I just got back from a stay at one of the most unique Airbnbs I’ve ever seen…in Amsterdam, or really anywhere. And believe me, I’ve spent quite a bit of time obsessing over cool Airbnbs and finding the perfect vacation rental.
This particular gem is hidden away in the middle of Amsterdam, behind an ornate doorway, and down an unassuming alley.
Into the apartment and through a tiny kitchen, there’s a single bedroom with a wealth of natural light…
…and a kitschy 17th century altar with a painted plaster ceiling! Turns out, this little apartment was once a clandestine church, or schuilkerk. Set at the back of a long, narrow building, the sanctuary adhered to the Calvinist-controlled government rules of the time, which forbade Catholic church entrances on main streets.
Private Mansions, the company that manages the apartment as a vacation rental, have dubbed it the Secret Chapel. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to provide any specific history on the property.
However, this incredible little chapel fits into a larger historical context of religious discrimination and grudging tolerance of Catholics in the Netherlands — so long as they kept their churches hidden away in anonymous, unmarked buildings. This requirement doesn’t seem to have been intended to truly hide the churches — rather the goal was to remove practice of the religion from public life.
According to Benjamin Kaplan in Divided by Faith, “Neighbors and even strangers knew of their existence, and magistrates often had a significant, if informal, say in the appointment of their pastors.”
In the countryside, Catholic churches might be secreted inside barns. Inside the city, residents had to work with space constraints, so that surprisingly elaborate churches were often carved out in the private homes of the wealthy.
One such hidden church has been preserved as Our Lord in the Attic museum. In the 1660s, a prosperous Amsterdam businessman purchased three adjoining buildings, which he merged to create a Catholic church in the attic, complete with a confessional and living quarters for the priest. The sanctuary is larger, but the design is strikingly similar to that of the Secret Chapel.
While Our Lord in the Attic is beautifully preserved, and likely the most famous clandestine church in the Netherlands, these hidden churches were quite common. In Amsterdam alone in 1700, there were 20 Catholic churches, 6 Mennonite, and at least four others tied to smaller religious groups.
How did the Netherlands get to the point of so many elaborate churches hidden inside homes? Following Dutch independence from the Catholic Spanish Empire and the creation of the Dutch Republic, religious animosity continued to build between Dutch Catholics and Dutch Protestants.
In the mid to late 17th Century, Catholicism in the Netherlands saw increased restrictions on public worship and displays of the faith. The Huguenot exodus from France following the Edict of Fontainebleau, which prohibited Protestant faiths from France, ignited Dutch Protestant anger.
Catholic churches were closed and the faith went underground. The devout constructed chapels, some inside homes, others disguised as entire houses, around the Netherlands. They varied widely in style, opulence, and size.
With continued conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the early 18th Century, even these private chapels became illegal. It wasn’t until several decades later that restrictions on Catholicism were lifted in the country.
But back to the Secret Chapel, this cute bathroom is on the second floor, at the top of the steps, before you enter the chapel balcony. It’s obviously a newer renovation, perhaps created when the church was converted to an Airbnb rental. Which makes me wonder what this space was back when the chapel was in use. Perhaps a confessional booth filled this little room.
I was so entranced with the pretty light coming in the window onto the basin, that I didn’t take any other photos of the bathroom, so the photo below is actually from Private Mansion’s website.
Book the Secret Chapel (their other property, Mayer Manor, looks amazing too!)