The beginnings of the Order of Saint Augustine...
...reveal a fascinating partnership of divine grace and human effort. The former is manifest especially in the example of holy lives; the latter in the practical decisions of gifted individuals. While the official date of the Order’s founding is March, 1244, the circumstances that gave rise to this appointment in time take us back even earlier.
The latter years of the twelfth century...
...saw a phenomenal stirring of lay spirituality which became manifest in various ways. Among these was the emergence of a vibrant eremitical movement, wherein men and women devoted to poverty, prayer, and the pursuit of Gospel values, chose a life marked by withdrawal from the affairs of society. At times, individuals went off into remote areas alone to pursue a secluded life; in other instances they banded together in small groups and withdrew to out of the way places. In some cases individual hermits attracted like-minded followers, such that communities of fervent Christian ascetics grew up around them. Such was the case with two individuals who, in different parts of the Italian peninsula, unknowingly became architects of the future Augustinian Order. One was John Bono, a native of Mantova, who was born about 1168. After pursuing a rather carefree existence until the age of forty, he was struck by an illness that caused him to reconsider his lifestyle, and upon recovering, he devoted himself to penance and prayer in the region of Romagna. In a short time, his example attracted others who became his disciples. In 1225, this community decided to become more formally established in the Church, and so adopted the Rule of Saint Augustine as a guide for their life. Within a short time they expanded rapidly across northern Italy and, though most were laymen, began to engage in preaching and pastoral care, which was not altogether unusual for non-clerics at the time
A somewhat similar situation had developed even earlier in the region of Grosseto in Tuscany, where a Frenchman known as William of Malavalle, having undergone a religious conversion, settled down to pursue a life of prayer and penance. Sometime before his death in February, 1157, he was accompanied by a disciple, who cared for him during his final months, and after his death, wrote a summary of William’s sayings that became known as The Rule of Saint William. The burial site of this penitent ascetic became a destination for pilgrims traveling through Tuscany, and some settled there in order to follow William’s way of life. With his canonization in 1202, devotion to William spread, as did the number of disciples who founded other communities in central and northern Italy and in other northern regions of Europe
On December 16, 1243...
...Pope Innocent IV issued a Papal Bull addressed to all Tuscan hermits, with the exception of the “Brothers of Saint William in Tuscany,” calling them to unite in a single religious Order according to the Rule and way of life of Saint Augustine, and to elect a prior general in accordance with canon law, to whom they were to give obedience and due respect. Furthermore, the Pope appointed as their supervisor and guide in the undertaking, Richard Annibaldi, Cardinal Deacon of Sant’Angelo. Each community of hermits was to send one or two representatives to a Chapter, or gathering of leaders, which Cardinal Richard was to convoke, in order that the directives of the Pope might be carried out.
This Chapter was held in Rome in March, 1244. There, all agreed to accept the Rule of Saint Augustine, constitutions were drawn up, agreement was made to recite the divine office according to the usage of the Roman curia, and a uniform habit of black color bound by a leather belt was adopted. Subsequent Papal Bulls confirmed various points of the Chapter and decreed additional characteristics of the new Order, including permission for those who were priests to hear confessions and to preach the word of God. The earliest title of the Order was Hermit Brothers of Tuscany of the Order of Saint Augustine, which after 1252, with greater expansion of members into other regions, became simply Hermit Brothers of Saint Augustine.
On July 15, 1255...
...another pope, Alexander IV, issued a Papal Bull that was to extend the Order even further. This was addressed to the priors of the Orders of Saint Augustine and Saint William, and later would include other communities of hermits as well: those of Monte Favale, of Brettino, and other smaller groups in other parts of Italy. All of these latter communities or congregations were now to be united to the Hermit Brothers of Saint Augustine. The Chapter that saw them gathered was held in March, 1256, in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. It, too, was convened under the direction of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi.
At both of these historic moments, 1244 and 1256, an important aspect of the Church’s interest, and an explicit decree of the Popes, was that these new Augustinians transition into a new-found form of religious life: the Mendicant Movement, which was characterized by a mixed or middle way among religious, in which a life of contemplation is combined with a life of apostolic ministry, and where members depend for their livelihood on the charity of the people they serve.
Members of the four principal Mendicant Orders—Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites—are not hermits, who live apart from others, nor monks, attached to a single place, but friars, who practice common life, and are available to go where they are needed. Two anomalies are connected to the Augustinian Order at its beginning. The first is that the Order, named for Saint Augustine of Hippo, was not founded by him, in contrast to some other Orders of the Church which take their name from their charismatic architect and author. Our Order, we might say, was founded from the ground up, by men who desired to pursue a specific path in life, and who were confirmed and directed in this by the Church itself, in the person of the pope. It was they who adopted Saint Augustine, his Rule and spirituality and made them their own. The second anomaly is that the Rule and spiritual path of Saint Augustine, which date to the early 5th century, were so perfectly appropriate to the new expression of religious life emerging in the 12th and 13th centuries! And they continue to be appropriate even up to the 21st!
Arrival in North America
In the early years after the United States had been established as an independent country, the population was widely scattered. There were few priests to minister to Catholics. When Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore appealed for priests to come to America, the Augustinians of Ireland sent the Rev. John Rosseter, O.S.A., who arrived in Philadelphia in 1794. Bishop Carroll was so pleased with Father Rosseter's ministry that he asked the Order of St. Augustine to send additional friars and to establish a permanent community in the new republic.
The Rev. Matthew Carr, O.S.A., was assigned to the new mission field. He arrived in 1796 and made Philadelphia the center of Augustinian missionary activity. As their number grew, the Augustinians expanded their presence and ministry to neighboring Eastern states. Eventually, the Augustinians created a new province in the New World: the Province of St. Thomas of Villanova.
The Augustinians continued to expand across North America. They Order expanded into Chicago in 1905. Expansion in the Midwest eventually led to a new province of Augustinians: the Province of Our Mother of Good Counsel. Spanish Augustinians later expanded into what is now the West Coast Province of St. Augustine, headquartered in California. And in the early 20th century, German Augustinians emigrated to Canada to found what is now the Canadian Province of St. Joseph, presently headquartered in Ontario.
The Augustinian Order Today
Presently, members of the Order live and minister in over 40 countries on every continent, preaching the Gospel in a wide variety of ways, among people of every faith and no faith, of many cultures, languages and traditions, seeking to foster St. Augustine’s ideal of uniting people in the communion of mind and heart for the glory of God and the service of God’s people.
By the Very Rev. Michael F. DiGregorio, O.S.A.