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Augustinian canons

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Augustinian canons

Canons Regular are priests living in community under the Rule of St. Augustine ("regula" in Latin), and sharing their property in common. Distinct from monks, who live a cloistered, contemplative life and sometimes engage in ministry to those from outside the monastery, the purpose of the life of a canon is to engage in public ministry of liturgy and sacraments for those who visit their churches (historically the monastic life was by its nature lay, whereas canonical life was essentially clerical). Distinct from Clerks Regular (Regular Clerics)—an example of which is the Society of Jesus—they are members of a particular community of a particular place, and are bound to the public praying of the Liturgy of the Hours in choir.

Secular canons, by contrast, belong to a community of priests attached to a church but do not take vows or live in common under a Rule.

Canons Regular are sometimes called Black or White Canons, depending on the color of the religious habit worn by the congregation to which they belong.

Canons live together in community and take the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience; though this is a later development, the first communities of Canons took vows of common property and stability. Some congregations of Canons Regular have retained the vow of stability. Famous Canons Regular include the only Englishman to sit in the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Adrian IV, the renowned mystic, Thomas à Kempis, and the Christian humanist, Desiderius Erasmus.

The Canons Regular (usually following the Rule of Augustine, and hence called Augustinians Canons) are not to be confused with the Order of Saint Augustine which was to begin as a completely distinct entity via papal edicts of the year 1256. Pope Urban II, who was in office from 1088 to 1099, wrote of two forms of religious life: the monastic (like the Benedictines and Cistercians) and the canonical (like the Augustinian canons). He likened the monks to the role of Mary, and the canons to that of her sister, Martha.[1] These clergy were called 'canon' because their names were kept in a list known as a 'kanon', a Greek word meaning 'rule'.[2]

The monks sought to reflect supernatural order and stability within their monasteries, with examples of worship, farming, medical care, librarianship, learning, etc. The canons worked in the disorder of the towns and cities, where the worship, medicines, education and the skills of the enclosed Benedictines were not present to the growing numbers of urban dwellers. By the year 1125 hundreds of communities of Canons had sprung up in Western Europe. Usually they were quite autonomous of one another, and varied in their ministries.[1]

One obvious place where a group of priests was required was within a cathedral, where there were many Masses to celebrate and the Divine Office to be prayed together in community. Canons often came to be associated with cathedrals, but other groups of canons also established themselves in smaller centres.[1]

When, in and after the 11th century, the various congregations of Canons Regular were formed, and adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, they were usually called Canonici Regulares Ordinis S. Augustini Congregationis, and in England "Austin Canons" or "Black Canons", but there have always been canons regular who never adopted the Rule of St. Augustine. In a word, canons regular may be considered as the genus, and Austin Canons as the species; or all Austin Canons are canons regular, but not all canons regular are Austin canons.


According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a canon regular is essentially a religious cleric; "The Order of Canons Regular is necessarily constituted by religious clerics, because they are essentially destined to those works which relate to the Divine mysteries, whereas it is not so with the monastic Orders." This is what constitutes a canon regular and what distinguishes him from a monk. The clerical state is essential to the Order of Canons Regular, whereas it is only accidental to the Monastic Order. Erasmus, himself a canon regular, declared that the canons regular are a "median point" between the monks and the secular clergy.[3] The outer appearance and observances of the canons regular can seem very similar to those of the monks. This is because the various reforms borrowed certain practices from the monks for the use of the canons.[2]

According to St. Augustine, a canon regular professes two things, "sanctitatem et clericatum". He lives in community, he leads the life of a religious, he sings the praises of God by the daily recitation of the Divine Office in choir; but at the same time, at the bidding of his superiors, he is prepared to follow the example of the Apostles by preaching, teaching, and the administration of the sacraments, or by giving hospitality to pilgrims and travellers, and tending the sick.[3] St. Augustine’s teaching and example has become the heritage of the Church as it sets about bringing to life again the common life of clerics.[4]

The canons regular do not confine themselves exclusively to canonical functions. They also give hospitality to pilgrims and travelers on the Great St. Bernard and on the Simplon, and in former times the hospitals of St. Bartholomew's Smithfield, in London, of S. Spirito, in Rome, of Lochleven, Monymusk and St. Andrew's, in Scotland, and others like them, were all served by canons regular. Many congregations of canons worked among the poor, the lepers, and the infirm. The clerics established by St. Patrick in Ireland had a Guest House for pilgrims and the sick whom they tended by day and by night. And the rule given by Chrodegang to his canons enjoined that a hospital should be near their house that they might tend the sick.[3]


Ordo Antiquus

St. Augustine of Hippo did not found the order of canons regular, not even those who are called Austin Canons. There were Canons Regular before St. Augustine. Although Augustine of Hippo is regarded by the Canons as their founder, Vincent of Beauvais, Sigebert, and Peter of Cluny all state that the canonical order traces back its origin to the earliest ages of the Church. In the first centuries after Christ, priests lived with the bishop and carried out the liturgy and sacraments in the cathedral church. While each could own his own property, they lived together and shared common meals and a common dormitory.[5]

From the 4th to the middle of the 11th century, the communities of canons were established exclusively by bishops. The oldest form of canonical life was known as "Ordo Antiquus". The first who successfully united the clerical state with the monastic observance was St Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli. This way of living was also established by St Zeno, Bishop of Verona, and St. Ambrose at Milan.


