Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Capuchins

Article

Mixed. Under Solemn Vows. Founded 1209. Motto: Deus Meus et Omnia.

If we consider the Capuchin Order as a reform of the Franciscan, we must date its foundation from 1209, when the Seraphic Order was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. If, however, we date its foundation from the time it was constituted an independent branch, this happened in 1525, but a Bull of Pope Urban VIII in 1627 explained that the Capuchins were undoubtedly true and genuine Friars of the Order of St Francis, and could trace their descent in an unbroken line from him. It is, in fact, a separate but not a new Order, with separate constitutions, but equally a branch of the great Franciscan Order, as the Observants and Conventuals are separate branches. The Capuchins are thus held to be a distinct branch, because in their Constitutions they adopted a stricter and more austere interpretation of the rule which originated with the humble Patriarch of Assisi, whom they rightly look upon as their original founder.

Its foundation is so interesting that we must briefly sketch it. The originator of the Reform was an Observant, Friar Matthew of Bassi, a zealous member of the monastery of Montefalco in Umbria, well-known as a good preacher; he desired a stricter rule of life than he was living under, and especially he wished to go back to the pointed capuce which he had discovered was the shape originally worn by Saint Francis, and to allow his beard to grow, after the example of the holy founder. At this period the Order of Friars Minor was split up into two great sections – viz., the Observants and the Conventuals.

As the other friars did not share these views, he left his monastery secretly and proceeded to Rome in 1525, and succeeded in getting an audience of Pope Clement VII, who received him kindly and permitted him and those who might join him to adopt the original habit with the pointed capuce attached to it, to wear a beard, to live as hermits in hermitages whence they could go about preaching; but every year he was to present himself at the General Chapter of the Observants, to testify that he belonged to them and was under obedience to them. On his thus presenting himself the following year, the Provincial threw him into prison as an apostate, from which, after four months’ imprisonment, he was liberated through the intercession of the Pope’s niece, the Duchess of Camerino.

He was then joined by many other friars, among them his own brother Louis and Friar Raphael of Fossombrone; but as they roused the enmity of their former brethren by joining Friar Matthew, the Pope Clement VII put them all under the General of the Conventuals, and permitted them, by a Bull dated 1528, to receive new members into their community. The Bull of Paul III in 1535 is the ecclesiastical confirmation of the Capuchins as a separate branch of the Friars Minor.

The Capuchins, by their zeal in mission work, and especially in serving those stricken by the plague, soon won the admiration and reverence of the world and became very popular. Four monasteries were erected in the course of scarcely two years, and in 1529, at the first General Chapter at Alvacina, Friar Matthew was chosen as Vicar-General, and the first draft of the Constitutions was drawn up. The principle upon which they were based was the observance of the rule of Saint Francis of Assisi in all its primitive austerity, with a special renunciation of all Papal dispensations that relaxed the severity of the Rule which had from time to time been granted, and especially was the most extreme poverty the note of the Order. Neither individual members, nor monasteries, nor the Order itself can possess any property. The Capuchins have the use only of all necessary things: they possess nothing; they may collect no provisions; they may only build poor, mean churches and monasteries; their very chalices must be of pewter; they are not only the poorest of all Orders, but they wish to rank humblest of all religious Orders. They are also bound to a most austere life; they rise at midnight for matins, go barefoot, wear rough clothing, and practise the usual bodily mortifications of the strict Orders of the Church.

Though the Order spread so quickly, it received some severe shocks in the beginning of its career; the Observants in 1534 obtained a decree from the Pope forbidding their friars to pass over to the Capuchins, so styled, for the first time, and the numerous complaints brought against it and the apostacy of Friar Bernardine in 1542 almost persuaded the Pope to withdraw his approbation. Friar Matthew resigned his office of Vicar-General at the end of a few months and returned to an eremitical life. His successor, Friar Louis of Fossombrone, was later expelled, and the third Vicar-General, Friar Bernardine of Siena, a former Observant, lost his faith, left the Order, apostatized, and contracted a sacrilegious union with some heretic. After these scandals the Holy See forbad the Capuchins to preach, and the Order was only saved from suppression by Cardinal San Severino, who pleaded that one traitor did not destroy the College of the Apostles. Two years later the Capuchins were again allowed to preach, and from this time the Order flourished peacefully, and soon spread over the whole Catholic world.

