Douai Abbey is a monastery of monks belonging to the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC), which is the oldest congregation in the confederation of the Benedictine order, being established initially in 1216. The monastery itself, dedicated to St Edmund, King and Martyr (feast day 20 November), was founded in 1615 in Paris by exiled English monks scattered abroad in the wake of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries in England. One of the founding monks was St Alban Roe ( feast day 31 January). Another founding monk was Gabriel Gifford, who later was elevated to be Archbishop of Rheims, the primatial see of France.
In Paris the monastery, the buildings of which still stand on the rue St Jacques, was a home for those English monks studying at the Sorbonne. It was also a centre for other English exiles, especially, after the (in-)Glorious Revolution of 1688, for the Stuart royal family. The exiled King James II, after his death in 1701, was buried in the monastery church, though his remains were desecrated and scattered during the French Revolution. The monastery has always a maintained a strong Jacobite tradition.
As for the French Church in general, the French revolution brought hard times on the monastery and the monks had to leave their home in Paris. Reduced to a mere handful, in 1823 they finally resettled north-west of Paris, in Douai. There they occupied the buildings vacated by the monks of St Gregory’s, now at Downside. The monastery is still known by the name of this town, which had long been a centre for exiled English Catholics. In Douai the monks ran a boys school, mainly for English Catholics and many of whom became either monks or priests. This work was combined with the traditional EBC work after the Reformation, that of sending monks as missioners to England to keep the Faith alive. In the 1840s, a chapel was built designed by A W Pugin. Happily, in 2005, the monastery returned to its home at the invitation of the local parish, and currently one of our monks lives in the Maison St Benoît in the centre of the town of Douai.
I say returned, because more turmoil came upon the monastery at the end of the 19th century, as it did upon all the religious orders in France. The enacting in 1901 of the Law of Associations by the French government, which was aimed at reducing the independence and influence of religious orders, forced the community yet again to leave its home, and reluctantly it returned to England in 1903, settling at Woolhampton in the diocese of Portsmouth, whose bishop made over the small college of St Mary to the community. Here the community settled and has remained. The community reached its zenith in the 1940s and 1950s, numbering close to 100 monks and caring for 30-odd parishes, as well as running its small public school. Economic imperatives forced the closure of the school in 1999, but some monks still serve in parishes in the dioceses of Portsmouth, Clifton, Birmingham and Liverpool.
Having used the parish church as an abbey church, the community decided by the 1920s that a purpose-built abbey church was needed. Construction was halted in the early 1930s due to lack of funds. The abbey church was only completed in 1993, and is a mixture of old and new. The interior is full of light, and austere in decoration, almost Cistercian. The acoustic is superb and the church hosts concerts from time to time. It is well used each day for worship. Mass and all the offices are sung, with Vespers being from the old pre-conciliar books, sung in Latin plainchant.
The community has regained a stronger sense of its monastic identity since the closure of the school. It receives many guests, and holds retreats and hosts courses and seminars for outside groups. In the first decade of this century a programme of building was undertaken after our school was sold off. The community built new refectories and guest rooms, and just two weeks ago a new library building was opened. Its construction completes a fully enclosed cloister. Some of the monks spend time maintaining the gardens and vegetable plots. We also keep a small flock of sheep. Study has remained a part of the life of many monks, as is appropriate for Benedictines, and some also teach in seminaries.
At present the community numbers 28 monks, including two juniors and one novice. Not all the monks are resident, as we serve 7 parishes, and the sprawling parish centred on the monastery. One monk lives in Douai, France, while another monk is acting as administrator at Quarr Abbey. We are also represented in Rome, where our Fr Edmund is abbot of the monastery of the Basilica of St Paul’s-outside-the-Walls in Rome, and Fr Paul teaches liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute based at Collegio Sant’Anselmo.
This potted history is adequate only to giving you a mere feel for the community. There is nothing like visiting us to get a better sense of the monastery. If you want to read more on the history of the community you can read the online version of the history compiled for our centenary back in England in 2003 here.