Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
We recently celebrated the feast of St. Norbert, founder of the Canons Regular of Prémontré, also known as the Premonstratensians or Norbertines. I’ve written at length about St. Norbert here and I once lived in a Premonstratensian Abbey. But today I want to introduce you to some of the other holy men and women St. Norbert inspired to live his life of “contemplative action.”
1. Blessed Hugh of Fosse
First, there’s Blessed Hugh of Fosse. He was St. Norbert’s first disciple and the man who ran the abbey whenever St. Norbert was away from the initial foundation of the Abbey of Prémontré in France — which was often. Then it was forever.
St. Norbert had a bit of a peripatetic streak in him, plus he had papal approval to preach wherever he wanted. This meant while Norbert was either in Rome with St. Bernard and the pope, or acting as chancellor at the Court of the Emperor Lothair, or in his see as the Archbishop of Magdeburg (in Germany).
Blessed of Hugh of Fosse was, as Butler’s Lives of The Saints calls him “Norbert’s lieutenant.” This was no small job, and, in fact, it may have crushed a lesser (or less saintly) man. Blessed Hugh knew he was always in the shadow of St. Norbert, and did not always have recourse to his friend and the actual founder. However, he was able to implement Norbert’s vision of a community of canons following the ancient Rule of Saint Augustine and the Praemonstratensian vision of going out into the world but living in communion in an abbey — which numbered about eight, along with two convents for women Norbertines by the time Norbert was named archbishop. Whatever Blessed Hugh lacked in originality or innovation, he more than made up for in having a steady guiding hand for a brand-new congregation.
2. St. Evermode
St. Evermode, like Blessed Hugh, was one of the original Norbertines. Unlike Blessed Hugh, he followed St. Norbert to many of the foreign climes the saintly founder traveled to. Further, he accompanied St. Norbert to his see at Magdeburg and was present at the death of his friend and founder in 1134. St. Evermode was elected head of the Priory of Our Lady of Magdeburg in 1138, and saw the foundation of four more Norbertine houses. Then, like Norbert himself, he was taken from his flock by becoming bishop — in this case of Ratzeburg, Germany, where he died in 1178. His feast day is Feb. 17.
3. St. Frederick of Hallum
St. Frederick of Hallum (1113-1175) is another early Norbertine saint. He is important for a couple of reasons. While Blessed Hugh was holding down multiple Praemonstratensian forts (or at least abbeys!) in France, and St. Evermode was busy keeping up with St. Norbert’s never-ending travels into Germany and Rome, St. Frederick brought the Canons Regular to the Netherlands. It was in Holland that St. Frederick founded Mariengaard Abbey, and was named the first abbot. However, he also founded Bethlehem Abbey, for Norbertine canonesses, in Hallum. His feast day is March 3.
St. Hermann Joseph (1150-1241) was born in Cologne, and, of the early Norbertine saints, could be considered the mystic of the group — Norbert being the founder, Hugh the administrator, Evermode the traveling companion, and Frederick the man in Holland. St. Hermann wrote tracts on Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin, as well as a commentary on The Caniticle of Canticles, which is now lost. However, that mystical and always-open-to-interpretation book of the Old Testament was a huge and continuing influence on pretty much all of St. Hermann’s writings. When he wasn’t busy serving the poor of the diocese St. Hermann had a knack for fixing clocks.
4. St. Godfrey of Cappenberg
St. Godfrey of Cappenberg (1097-1128) was, like St. Norbert himself, born to a courtly life and seemed destined to life a life of royalty, having married Jutta, a woman of noble lineage. However, once Godfrey met Norbert, he reconsidered his vocation in life and convinced his wife that he was a better canon than a husband (and Jutta, for her part, became a Norbertine canoness). Due to his wealth, St. Godfrey was able to provide Norbert with a castle at Cappenberg, which was the first Norbertine foundation in Germany. Unfortunately, St. Godfrey died very young — he was not even 30. He was canonized in 1728.
5. St. Gilbert
St. Gilbert, like Norbert, was originally a gallant soldier. Unlike Norbert, he actually participated in the Second Crusade, which had been preached by Norbert’s friend and papal confidant St. Bernard — and ended in abject disaster. After returning home to Auvergne, France, St. Gilbert, like St. Godfrey, convinced his wife, and for that matter his daughter, that his life was best spent serving God. (And since he was a man of means, he was able to provide for the women in his life before leaving them for the abbey.) St. Gilbert founded the Abbey of Neuffontaines. Here, he became not only the first abbot, but built a hospital where he helped care for the sick and infirm himself. St. Gilbert died in 1152. His feast day is Oct. 26.
6. St. Gerlaach
St. Gerlaach (1100-1170) was a Dutch soldier, and, as legend has it, a brigand. However, upon the death of his wife, he had his own conversion experience after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his way back to Western Europe he spent seven years in Rome administering to the sick. He retired to an old hollow oak tree in Houthem in the Netherlands, where he lived the life of a hermit. As far as Norbertine saints go, St. Gerlaach is unique. Norbertines aren’t (usually) hermits, as the Premonstratensian life is not only communal, but calls for going out into the world to serve it.
7. St. Pierre-Adrien Toulorge
Along with all these early Norbertine saints, many of whom knew St. Norbert personally, there were many later saints and martyrs. Among the latter, mention should be made of St. Pierre-Adrien Toulorge, a Norbertine killed during the French Revolution. He was born in 1757 and ordained at age 25. In 1788 he was professed as a Norbertine — and the Revolution was only one year away.
The bloodbath that was the French Revolution brought an incredible display of hatred on the Church and innumerable priests, religious and lay Catholics died as a result. St. Adrien spent most of the Revolution in hiding so that he could celebrate Holy Mass and the sacraments in secret (thus sparing the lives of his flock), but life for any priest in France at this time was basically a death sentence and there was no escape for this Norbertine. He was arrested on Sept. 2, 1793, and a series of kangaroo courts sentenced him to death by guillotine. His dying words (which we would all do well to remember) were, “God, I beg you to forgive my enemies.”
St. Norbert, pray for us!