For 600 years, the Sisters of the Order of Poor Clare had lived at their convent in the quaint city of Bruges in Belgium. It was a picturesque existence, and life was simple for the nuns, known as the Coletines or Clares, who lived cloistered, minimizing their contact and communication with the outside world. Until, that is, the outside world walked through their front gate.
His name was Ronny Crab, and he arrived at the convent in 1985, recommended by a protege of the local bishop. Crab found ready employment there, becoming the nuns’ driver, handyman and groundskeeper — their all-around guy. Over time, he won their friendship and trust. Soon, Crab began bringing them small pleasures and served as their vessel to a more libertine life. Eventually, they also named him director of their investments and financial affairs.
Around 1988, the nuns heard talk that the bishop had plans for their home. The rumor was that he desired to take the convent from them, break up their order and distribute the Coletines to various other church outposts. Their priceless art collections and holy relics amassed over centuries would be sold for profit; then, he would sell off the convent to local businesses that coveted the land. The nuns talked among themselves about the bishop’s plans and came to their own decision, which was, essentially, “fuck that.”
Because the nuns owned their convent, they changed the bylaws in order to secure their rights to the property and land. As Clive Van Aerden, a lawyer for Crab, would later point out, “The nuns wanted the proceeds from the convent to go to their families rather than the church after they all died, so they changed the statutes of the convent.” The lawyer said specifically that Sister Josephine “knew her convent was on a list where the bishop didn’t allow any new nuns to come in. So she said, ‘Why should we just let it bleed to death and let the diocese get all the goods back?’” With Crab’s help, the nuns began to sell off their art collection and holy relics. Lastly, they discreetly sold their convent for a cool $1.4 million.
After they amassed their small fortune, the nuns started spending their profits. They bought an old, crumbling castle in the South of France. They purchased a fleet of cars, including a Cadillac Seville and six Mercedes sedans, one of which was a limousine that featured a wet bar and television and cost $110,000. The nuns, who had for decades led a humble, minimalist life, also secured an ambulance for their caravan so that the oldest of the group, Sister Agnes, could make the trip with them to their new home. It didn’t matter that none of them knew how to drive. Next, they bought a stable of 11 racehorses.
According to Crab’s lawyer, the saintly spending spree couldn’t be attributed to Crab’s influence. Instead, these were their earthly desires. “They wanted them, so they bought them. It’s as simple as that,” he said. He also added that the elderly nuns were fully aware of what they were doing, describing one nun in question as “very clear of mind, not senile.” Plus, the nuns had to meet with a notary, and each sister signed the agreement to sell their convent.
Per French press coverage at the time, the animosity between the nuns and the bishop was something of an “open secret,” and the two factions had “not been on the best possible terms.” So it was no surprise that when the bishop heard about what the nuns had been up to, he was irate. He stormed over to the convent and demanded to meet with the mother superior, Sister Anna.
He arrived just after 11 p.m., and Sister Anna brought him to her office. The bishop anticipated what he thought were the nuns’ concerns and “assured her that the Church would look after the nuns for the rest of their lives, and said the valuable property should not fall into ‘commercial hands.’” But Sister Anna told the bishop it was too late — the nuns had already sold the convent to “commercial interests.” The bishop erupted in anger and demanded the nuns void the sale. But the mother superior refused. She and her sisters would be retiring to the South of France, and there was nothing he could do about it. The bishop left in a half-blind rage.
That night, the nuns finalized their plans to leave, packed their bags, loaded up their fleet of Mercedes and prepped the ambulance and the racehorses. The next morning, before the sun crested the horizon, the nuns got comfortable for the long road trip. And then, they cut, each of the sisters now a newly-minted outlaw.
The bishop, however, told local authorities that the nuns had absconded with church funds. They had no legal grounds to sell land and property that belonged to the Vatican. But as the bishop soon learned, under Belgian law, the nuns did have the right to sell the property — and there was little he could do about it.
In the press, the tone was mixed. Some were gobsmacked by the criminal bravery of the nuns. Others saw them as a sign of modernity’s slide into spiritual bedlam and a loss of traditional values. As one Belgian journalist wrote, “Fifty years ago, they would’ve never defied their bishop in case they’d go to hell. But the spirit of female emancipation has even penetrated the nunnery walls.”
The nuns, guided by Sister Anna, crossed over to France and made it to their new-to-them castle in the French Pyrenees, not too far from the pilgrimage site at Lourdes. Once they arrived at their castle, “the eight Poor Sisters of Clare, whose average age is 77,” set up a home for themselves. The castle was dilapidated, as most castles are these days. It had some modern renovations, though, including a swimming pool, a stable for their racehorses and multiple tennis courts.
Many folks believe that religious leaders, specifically Catholic priests, take a vow of poverty. But in reality, most do not. Diocesan priests don’t even make vows, they make “promises” of chastity and obedience to their bishop. Monks and nuns, however, do take vows of poverty, despite the wealth of the church. And as some nuns age or retire, their living conditions can become particularly destitute. In 2001, the Washington Post noted, “In convents across the country, elderly women who have dedicated their lives to serving God sometimes spend their last days subsisting on welfare benefits, unable to afford prescription drugs or even a timely burial.” This isn’t how the Sisters of Poor Clare wanted to go out.
Not that the bishop still wasn’t angling for that. Unwilling to give up, he found an accomplice who also didn’t want to see the nuns flee. She was the youngest of the nuns, and she felt that Crab had emotionally seduced and misled the elder nuns. The Bishop asked her to say what she told him to the Belgian police.
By the end of February 1990, weeks after the nuns had fled Bruges, Belgian police arrived in the South of France, looking to speak with them. Meanwhile, things were a bit bleak in the old castle. While it had a swimming pool, it had no running water. It had multiple tennis courts, but no central heat. But the nuns weren’t complaining, as Sister Anna said, “There is no question. In Pessan, we found perfect happiness. We don’t care at all about the lack of comfort in our new home. We feel closer to the Lord there than to Bruges.”
They did, however, trust the wrong man to help them plan their retirement, as the Belgian police arrested Crab, charging him with swindling and elder abuse. It soon came out that he’d embezzled millions from the nuns as he’d sold off their property. And yet, after spending 38 days in pre-trial detention, the charges against Crab were curiously dropped, the sale of the convent was voided and the property and land was returned to the church. For their part, the sisters were sent to live in a retirement home for nuns.
The next year, a book about the whole ordeal came out — written by Crab. He, of course, made himself out to be the hero of the story — a charming bon vivant, a libertine who taught nuns to enjoy the finer things in life. The sisters begged to differ, and a few years later, they sued Crab, accusing him of embezzling $10 million from them. (They’d lose the lawsuit.)
In 2014, Crab was once again in the spotlight. He was now in politics, a member of Belgium’s far-right New Flemish Alliance, though he was removed from his post after news of his past resurfaced.
There is one happy ending to this story, though. Sister Anna left the convent behind and started a new life with Guillaumine Lambrechts, the nun who had gone to the bishop and told him everything. Leave it to a nun to forgive a snitch. More than that, they were in love. The two former nuns retired together to a “a pretty farmhouse on the edge of a small stream, in the heart of the Ardennes,” where they wanted “nothing more than to live together, far from all hassle.”