Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Order of the Most Holy Trinity

by Helen Walker Homan


Provided in this article is a detailed summary of the history of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, which was founded in 1198 by Sts. John de Matha and Felix de Valois with their main missions being to spread the devotion to the Holy Trinity and to ransom Christians out of slavery.

Larger Work

Knights of Christ

Publisher & Date

Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1957

Those who walked abroad at night along dark water-fronts in the late twelfth century did so with wary step and a concealed dagger. Long had the Mediterranean coasts of France, Italy, and Spain been areas into which no Christian ventured after dark without arms, and a prayer in his heart. And now as the century drew to its close, the danger had greatly increased as the Moslem pirates of North Africa became increasingly bold.

They were out for loot; and mainly the loot was human. For the Moors had discovered that one rich Christian captive, whether taken in a coastal raid or from the ranks of the Crusaders who passed through their territory on the way to the Holy Land, could be worth more to them than a whole foray made upon a single town.

Family after family in France had been victimized, their helpless members borne off and held for ransom in Algiers or Tunis. Those whose families could not raise sufficient money to redeem them were sold into slavery, never again to see home and loved ones. Many died of brutality and starvation, and others perished chained to the oars as galley slaves.

It was a situation, thought the holy Felix of the royal line of Valois, that should be remedied; and if the governments of Europe would do nothing about it, pious Christians should. He prayed much for guidance, there in his forest hermitage near Meaux to which, after renouncing all his worldly possessions, he had retired in his search for God. He was not more than twenty-two.

At about the same time, that brilliant young doctor at the University of Paris, John de Matha, who had just been ordained a priest, was thinking the same thing. And at his first Mass as he was elevating the Host, suddenly he saw a vision of Christ, with a Christian slave at His right and a Moor at His left. To the holy man this meant but one thing: he must devote his priesthood to redeeming the poor slaves in Algeria. And for that work he must prepare intensively through prayer. He withdrew at once into a hermitage at Cerfroid, not far from Paris, and there he met the noble Felix. The two had a single aim. It was to gather a group of men about them who through prayer and exhortation would arouse the conscience of France into effecting the release of Christian captives.

Five years later their untiring labor had borne sufficient fruit to enable them to travel to Rome in the year 1198 to seek the approbation of their Order which was dedicated to the Blessed Trinity and to effecting the ransom of Christian slaves. Pope Innocent III granted his approval on December 17 of that year.

The new Order adopted the Rule of Saint Augustine; and since their work would be concerned with collecting money for ransom, it was decreed that the revenues should be divided into three parts: one for ransom, one for the poor, and one for the maintenance of their monasteries. For their habit they adopted a white tunic and a scapular bearing a red and blue cross — the three colors that signify the Blessed Trinity.

The ardor of Felix de Valois and John de Matha soon had won many followers, and restored many a Christian slave to his family and homeland. Felix erected a monastery at Cerfroid, where he and John had first met and planned. This became the Order's motherhouse. John went to Rome where he also established a house. In a short time the Trinitarians were based in most of Christian Europe. Large numbers of captives were ransomed from the Moors and brought back to their homes.

But since many of these returned ill and broken in health from the treatment they had received at the hands of their captors, the two founders undertook to restore them. For this good work Pope Innocent III granted to John de Matha the hospital of Saint Thomas-in-Formis, in Rome, and here the founder labored tirelessly, nursing the poor and the sick who had been redeemed. Other hospitals for the same purpose were established throughout France and Spain.

Felix de Valois, after a long life of great deeds, died at Cerfroid at the age of eighty-five, in the year 1212. As a man whose right arm was now gone, his companion followed him in death a year later, dying in Rome on December 17, the anniversary of the papal approbation of the work they had pursued so faithfully. Not many years later the two founders were established as Saints of the Church.

Following their passing, the monks continued to walk in their footsteps of sacrifice and poverty, and of unceasing labor in the redemption and care of Christian slaves. In the year 1228 a new monastery was founded in Paris, dedicated to Saint Mathurin. It soon became more active than Cerfroid, and the Order's superior took up his residence there. Louis IX, king of France, later to be declared a Saint, depended largely upon the Trinitarians, some of whom he chose as chaplains to accompany him in the Crusades of 1247 and 1270.

In their work of ransoming the captives, the heroic monks themselves journeyed to Algeria to negotiate with the Moors. When they had collected sufficient money they would set sail in their ships from Provence or Spain and cross the Mediterranean to Africa, laden not alone with ransom but with rich gifts to placate the Turkish authorities. Their course was not without hazards, and they knew it might well cost them their lives. Frequently their ships were attacked and pirated before they could reach the coast; and the monks, if not murdered, were themselves held for ransom.

When they were lucky enough to reach land, theirs was a heart-rending task, for in spite of their large collections there was never enough money to ransom all the captives, and they were forced to return, haunted by the tears and the supplications of those who were left behind. Not infrequently a monk would offer himself as captive, to set free some forlorn soul whose place he voluntarily assumed.

By this time the monks had accomplished one of the main purposes of the holy founders: they had aroused the Christian conscience of Europe, and now the governments themselves were establishing consuls at Algiers and Tunis to negotiate ransoms, not for the poor but rather for persons of wealth and distinction who were victims. But, recognizing the honesty of their dealings, the Moors had come to trust the monks, and preferred to negotiate with them rather than with the consuls. Hence it came about that in addition to the poor, the Trinitarians also ransomed the wealthy with funds provided by their families.

