The Maurists

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

The Maurists

A congregation of Benedictine monks in France, whose history extends from 1618 to 1818. It began as an offshoot from the famous reformed Congregation of St-Vannes. The reform had spread from Lorraine into France through the influence of Dom Laurent Benard, Prior of the Collège de Cluny in Paris, who inaugurated the reform in his own college. Thence it spread to St-Augustin de Limoges to Nouaille, to St-Faron de Meaux, to Jumieges, and to the Blancs- Manteaux in Paris. In 1618 a general chapter of the Congregation of St-Vannes was held at St-Mansuet de Toul, whereat it was decided that an independent congregation should be erected for the reformed houses in France, having its superior residing within that kingdom. This proposal was supported by Louis XIII as well as by Cardinals de Retz and Richelieu; letters patent were granted by the king, and the new organization was named the Congregation of St-Maur in order to obviate any rivalry between its component houses. It was formally approved by Pope Gregory XV on 17 May, 1621, an approval that was confirmed by Urban VIII six years later. The reform was welcomed by many of great influence at the Court as well as by some of the greater monastic houses in France. Already, under the first president of the congregation, Dom Martin Tesnière (1618-21), it had included about a dozen great houses. By 1630 the congregation was divided into three provinces, and, under Dom Gregoire Tarisse, the first Superior-General (1630-48), it included over 80 houses. Before the end of the seventeenth century the number had risen to over 180 monasteries, the congregations being divided into six provinces: France, Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Chezal-Benoit, and Gascony.

In its earlier years, however, the new congregation was forced, by Cardinal Richelieu, into an alliance with the Congregation of Cluny. Richelieu desired an amalgamation of all the Benedictines in France and even succeeded in bringing into existence, in 1634, an organisation that was called the "Congregation of St. Benedict" or "of Cluny and St-Maur". This arrangement, however, was short- lived, and the two congregations were separated by Urban VIII in 1644. From that date the Congregation of St-Maur grew steadily both in extent and in influence. Although the twenty-one superior- generals who succeeded Dom Tarisse steadily resisted all attempts to establish the congregation beyond the borders of France, yet its influence was widespread. In several of its houses schools were conducted for the sons of noble families, and education was provided gratuitously at St- Martin de Vertou for those who had become poor. But from the beginning the Maurists refused to admit houses of nuns into the congregation, the only exception being the Abbey of Chelles, where, through Richelieu's influence, a house was established with six monks to act as confessors to the nuns.

The congregation soon attracted to its ranks many of the most learned scholars of the period, and though its greatest glory undoubtedly lies in the seventeenth century, yet, throughout the eighteenth century also, it continued to produce works whose solidity and critical value still render them indispensable to modern students. It is true that the Maurists were not free from the infiltration of Jansenist ideas, and that the work of some of its most learned sons was hampered and coloured by the fashionable heresy and by the efforts of ecclesiastical superiors to eradicate it. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, also, there had crept into at least the central house, St-Germain-des-Pres, a desire for some relaxation of the strict regularity that had been the mark of the congregation; a desire that was vigorously opposed by other houses. And, though there is reason to believe that the laxity was much less serious than it was represented to be by the rigorists, the dissensions caused thereby and by the taint of Jansenism had weakened the congregation and lowered it in public esteem when the crash of the Revolution came. Yet, right up to the suppression of the religious orders in 1790, the Maurists worked steadily at their great undertakings, and some of their publications were, by general consent, carried on by learned Academies after the disturbance of the Revolution had passed. In 1817 some of the survivors of those who had been driven from France in 1790 returned, and an attempt was made to restore the congregation. The project, however, did not meet with the approbation of the Holy See and the congregation ceased to exist. The last surviving member, Dom Brial, died in 1833. In 1837, when Gregory XVI established the Congregation of France under the governance of the Abbey of Solesmes, the new congregation was declared the successor of all the former congregations of French Benedictines, including that of St-Maur.


The early Maurists, like the Congregation of St-Vannes from which they sprang imitated the constitution of the reformed Congregation of Monte Cassino. But before many years the need of new regulations more suitable to France was recognized and Dom Gregoire Tarisse, the first Superior-General, was entrusted with the task of drawing them up. Dom Maur Dupont, who was elected president in 1627, had already made an attempt to accomplish this; but the Chapter of 1630 appointed a commission, of which Dom Tarisse was the chief member, to reconstruct the whole work. The result of their labours was first submitted to Dom Athanase de Mongin in 1633, then again to Dom Tarisse and three others in 1639, and was finally confirmed by the General Chapter of 1645. Under these constitutions the president (now styled "superior- general") and the priors of the commendatory houses of the congregation were to be elected every three years. They were eligible for re-election. The superior-general was to reside at the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Pres and was to be subject only to the general chapter, which met every three years. With him, however, were associated two "assistants" and six "visitors", one for each province. These also resided at St-Germain-des-Pres, were elected by the general chapter every three years, and constituted, with the superior-general, the executive council of the congregation. Besides these officials, the general chapter was composed of three priors and three conventuals from each province. Every three years, there were chosen from its ranks nine "definitors" who appointed the six visitors, the heads of all the houses that possessed no regular abbot, the novice-masters, the procurator in curia, the preachers, professors, etc., of the congregation. Each province also possessed its provincial chapter, which was presided over by the visitor, and consisted of the priors and one elected representative from each house. In each province there were to be two novitiates. Those who desired to embrace the monastic state spent one year as "postulants", a second as "novices", and then, when they had completed the five years' course of philosophy and theology, spent a "year of recollection" before they were admitted to the priesthood. The discipline was marked by a return to the strict rule of St. Benedict. All laboured with their hands, all abstained from flesh-meat, all embraced regular poverty; the Divine Office was recited at the canonical hours with great solemnity, silence was observed for many hours, and there were regular times for private prayer and meditation. And this discipline was uniform throughout every house of the congregation. None were dispensed from its strict observance save the sick and the infirm. Until the movement towards relaxation at the end of the eighteenth century, the Maurists were as renowned for the austerity of their observance as for the splendour of their intellectual achievements.

To the great body of students, indeed, the Maurists are best known by their services to ecclesiastical and literary history, to patrology, to Biblical studies, to diplomatics, to chronology and to liturgy. The names of DD. Luc d'Achery, Jean Mabillon, Thierry, Ruinart, Francois Lami, Pierre Coustant, Denys de Sainte-Marthe, Edmond Martène, Bernard de Montfaucon, Maur Francois Dantine, Antoine Rivet de la Grange and Martin Bouquet recall some of the most scholarly works ever produced. To these and to their confreres we are indebted for critical and still indispensable editions of the great Latin and Greek Fathers, for the history of the Benedictine Order and the lives of its saints, for the "Gallia Christiana" and the Histoire Litteraire de la France," for the De re Diplomatica" and "L'art de verifier les dates", for "L'antiquite expliquee et representee" and the "Paleographia Graeca", for the "Recueil des historiens des Gaules", the "Veterum scriptorum amplissima collectio", the "Thesaurus Anecdotorum", the "Spicilegium veterum scriptorum", the "Museum Italicum", the "Voyage litteraire", and numerous other works that are the foundation of modern historical and liturgical studies. For nearly two centuries the great works that were the result of the foresight and high ideals of Dom Gregoire Tarisse, were carried on with an industry, a devotion, and a mastery that aroused the admiration of the learned world. To this day all who labour to elucidate the past ages and to understand the growth of Western Christendom, must acknowledge their indebtedness to the Maurist Congregation.

LESLIE A. ST. L. TOKE Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

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