Religion: Fun on the Steeple

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The pride of Holland's city of Arnhem is a sturdy 11th century Gothic structure called the Eusebius Church. Badly damaged during World War II, this Dutch Reformed church has gradually been rebuilt in strict accordance to medieval style. But when Architect Theo Verlaan came along to rebuild the steeple, things changed fast.

One of Verlaan's assistants was a sculptor named Hendrik Vreeling. Last winter he began to think about the gargoyles that Verlaan had planned to surround the steeple at the 230-foot mark. Why not, Vreeling suggested, have a little fun with the job by imitating the medieval builders and carving some unconventional gargoyles? Great idea, replied Verlaan. He suggested something "eternal"—comic strip characters, perhaps. The delighted sculptor went off to work, within three months hacked out 23 stone figures copied from the cartoons of Hollywood's Walt Disney and from a popular Dutch cartoonist named Maarten Toonder. Among his figures were Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the wisest of the Three Little Pigs, and a Big (six feet tall) Bad Wolf.

Up went the steeple, gargoyles and all, until a local paper reported the startling innovations. Then everyone awoke in alarm. "A sculptor who lets himself be inspired by the pitiful figure of Donald Duck is to be pitied himself," fumed the Rev. G. C. Foeken, one of the preachers at Eusebius Church, who had not heard about the lofty figures until the papers arrived. The Netherlands Christian Women's Association of Arnhem, 800 strong, demanded that town officials defend the "dignity of the steeple."

Soon all of Arnhem, and half of Holland, was talking about the gargoyles. Cartoonist Toonder wrote in to suggest that his copyright was being infringed. At last report, no protest had arrived from Disney, and Arnhem's burgomaster thought the affair more funny than vulgar. go right ahead, he told Verlaan after trudging topside for a look. That was just enough to spur Sculptor Vreeling on to greater artistic heights. Not far from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Vreeling is happily at work carving another stone figure: a dragon peeping out from a mushroom-shaped cloud. The dragon's face is unmistakably that of the enraged Pastor Foeken.