I first became aware of the moving story of Pastor Dergent through an exercise book completed by a young man, Samuel Ching, at Mrs Hayman’s Boys’ Bible Class in Bournemouth during the First World War. In it reference was made to a Father Dergent standing up for his faith against the German onslaught into Belgium in 1914.
Some online newspaper and magazine searches revealed that Dergent’s case had made front-page news in the British and American press during the early part of 1915, as stories of German atrocities in Belgium were circulated, both to encourage people in Britain to volunteer for the army, and to stimulate sympathy for the allied cause in then-neutral America.
Only one published work exists about the life of Pastor Dergent, a book written in Dutch by a friend of his who investigated the case in the late 1940s. With the help of this book, and a visit to the sites associated with Pastor Dergent undertaken in Easter 2015, it was possible to piece together the story of tragic heroism; a story that probably touched me as deeply as any of those I came across during my research.
Pieter-Josef Dergent was a 44-year-old Catholic priest in the tiny parish of Gelrode, in the Leuven region of Belgium. He was well-loved by his parishioners, and he took care of children and the infirm, and it was considered that he was beginning a Christian revival in Gelrode, where he had been in post for just under a year.
On 19th August 1914, German troops occupied Gelrode and the nearby town of Aarschot. They considered priests to be dangerous partisans, capable of inspiring resistance from the Belgian people. The following week, Pastor Dergent ignored a ruling to stay within the village of Gelrode, setting off to take wounded civilians to a nearby monastery. On returning through Aarschot, he was arrested and imprisoned.
The following day he was taken to the outside of the church at Aarschot, where 3,000 prisoners were being held, and repeatedly brutalised in a disgusting manner, whilst being taunted to renounce his faith. He raised two fingers of his right hand and said:
I swear before God and the saints that I will not renounce my faith.
The church at Aarschot, showing the place where the torture of Pastor Dergent occurred
He was then beaten and stoned, and his body thrown into the nearby river Demer, from where it was recovered on 2nd September and hastily buried
On 14th November his body was reburied at Gelrode, and today a beautiful memorial marks the place.
The author visiting Pastor Dergent’s grave in April 2015
There is also a statue in his honour on the main rode, and the local primary school is named VBS Pastor Dergent in his honour.
The full story of Pastor Dergent is one of twenty-three case studies contained in my first book, Fight the Good Fight, Voices of Faith from the First World War. The book also contains a foreword by respected MP Dan Jarvis, Labour’s spokesman on war commemoration