St. Benedict, who lived from about 480 to 547, founded a monastery at Monte Cassino in central Italy around 525 for which he wrote a rule that successfully summed up the monastic tradition that had grown up in the Church of both East and West since the fourth century. We know little of his life and of the early use of his rule, but in the seventh century it gradually began to be adopted by monasteries north of the Alps and in England, and in the eighth century was promoted on the continent by Anglo-Saxon missionaries. Then it was adopted by the Carolingian rulers as the official code of the monasteries in their empire and thus eventually came to displace almost all other monastic observances in Europe. It was so influential that the central Middle Ages are often called the “Benedictine centuries.”
This Benedictine way of life, which in the course of history had undergone many variations, first came to North America in 1846, when Father Boniface Wimmer, a Bavarian monk from the abbey of Metten, obtained his abbot’s reluctant consent to attempt an American foundation. With the help of a number of candidates, he succeeded in establishing in western Pennsylvania the first monastery in North America, which became St. Vincent Archabbey. At that time, when Catholic immigrants from Germany were flooding into America, he wished to help them preserve and practice their faith by providing them with priests, parishes and schools. Hence the type of monastic life that he established was characterized by large institutions and by active ministry of the monks both at the monastery and in parishes.
By the time of his death in 1887, Wimmer’s enterprise had grown into a congregation of six autonomous monasteries and numerous dependencies spread throughout the country, including St. Joseph’s Priory in Chicago. The monks stationed there eventually persuaded their confreres in Pennsylvania to establish another monastery and school in Illinois. Invited by John Lancaster Spalding, the first bishop of Peoria, to settle in his diocese, they purchased a property between Peru and Spring Valley that had previously been owned by Daniel Webster. Six monks were sent from St. Vincent, and the new institution opened in 1891.
In the early years when St. Bede remained a dependent house, various monks from St. Vincent came and went as they were assigned to live and work here. In 1910, however, twelve of them who wished to remain here permanently received authorization to elect their own abbot, and St. Bede became an independent abbey. The community grew and prospered during the following decades, though the number of its monks has again decreased since the 1960's. There are currently thirty-two monks.
What we know about St. Bede is based chiefly upon his own writings, especially the brief biographical note that he appended to his best-known work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
A descendant of the Anglo-Saxon invaders of England, he was born in 673 in the kingdom of Northumbria in the north of England. At the age of seven, his parents gave him to the monastery of Wearmouth, which had been founded nearby in 674 by St. Benedict Biscop and his associate Coelfrid, and he spent the rest of his life there and in the adjacent twin monastery of Jarrow that was added in 682. Although he seems never to have traveled elsewhere, except perhaps for some short trips within Northumbria, he became the greatest scholar of his age. He was ordained a deacon at the age of 19 and a priest at 30.
Christianity was making headway in England in the seventh century because of the work of two groups of missionary monks: the Irish, whose chief centers were Iona and Lindisfarne, and the Roman mission that had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 596 and radiated outward from Canterbury. Benedict Biscop was a partisan of the Roman observance, which eventually prevailed in England, and he made several trips to Rome to bring back books, works of art, and teachers who could instruct his monks in Roman liturgical and monastic observances, including the Benedictine rule. Thus Bede received all of his education in the monastery and became a teacher to the other monks and, through his writings, to the later Middle Ages. He was the brightest star in the firmament of the Northumbrian golden age.
Today Bede is known chiefly as an historian and biographer for his book on the lives of the abbots of his own monasteries, for two lives of St. Cuthbert, one in prose and one in verse, and especially for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, our principal source for the early history of England. He gathered information carefully from reliable sources, disclosed his authorities to his readers, and made a responsible effort to separate genuine facts from mere legend and hearsay. He was the first writer who consistently dated events from the year of our Lord’s incarnation.
His reputation in the Middle Ages, however, was based principally upon his work as a biblical commentator and homilist. His expositions closely followed the exegesis of the great Latin Fathers, with whose works he was very familiar, but he also added his own observations. He wrote commentaries on the gospels of Mark and Luke, on the Acts of the Apostles, Revelation, and the Catholic epistles. In the Old Testament he expounded Samuel and Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah, Tobit, Proverbs, and the Canticle, and parts of Genesis and Exodus.
Bede was also interested in literary and scientific questions. He wrote books on orthography and versification and on the calculation of time, which was important for determining the date of Easter. He was the author of a martyrology and a cosmography, as well as of some poetry and letters. All of these works were composed in Latin, but he was also at home in his native language, and on his deathbed he completed a translation of the Gospel according to John into Anglo-Saxon.
Bede died peacefully in his monastery in 735, leaving a legacy of learning and holiness that was much appreciated by his contemporaries and successors. But within a few decades the Danish invasions began, and his beloved monasteries were sacked and destroyed. His body was later moved for safekeeping and is now enshrined in a tomb in the cathedral of Durham. His feast is celebrated on May 25. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII declared him a doctor of the Church.