Before the reformation in England communities of canonesses existed at Irford and Stixwold and Broadholm. Irford was founded in the reign of Henry II and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in 1156. The last prioress, Dame Joanna Thompson (the title ‘Dame’ was only used for canonesses in England) supplied a horse for one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace. The community of five canonesses was dissolved and the lands given other to local gentry. At Brodholm a community was established in the time of King Stephen and the lands not given up until the time of Elizabeth Tudor. Stixwold has a most unusual history, existing first as a house of Cistercians. Henry VIII himself re-founded it in 1537 for Norbertine canonesses and richly endowed it. Two years later he promptly dissolved it.
The first Norbertine nuns were attracted to the life and work of St. Norbert at Prémontré in its earliest years. The first Premonstratensian nun was Blessed Ricuera of Clasters, a follower and friend of St. Norbert. The monastery at Prémontré thus developed into a double monastery of both canons and nuns. Our Holy Father Norbert described such an existence as being a living reminder of the life of the apostles at Jerusalem, wherein all manner of persons lived in common in the service of God. The nuns at Prémontré lived separately to the canons, but shared in their work of prayer and the apostolate, particularly in serving the sick and travelling pilgrims. As new houses were established the trend to have double monasteries gradually declined and in 1137 Blessed Hugh, Abbot of Prémontré, divided the double monasteries into separate communities. With this move a new set of statues were adopted for the nuns and in 1240 the General Chapter of the Order decided that convents could accept no more than 20 nuns, moreover each convent of the Order was to be under the guidance of an Abbot – a custom which continues to this day. Whilst many communities of canonesses happily adopted these new statues, others felt called to move to areas of the Order where such regulations were not so rigorously enforced. Eventually the nuns almost disappeared entirely from Western Europe as more and more communities migrated to Eastern Europe; to Westphalia, Moravia, Bohemia, Poland and Hungary, where they were influential in the education of the nobility.
The rise of Protestantism and later religious and political revolutions took their toll on communities of canonesses until, save for houses in central and eastern Europe, they almost became extinct. Today the communities that are associated with the Order can be found in Holland, Belgium, Spain, France, Poland, the United States, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Switzerland and Germany.
The Canonesses at Toro and Villoria de Orbigo began their existence with the canons at San Miguel de Groh from whence the canonesses transferred to Santa Sofia, going to Villoria de Orbigo in 1511. In the 16th century when the Spanish houses split with the rest of the Order (even adopting black birettas!) the canonesses were placed under the jurisdiction of the local bishops, though relations with the Order were restored in the 19th century.
The canonesses in Poland also claim a long history. The convent at Krakow (Zwierzyniec) was founded in 1148 and the canonesses remain there to this day. Two canonesses from this convent are venerated in the Order; Blessed Bronislava and Sister Emilia Podoska. The other Polish convent at Imbramowice was founded in 1226. Both convents suffered enormously under the communist regime. The convent at Doksany in Bohemia was re-established from Krakow in 1998. It had originally been founded in 1144, but was suppressed by Joseph II in 1782.
In the Belgium the convent at Veerle was founded in the 19th century to meet growing pastoral needs. The community at Oosterhout has roots stretching as far back as the 13th century, the reformers and revolutionaries took their toll and in 1625 only one sister remained to pass on the torch, despite all such turbulence, the sisters continue to live the Premonstratensian life. A new community also exists in Holland, where at Mariengaard a group of sisters was established in 1992.
The canonesses at Bonlieu arrived there in the 14th century, by which time it was one of only two houses in France. It had died out by the following century, but revived in 1871 by the celebrated Marie de la Croix. The anti-clerical laws forced the sisters to leave in 1901, finding refuge near the abbey of Grimbergen. The canonesses returned in 1933.
The convents of Veerle and Oosterhout are directly under the jurisdiction of the Order, whereas those in Spain, Poland and Bonlieu in France are under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. In addition there also exist five congregations of Norbertine sisters. St. Gallen – Berg Sion in Switzerland was founded in 1766 and acknowledged by the General Chapter of 1897. These Third Order sisters are dedicated to perpetual adoration. The Norbertine Sisters of Svaty Kopecek in the Czech Republic was founded in 1902 and exists in two communities. The sisters were dispersed by the communists in 1950 but are now thriving. The Norbertine Sisters of Vrbove in Slovakia are the Slovak province of the Svaty Kopecek sisters and have some 95 sisters living and working in 7 communities. The sisters at Rot an der Rot in Germany began their life in 1950, despite a number of relocations the sisters returned to Rot in 1960 where they continue to be active. The Hungarian sisters at Zsambek were established in 1927 but in 1950 the communists dispersed the eleven houses of seventy sisters. In 1990 the 35 surviving sisters returned to Hungary where today there are three houses and twenty sisters.
The Norbertine Association of St. Joseph at Tehachepi in California is the first foundation of future Norbertine canonesses in the Americas. They were founded by and are associated with the abbey of St. Michael’s, Orange. A video of their life is available here.
The Canonesses of the second Order of Prémontré were a habit of the same colour to that of the canons, with the addition of a black veil. They also wear the almutium in choir (see picture below). The habit of other Norbertine sisters differs from community to community, though all wear the white habit, customary to the Order. In what was once Austro-Hungary the sisters wear a blue sash and buttons as do the canons – a special privilege granted by the Imperial Family. Abbesses of the Order carry a crosier and wear the pectoral cross.
Canonesses in habit and almutium
Two canonesses are especially revered. Blessed Gertrude was the daughter of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Promised to God by her parents she was brought to Altenberg at the age of one in 1228. Joined the community there and became abbess. Renowned for her penance and service to the poor, she was a great propagator of the feast of Corpus Christi. Blessed Bronislava was a canoness of Krakow who practised great devotion to the Holy Cross. In a vision she was warned of the advance of the Tartars and was able to lead her sisters to safety. After the convent had been destroyed Bronislava and her sisters lived amongst the victims of the attack and ministered to their spiritual and physical difficulties. She died on August 29 1259.
The Canonesses Regular of Prémontré, and the Sisters of the Third Order have a turbulent, but long and noble history, let us pray that God will continue to increase their number and, please God, one day to return them to these shores. To read more about the lives of the canonesses and sisters please go here.