Committee for the Direction of the AIM
Foundations and Closures of Monasteries
in the Benedictine Confederation
This article was written by the Committee of Direction of the AIM on the basis of a statistical study by Dom Geraldo Gonzalez y Lima, monk of Sao Paolo (Brasil), an active collaborator of the AIM and bursar of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. The balance-sheet of foundations and closures with the Cistercian Order is appended. Such a quantitative record requires a qualitative evaluation. Even though various interpretations are possible, it seemed essential to present here some paths for reflection in order to sum up the present situation and prepare for the future.
How should the phenomenon of foundations in the Benedictine Confederation and in the Cistercian Orders worldwide be evaluated? This phenomenon, initiated in the 1960s on a much larger scale than in the previous decades at the end of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, marks a strong movement of expansion, some five hundred monasteries in fifty years! The AIM lent its support to this leap forward and is a good witness to it. A certain evolution took place also within the Benedictine world during this half-century. However, numerous closures of monasteries across the world must also be taken into account; they alter the physiognomy of our monastic families and their impact at the heart of the continents in which they have been sown.
1. Number of Monasteries
2. Number of Nuns and Sisters
|Year||Solemn Professions||Temporary Professions||Novices||Oblates||Total|
3. Number of Monks
|Year||Solemn Professions||Temporay Professions||Novices||Oblates||Total|
Thus most of the 83 Congregations (masculine and feminine) were reduced in numbers, some by a third. Some (13) gained in numbers, others (6) remained stable.
2. Foundations and Closures Worldwide
1. Monasteries of Women
In the period 2000-2014 there were 116 new foundations, of which 10 occurred between 2010 and 2014. During that period there were 137 closures, of which 13 occurred between 2010 and 2014.
2. Monasteries of Men
In the period 2000-2014 there were 54 new foundations, of which only 3 occurred between 2010 and 2014. During the same period there were 34 closures, of which 11 occurred between 2010 and 2014.
3. Cumulative results for monasteries of Women and Men
During the period 2000-2014 there were 170 new foundations (an average of 12 per year) of which 13, occurred between 2010 and 2014 (average of 2.6 per year). An important drop in the proportion of Benedictine foundations in the last five years should be noted.
As for closures, there were 171 between 2000 and 2014 (average of 12 per year) of which 24 occurred between 2010 and 2014 (average of 5 per year). This shows that the proportion of closures slowed during the last five years, though it is still greater than that of foundations.
Future years will indicate whether this is a real trend or not.
3. Foundations and Closures in Africa
Monasteries of Women: During the period 2000-2014 there occurred 34 foundations, of which 20 were in Tanzania, 3 in Kenya, 3 in Namibia, 2 in Nigeria and one each in Benin, DRC, Ruanda, Uganda, Chad and Zambia. Between 2010 and 2014 there occurred 4 foundations, 3 in Tanzania and 1 in Nigeria, while between 2000 and 2010 there had been 30.
During this same period 2000-2014 there occurred 9 closures of monasteries, 2 in Namibia and in South Africa, one in each of Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Ruanda and Senegal. Most of these closures concerned missionary houses.
Monasteries of Men: During the period 2000-2014 there occurred 15 foundations, of which 1 was between 2010 and 2014 (in Mozambique). Between 2000 and 2014 there were closures of 3 monasteries of men.
Monasteries of Women and Men totals: 49 foundations, of which 5 between 2010 and 2014. During the same period 12 closures of monasteries.
Commentary: The phenomenon of Tanzania deserves separate treatment since it is unique among African countries:
‘Tanzania is the African country where there are most Benedictines. This is due partly to the history of the mission in the region. In 1887 the Holy See entrusted the evangelisation of the south of the country to the Benedictines of St Ottilien. Together with the Benedictine Tutzing Sisters they left a profound mark on the religious history of the place by means of foundations of local Congregations as well as their own foundations. Recently a male Camaldolese community has also been founded. At the present time there are four Abbeys of men, two Priories and several small houses; there are two Priories of Benedictine Tutzing Sisters, one of Camaldolese Sisters and two local Congregations of Benedictine Sisters who on their own count more than a thousand Sisters. The missionary origin of the majority of these establishments shows itself clearly in the activities of these communities. They embrace schools,hospitals and clinics, parishes and retreat centres.