In a later era, one of the persons of importance they rescued was Don Miguel de Cervantes, who was to become the immortal author of Don Quixote, and whom they redeemed in 158o after a captivity of five long years. In gratitude he became a member of their Third Order which had been established for persons desiring to live a holy life in the world according to Trinitarian ideals. He was buried in the habit of the Order among the Trinitarians of Madrid.

During the first three centuries of their existence, the Trinitarians had become known and loved throughout Europe for the ingenious methods they devised to raise funds for their ransoms. Long before the introduction of modern public relations they were masters of the art, using the only tools available in that epoch: the spoken word, the written word, and the theatre. Through these, they raised untold sums of money for their vast work of ransoming captives, conducting hospitals, and caring for the poor.

When it became known that the Trinitarians were approaching a town, the populace declared a holiday and prepared for a good show. Mounted on mules, and accompanied by a native son of the town whom they had just redeemed, the monks rode through the gates, preceded by trumpeters and cymbal-players. Entering the market place with banners flying, their heralds proclaimed to the shouting populace that the holy men were now returning the unfortunate victim to the bosom of his family. Mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers ran to embrace the rescued one amidst tears and merriment. This, in modern parlance, would be called "showing results."

Following an impassioned appeal for the Christians still held in Algeria and also vivid descriptions of their sufferings, a melodrama would be produced right there under the eyes of the quaking populace, in which were enacted blood-curdling scenes of horror as perpetrated against the captives. In these, the recently released native son often played the leading role. Tableaux and floats were used to complete the act. It was an appeal hard to resist. As the Trinitarian cavalcades pursued their way, covering thousands of towns in Europe, the money poured out from a moved and grateful populace for continuance of the work. As successful fund-raisers it is doubtful if they were ever surpassed. After three centuries had spun their course, it was estimated that the Trinitarians had ransomed some 90,000 captives.

Success ran high until the English invasion of France during the fifteenth century which cost the Order dearly. It was to suffer further losses in the sixteenth century when the Protestant Reformation swept away its houses in England and Ireland, and sent many of the monks to the gallows as true martyrs.

These upheavals and losses badly disorganized the Trinitarians, and there ensued a falling away from the early ideals. Reforms within the Order were attempted but led only to confusion, as some tried to maintain the primitive spirit and others followed a mitigated rule. But history itself had mitigated the original purpose, the ransom of Christian slaves, with the ceasing of the Crusades and the successful curbing of the Moors in the late fifteenth century by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The Order had to reorientate itself and direct its activities to hospitals, schools, and parishes. Now in 1578, a schism broke out within the ranks at Pontoise, which later affected the Cerfroid motherhouse itself.

During this era there was trouble too in Spain when the Spanish Trinitarians broke away from the French, and under Juan Bautista founded an independent congregation, calling themselves the Discalced Trinitarians of Spain. They spread into Italy, and into Austria in 1690 where they were effective in ransoming Christians during the wars with the Turks. Their endeavors in France were eventually stopped by a papal edict of 1771. The two factions, the primitive and the mitigated, were at length united, although not fused, under a single superior general.

As with all the religious congregations, the eighteenth century brought disaster. In 1784, Emperor Joseph II suppressed the Trinitarians in Austria and the Low Countries. The Revolution begun in 1789 wiped out their existence in the mother country of France, and played havoc with them in all other lands where they were established with the exception of Italy, Spain, and the Spanish colonies.

When toward the middle of the nineteenth century the religious Orders could begin to rebuild, Pope Pius IX in 1856 bestowed upon the Trinitarians the Basilica of Saint John Chrysogonus in Rome, which is now the Order's headquarters. It was in 1898 that the ancient monastery of Saint Thomas in Rome which had been given the founder, Saint John de Matha, at the start of the Order, and which had been taken from it in 1387, was restored to it by Pope Leo XIII after more than five hundred years of separation.

The Order began its activities in the United States in the year 1916. It is now established in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, and California. The American Province of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was erected in 1950, with headquarters in Baltimore. Its Trinitarians conduct parishes, assist other parishes, give missions and retreats, and care for the sick and the poor. They also conduct a high school dedicated to Saint John de Matha, in Hyattsville, Maryland. And always they perpetuate the devotion to the Holy Trinity.

The Order at large today has monasteries in France, Italy, Canada, the United States, Cuba, and Chile. In 1926 it entered the foreign mission field on the Island of Madagascar.

The Trinitarian life combines the active with the contemplative, and the Divine Office is recited daily in choir. The Order is composed of priests and lay brothers.

Recent arrivals in the United States, they are now represented by approximately 6o members. Their foundations abroad, of longer establishment, are of greater numerical strength; but all perpetuate the charity of the noble Felix de Valois and the scholarly John de Matha who set out, almost eight centuries ago, to relieve the oppressed.

For even though ransom has passed out of fashion for today's Christian captives held in Communist-controlled lands, and the Trinitarians are powerless to penetrate behind the Iron Curtain (the fierce Moors of the thirteenth century were easier to deal with than the Kremlin) the ideals of the founders still permeate the activities of their followers, and show forth their results in the succoring of the poor and the relief of the sick everywhere the Trinitarians are at work.

© 1957 Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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