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Community / Plaque honouring Belgian priest who prevented a smallpox outbreak in Shetland set to be unveiled in his hometown

Father Theophilus Verstraeten lived in Lerwick during the 1860s and contributed to the development of St Margaret’s Parish

St Margaret and the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.

A PILGRIMAGE group from Shetland will travel to Belgium later this year to attend the unveiling of a plaque honouring Father Verstraeten and his invaluable service to local people.

Father Theophilus Verstraeten was transferred to Shetland around 1860 and became the first resident priest since the Reformation.

He set up a chapel dedicated to St Anne which was initially located in the basement of a lodberry on Commercial Street, now Pete’s Café and Takeaway.

The year 1870 saw a smallpox pandemic in Europe, one in a series of such outbreaks that had a devastating impact across the Continent.

When the Belgian fishing smack Le Phare anchored off Lerwick in 1871 the ship was quarantined after news broke that a sailor on board had smallpox.

Communication between Shetlanders and the ship was forbidden; however, the ship had anchored in the wrong place, and that put the local population at risk.

Procurator fiscal Baillie Duncan approached Father Verstraeten about the issue, and the priest decided to go onboard the ship himself and discuss moving the boat with the captain.

Father Gerald Fitzgibbon, a Lerwick parish priest, published the story in the Shetland Life magazine in 1994, describing the decision to go aboard as “unusual”.

The plaque in the local church honouring Father Verstraeten.

He wrote: “Though Father Verstraeten’s visit onboard Le Phare had secured the town from infection, it proved fatal for him.”

He gave the sick sailor his last rites and caught smallpox from him, unfortunately passing away later.

After his death the priests house was completely cleaned, other residents were quarantined, and his body was put in a lead coffin.

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The Le Phare transported Father Verstraeten’s body back to Belgium where he was taken to his hometown of Bottelaere to be buried.

The Belgian consul wrote at the time: “Our friend had acquired the affection of all classes in society through his kindness, his godliness, his great and also moral charity, always willing to do all possible services, even in a land of strict Presbyterians, who do not tolerate the Catholic religion”.

Father Verstraeten’s memory was also discussed the Burgh town council meetings, describing a “deep sense of loss” for a man who had “won the respect and esteem of all classes” when carrying out his duties in Shetland ultimately protecting the community from another smallpox outbreak.

A plaque honouring the priest sits in St Margaret Church in Lerwick after the parish celebrated its centenary and rediscovered the story in 2011.

Since then, St Margaret parishioner Hilde Bardell, who lives in Shetland but is from Belgium, visited Bottelaere to find Father Verstraeten’s grave.

However, it was no longer there after the graveyard was converted to a military cemetery.

After establishing contact with a parishioner in Bottelaere, Lieve Oyre, the two researched the priest’s story and made plans to create a memorial plaque.

Bardell said a small group of pilgrimages from Shetland will travel to Bottelaere in early October to unveil the plaque at St Anne’s church in Belgium.

She said: “We wish to honour a man who laid the foundations for our church building, but even more importantly, courageously laid foundations for respectful relations and connections between Christians who through misunderstanding and prejudice forgot about compassion, humanity and love, the value of which never fades.

“The parish hope that even 150 years later they can build on his foundations of learning from each other and work together with all in ministry for our very needy world.”

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