Blessed Columba Marmion was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 1 April 1858 to an Irish father (William Marmion) and a French mother (Herminie Cordier). Given the name Joseph Aloysius at birth, he entered the Dublin diocesan seminary in 1874 and completed his theological studies at the College of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. He was ordained a priest at Saint Agatha of the Goths on 16 June 1881.
He dreamed of becoming a missionary monk in Australia, but was won over by the liturgical atmosphere of the newly founded Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium, which he visited on his return to Ireland in 1881. His Bishop asked him to wait and appointed him curate in Dundrum, then professor at the major seminary in Clonliffe (1882-86). As the chaplain at a convent of Redemptorist nuns and at a women’s prison, he learned to guide souls, to hear confessions, to counsel and to help the dying.
In 1886 he received his Bishop’s permission to become a monk. He voluntarily renounced a promising ecclesiastical career and was welcomed at Maredsous by Abbot Placidus Wolter. His novitiate, under the iron rule of Dom Benoît D’Hondt and among a group of young novices (when he was almost 30), proved all the more difficult because he had to change habits, culture and language. But saying that he had entered the monastery to learn obedience, he let himself be moulded by monastic discipline, community life and choral prayer until his solemn profession on 10 February 1891.
He received his first “obedience” or mission when he was assigned to the small group of monks sent to found the Abbey of Mont César in Louvain. Although it distressed him, he gave his all to it for the sake of obedience. There he was entrusted with the task of Prior beside Abbot de Kerchove, and served as spiritual director and professor to all the young monks studying philosophy or theology in Louvain.
He become the confessor of Mons. Joseph Mercier, the future Cardinal, and the two formed a lasting friendship.
During this period, Maredsous Abbey was governed by Dom Hildebrand de Hemptinne, its second Abbot, who in 1893 would become, at the request of Leo XIII, the first Primate of the Benedictine Confederation.
His frequent stays in Rome required that he be replaced as Abbot of Maredsous, and it is Dom Columba Marmion who was elected the third Abbot of Maredsous on 28 September 1909, receiving the abbatial blessing on 3 October. He was placed at the head of a community of more than 100 monks, with a humanities college, a trade school and a farm to run. He also had to maintain a well-established reputation for research on the sources of the faith and to continue editing various publications, including the Revue Bénédictine.
His ongoing care of the community did not stop Dom Marmion from preaching retreats or giving regular spiritual direction. He was asked to help the Anglican monks of Caldey when they wished to convert to Catholicism. His greatest ordeal was the First World War. His decision to send the young monks to Ireland so that they could complete their education in peace led to additional work, dangerous trips and many anxieties. It also caused misunderstandings and conflicts between the two generations within this community shaken by the war. German lay brothers, who had been present since the monastery’s foundation by Beuron Abbey, had to be sent home (despite the Benedictine vow of stability) at the outbreak of hostilities. After the war was over, a small group of monks was urgently dispatched to the Monastery of the Dormition in Jerusalem to replace the German monks expelled by the British authorities. Finally, the Belgian monasteries were separated from the Beuron Congregation, and in 1920 the Belgian Congregation of the Annunciation was set up with Maredsous, Mont César and Saint André of Zevenkerken.
His sole comfort during this period was preaching and giving spiritual direction. His secretary, Dom Raymond Thibaut, prepared his spiritual conferences for publication: Christ the Life of the Soul (1917), Christ in His Mysteries (1919) and Christ the Ideal of the Monk (1922). He was already considered an outstanding Abbot (Queen Elisabeth of Belgium consulted with him at length) and a great spiritual author.
– L’Osservatore Romano