It was under St Augustine that the "canonical life" reached its apotheosis. None of the holy fathers was so enthusiastic about and enthralled by the community life of the Apostolic Church of Jerusalem (Acts 4:31-35) as St. Augustine. To live this out in the midst of like-minded confreres was the goal of his monastic foundations in Thagaste, in the “Garden Monastery” at Hippo and at his bishop’s house. The “rules” of St. Augustine intended to help put the vita apostolica into effect for the circumstances of his time and the community of his day.[4] From the time of his elevation to the episcopal see in 395 AD, he changed his episcopal palace into a monastery for clerics and established the essential characteristics-the common life with renunciation of private property, chastity, obedience, the liturgical life and the care of souls: to these can be added two other characteristics typically Augustinian—a close bond of brotherly affection and a wise moderation in all things. This spirit permeates the whole of the so-called Rule of St Augustine which at least in substance can be attributed to the Doctor of Africa.[6]

The invasion of Africa by the Vandals destroyed the Augustinian foundation but we can deduce it as almost certain that it took refuge in Gaul.[6] The regulations which St. Austin had given to the clerics who lived with him soon spread and were adopted by other religious communities of canons regular not only in Africa, but in Italy, in France and elsewhere. Pope Gelasius, about the year 492, re-established the regular life in the Lateran Basilica. From there the reform spread till at length the Rule was universally adopted by almost all the canons regular. It was in the same Lateran Basilica, tradition tells us, that St. Patrick, the future Apostle of Ireland, professed the canonical institute which he afterwards introduced with the Christian faith, into his own country.

Chrodegang and the Rule of Aix

Over time there crept in the abuses in clerical life of concubinage and independent living with the scandals and disedification of the faithful which followed. Vigorous reforms were undertaken at the time of the emperor Charlemagne (AD 800).[2] Important milestones for the Ordo Antiquus form of canonical life include the reform and rule of the Benedictine Bishop of Metz, Chrodegang (763), and the Synod of Aachen of 816, which gave a rule of life for canons in the Carolingian Empire.

The ecclesiastical constitution or ordinance of Chrodegang, Regula vitæ communis (Rule of Common Life) was at once a restoration and an adaptation of the Rule of St. Augustine, and its chief provisions were that the ecclesiastics who adopted it had to live in common under the episcopal roof, recite common prayers, perform a certain amount of manual labour, keep silence at certain times, and go to confession twice a year. They did not take the vow of poverty and they could hold a life interest in property. Twice a day they met to hear a chapter from the rule of their founder, hence the meeting itself was soon called "chapter". This discipline was also recommended shortly after by the Councils of Aix-la-Chapelle (789) and Mainz (813).

In 816 the Institutio canonicorum Aquisgranensis was drawn up at the Council of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle).[7] This included a rule of 147 articles, known as the Rule of Aix, to be applied to all canons. These statues were held as binding.[8] The principal difference between Chrodegang's rule and that of Aix was their attitude toward private property. While both permitted the canons to hold and dispose of property as they saw fit, Chrodegang counseled a renunciation of private property, while the Synod of Aachen did not since it was not part of the tradition of the canons. From this period dates the daily recitation by the canons of the Divine Office or canonical hours.[9]


In the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, laxity crept in; community life was no longer strictly observed; the sources of revenue were divided, and the portions allocated to the individual canons. This soon led to differences of income, consequently to avarice, covetousness, and the partial destruction of the canonical life.[9]

In the 11th century the Canonical Order was reformed and renewed, chiefly owing to the efforts of Hildebrand (c. 1020-1085), later Pope Gregory VII, culminating in the Lateran Synod of 1059. Here for the first time the Apostolic See officially recognized and approved the life of the religious clergy, which had been founded originally by bishops and others. Gregory VII's reformation resulted in a distinction being made between the clerics who lived in separate houses and those who still preserved the old discipline.

Toward the end of the 11th century, the more cathedral and other chapters of canons opted for the vita apostolica after the example of St. Augustine, the more urgent became a separation and decision, first vis-à-vis those canons, who held to private ownership, but also vis-à-vis Benedictine monasticism, which till then was the mainstay of the Gregorian Reform. Pope Urban II deserves the credit for having recognized the way of life of the "canonici regulares" as sharply distinguished from the principles of the "canonici saeculares", and at the same time as an equal way of communal perfection apart from monasticism. In numerous privileges for reformed houses of canons he clearly emphasized the nature and goal, the rights and duties of the canons regular. Thus from the renewal of the vita canonica there inevitably arose a new “order”—which initially had not been the intention. In the privileges of Pope Urban II we find officially for the first time the new name Canonici secundum regulam sancti Augustini viventes, which would give the new ordo of canonical life a distinctive stamp.[4]

The norm of life of the canons regular was concretized from the last third of the 11th century by a general following of the vita apostolica and the vita communis of the early church based more and more on the regulations handed on by Augustine. Secundum regulam Augustini vivere, first employed in Rheims in 1067, signified a life according to the example of Augustine that was known from his numerous writings.[8]

