Farnborough Abbey

Last week we were kindly invited to attend the first profession of Br. Michael at the Benedictine Abbey of Farnborough in Hampshire. Farnborough is well known in England as the last resting place of the Emperor Napoleon III and his family, as well as for its liturgical life. Interestingly the monastery was first established for the use of our own Order and it was home to canons from the abbey of Frigolet who had been expelled from France during the anti-clerical persecutions of the late 19th century.

“Among the work offered to the Norbertine Canons during the first hundred years of their return to England was the guardianship of the Napoleonic Mausoleum of Farnborough. In 1881 the Empress Eugenie bought the Coombe Hill and Farm property where she built a monastery and a church. In 1889 the church was completed and the Empress began to look for priests who would serve the church in which the Emperor Napoleon III and the Prince Imperial were to be buried. The Napoleon family were no strangers to Norbertines’ work in England. While Fr. Louis de Gonzague Darras was founding Storrington he had contacted the Empress Eugenie and had kept her informed of the progress of his new priory. The Empress met Fr. Ambrose, the first Prior of Farnborough (and former Procurator at Rome), in Naples. She chose Fr. Ambrose personally as Prior, and made the arrangements with the Superior General of the Order, Fr. Paulin. Ambrose was to be accompanied by a small community picked from the religious of the different Houses which depended on Frigolet. Farnborough would be totally independent of Storrington and this factor was later to cause disagreement between the Order and the Empress, who, in 1895, invited the Benedictines to replace the Norbertines.

On January 9th 1888, the remains of the Emperor Napoleon III and the Prince Imperial were solemnly transferred from the chapel at Chislehurst to the care of the Premonstratensians at Farnborough. A few weeks later, the Fathers received Queen Victoria, Princess Beatrice and the Prince of Battenberg who had come to pay homage to the Imperial family. Both the Queen and the Prince expressed interest in the Norbertine Order. On June 5th King Oscar II of Sweden came to the Priory and told Fr. Ambrose that he was happy to bend the knee to the late Emperor in the presence of the Premonstratensians. A constant procession of the nobility of Europe made their way to Farnborough, while the bishop of Portsmouth gave the community charge of the parish of Farnborough as well as Aldershot North military camp.

By 1889 the community at Farnborough numbered 12 religious. In December 1889, Superior General Paulin installed Fr. Evermode as successor to Fr. Ambrose, who sang the Christmas Mass of 1889 in the presence of the Empress and her Household. In 1890 Fr. Joseph Ibos took over from Fr. Evermode and was the last superior of our Order to reside at Farnborough. When the Empress and the canons disagreed over how the monastery and church should be organised, the community split up and went its various ways. Fr. Edward Latte came to Storrington, Frs. Charles Sevieres and Joseph Ibos returned to the Norbertine Priory at Conques, in France; Bro. Cuthbert Johnstone also came to Storrington, Br. Wilfrid Rodgers was ordained by the bishop of Hexham and Newcastle and served the mission at Ambleside.

Why did we lose Farnborough? Had there been more contact between the foundations of Farnborough and Storrington, the story might have had a different ending. Had the Empress’ character been more flexible, the difficulties might have been smoothed over. Nor did it help matters that Superior General Paulin has the bad taste to appoint Fr. Joseph Ibos as superior to Farnborough, especially when Ibos was a staunch supporter of the Third Republic!” – from ‘White Canons: 100 years of renewed service in the Church in England’ 

Norbertines at Farnborough

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