Mount St Bernard Abbey

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Mount St Bernard Abbey
Mount St Bernards Abbey.JPG
Mount St Bernard Abbey
Mount St Bernard Abbey is located in Leicestershire
Mount St Bernard Abbey
Location within Leicestershire
Monastery information
Order Cistercian Trappists
Established 1835
Abbot Fr Erik Varden (ad nutum)
Location Near Coalville, Leicestershire, United Kingdom
Coordinates 52°44′29″N 1°19′23″W / 52.741352°N 1.323072°W / 52.741352; -1.323072Coordinates: 52°44′29″N 1°19′23″W / 52.741352°N 1.323072°W / 52.741352; -1.323072
Public access yes

Mount St Bernard Abbey is a Cistercian monastery of the Strict Observance (Trappists) near Coalville in Leicestershire, England, formerly in the parish of Whitwick and now of that in Charley, in Charnwood Forest, founded in 1835. The abbey has the distinction of having been the first permanent monastery to be founded in England since the Reformation.

The Cistercian order dates back to the 12th century and the Trappists to the mid-17th century. Mount St Bernard is the only abbey belonging to this order left in England.


Laborare est Orare (to work is to pray). This 1862 painting by John Rogers Herbert depicts the monks at work in the fields with the abbey in the background

Mount St Bernard Abbey was founded in 1835 on 222 acres (0.90 km2) of land given by Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps De Lisle, who wanted to re-introduce monastic life to the country. He was helped by a loan from Bishop Thomas Walsh, the Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District. At first, the monks lived in a four-roomed cottage but later domestic buildings and a chapel were built. The first monks were Augustine, Luke, Xavier, Cyprian, Placid, Simeon and Fr Odilo Woolfrey. The first monastery was opened in 1837, designed by William Railton. The permanent monastery, as it stands today, was completed in 1844 with donations from John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, and other benefactors. It was designed by Augustus Pugin, who offered his services free. In 1848, it was granted the status of an abbey by Pope Pius IX and its first abbot was appointed, Dom Bernard Palmer. It was united with the Cistercian congregation by a papal brief in 1849.

In 1856 a reformatory school for young Catholic delinquents was founded at Mount Saint Bernard.[1] It closed in 1881 after several episodes of disorder, but re-opened temporarily in 1884-5 to house boys who had burnt and sunk their own reformatory ship moored in the Mersey.[2]

The abbey suffered from financial problems and a lack of monks joining the community through the 19th century. This improved in the 20th century and the church was extended between 1935 and 1939, although it was not consecrated until 1945, by the Bishop of Nottingham. Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi was a monk at the abbey from 1950 until his death in 1964.

The buildings were listed as Grade II in 1989.[3]

Abbots and superiors[edit]

  • Odilo Woolfrey, Superior 1835 - 1839
  • Benedict Johnson, Superior 1839 - 1841
  • Bernard Palmer, Prior 1841 - 1849; Abbot 1849 - 1852
  • Bernard Burder, Superior 1852 - 1853; Abbot 1853 - 1858
  • Bartholemew Anderson, Superior 1859 - 1863; Abbot 1863 - 1890
  • Wilfred Hipwood, Abbot 1890 - 1910
  • Louis Carew, Superior 1910 - 1927
  • Celsus O'Connell, Superior 1927 - 1929; Abbot 1929 - 1933
  • Malachy Brasil, Abbot 1933 - 1959
  • Ambrose Southey, Abbot 1959 - 1974
  • Cyril Bunce, Abbot 1974 - 1980
  • John Moakler, Superior 1980 - 1982; Abbot 1982 - 2001
  • Joseph Delargy, Abbot 2001 - 2013
  • Erik Varden, Superior 2013 - 2015; Abbot 2015 -

The small, founding community of monks was originally led by Father Odilo Woolfrey, who also assumed the duties of parish priest for the neighbouring Catholic churches of Grace Dieu and Whitwick.[4]

In 1848, the monastery became an abbey and Dom Bernard Palmer was elected as its first abbot, thus becoming the first post-reformation abbot in England.[4] Until his death in 1852, he was the only mitred abbot in England.[5]

On the death of Abbot Palmer, the subprior, Father Bernard Burder, was appointed provisional superior and was elected as second abbot in 1853.[5] The tenure of Dom Bernard Burder, a convert Anglican clergyman, proved to be somewhat unsettled. Abbot Burder had considered that the rigorous Trappist life was too hard for Englishmen and had made plans for separating the monastery from the Trappist General Chapter and affiliating it to the Benedictines. In addition, many of the monastic community had become profoundly disturbed by the way in which a nearby boys' reformatory, begun by the abbot in 1856, had begun to affect the life of the monastery. The outcome was inevitable and the abbot resigned his office in 1858, following an enquiry by papal commission.[5]