One of the four St Ottilien Abbeys and the two Priories of Tutzing Sisters still have expatriate superiors. Nevertheless, the major part of responsibilities in all the monasteries is now in the hands of Africans. While the houses of the international Congregations (St Ottilien, Tutzing, Camaldoli) are linked to other monasteries by the fact of their institutional foundation, the diocesan Sisters are often quite isolated. In 2008 several of these Congregations in Tanzania, South Africa and Namibia formed a regional association under the name of St Mechtilde in order to create a network of mutual assistance. More recently the Congregation for the Evangelization of peoples put in place a Benedictine structure of ecclesiastical aid for the Tanzanian Congregation of St Agnes in order to revise and strengthen several aspects of the life of this Congregation: constitutions, formation, leadership, economy and relationship to the bishops. If this is a success, it could well become a model for other similar Congregations.
It should be noted that the Benedictines of Tanzania have spread the charism of Benedictine life into neighbouring countries. In 1978 the Abbey of Peramiho made a foundation in Kenya, and from there in Uganda. The Abbey of Hanga set up a flourishing foundation in Zambia in 1987, the Abbey of Ndanda sent a group of monks to the other side of the River Ruvuma in order to open a monastery in the north of Mozambique.’
Nigeria remains very lively and holds an important place in monastic development today. In the context of southern Africa, Zambia and Namibia are unrivalled for richness. The association BECOSA comprises the monasteries of South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, and soon also Mozambique. This issue of the Bulletin contains also presentations of the Congregations or monasteries given on the occasion of the most recent meeting of the superiors of this association.
4. Foundations and Closures in America
Monasteries of Women: between 2000 and 2014 there were 12 new foundations on the American continent, of which 10 were in Latin America: 3 in Brasil, 2 in Mexico, one in each of the following countries: Argentina, Colombia, Equador, Guatemala, Santa Lucia, and two in North America, in the USA. Only one of these occurred between 2000 and 2014. During the same period (2000-2014) there were 32 closures, of which 21 were in the USA, 6 in Brasil, 3 in Mexico, one each in Argentina and Guatemala. Of these closures 3 occurred between 2010 and 2014.
Monasteries of Men: Between 2000 and 2014 there were 8 new foundations, none of them between 2010 and 2014. In the same period there were 15 closures of monasteries, of which 6 occurred between 2010 and 2014 (one in Argentina, 3 in the USA, one in each of Guyana and Uruguay.
Cumulative results for monasteries of women and men on the American continent: 20 foundations (of which 1 between 2010 and 2014), and 47 closures (of which 9 between 2010 and 2014).
Commentary: The number of closures greatly exceeds that of foundations (47/20). The largest number of closures occurred in the USA, which in fact made only two new foundations. Equally, Brazil and Mexico had the same experience. In Canada there was neither foundation nor closure. In certain countries, as Argentina and Guatemala, both a foundation and a closure.
‘Latin America, which has a monastic tradition more ancient than Asia or Africa, seems to have been hit by difficulties of renewal greater than in the past. There were Benedictine houses in Lima and Mexico during the colonial period. There was also an independent Cistercian monastery of women at Lima which lasted until the 1970s. Nevertheless, the first real Benedictine monastic foundation of the Spanish language in Latin America occurred only in 1899. Benedictine life is therefore a very recent phenomenon and, may not as yet be a real part of the national identity in the consciousness of the local Churches, even though some Abbeys have recently won a certain acclaim by their schools. All the same, even these monasteries remain very fragile.