From that time the Order of Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, as it was already beginning to be called, increased rapidly. A great number of congregations of canons regular sprang into existence, each with its own distinctive constitutions, grounded on the Rule of St. Augustine and the statutes which Blessed Peter de Honestis, about the year 1100, gave to his canons at Ravenna. In some houses the Canonical Life was combined with hospitality to travelers, nursing the sick and other charitable works. Often a number of houses were grouped together in a Congregation. One of the most famous houses was the Abbey of Saint Victor, founded in Paris in 1108, celebrated for its liturgy, pastoral work and spirituality. Also worth mention are the Abbey of Saint Maurice of Agaune, the Hospice of Saint Bernard of Mont Joux in Switzerland, and the Austrian Abbeys.[10]

The highpoint of the Canons Regular can be situated in the first half of the 12th century. During this time they contributed not only a series of popes – Honorius II, Innocent II, Lucius II, as well as Hadrian IV shortly after mid-century and finally Gregory VIII in the second half of the century – but they also gave inestimable momentum for the area of the German Empire.[8]

In the Middle Ages, some cathedrals were given over to the care of the regular canons, as were certain places of pilgrimage. The shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England was just such a shrine, and the cathedrals of St. John Lateran in Rome, Salzburg and Gurk in Austria, Toledo and Saragossa in Spain, St. Andrew’s in Scotland, were among many others to be reformed by the regular canons. The canons also took a leading role in the intellectual life of the Church by founding cathedral and collegiate schools throughout Europe. For example, the University of Paris finds part of its ancestry in the famous Abbey school of St. Victor.[5]

Later, Congregations properly so called, governed by a Superior General, were established within the Order so as to maintain their common observances. Among these Congregations, which gave new life to the Order, were the Windesheim Congregation, whose spirituality (known as the “devotio moderna”) had a wide influence. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Lateran Congregation added to the Order’s luster by its spirituality and scholarship. In the 17th and 18th centuries the French Congregation of Saint Genevieve and later the Congregation of Our Savior founded by Saint Peter Fourier (1566-1640), responded to new needs by combining the religious life with pastoral work. Finally, in the 19th century Adrien Grea (1828-1917), founder of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, in his writing put in its proper perspective the ecclesial dimension of the Canonical Life.[10]

The Canons Regular were more similar to the Benedictines in their independence and their local character. Another similarity is that, aside from a few congregations, the Canons Regular maintained and still maintain the vow of stability to a particular house. The individual houses often have differences in the form of the habit, even within the same congregation.[5]

Already in the Middle Ages canons regular were engaged in missionary work. Saint Vicelin (c. 1090-1154) took the gospel to the pagan Slavs of Lower Germany; his disciple Meinhard (died 1196) evangelized the people of eastern Livonia. In the 16th century the Portuguese Congregation of Saint John the Baptist took the good news of salvation to the Congo, Ethiopia and India. At the general chapter of the Lateran Congregation held at Ravenna in 1558, at the request of many Spanish canons, Don Francis de Agala, a professed canon regular from Spain, who for some ten years had already laboured in the newly discovered country, was created vicar-general in America, with powers to gather into communities all the members of the canonical institute who were then dispersed in those parts, and the obligation to report to the authorities of the order. From the 19th century onwards the Order has definitely undertaken the work of evangelization.[10]

Ordo Novo

By the 13th century, there was universal adherence to the Rule of St. Augustine. This acceptance of Augustine's rule occurred over the 11th and 12th centuries in piecemeal fashion. There were in fact three different rules of St. Augustine from which to choose:

  • Regularis informatio or Regula sororum: Often considered to be the oldest rule of St. Augustine, it was composed for a convent of nuns and attached to Letter 211. Its content and style is very close to the Praecepta.
  • Ordo Monasterii or Regula secund: This may have been a preface to the Praecepta, but it is unclear whether it is from the hand of St. Augustine or not. It is stricter than the Praecepta and differences in style, tone and vocabulary.
  • Praecepta or Regula tertia: While this may in fact be the oldest of the three rules, the Praecepta clearly belongs to the Augustinian corpus. Its spirit and content are clearly Augustinian and fits his other writings on the common life.


Canons Regular of Saint Augustine

The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (C.R.S.A. or Can.Reg.), also referred to as "Augustinian Canons" or "Austin Canons" ('Austin' being a corruption of 'Augustinian'), is one of the oldest Latin Rite Orders. In contrast to many other orders of the Catholic Church, Augustinian Canons (Canons Regular of St. Augustine, Canonici Regulares Sancti Augustini, CRSA) cannot be traced back to an individual founder or to a particular founding group. They are more the result of a process that lasted for centuries. Because of their manifold roots they have undergone various forms in medieval and modern Europe.[11] Since the 12th century, Canons Regular have been known as Augustinian or Austin Canons taking their name from St Augustine, the great Doctor of the Church, for he realized in an ideal way the common life of the Clergy, and because from that time the Canons adopted the "Rule" of Augustine.[6]


Of all the new monastic and religious groups to settle in the British Isles in the course of the 12th century the regular canons, known as the "Black Canons", were the most prolific. At the heart of their existence was the vita apostolica, but even more than other such groups the regular canons became involved in active spiritual care of their communities. Perhaps as a result of this feature they also enjoyed sustained support from founders, patrons and benefactors, and new foundations continued to be made long after the main force of the expansion of the monastic orders had declined.

