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St. Richard and the Brigittines

by John Phillips


This article provides a look at the martyrdom of St. Richard Reynolds of the Brigittine Order, founded by St. Bridget of Sweden in 1346, and his struggles and perseverance through the persecution of King Henry VIII and the Reformation. St. Richard was martyred on May 4, 1535 and was canonized in 1973 by Pope Paul VI.

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St. Bernard Charities, Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba, January 1990

While the Reformation devastated hundreds of abbeys and priories across Europe, along with mass defections of bishops and clergy, it produced a spectacular crop of martyrs, especially in Britain and Ireland.

One of the bravest was St. Richard Reynolds, a monk of Syon House which nudged the lush water meadows of the Thames near Twickenham. Here was one of the Western world's most splendid monuments built to the glory of God. Its soaring arches and perpendicular windows drew thousands of awe-struck pilgrims from Europe.

For the poor and hungry in surrounding Middlesex county it was an oasis of succor. Each year, the monks and sisters gave away today's equivalent of $4 million worth of food, clothing and other necessities of life; the Brigittine rule enforced strict poverty on the religious community.

The abbey was allowed to keep only enough revenue to cover maintenance costs, and the balance had to be spread among the truly deserving. This rule so appealed to King Henry V that he laid the abbey's foundation stone and donated a small fortune for its construction, tens-of-millions of dollars in today's money.

That was 124 years before St. Richard Reynold's martyrdom at the hands of the rapacious King Henry VIII. Henry wanted the Syon House income so badly that he could almost taste it in his sleep. Besides, distributing $4 million a year to the poor, the lazy and unemployed appalled him.

He instructed his servile commissioners, Layton and Bedell, to pay a visit, trump up charges of immorality or misusing funds, eject the community and then confiscate the breathtaking buildings plus half-a-mile of riverside property.

However, the two obsequious royal servants reported sheepishly that the abbey was well run, and there were no grounds for seizure. Henry and his chief commissioner ,Thomas Cromwell, were nonplussed. They scarcely blinked before issuing an eviction order.

Such callousness appalled the southern counties. Syon House was a symbol of the best in religious life, and now it faced pillage and destruction. The abbey was also unusual, largely because monks and nuns comprised the total community.

The Brigittines, founded by St. Bridget of Sweden in 1346, were governed by an abbess, known as the Sovereign, who ruled both male and female communities. They used the same cathedral-like chapel but lived in separate wings of the monastery.

Here is an arrangement that should gladden all feminist hearts. However, the intense poverty and almost endless hours spent in prayer may not appeal to today's liberated mind. Apart from the complete Divine Office chanted in choir, the sisters and monks added the eight offices from Our Lady's book of hours.

Syon, at the time of the dissolution, had 60 nuns, 13 priests, four deacons, and eight lay brothers who helped with the heavy work around the abbey and farm. Their special interior devotions were the Passion of Christ, and a deep love of the Blessed Virgin.

Each day had its apogee with solemn Mass, always celebrated with great splendor and the complementary Gregorian choirs of men's and women's voices attracted throngs of worshippers even on weekdays. The abbey was a citadel of sanctity.

Further turning the King against the frightened Brigittines was Richard Reynolds, a priest-confessor. Not only was he exceptionally loyal to the Holy Father but he refused to accept that Henry could divorce his wife, Katherine, and that his monarch could be head of the Church of England.

This infuriated Henry because Father Richard was something of a folk hero. He could not be killed summarily, largely because of the widespread unrest among the laity. So he was brought to trial and interrogated by Chancellor Audley, a successor to St. Thomas More, who also was martyred for maintaining papal authority.

Tragically, Richard got little support from the bishops and senior clergy. They had recently seen the Cardinal Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, go to the block, and now was not the time for heroics.

In fact, Cardinal Reginald Pole, later the Papal Legate under Queen Mary, lamented that Richard was let down by the bishops. All 19, except St. John Fisher, had agreed to severing ties with Rome, and this acquiescence was used as a cudgel against him. Thus, he was characterized as a rebellious priest who was disloyal to England's hierarchy.

Richard did not yield. According to Cardinal Pole, he kept a level head and reminded Audley that, more importantly, on his side were "all Church general councils, all the historians, the holy doctors of the Church for the past 1,500 years, especially St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory."

He went to his martyrdom on May 4, 1535, and this probably sealed the fate of Syon abbey. King Henry was a vindictive man, and it is likely he harbored a grudge against the Brigittines. When Thomas Cromwell's bullboys arrived four years later, the nuns fled to a Brigittine convent in Flanders.

During Queen Mary's brief reign, they were restored to Syon House but escaped to Flanders again with the accession of Elizabeth. However, their English community did not wither and fade with the passage of time. Constant warfare in the Low Countries dictated more stable surroundings, and they relocated their community in Lisbon, Portugal.

Their reputation for piety and the renown of Richard Reynolds, canonized in 1973 by Paul VI, attracted a constant stream of novices from cruelly persecuted English families. Their community not only survived, but put down roots in Devonshire more than 100 years ago. They called their new house Syon Abbey.

The Reformation took a savage toll and Europe's once-flourishing Brigittines almost vanished. Following a 17th Century updating, single convents prevailed but, ironically, new life has come to the order, also known as the Order of St. Saviour (Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris), only in recent years.

There is now a flourishing women's convent in Connecticut, headed by Mother Elizabeth Hasselblatt, and a new monastery for men, Our Lady of Consolation, near Amity in rural Oregon. The last of the male houses scattered in the 19th Century as a result of constant European wars.

Already, the Oregon Brigittines have 13 professed monks and a priest, and they follow a life that could be a hybrid of the Trappists and Benedictines. The Prior, Brother Benedict Kirby, notes that his community follows the ancient pattern of monasticism, and so monks usually are not ordained for the priesthood.

The community started with a large house, which has since been enlarged and extended into a full priory. Full use was made of local stone and the magnificent Oregon timber that has made their state world famous. Now, the monks are building a traditional monastic church, complete with bell tower and a rood screen which separates the choir, or chancel, from the nave.

Mass is sung daily and every effort is made to recapture the splendor and beauty of holiness found at old Syon House before it was destroyed to provide stones and precious woods for a magnate's mansion.

The grey-habited Brother Benedict, who describes himself as "something of an Anglophile," adds that the Liturgy of the Hours demands a traditional monastic church. All eight offices are sung in choir, starting with Matins at 4:50 a.m., and ending with the Rosary, Night Litany and Compline at 8 p.m.

Life is an intimate union with Christ, and there is continual prayer for the souls in purgatory and the conversion of sinners. Silence during the day fosters a delicate communion with God, the imitation of Christ and his bond with the apostles. Peace and serenity reign, whether at prayer or in work around the 43-acre property.

St. Richard Reynolds would find himself at home here. The vocations flow, but Brother Benedict says his Priory will never have enough. "I feel that young men looking for a life of prayer in a community find complete joy and satisfaction."

© St. Bernard Charities, Inc.

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