They soon had three friaries in Paris. In 1578 the first Spanish convent was opened at Barcelona; in 1594 the first Bavarian convent was opened at Innsbruck, and soon houses were established at Munich and Salzburg. In 1619 Paul V. released them from their dependence on the Conventuals, and raised them into an independent Order with a General Minister at their head. The Order attained its zenith in 1775, when it had 64 provinces and about 31,157 subjects.

In the mission-field the Capuchins were such zealous workers in olden times among the heathen and heretics that they became one of the most popular Orders. During the reign of Charles I twelve Capuchins, under the leadership of Friar Cyprian of Grannaches, came to England as chaplains to Queen Henrietta of France. They laboured in London successfully for thirty-nine years, and brought many heretics to the faith. They were expelled the country during the Commonwealth. Many districts in France, Germany, and Austria, owe the preservation of their faith to the zeal of the Capuchin Friars, and for their co-operation in times of trouble many earthly princes, as well as many Popes, owed them a heavy debt of gratitude. In 1782 they had no less than 523 mission stations; of these 125 were in Europe, 44 in Asia, 26 in Africa, and 228 in America, served by French, Spanish, Italian, and German Capuchins. During the French Revolution they lost many of these stations and many changes took place; a great many of their convents were suppressed. They are now most numerous in Italy, Bavaria, and Switzerland; they have mission districts still in Bulgaria, Turkey, and other parts of Europe; eight in Asia, three in Africa, and four in America. In all these districts they have schools and colleges, churches, orphanages and mission houses.

From its earliest days it has been a learned Order, given to the study of philosophy, theology, foreign languages, and especially the dead languages. The time of study in the novitiate for clerics is the same as in the Society of Jesus and other learned Orders – seven years, of which three years are given to philosophy and four to theology, and no student is admitted to the priesthood who has not spent these seven years in the appointed studies. No Order, it is said, except the Jesuits has numbered so many great men, princes, dukes, and noblemen, in its ranks as the Capuchin. It has given 7 Cardinals to the Church, 11 Capuchins have refused the honour; it has had 2 Patriarchs, ii Archbishops, and about 70 Bishops, besides 22 who declined to accept bishoprics. Higher than princes and cardinals, dukes and bishops, are the six saints and nine blessed of the Order; besides these, the causes of twelve other Capuchins for beatification are still in process.

Capuchin nuns are a branch of the Poor Clares, who have as far as possible adopted the dress of the friars, and who keep the rule of Saint Francis in all it strictness.

The habit of the friars is like the Franciscan, of coarse brown serge, but with the pointed capuce attached to it, and a short brown cloak of the same material reaching below the waist; a piece of rope is used as a girdle; sandals are worn, and all the friars wear a beard.

The novitiate lasts one year, but solemn vows are taken only at the end of four years.

There are six Capuchin monasteries in England: that of Saint Francis, Crawley, founded in 1861; our Lady of Seven Dolours, Peckham, founded in 1852; Saint Francis, Chester, founded in 1864; Saint Fidelis, Erith, founded in 1870; the Immaculate Conception, Olton, near Birmingham, House of Studies, founded in 1889; one in Wales, Saint David’s, Pantasaph, founded in 1852, with the novitiate; and four in Ireland; two at Cork, one at Kilkenny, and one in Dublin.

Until recent years, the Capuchins had friaries at Pontypool, Dulwich, and Nuneaton; these have been given over to the respective Bishops. It has also been the custom for the Capuchins to nurse, so to speak, young missions until they were able to support a priest of their own. Thus, during the last fifty years, the Capuchins have started, or taken care of, missions at the following places: Flint, Mold, Holyhead, Horsham, East Grinstead, West Grinstead, Northfleet, Dartford, Greenhithe, Abersychan, Cwinbran, Risca, Blaenavon, Blackwood, Abertillery, Penllwyn, Ross, Aberdare, Bedworth, Saltney, Rossett, and Holmwood. All these, with the exception of three, are now under the care of the Bishops.

It is further interesting to note that the old Church of Saint Patrick, Soho Square, London, was built by an Irish Capuchin, Friar Arthur O’Leary.

MLA Citation

  • Francesca M Steele. “Capuchins”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 November 2018. Web. 14 April 2021. <>