In England, in the 12th century there was a great revival in the canonical order on account of various congregations newly found in France, Italy and the Low countries, and it was some of these new canons that came with the Conqueror. In England alone, from the Conquest to the death of Henry II Plantagenet, no fewer than fifty-four houses were founded where the canons regular were established. The first foundation was Colchester in 1096, followed by Holy Trinity, Aldgate, established by Queen Maud, in 1108. Andrew of St. Victor served as abbot of the newly founded abbey at Wigmore beginning in 1147. The first General Chapter of the Augustinian Canons in England, intended to regulate the affairs of the Order, took place in 1217.[1]

In the 12th century the Canons Regular of the Lateran, otherwise known as the Augustinian Canons, established a priory in Bodmin. This became the largest religious house in Cornwall. The priory was suppressed on 27 February 1538.[12] In England houses of canons were more numerous than Benedictine houses. The Black Plague left the canons regular were fairly decimated, and they never quite recovered. Between 1538 and 1540, the canonical houses were suppressed, and the religious dispersed, persecuted, little by little disappeared from the land altogether. Abbot Gasquet's computation ninety-one houses belonging to the canons regular were suppressed or surrendered at the time of the Reformation.

The canonical order was in the early 20th century represented in England by Premonstratensians at Crowley, Manchester, Spalding and Storrington; the Canons Regular of the Lateran Congregation at Bodmin, Truro, St Ives, and Newquay, in Cornwall; at Spettisbury and Swanage, in Dorsetshire; at Stroud Green and Eltahm, in London. Besides the occupations of the regular life at home and the public recitation of the Divine Office in choir, they were chiefly employed in serving missions, preaching retreats, supplying for priests who ask their service, and hearing confessions, either as ordinary or extraordinary confessors to convents or other religious communities.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, anno 565, relates that Columba, Masspreost (Mass-Priest), "came to the Picts to convert them to Christ". Columba was the disciple of St. Finnian, who was a follower of St. Patrick; both then had learned and embraced the regular life which the great Apostle had established in Ireland. Tradition places the first landing of Columba on leaving Ireland at Oronsay, and Fordun (Bower) notices the island as "Hornsey, ubi est monasterium nigrorum Canonicorum, quod fundavit S. Columba" (where is the monastery of Black Canons which St. Columba founded). According to Smith and Ratcliff there was a homogeneity among the Augustinian houses in Scotland before 1215 which had much to do with David I who gave them a common economic policy, and Bishop Robert of St Andrews who had himself been an Augustinian and united the houses through his patronage and by engaging them as his advisors.[13]

At the time of the Reformation the chief houses were:

  • Scone, founded by King Alexander I of Scotland. Tradition says that the Culdees were at Scone before Alexander brought canons regular from Nostall Priory in 1115.
  • St. Andrews, the Metropolitan of Scotland, founded by Angus, King of the Picts. The church was at first served by Culdees, but in 1144 Bishop Robert, who had been a canon regular at Scone, established here members of his own community. The prior was mitred and could pontificate.
  • Holyrood, of which King David was the founder, in 1128, for canons regular. This famous abbey was burnt down at the instigation of John Knox in 1544.

Many of the houses founded by St. Columba remained in possession of the canons till the Reformation, including Oronsay and Crusay.


The Augustinian Canons Regular established 130 religious houses in Ireland in the period of church reform early in the 12th century. Of these, remains of thirty survive, including those at Kells, Co. Kilkenny, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, and Clontuskert, Co. Galway. The role of the Augustinian Canons within the secular community is the main reason for their being the largest single order in Ireland. The Canons Regular were less rigorous in their observances than the Cistercians, and through this more flexible approach to religious life they participated in a great variety of pastoral activities in parishes, hospitals and schools. The Rule of Augustine was appropriate to the new monastic reforms and the pastoral activities were a significant instrument for the restoration of religious discipline which had seriously declined in Irish monasteries. St Malachy, archbishop of Armagh, was a prime mover in the reform movement in the Irish church in the 12th century and by the time of his death in 1148, there were forty-one Augustinian houses.[14]


On May 4, 1959 Pope John XXIII founded the Confederation of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine with his apostolic letter "Caritas Unitas" on the 900th anniversary of the First Lateran Synod. The Confederation is a union of charity that binds nine congregations of Canons Regular together for mutual aid and support.[5] The initial four congregations were:

  • The Congregation of St. Nicholas and St. Bernard of Mont Joux (Great St. Bernard, Switzerland) is representative of the hospitaller movement by which canons responded to the call to care for travelers and pilgrims. They were founded by St.
  • The Congregation of St. Maurice of Agaunum (Canton Valais, Switzerland) is probably the oldest continuously inhabited abbey in the West. The first Bishop of Valais, St. Theodorus, founded around 370 a shrine which commemorated the martyrdom of St. Maurice and companions. In 515 King Sigismund, a convert to the Catholic faith, endowed a monastery near the shrine to St. Maurice. The life of the monks was centered on the continual choral office and became the model for monks throughout Western Europe. Charles Martel imposed one of his generals on the abbey as superior. It seems that canons replaced the monks sometimes around 820-830. These canons probably lived under the Rule of St. Chrodegang as mitigated by the Synod of Aachen, which had been held just a few years earlier at the capital of the Frankish empire. Until the middle of the 12th century, canons of the Aachen observance and Augustinian canons lived side by side, seemingly harmoniously. This was typical in many houses of the canons of the Ordo Antiquus model. As the Aachener canons died off, the community became fully "regular". On July 20, 1642, Peter IV Mauritius Odet (1640-1657) was consecrated abbot. As a reformer, he was supported vigorously by the Congregation of Our Savior, founded by St. Peter Fourier. At the opening of the 21st century, the canons continue to witness to Christ through the common life for priests and pastoral service to the Church through parish work and the secondary school run at the abbey.[5][5]
  • The Austrian Congregation of Canons Regular was formed in 1907, composed of the various ancient monasteries, abbeys, and collegiate churches of canons regular in Austria: St. Florian's Priory, Klosterneuburg Priory, Herzogenburg Priory, Reichersberg, Vorau and Neustift (now in Italy). The Austrian Congregation looks scores of parishes in Austria as well as one in Norway.[17]
  • Congregation of the Redeemer (Rome, Italy)

Subsequently other congregations of Canons Regular joined the Confederation:

  • The Windesheim Congregation (Paring, Germany) originated with Gerard Groot's, Brethren of the Common Life. A preacher and reformer of the 14th century, at Deventer in the Low Countries, many poor clerical students gathered around him and, under his direction, "putting together whatever they earned week by week, began to live in common." Groot resolved to place this new institute under the spiritual guidance of the canons regular. The execution of this resolve was left by Gerard Groot, at his death, to his disciple, Florentius Radwyn. The foundation of the first house was at Windersheim, near Zwolle. This became the mother-house of the congregation, which, only sixty years after the death of Groot, possessed in Belgium alone more than eighty monsteries, some of which, according to the chronicler John Buschius, contained as many as a hundred, or even two hundred residents. The congregation continued until the devastations of the Reformers drove it from its native soil, and it was at last utterly destroyed during the French Revolution.[18] The revival of the congregation was proposed under the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Permission for this was granted by Pope John XXIII in 1961. The motherhouse of the restored congregation, St. Michael's Priory is now in Paring Abbey, in Bavaria, Germany.
  • Congregation of the Immaculate Conception (Rome, Italy)
  • Congregation of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer (La Cotellerie, France)
  • Congregation of the Brothers of the Common Life (Maria Brunnen, Germany)
  • Congregation of St. Victor (Champagne, France).

The Abbot Primate, who is elected by all the congregations and serves for a six year term, works to foster contact and mutual cooperation among the diverse communities of Canons Regular in the Catholic Church.

The Order has houses in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, England, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Peru, Spain, Taiwan, Switzerland, the United States and Uruguay.

Other orders

Other Orders sprang up which followed the Rule of St. Augustine and the canonical life. As canons regular became separated into different congregations they took their names from the locality in which they lived, or from the distinctive habit they wore, or from the one who led the way in remodelling their lives. Hence we have the White Canons of Prémontré; the White Canons of St. John Lateran; the Black Canons of St. Augustine; the Canons of St. Victor at Paris and also at Marseilles.[9]

The Norbertines

The Premonstratensian Order was founded at Prémontré, near Laon, in Picardy (northern France), by St. Norbert in the year 1120. The Order received formal approval from Pope Honorius II in 1126, the same year in which Norbert was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg.[19] According to the spirit of its founder, this congregtion unites the active with the contemplative life, the institute embracing in its scope the sanctification of its members and the administration of the sacraments. It grew large even during the lifetime of its founder, and now has charge of many parishes and schools, especially in the Habsburg provinces of Austria and Hungary. The Premonstratensians wear a white habit with white cincture. They are governed by an abbot general, vicars and visitors.

The Crosiers

The origin of the Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross appears to be uncertain, although all admit its great antiquity. It has been divided into four chief branches: the Italian, the Bohemian, the Belgian and the Spanish. Of this last very little is known. The branch once flourishing in Italy, after several attempts at reformation, was finally suppressed by Alexander VII in 1656. In Bohemia there are still some houses of Crosier Canons, as they are called, who, however, seem to be different from the well known Belgian Crosiers, who trace their origin to the time of Innocent III and recognize for their Father Blessed Theodore de Celles, who founded their first house at Huy, near Liège. These Belgian Croisier Canons have a great affinity with the Dominicans. They follow the Rule of St. Augustine, and their constitutions are mainly those compiled for the Dominican Order by St. Raymond of Penafort. Besides the usual duties of canons in the church, they are engaged in preaching, administering the sacraments, and teaching. Formerly they had houses in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, Ireland and Scotland. Till around 1900 they served missions in North America, since they had five monasteries in Belgium, of which St. Agatha is considered the mother-house. To these Croisier Canons belongs the privilege, granted to them by Pope Leo X and confirmed by Leo XIII, of blessing beads with an indulgence of 500 days. Their habit was formerly black, but is now a white soutane with a black scapular and a cross, white and red on the breast. In choir they wear in summer the rochet with a black almuce.[20]

The Congregatio Canonicorum Sancti Augustini is a new Protestant religious community of Canons founded in 2008 at the ecumenical Priory of St. Wigbert in Werningshausen near Erfurt in Germany.

