Mysteries unraveled: who are the great cathedral builders and their descendants?

Radio 2 unravels mysteries from Flanders and Brussels all summer. With the help of listeners and experts, we try to provide answers about mysterious stories.

Everyone knows Antwerp’s cathedral, Mechelen’s St. Rumbold tower, the town halls of Ghent and Leuven. But hardly a living soul knows that behind all those monuments there is one family of architects. From the second half of the 15th century, the Mechelen family of builders Keldermans conquered the lowlands. They became court architects for Emperor Charles V. One of them even contributed to the Gothic cathedral in Salamanca.

© ARCO / J Moreno –

From Alkmaar to Utrecht and Middelburg, from Lier to Hoogstraten, from Zoutleeuw to Tongerlo: everywhere Kelderman builds churches and buildings in Brabant Gothic. Monuments that to this day determine what our cities look like. Yet their name rings a bell with few.

Gaudí from the Low Countries

“People travel to Barcelona mainly because they want to see Gaudí’s work. That architect is world famous. But nobody here knows the name Keldermans,” says Karine Decoster, president of Mechelen’s city guides. “But they have had so much influence. But those were different times. The builders’ names were less important than the clients’.” In addition to the Mechelen Cathedral, the family also built the Hof van Busleyden, Margareta of Austria’s palace and several churches in their own town.

Keldermansen did everything: they had their own quarry, they made the sculptures in the facades and the design of the buildings

Karine Decoster, Mechel’s city guide

Anyone who teamed up with the Keldermans 500 years ago could count on a total approach. “They had their own quarry in Perk. Along the Dijle they took the stones to Mechelen. They also had their own studio where they made sculptures and glass mosaics. You can consider the Keldermans family a great contractor,” says Decoster. “By the way, did you know that Keldermans was a commercial name? Actually the family was called Van Mansdaele, but because they worked from a house known as decreased, ancestor Jan II changed that name.”

Saint Catherine's Church in Hoogstraten

The brick “Kempen’s Cathedral”

In Kempen, too, they are proud of the Kelderman family’s heritage. “St. Catherine’s Church is the third tallest in Belgium and one of the tallest brick towers in the world,” said Hoogstraten’s mayor Marc Van Aperen. “We sometimes call her Lange Katrien. It’s a design by Rombout Keldermans. We also have a Rombout Keldermansstraat in Hoogstraten, although I wonder if the residents know where their street name comes from.”

Rombout Keldermans also designed Gelmel Castle in Hoogstraten. Once the castle of the lords of Hoogstraten, now a building that serves as a school for prisoners. It is the only penal institution in Belgium where detainees can systematically follow vocational training.


Copyright: Ludo Verhoeven

Looking for descendants

Can you still find descendants of the famous builders Keldermans today? We consult a genealogist who knows everything about family tree research. “It will be difficult. The information we have about the origin of the builders, the Keldermans, stops as early as 1557,” says Rik Van der Krieken from Familiekunde Vlaanderen.

“The parish registers were introduced more than 30 years later after the Council of Trent in 1589. Anyone trying to reconstruct their own family tree often does not get past that date. With a little luck, the missing period for Kelderman’s family can be bridged up to 1557 , if there are names of family members listed in aldermen’s books or in other sources that have already been made available.” Rik investigated for us whether Malinois Frank Keldermans can be linked to the builders from his town.

Mechelen-American carillon

Several listeners of Radio 2 advised us to seek more information about Raymond Keldermans. A Malinois that ended up in the US around 1950 as a bell ringer in Springfield, Illinois. He is said to be descended from the builders Keldermans on his father’s side.

We get in touch with Hilde Keldermans via email. The American daughter of the bell player Raymond, her father died in 1984. “I have no real proof that we are descended from Keldermans. But be sure to contact my cousin. Rombout Keldermans from Antwerp.” A first name that doesn’t seem to have been chosen at random, does it?

Rombout Keldermans in 2022

“Hello, this is Rombout Keldermans. Who am I talking to?” The man on the line has exactly the same name as the fifteenth-century builder of St. The rumball tower in Mechelen. But this Rombout is 52 years old, lives in Antwerp and works as an engineer at BASF in the port. “I received all sorts of messages and emails from colleagues this morning. They had heard on Radio 2 that you were looking for me. Here I am!”

Rombout Keldermans

“My first name was not chosen by chance,” says Rombout. “My father’s name was Antoon Keldermans. Like Antoon I ‘de Oude’ Keldermans, the father of the historical Rombout. To my knowledge, this is the third time in our family history that an Antoon calls his son Rombout. My aunt once found on the family tree “There is missing two generations from the period around the French Revolution to make the connection. But in our family history and history are very much alive. Our ties to the master builders have been cherished and passed down for generations. For example, I also have an etching ring at home that hangs from Mechelen Cathedral.’

There is another Rombout Keldermans walking around the island of Palau in the Pacific Ocean

Rombout Keldermans

According to Antwerp Rombout, there is still an identical namesake of his in this world. “On the island of Palau in the Pacific Ocean there is also a Rombaut Keldermans. An adopted son of Bill Keldermans, that is, one of the emigrant American sons of Raymond Keldermans. Bill chose a name from family history for his adopted son. We are the second Rombout ever visited Palau on our honeymoon.”

Palau, image: wikipedia

Mechelen plants statue or commemorative plaque

Mechelen Municipality has also closely followed Radio 2’s search for the legacy of the Keldermans family. “We have a Kelderman vest in our city, but it is really a pain point that little else in Mechelen reminds us of our glorious family of builders. Your search on Radio 2 made it very clear,” says Mechel’s Councilor for Monuments Koen Anciaux ( Open VLD ).

“I was actually shocked by it myself. That’s why, as a councillor, I want to make a proposal in the college to erect a statue or memorial plaque in memory of all descendants of the Keldermans family. We have to think about what it will become. But I think we have to do something anyway. There is a gap in our legacy in that area.” The family has already received pictures in a niche of Ghent’s town hall and in a park in Bergen-op-Zoom in the Netherlands.

Leuven Town Hall

The town hall in Middelburg

Lierse Sankt Gummarus Church

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