Part 4 The Canons Regular of the Lateran 1887-1907


The Canons Regular of the Lateran do not have a founder. For the first ten centuries of the Church there was no distinction between secular priests and religious orders. There were monastic orders – monks who tended to build remote places to concentrate on seeking God under the guidance of an Abbot and there were canonical orders – clerics who lived in towns and were committed to following the canon or sets of rules laid down by a Bishop.

The rules varied from region to region but generally they comprised basic features such as celibacy, obedience to a Bishop and commitment to a certain church. Sometimes they included poverty or the renunciation of personal goods. By the 11th century there was a movement for reform where many argued that all priests should be poor and not own property. The argument was settled by the Lateran Council of 1059 which decreed that priests must make a choice. If they renounced the possession of private property they became Canons Regular: if they retained their goods they became Seculars. Those who accepted the reform (the Canons Regular) adopted the rule of St. Augustine.

From this time there was a separation between secular priest and the religious orders. The Canons Regular began to spread and flourish and adopted some of the practices of the monks for their way of life and began to live in abbeys and priories. Many different branches of the movement emerged over the centuries including the Canons Regular of the Lateran, named after the Pope’s cathedral in Rome where they served at one time. The Canons Regular of St. Bernard are another congregation, well known for the dogs they breed.

A community of Canons Regular is one of priests and deacons who live together, share all they have and serve the local church. Besides the public recitation of the Divine Office they are also employed in teaching, serving missions, preaching retreats, supplying for priests who ask their service and hearing confessions. The proper habit of the Lateran Congregation is a white woollen cassock with a linen rochet. The rochet is an over-tunic usually made of fine white linen or cotton and reaching to the knees: it bears a resemblance to a surplice but has tight-fitting sleeves.

The Canons Regular of the Lateran in England

The period between the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the death of Henry II in 1189 was a time of great prosperity when 54 houses of Canons Regular were established in England. The Black Death which reached England in 1348 decimated the Canons as it did all ecclesiastical institutions but they were still a powerful order in 1519 when Cardinal Wolsey introduced a reform of the whole canonical order in England. However, at the time of the Reformation, between 1538 and 1540, ninety one houses with 1083 inmates belonging to the Canons Regular were suppressed or surrendered: the persecuted Canons dispersed and disappeared from England altogether.

In 1881 after three hundred years, the Canons Regular of the Lateran returned to England. The Abbot General Santini, who resided in Rome, sent Dom Felix Menchini to restore the Order. He went first to the canonesses of St. Augustine’s Priory in Newton Abbot (those who had left Spetisbury in 1860) where he set about learning English. He wanted to start a community in London but this was not possible so when offered a dilapidated building in Bodmin by Bishop Vaughan of Plymouth, it was taken and the first community was started there. In August 1881 Bishop Vaughan issued his decree authorising the foundation and in 1884 Menchini was constituted as Prior and Novice master of St. Mary’s Priory, Bodmin and Missionary Vicar in charge of the Bodmin and Truro missions.

By 1884 the Bodmin community had 20 members and was becoming seriously overcrowded and it was decided to open a second house at Marnhull in Dorset as a juniorate. The canons were offered a church, house and property “free and gratis, but with the obligation of the ‘cura animarum’ as they had done four years previously in Bodmin.”  The Superior of the Priory of St. Mary and St. Joseph, Marnhull was Augustine White, aged only 26 and not yet an ordained priest. In 1890 there were 18 boys in the school. Unfortunately, through lack of funds and lack of priest members, Marnhull was closed down in 1891 and the property sold for £1000. However, in its six year existence it produced ten members of the order, all save one, priests.

Marnhull Church and part of the Priory

Marnhull Priory
In 1887 the canonesses at Newton Abbot offered to give the Priory at Spetisbury to the order. They had owned it since 1800 but had leased it to the Bridgettine nuns (who renamed it Sion House) between 1861 and 1887. When they left it was conveyed to the Canons and became St. Monica’s Priory again. The canons remained at Spetisbury for the next twenty years. In Mate’s Illustrated Guide to Dorsetshire 1899 under Spetisbury it states “Spettisbury House, or Mansion, has served uses both secular and sacred, and is now a Catholic Priory of Canons regular, whose work is mainly the training of students for the priesthood. The Order is a very ancient one, and was known before the Reformation as that of the Black Canons. In the adjacent church the splendour of the Romish ritual is maintained in a high degree, and there are some interesting relics in the building of the best days of the Catholic faith in England.”

In1894 a London mission was established at Stroud Green.

