The Rise of the Strict Observance

By the middle of the fourteenth century there was a general decline in spirit and observance among religious orders, and the forthcoming Reformation and the suppression of monasteries were instrumental in the continuation of this decline. Then in France, the mother-country of the Cistercians, the era of civil and religious wars (1562-98) brought about such a lamentable situation that the Order was on the verge of extinction. Serious attempts to reform the Order were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The first realistic attempt at a stricter observance of Cistercian life was made by Denis Largentier, the abbot of Clairvaux at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Abbot Largentier decided that example was the best remedy, and he returned to what he regarded as the primitive observances and traditional austerities of the Order. His example was followed, and by the time of his death in 1624 over forty monasteries of the Order were following the new Reform, under the title of Congregation of Saint Bernard of the Strict Observance. By the year 1660, sixty-two monasteries and seven convents were affiliated to the Strict Observance. In 1666 Pope Alexander VII issued an important Brief with the object of preserving unity in the Order, which was now seen to be divided into two – the Strict Observance and the Common Observance. The Pope’s intervention was partially successful, and though the two Observances continued to form a single Order until the French Revolution, the differences between them came to be sharply defined after the emergence of Abbot De Rancé and the ultra-strict Trappist regime in the 1670s.

On 13 February 1790 the National Assembly in Paris decreed the suppression of all religious houses; and so after seven hundred years the Cistercian Order disappeared temporarily from France. On 4 May 1791 the ancient abbey of Cîteaux was sold by auction. As for the abbey of La Trappe, the monks, realising that the dissolution and secularisation of their abbey were inevitable, took immediate steps to make provision for the future by finding a shelter for the community outside the frontiers of France. The moving spirit behind this idea was Father Augustine de Lestrange.

In 1814 they returned to La Trappe and were the first religious order to revive after the French Revolution. Their increase has never ceased, and by the late 20th century there were abbeys world-wide. The three existing congregations of Trappists were united by Pope Leo XIII in 1892 as the independent Reformed Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

In 1794 a group of monks of Lestrange’s reform were invited by Mr Thomas Weld, a wealthy English Catholic from Lulworth Castle in Dorsetshire, to remain and set up a monastery on his estate. Thus arose the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, Lulworth, re-establishing the Cistercian Order in England after more than 250 years. Most of the postulants were from Ireland, and amongst them was Michael Ryan. Twenty years later he was to become the first superior and abbot of Mount Melleray, and the man chiefly responsible for restoring the Cistercian Order to Ireland.

In 1817 the Lulworth monks were forced to leave England. With the permission and co-operation of King Louis XVIII and the French government they settled in the abandoned monastery of Melleray, in Brittany. Fresh troubles arose in Melleray in 1830, when France underwent another wave of revolutionary fury, so the prior, Fr Vincent, was authorised to visit Ireland to see if a foundation from Melleray could be established there.

In 1831 the situation at Melleray began to deteriorate rapidly, and in November all the British subjects in the community were forced to leave the abbey. Since most of them were Irish, they were, at their own request, transported to Ireland. Hence the Cistercians returned to Ireland after an absence of almost two hundred years.

In May 1832 land four miles north of Cappoquin, County Waterford, was made available to the monks by Sir Richard Keane, a local Protestant landlord. And so Mount Melleray Abbey was founded there. The abbey’s first Irish filiation was established in March 1878 near Roscrea, County Tipperary, and was subsequently named Mount Saint Joseph by the monks.

By a decree of 17 March 1893 the Holy See formally approved the union of the three Trappist Congregations into one Order. In 1898 the Trappists gained possession of the ancient abbey of Cîteaux, the mother-house of the entire Order. Finally, in 1902, Pope Leo XIII solemnly confirmed the restoration of the Order by an Apostolic constitution, and it became officially known as the ‘Order of Reformed Cistercians’ (O.C.R.), or ‘Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance,’ (O.C.S.O.).

Both branches of the Order of Cîteaux, despite the turmoil of the two world wars and the spread of atheistic communism, grew steadily during the first half of the twentieth century. By 1950 the Common Observance, in addition to their abbeys in central Europe and Italy, were represented worldwide , and numbered 1724 monks altogether, almost twice the number at the beginning of the century. The Strict Observance grew steadily too, and in 1958 the peak was reached with a total of 4350 male religious. In the 1960’s a decline in the number of religious vocations set in, and the number of monks and nuns in the Order has been decreasing perceptibly since then.