Lateran Congregation

By common consent the Lateran Congregation, officially styled Congregatio SS. Salvatoris Lateranensis, stands first in antiquity and importance. As the title implies, this congregation takes its origin from the Roman Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope's own cathedral. History, confirmed by the authority of Pontifical Bulls, informs us that Pope Sylvester I established in the basilica built by the Emperor Constantine clerics living in common after the manner of the Primitive Church. In the year 492, Gelasius, a disciple of St. Augustine, introduced in the patriarchal basilica the regular discipline which he had learnt at Hippo.

Popes Gregory the Great, Eugenius II, Sergius III and Alexander II, all endeavoured to maintain the observance of the regular life established among the clergy of the basilica. As relaxation had crept in, the last named pope, at the request of St. Peter Damian, called some canons from St. Frigidian at Lucca, a house of strict observance. The reform spread, till at length the houses that had embrace it were formed into one large congregation. In the 18th century the Lateran Congregation numbered 45 abbeys and almost 80 other priories in Italy, besided many affiliated monasteries of canonesses and colleges of canons regular outside of Italy.

The canons regular served the Lateran Basilica from the time they were put in possession till 1391, when secular canons were introduced by Boniface VIII. Several attempts were made to restore the basilica to its original owners, and finally in 1445 Pope Eugenius IV gave it over to them, an act which was confirmed by Pope Nicholas I. But the arrangement did not last long, and eventually the canons regular were definitively displaced, and the basilica made over to secular canons. All that remains now to the canons regular is the name they derive from the basilica and a few other privileges, such as precedence over all the other religious orders and the faculty of saying all the Offices which are said by the Lateran canons in all their Church.

There are houses belonging to the Lateran Congregation in Italy, Poland, France, Belgium, England, Spain and America. The congregation is divided into six ecclesiastical provinces, each presided over by a visitor or provincial. The abbot general and procurator general reside in Rome at S. Pietro in Vincoli, where is also the directorate of the confraternity called "The Children of Mary." There are novitiate houses, where young men are prepared for the order, in Italy, Belgium, Spain, England and Poland. The proper habit of the Lateran Congregation is a white cassock and biretta, with a linen rochet which was formerly worn as an essential part of the daily dress. In all respects their habit is identical to the daily attire of the pope.

Their work is essentially clerical, the recitation of the Divine Office in church, the administration of the Sacraments and preaching. In Italy they have charge of parishes in Rome, Bologna, Genoa, Fano, Gubbio and elsewhere, which in the United States they do in New York City. In England they were a major force in the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic Church there during the late 19th century, staffing many of the new parishes being established, until the number of secular clergy native to the country could be developed.

Canons of the Holy Sepulchre

It is the opinion of Helyot and others that no Canons of the Holy Sepulchre existed before 1114, when some canons regular, who had adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, were brought from the West and introduced into the Holy City by Godfrey of Bouillon. On the other hand, Suarez, Mauburn, Ferreri, Vanderspeeten and others, upholding the tradition of the canonical order, maintain that Saint James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, established clerics living in common in the Holy City, where also, after the crusades, flourished the Congregation of the Holy Sepulchre. Driven away by the Moslems, the canons sought refuge in Europe, where they had monasteries, in Italy, France, Spain, Poland and the Low Countries. In these countries, except Italy, they continued to exist until the French Revolution. In Italy they seem to have been suppressed by Innocent VIII, who, in 1489, transferred all their property to the Knights of Malta. As regards men, the congregation seems now extinct, but it is still represented by Sepulchrine Canonesses, who have converts in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain and England. According to Dugdale's Monasticon, the canons had two houses in England, one at Thetford and the other at Warwick. By a papal bull, dated 10 January 1143, to be found in the Bullarium Lateranense, Pope Celestine II confirmed the church and the Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre in all the possessions they had received from Godfrey, as well as from his brother and successor, King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, and other benefactors. Mention is also made in the Bull of several churches in the Holy Land and in Italy belonging to the canons. Jacques de Vitry, a canon regular of Oignies Abbey and Cardinal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had lived in Palestine some years, relates that the canons served, amongst other churches, that of the Holy Sepulchre and those on Mount Sion and on Mount Olivet. The patriarch was also Abbot of the Holy Sepulchre, and was elected by the canons regular.

Victorine Canons and the Gallican Congregation

In the year 1109 the scholar William de Champeaux, formerly Archdeacon of Paris and afterwards a canon regular, opened, at the request of his disciples, in his monastery of St. Victor near the city, a school which drew students from many parts. As the French writer Étienne Pasquier says, "Les lettres y furent toujours logées a bonnes enseignes" (there, letters were always entertained at good inns). So great was the reputation of the monastery built by William that houses were soon established everywhere after the model of St. Victor's, which was regarded as their mother-house. At the death of Gilduin, the immediate successor of William, who had been made Bishop of Châlons, the Congregation already counted forty-four houses.

