Koekelberg, from the original pantheon to the final basilica


It is exactly 50 years since the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels was inaugurated. The people of Brussels like to call it the Koekelberg Basilica; this colossal building, the fifth largest church in the world, is 164.5 metres wide and the largest Art Deco building in the world.

Its origin is almost contemporaneous with the country that houses it, since it was the first king of the Belgians who conceived of the project. But it was his successor, Leopold II (1835-1909), who gave it shape. The idea was to create a royal district on this large esplanade, straddling the municipalities of Ganshoren and Koekelberg, to the north-west of Brussels. The original plan was to erect a national pantheon like that in Paris, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Belgian independence. It would have had the appearance of a classical Greek temple; the Avenue des Gloires Nationales and the Avenue du Panthéon in that district still bear witness to this fact. 

It was a visit to the Sacré Cœur in Paris in 1902 and pressure from the powerful Catholic party that convinced the sovereign to build a religious edifice. Leopold II laid the foundation stone of the national Basilica on 12 October 1905. The groundwork had been completed when World War I broke out, interrupting construction. Once peace returned, the project was restarted and in November 1921 the project of Ghent architect Albert Van huffel was approved. After many financial tribulations and a new interruption due to World War II, Cardinal van Roey presided over the impressive ceremonies to consecrate the church on 28 January 1952. It would be another 18 years before the dome was completed and the basilica was inaugurated, on 11 November 1970.