Christian monasticism had its beginnings in fourth century Egypt. Following the challenges to the faith during the recently ended age of persecution and of martyrs, many Christian men and women sought a more total commitment to living the values of the gospel. In the deserts of Egypt many sought a life of prayer, simplicity, and labor either as solitaries, or in community with others seeking similar values. In the following centuries this monastic movement spread both to eastern and western lands. In the west the cenobitic (community) form of monastic life tended to prevail.
St. Benedict, father of western monasticism, was born in Nursia in central Italy around 480. He abandoned the life of a young Roman aristocrat in order to embrace the monastic calling, first as a hermit at Subiaco and later with several disciples founding a community at Monte Cassino. He wrote a rule of life for monasteries of cenobites which drew on the older monastic traditions. By the ninth century the terms monk and Benedictine had become almost synonymous.
For their greater security, mutual support, and general spiritual oversight, the medieval popes urged Benedictine monasteries to form themselves into congregations or national federations of autonomous houses. Thus in the 13th century the monasteries of England were established as the English Benedictine Congregation. Benedictines played a major role in the pastoral and cultural life of the English medieval Church, supplying monks as bishops, pastors, and educators. This congregation survived down to the suppression of all religious houses in England under King Henry VIII in the 1540′s.
The period between Henry VIII and the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century was a time of exile and difficulty, even heroism for English Benedictines. Monks who had fled to the continent gradually reestablished the English Benedictine Congregation. Some missionaries sent to England were martyred. Ironically the French Revolution led to the expulsion of the monks from France and their return to England. The nineteenth century saw a great emphasis on needed ministry in parishes. Schools were developed in the reestablished communities.
In the early 1920′s a small group of Americans, most of them diocesan priests with a strong interest in spirituality and in scholarship and led by Father Thomas Verner Moore, conceived the idea of forming a Benedictine community in Washington which would combine traditional monastic life with a dedication to research and scholarship and with strong ties to the Catholic University of America. Father Moore, a Paulist Father with degrees in both medicine and psychology, was already a member of the Catholic University faculty and had a long-standing interest in monasticism. His admiration for the traditions of the English Benedictines led him to approach the English Congregation for sponsorship.
Eventually Father Moore’s idea was accepted, and the Abbey of Fort Augustus in Scotland agreed to sponsor the new monastery and to provide monastic training for its founding members. The first four candidates, including Father Moore, entered the novitiate in 1923, pronounced their vows as Benedictine monks in 1924, and returned to Washington to begin monastic life at St Anselm’s Priory in a farm house on land purchased on Sargent Road in the Brookland section of northeast Washington, not far from the Catholic University campus.
The gradual growth of the community of St. Anselm’s led to the construction of a church and first monastery building in 1930 on a hill above South Dakota Avenue at 14th Street. The work of the monks continued to be that of scholarship, writing and research, and university teaching, with pastoral service to neighboring religious communities and to lay people. In 1942 the decision was made to add the traditional work of English Benedictine monasteries by opening a secondary day school for boys, which became the Priory School. As the monastery continued to expand in numbers and apostolate it was made a conventual (or independent) priory of the English Congregation. In 1961 the priory was elevated to the rank of abbey by decree of Pope John XXIII. Father Alban Boultwood, superior since 1946, was elected as first abbot of St. Anselm’s. Our fourth abbot, Father Aidan Shea, completed his tenure in 2006. Following an interim period under Father Simon McGurk as prior administrator, Father James Wiseman was elected by the community as its fifth abbot in June 2011.
As St. Anselm’s has moved into the twenty first century our mission remains the same: to live the gospel of Christ in a community of prayer in the spirit of St. Benedict, and to assist in the building of the Kingdom of Christ through our work in education, spiritual guidance, scholarship, and pastoral assistance in the Archdiocese of Washington. Recent construction on our property and plans for further improvements in our facilities will, we hope, further our capacity to serve and to broaden our outreach.
- Dom Michael Hall