From this congregation, in 1149, sprang another, that of the Sainte-Geneviève Abbey, which in its turn became very numerous and, reformed as the Gallican Congregation, in the 16th century, by a holy man called Charles Faure, had, at the outbreak of the Revolution, no fewer than one hundred abbeys and monasteries in France. Both these congregations became extinct, as far as men are concerned, but the ancient congregation of St. Victor is still represented by a very old community of canonesses at Ronsbrugge, near Ypres in Flanders (Belgium).

The Gilbertines

To St. Gilbert of Sempringham is due the honor of founding the only religious order of distinctly English origin. Having completed his studies in England and in France, he returned to the diocese of Lincoln, where he began to labor with great zeal for the salvation of souls, becoming a canon regular in the monastery of Bridlington. But finding that the discipline of the regular life was being not strictly observed in that community, he conceived, in 1148, the idea of introducing a reform in those regions. After much prayer, thought, and taking advice from holy men, he came to the conclusion that it was necessary to establish a new congregation, composed of both men and women, who should live under the same roof, though of course separated. This idea he put into execution, giving the Rule of St. Benedict to the women and the Rule of St. Augustine to the men, establishing them as canons regular, with special and carefully elaborated constitutions for both. The Gilbertine Congregation spread especially in the North of England, and as already stated, at the time of the general Dissolution of the Monasteries, it had twenty houses and one hundred and fifty-one religious. At the temporary University of Stamford, Sempringham Hall, founded by Robert Lutrell in 1292, was built especially for the theology students of this Congregation.

The Irish Congregation of St. Patrick

Although the canonical order possessed many houses in Ireland before the dissolution by Henry VIII, on account of the persecution, little by little it appears to have languished, and by 1620 to have been nearly extinct; it somewhat revived, however, for canons regular were once more to be found in the country not long after this. It is not improbable that at the outbreak of the persecution, like many members of other religious orders, some of the Irish canons may have retired to foreign monasteries and maintained a quasi-independent existence, and have been joined by others of their compatriots who were desirous of entering the canonical institute. In 1645 Dom Thaddeus O'Conel was butchered at Sligo by the Scottish Puritans together with the Archbishop of Tuam, Malachy O'Quechly. At the commencement of 1646 the canons were sufficiently numerous to be formed by Innocent X into a separate congregation of St. Patrick, which the pope declared to inherit all the rights, privileges and possessions of the old Irish canons.

In the year 1698 the Irish Congregation, by a Bull of Innocent XII, was affiliated and aggregated to the Lateran Congregation. From the moment the union was made the two congregations formed but one, and the members of each enjoyed all the rights and privileges of the other. The constitutions of the Lateran Congregation were adopted with some little modification by the Irish. In 1703 Dom Milerius Burke, Abbot of St. Thomas, Dublin, was appointed by the abbot general, Clappini, with the approval of Clement XI, vicar-general in the three kingdoms. In 1735 the Irish canons were claiming before the Congregation of Propaganda their right to several churches, parishes, and houses. The cause was settled in their favour, but there were many difficulties, and they could get possession of only a few. In the "Spicilegium Ossoriense" (III, 148) we find that Henry O'Kelly, a canon regular, obtained from Pope Benedict XIII letters in virtue of which he not only called himself Abbot of St. Thomas, Dublin, but also claimed the parochial rights over a great part of the city, without any dependence upon the metropolitan. The last canon of the Irish Congregation died towards the beginning of the 19th century, but as the Irish Congregation has been united with the Lateran Congregation, all its rights and privileges still survive in the last-named.

Canons of the Immaculate Conception

After the French Revolution in 1789 and the subsequent persecution of the Church all of the houses of the Canons Regular in France died out. In 1871 a diocesan priest from the Jura, Adrien Gréa, Vicar-General of St. Claude in France, founded a new house of Canons Regular in France, this local congregation eventually developed into the Congregation of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception. The laws of separation of Church and State in France in 1904 made it difficult for most of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception to stay in France. A new home was found for the congregation who moved to Italy, where it increased its base. Before their expulsion from France they served the ancient Abbey of St. Anthony in the Dauphiné, The early period of this congregation saw missions established in Canada and Peru, where there are still houses today. The Canons Regular have houses in Brasil, Canada, England, France, Italy, Peru and the United States. Before their expulsion from France they served the ancient Abbey of St. Anthony in the Dauphiné. Their habit is a white cassock, with leather girdel, linen rochet, black cloak and hood, and black biretta.[21]

Extinct congregations

Extinct congregations include those of St. Rufus, founded in 1039, and once flourishing in Dauphiné; of Aroasia (Diocese of Arras, in France), founded in 1097; Marbach (1100); of the Holy Redeemer of Bologna, also called the Renana (1136), now united to the Lateran Congregation; of the Holy Spirit in Sassia (1198); of St. George in Alga, at Venice (1404); of Our Saviour in Lorraine, reformed in 1628 by St. Peter Fourier.