In 1859, Father Bartholemew Anderson was appointed superior, being elected abbot in 1863, and was to lead the community for thirty years. Three of his brothers were also monks of Mount Saint Bernard.[5] Abbot Anderson oversaw a number of additions made to the monastery buildings, including the Clock Tower and the octagonal Chapter House. He also had a particular interest in ecumenicalism and was involved with the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom. The extension of such courtesy to non-Catholics was unusual at that time and among the guests welcomed by the abbot was the prime minister, William Gladstone, who paid a special visit in 1873.[5]

In 1890, Dom Wilfred Hipwood became abbot. Described as a gentle and scholarly man, his twenty years as abbot were marred by almost constant ill-health and a decline in numbers; by the time of his death in 1910, the community numbered fewer than thirty monks.[5]

In 1910, Father Louis Carew, a former definitor of the order, was sent to Mount Saint Bernard as provisional superior, though numbers continued to remain low during his period of governance. Father Louis died in 1927, whilst on holiday in Ireland.[5]

Father Louis was succeeded as superior of Mount Saint Bernard by the prior of Mount Melleray Abbey, Father Celsus O'Connell. The community began to grow almost immediately and by 1929 it was again possible to hold an abbatial election at the monastery. Dom Celsus was elected as the new abbot, but after only four years, he moved back to Mount Melleray, when he was elected abbot of that house.[5]

Fortunately, the monastery's revival continued under his successor, Dom Malachy Brasil - the third Irishman to rule the abbey, who took charge in 1933, elected as abbot by the monks of Mount Saint Bernard on the basis of his excellent reputation, gained as prior of Roscrea. The community continued to grow in numbers after the Second World War and was joined by the first Nigerians to become Cistercian monks.[5]

Dom Malachy resigned in 1959, having celebrated his silver jubilee as abbot and during a period which saw the completion of the abbey church, just over a hundred years after the foundation of the monastery.

The new abbot, Father Ambrose Southey, was the first Englishman to govern the abbey for more than half a century. During the period of his office, the community made a foundation in the West Cameroons - the monastery of Our Lady of Bamenda, founded in 1963 - now an independent community composed mainly of African monks. Dom Ambrose was already abbot vicar of the order when, in 1974 he was elected abbot general, the highest office in the order.[5] Dom Ambose stepped down as Abbot-General in 1990 and later became superior of Bamenda Abbey (Cameroon) which he served from 1993 until 1996, and superior of Scourmont Abbey (Belgium), from 1996 until 1998. Dom Ambrose later accepted the ministry of chaplain for the community of Vitorchiano and remained there until he returned definitively to his "community of stability", Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, where he died on 24 August 2013, aged ninety years.[6]

In 1974, the monastery elected their prior, Father Cyril Bunce as abbot, and who was succeeded by John Moakler in 1980, in turn succeeded by Dom Joseph Delargy in 2001.

Dom Joseph Delargy retired as abbot in June 2013, after completing two six-year terms. The abbatial election was inconclusive, and Norwegian-born Father Erik Varden was appointed Superior ad nutum (i.e. with the agreement of the community).[7] Varden will serve as Superior until the community holds a new election, which is expected to be in or around December 2014. Varden does not receive the title or spiritual responsibilities of an abbot, and his task is essentially to manage the temporalities of the abbey until the community elects a successor to Delargy.

Present day[edit]

The monks get up at 3:15 am every day and go to bed at 8:00 pm. The three focuses of monastic life at Mount St Bernard Abbey are prayer, work and reading with study. They take part in daily liturgical prayer, known as Opus Dei or Canonical Hours. They meditatively read the Bible, which is called Lectio Divina. Silence and solitude are very important to the order and the abbey. Their work includes running their 200-acre (0.81 km2) dairy farm, pottery, bookbinding, beekeeping and tending the vegetable garden and orchard. They also run a gift shop where they sell the items that they make in the abbey. The abbey has a guesthouse for friends and family of the monks, retreatants and those who are interested in the monastic life.

Life at the Abbey was briefly shown in Richard Dawkins' 2012 television programme Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life.[8]

Mount St Bernard Abbey maintains an ecumenical link with the Anglican Cistercians, a dispersed and uncloistered order of single, celibate, and married men that is officially recognized within the Church of England.[9]


External links[edit]