep. She also gives the earth to other people to help when they have problems or when they are sick. According to the woman the blessed earth helped one of those people to get rid of polyps.The earth in the pit in the chapel is fine grained and looks like powder. The man who takes care of the pit and its earth, tells us that he gets this earth from the meadow around the chapel. Before he puts the earth in the pit he sieves it en he takes little stones out of it. Therefore it looks like powder. According to the legend the holy Evermarus was killed here when he and his companions were resting after they came back from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. In the tenth century his grave was found on the meadow that lies now around the chapel. First the people build at that spot a wooden chapel. Nowadays we find the grave of Saint Evermarus in the stone chapel (build in 1784) at this place. Each year on the first of May there is a Sint Evermarus celebration to remember the fact that the holy man and his companions were murdered.  

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Image 5. The pit with blessed earth in the Sint Evermaruskapel in Rutten (Belgium)

The Saint Mortkapel - Haillot
Haillot (municipality Ohey) lies in the Belgian (Wallonia) province Namur. In the chapel of Saint Mort (15th century) people can take away some 'holy' earth. They put it in the food of the animals to let them stay healthy. They say the cows give more milk when they eat this earth. We find this earth in a hole under the altar around a big stone (image 6). This stone probably is a standing stone ('menhir'). Unfortunately we can't say for sure that this stone is a standing stone because the proper research to confirm this has never been done. We even don't know how deep the base of this stone is under the surface. But it shouldn't be strange to think this stone is a standing stone. Not so far away from the chapel, - also in Haillot - stands the 4500 kilogram heavy 'Pierre de Diable' (Devils Stone). And this is a real standing stone. People come to the chapel of Saint Mort to pray when they have headaches and toothaches. We see in the pit with earth pacifiers (dummies) for young children. They are in all probability left behind as ex votos (votif offerings) to seek grace or to give thanks. This phenomenon is known from more churches. These pacifiers indicate that people use the earth from this chapel not only for the animals but also for themselves.

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Image 6. The altar in the Saint Mortkapel with the hole and the big stone (Belgium)

Go to part two

The description of the locations is a snapshot. It's always possible that situations change at a later moment and that locations don't look the same anymore. 

 Text and translation: Jan Weertz
Pictures: Jan and Els Weertz

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