Canonesses regular

There are canonesses regular, as well as canons regular; the Apostolic origin is common to both. As Suarez says[where?], with regard to origin and antiquity the same is to be said of orders of women both in general and in particular as of orders of men. The one generally began with the other. St. Basil in his rules addresses both men and women. And St. Augustine founded his first monastery for women in Africa at Tagaste. Most, if not all, of the congregations which go to form the canonical Order had, or still have, a companion congregation for women. In Ireland St. Patrick instituted canons regular, and St. Brigid was the first of numberless canonesses. The monasteries of the Gilbertine Congregation were nearly always double, for men and women. In the 10th and 11th centuries many of them became canonicae saeclulares and though living in the same house, no longer cherished the spirit of religious poverty or kept a common table.

On the other hand many communities of canonesses willingly took the name and the rule of life laid down for the congregations of regular canons. There still exist in Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Germany, Africa, and America nuns and convents belonging to the Lateran or to some other congregation of canons regular.[not specific enough to verify] The contemplative life is represented by such convents as Newton Abbot in England, Sta. Pudenziana at Rome, Sta. Maria di Passione at Genoa, Hernani in Spain, St. Trudo at Bruges. The Hospitalarians were till lately well represented in France with convents of canonesses at Paris, Reims, Laon, Soissons, and elsewhere.

Occupied in the education of children, there are besides some of the ancient convents of canonesses of various congregations, the canonesses of the Congregation of Notre Dame (in full: Congrégation de Notre-Dame de chanoinesses de Saint Augustin), instituted in 1597 at Mattaincourt, in Lorraine, by St. Peter Fourier and the Blessed Alix Le Clerc. This congregation, whose object is the gratuitous education of poor girls, spread rapidly in France and Italy. There are now convents of Notre Dame in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy, and Africa. In France alone, until the persecution of 1907, they had some thirty flourishing communities and as many schools for externs and boarders. Driven away from France, some have taken refuge in England, like those of the famous convent of Les Oiseaux, Paris, who are now at Westgate, and those of Versailles who have settled at Hull.

With some modifications the work was soon introduced into the New World in a remarkable way. The canonesses of the convent at Troyes had for some time earnestly desired to carry on their institute in Canada. Circumstances, however, prevented their going, but at their request Marguerite Bourgeoys, the president, of the confraternity attached to their convent, gladly crossed the ocean. In 1657 she opened a school at Montreal, in which, in accordance with the rules laid down by Peter Fourier, the poor were taught gratuitously. The school was a great success. Margaret returned to France to ask for helpers, and found them among her sister, the Children of Mary of Troyes. Returning to Canada with four fellow-workers, and soon followed by others she opened a school for boarders as well as a day school. In 1676 these pious women were formed into the "Congregation of Notre Dame." Margaret died in 1700 and has since been declared venerable. The work she had transferred to Canada is still flourishing. At her death there were ten houses in the Dominion; there are now more than a hundred spread over the whole of North America under a superior general, who resides at the mother-house, Montreal.

In 1809 Bishop George Michael Wittman founded, in Bavaria, the Poor Sisters of the Schools of Notre Dame, and institute similar to that founded by St. Peter Fourier. This association is now widespread in Europe and in America, and has done excellent work in the field of education.

There are English canonesses at Bruges, and at Neuilly, near Paris. In England there is a convent of the Holy Sepulchre at New Hall, with a flourishing school, originally at Liège; also a filiation of that at Bruges, at Hayward's heath, with a large school; at Newton Abbot a numerous community, with a colony at Hoddesdon, devoted to the contemplative life and the Perpetual Adoration. This last convent is, as it were, a link with the pre-Reformation canonesses, through Sister Elizabeth Woodford, who was professed at Barnharm, Priory, Bucks, 8 December 1519. When the convent was suppressed, in 1539, she was received for some time into the household of Saint Thomas More. Later on she went to the Low Countries and was received into the convent of canonesses regular at St. Ursula's, Louvain, of the Windersheim Congregation. So many English ladies, daughters and sisters of martyrs, like Ann Clitheroe, Margaret Clement, Eleanor and Margaret Garnet, followed her that, in 1609, they formed an English community, St. Monica's, Louvain. Towards the end of the 18th century, this community of English canonesses returned to England, first to Spettisbury, afterwards to their present home at Newton Abbot. The chronicles of this ancient convent are being published, and two very interesting volumes have already appeared.


Among the Orders which sprang from the canonical life were the Order of Preachers or Dominicans, as well as the Order of the Most Holy trinity, or Trinitarians. St. Anthony of Padua started his religious life as a canon regular in Portugal before moving to the Franciscans.[5] St. Bruno, was originally a canon living under the Rule of Aachen for over 20 years, at the age of 51, he and several companions began a new community at the Grande Chartreuse, and founded the Carthusian Order.

See also


Specific references:

General references:

  • Liber Pontificalis (II, 388-397; cf. proleg XXXVII-XLV)
  • public domain: 

External links

  • , (translated by Dom Aloysius Smith C.R.L.), Sands & Company, London, 1911
  • Houses and Congregations C.R.S.A.

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