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The monk who converted a tribe of pagans in modern-day Belgium

The ruins of St Bertin’s Abbey, rebuilt in the 13th century

Bertin (c 610-c 698), like his fellows St Omer and St Mummolin, was a native of the Cotentin peninsula in what later became Normandy. At an early age, however, all three of them travelled some 400 miles south-east to become monks at the great monastery founded by St Columban at Luxeuil, in the Diocese of Besançon.

Luxeuil was an important centre of the monastic revival in Europe. Whereas monasticism in Gaul had previously been an essentially urban phenomenon, Columban’s model was very much rural in character, with an emphasis on agriculture.

It proved to have a strong appeal to Frankish royalty and aristocracy, not least because the houses were run by abbots rather than local bishops, who were sometimes suspected by secular landowners of harbouring ambitious territorial designs.

In addition, the system of private penance favoured by St Columban no doubt proved less rebarbative than the ritual of public humiliation required in earlier times.

Evidently the Merovingian King Dagobert was acquainted with Luxeuil, for in 637 he ordered the reluctant Omer to leave the monastery and travel north to convert the Morini, a pagan people who inhabited the uninviting waterlogged flatlands of the Pas-de-Calais.

Bertin and Mummolin went to help Omer in his ungrateful task and succeeded so well that they were able to establish a large monastery at Sithiu on the banks of the river Aa, around which the town of St Omer would develop.

Bertin eventually became abbot of Sithiu, with some 150 monks under his rule. In the Columbanine agricultural tradition they laboured to continue the work of the Morini in reclaiming the surrounding marshes, which have been rich farming land ever since. Bertin lived to a vast age, and after his death the abbey at St Omer adopted his name.

Its use by English ecclesiastics on their way to Rome meant that St Bertin became well known in England. Rebuilt on a grand scale in the 13th century, the abbey would prove a haven for English Catholics during the centuries of persecution, when the town of St Omer became an important centre for Jesuits.

In 1592 Fr Parsons started a school there for English exiles who preserved an ancient form of cricket which they took back to England when, after periods in Bruges and Liège, the college set up at Stonyhurst in Lancashire in 1794.

In 1791, during the French Revolution, the monks were expelled from St Bertin’s Abbey. Subsequently the buildings were used as a quarry, some of the stone ending up in the town hall of Arras, which in turn was damaged by German bombardment in the First World War. At the abbey only the tower remained, and that in turn was ruined by damage inflicted in the Second World War.