In1904 the canons built a new church at Swanage. “A new Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Holy Ghost and St. Edward the King and Martyr, the foundation stone of which was laid in February by the Bishop of Plymouth, was opened in Swanage yesterday by Abbot Allaria. The church has been erected by the canons regular of St. Monica’s priory, Spettisbury on a commanding site overlooking the town, at a cost of more than £2000. The Bishop of Plymouth was unable to be present, but sent his Episcopal blessing.”



Three years later both the Community and the Junior Seminary moved to Swanage.

“The Canons Regular of the Lateran, who built the Roman Catholic Church at Swanage three years ago, have added a priory to the church, in which a community of the order now reside. Their priory at Spetisbury has now been sold to Ursuline nuns. The Canons Regular now have charge of the Roman Catholics in Swanage and Wareham districts.”

For many years a number of Canons were in residence, one of whom was the Parish Priest responsible for looking after Swanage. Subsequently the Juniorate moved on to Eton and later to Datchet, and the Community gave way to two and then only one priest in the parish. Eventually the Order left Swanage and the Church and the presbytery were handed over to the Diocese of Plymouth in 1984.

In 1906 Bishop Amigo, then Bishop of Southwark, invited the Canons Regular of the Lateran to care for the united missions of Eltham and Mottingham in London and in 1910 the Canons Regular bought the property in Eltham known as Eagle House, which was renamed "ChristChurch Priory".

Eagle House, Eltham

The building of the church was completed on 23rd February 1936 and is commemorated by a plaque which is also in memory of the Rev. Augustine White, Titular Abbot of Holy Cross Abbey, Waltham and leader of the Canons Regular of the Lateran.

Christchurch, Eltham

In 1953 St. Mary’s Priory at Bodmin gained the status of an abbey and became St. Mary’s Abbey. “Due consideration was given to the fact that it was the chief house of the Order in England, served ten other churches in and around the district, maintained the regular religious discipline within the monastery, housed the novices and professed clerics of the Order in England and made provision for twenty religious to live according to the Canon Regular way of life.”

St. Mary’s Abbey, Bodmin

The abbey has now been converted into six apartments and three town houses. On the 56th anniversary of the Canons Regular coming back to Bodmin, June 24th 1937, the foundation stone of a new church of St. Mary’s was laid by Bishop John Barrett. Construction work was abandoned during the war, and for fourteen years after that. The present Church of St. Mary’s, built of local stone, was blessed and opened by Bishop Cyril Restieaux on 24th June 1965.

After the Second World War some of the different Congregations of Canons began to meet and discuss whether it would be possible to bring their communities together in a closer bond with the purpose of mutual support and with the desire to understand the teaching and rule of St Augustine better.

Those plans bore fruit in 1959, the ninth centenary of the Lateran reforms. With the blessing of Pope John XX111 the Confederation of Canons Regular came into being during a solemn Mass in the Basilica of St John Lateran. On that day the Congregations of St Maurice, Great St Bernard, Austria, Immaculate Conception, Windesheim and Lateran were bound together in a bond of fraternal charity.

Education of the Canons

The alumnate (or juniorate) was a school for boys who showed signs of a vocation to the Order. This was always small and as an educational institution it was more a private tutoring establishment than a school. One of the tasks was to learn sufficient Latin for further study towards the priesthood. The first alumnate was established at Marnhull in Dorset in 1888 – this was an establishment of about 20 boys. In 1891 the alumnate was moved to Bodmin Priory in Cornwall and in 1907 back to Swanage in Dorset where a large house had been built for this purpose. After a few years the Canons were offered a church and parish at Eton by the Bishop of Northampton. Since there was also a large house suitable for a few boys the nearness of London persuaded the Superior of the time to make another move to Eton. Eton, however, was not really suitable and in 1923 a house was built at Datchet surrounded by six or seven acres of ground. This closed in 1968 due to the increasing standards required for all schools.

At the age of 16 upwards a boy entered the Novitiate. In 1884 the Novitiate was at Bodmin but in 1891 it was transferred to Spetisbury for three years after which it went back to Bodmin where it remained until 1976. The young men in the Novitiate spent at least a year in the Novitiate after which they took Simple Vows. Solemn Vows were usually taken three years after this.

Studies for the priesthood took six years. These were done at the House of Studies or Professorium. St. Monica’s at Spetisbury was the Professorium between 1887 and 1907. Some of the very academically able young men were sent away to the International College in Rome for two or three years for further studies.

Lay brothers were concerned solely with manual labour and with the secular affairs of the Community. They were mostly pious men, who while unable to attain to the degree of learning requisite for Holy Orders, were yet drawn to the religious life and able by their toil to contribute to the prosperity of the order.

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