The Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré – known variously as the Norbertines, the Premonstratensians and the White Canons – was founded in 1121 AD by St Norbert of Xanten, who later became Archbishop of Magdeburg. This year is therefore their 900th anniversary.
St Norbert was greatly influenced by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the latter’s setting up of the Cistercians. The Norbertines are however not monks but Canons Regular and their work frequently involves preaching and a pastoral ministry. They follow the rule of St Augustine. Their religious life revolves round celebration of the Eucharist and a rhythm of prayer. They wear white (in fact cream) habits with nowadays the usual addition of a biretta of the same colour.
The first house was founded in 1121 AD at Prémontré in the Diocese of Laon in France with 14 canons in all. Five years later they received papal approval from Pope Honorius II; by then there were nine houses. Thereafter they spread widely so that by the middle of the 14th century there some 1,300 monasteries for men in Europe.
The Norbertines arrived in England in 1143 with their first house at Newhouse in Lincolnshire. They again spread rapidly and by the time of the Dissolution in the 16th century there were 35 houses including ones at Alnwick, Beeleigh, Blanchland, Coverham, Halesowen, Shap, Titchfield and Welbeck.
The Order on the continent suffered from the ravages of the French Revolution and its aftermath and by the beginning of the 19th century only eight Norbertine houses survived, all in lands belonging to the Habsburgs. However, a resurgence occurred during the 19th century and the Norbertines now have some 100 houses scattered across the world.
The first Norbertine community to be established in England since the Reformation was at Crowle in North Lincolnshire with the first canons coming from Antwerp. The founder was Thomas Arthur Young of Kingerby Hall, near Market Rasen, from an old Catholic family. The church of St Norbert and priory house were designed by ME Hadfield & Son of Sheffield with the foundation stone of the former being laid in 1871. The nave was solemnly opened in November 1872 with Mass being said by the abbot of Mount St Bernard’s. The church is in red brick Decorated Gothic style with a fine high altar and a painting of Christ in Majesty possibly by Westlake over the chancel arch. The Norbertines left the parish in 1985.
The second Norbertine community was established in 1882 at Storrington at Sussex with the priory being established on land given by the 15th Duke of Norfolk. The canons came from France. The brick Gothic church, with stone facings, of Our Lady of England was designed by Edward Goldie, architect inter alia of St James, Spanish Place, and opened in 1904. The interior is light and spacious with rather a brutal modern altar. The canons’s stalls since 1999 have been arranged around the apse with a statue of Our Lady above. The Norbertines left Storrington at the start of the last decade.
For a few years (1887-95) the Norbertines from Storrington formed the community at St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough following its foundation by the Empress Eugénie. They were replaced by French Benedictine monks from St Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes.
The third Norbertine community in England was established at Miles Platting (an economically deprived area of Manchester a mile north of the city centre) in 1889. The church was constructed between 1905 and 1906 by Ernest Gunson. Pevsner describes the building as “Large, of red brick with pale sandstone dressings, in the Italian Romanesque style”. The church by the start of the 21st century was in a very neglected state and the Norbertines had to move in 2007, initially to St Chad, in the Cheetham area of Manchester (now occupied by the Oratorians). They were invited to Chelmsford the next year by Thomas McMahon, then Bishop of Brentwood, where they were given use of the Church of Our Lady Immaculate and the Church of the Holy Name in London Road, and set up the Priory of Our Lady of Sorrows and St Philip Benizi. Corpus Christi, Miles Platting is now a “banqueting hall and wedding venue” by the name of Usmania. The baldacchino survives over what was the high altar (which was moved to a church in Scotland).
Our Lady Immaculate, Chelmsford is an Early English Gothic design by JJ Scoles and was opened in 1847 by the then Bishop Nicholas Wiseman. The 12th Lord Petre was one of the benefactors. The original Lady Altar came from his then seat Thorndon Hall. It was the first church in England to be dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. The east window is by William Wailes. There were pretty harsh reorderings in 1973 (when the original high altar and side altars were removed) and 1988-90. The church has now an austere feeling although this will doubtless be remedied over time. The tabernacle is at least back where it should be, in the centre of the sanctuary.
The current prior is Father Hugh Allan O.Praem. He was born to a Scottish family in 1976 in Hertfordshire. He converted to Catholicism from Free Presbyterianism in 1992 at the age of 16. On leaving St Mary’s University, Twickenham, where he trained to be a teacher, he joined the Norbertines. He was ordained in 2002 and went to Manchester, initially to teach and then become parish priest at Gorton. In 2006 he became superior of the Norbertine community in Manchester, at the time the youngest Catholic religious superior in the world. He superintended the move to Chelmsford where he is also parish priest. He has also served as Area Dean for Mid-Essex. In 2016 he not only became Apostolic Administrator of the Falkland Islands and Ecclesiastic Superior of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha but also titular Abbot of Beeleigh. The priory is run in an intelligent and conservative way; the community must hope it does not lose its prior to the episcopate.
The community gives every appearance of being a supremely happy one. This happiness may be reflected in the fact that most of the canons from the Prior downwards do not veer towards the petite. There are now nine canons. They also run the parish of the Holy Name, Chelmsford and provide chaplains, for instance, to the splendid Dominican sisters at Lymington.
The latest ordination, by Father Alan Williams (himself a Marist), the present Bishop of Brentwood, was on St Norbert’s feast day (7 June) and was of the Welsh convert Dylan Parry (now Father Gildas O. Praem), sometime editor of Oremus at Westminster and secretary of the Friends of the Ordinariate. In spite of the reduced numbers and ceremonial allowed because of the pandemic, it was a most joyous occasion. The bishop commented on how much the Norbertines were loved throughout the diocese because of their great “kindliness”.
May the Priory of Our Lady of Sorrows and St Philip Benizi, Chelmsford continue to flourish over the forthcoming years. We will all have need of them and their prayers.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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