Monastic life is not very widespread on the ground. There are relatively few Benedictine communities and these are mostly small and often very isolated both with regard to neighbouring monasteries and from the centre of gravity of their own Congregational mother-house or foundation-house. In many cases there is only one monastery in the country. Certain monasteries were founded with members drawn from Europe or the United States in order to open a school, while others were called to provide pastoral or social services; still others opened a retreat-house of the local Church or have become a spiritual centre for the region. There are many expressions of the Benedictine vocation, but pluralism is more prominent in the regions of ABECCA (Benedictine Cistercian Association of the Caribbean and the Andes) than in that of SURCO (Conference of Monastic Communities of the Southern Cone). The three Congregations of Mexican Sisters are an example of this.
Vocations to monastic life in the region seem to have stagnated in the course of the last fifteen years. There is a serious decline in the Congregation of the Cono Sur, for example, and houses established in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Trinidad, as well as more recent foundations such as those in Haiti and Peru are in a precarious situation. One cannot claim that all these monasteries are flourishing, either of monks or nuns or sisters. Cistercian houses (OCSO) are doing slightly better for two reasons: they have a clearer idea of their identity and they belong to an Order which is more tightly organized and centralized, offering a more coherent sort of assistance and government. There are just one or two Benedictine exceptions, such as the Abbey of Guatape in Colombia.
A widespread phenomenon is that candidates for monastic life do not make their stability. Certain monasteries seem flourishing, with a great deal of youth and vitality, but this appearance is deceptive. There is a high percentage of members of the community who leave monastic life either before or after first vows, and this instability affects also those who make solemn vows. Initial and ongoing formation are deficient in a certain number of monasteries. There seems to be a serious lack of monks capable of the task of formation; the same is true for administration and for suitable candidates to become superiors. Granted that such problems affect almost all the communities of the region, communities of men seem to be more fragile and less stable than those of women. The more stable vocations generally come from ecclesial movements such as Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenate or charismatic groups. There is also a feature of monastic life which makes it less attractive in the eyes of many young people than other forms of religious life in the Church: a monastery does not offer a young man a ‘career’ with the same prospects as an active Order, including the possibility of providing economic help for the family. Women are less affected by this problem.
Nevertheless, where there is life there is hope. It must be admitted that all the local Churches are living through troubled times. Society is in the process of de-Christianisation and secularisation. In addition there is growth in an extreme form of Protestantism and of para-Christian churches and sects. The Catholic Church is less dominant than it used to be, and Catholic culture is less obvious in society. Nevertheless, there is plenty of life in the Church of Latin America and the Caribbean, a continent of hope.’
5. Foundations and Closures in Asia
Monasteries of Women: Between 2000 and 2014 there were 48 new foundations in Asia, 18 in Korea, 16 in India, 6 in the Philippines, 3 in Sri Lanka and 2 elsewhere, 1 in each of the following: Indonesia, Myanmar, Viet Nam. Only two of these were made between 2010 and 2014. In the same period there were 19 closures, 8 in Korea, 5 in India, 2 in Japan, 1 in each of the following: China, Philippines, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, none of which occurred between 2010 and 2014.
Monasteries of Men: Between 2000 and 2014 there were 11 new foundations in Asia, of which one occurred between 2010 and 2014, in Thailand. In the same period there were no closures.
Cumulatively, for monasteries of women and of men, there were 59 foundations in Asia, of which 3 occurred between 2010 and 2014, and 19 closures, none of which occurred between 2010 and 2014.
Commentary: At the present time Asia is the continent where there are the most foundations, but there occur also a large number of closures. By comparison to Africa, a continent also rich in foundations, Asia has made ten more in the same period, but also ten more closures than Africa. Korea heads the list of founding countries. India is very lively, as is shown by the report given in Bulletin 107 of the AIM on monastic life in present-day India. It is pleasing that monastic life can exist also in Indonesia and recently in Myanmar and Thailand. The monastery in Myanmar was founded by a group of young local people formed in the Indian monastery of Shanti Milayam. The monastery in Thailand was formed by brothers from Thien An in Vietnam.
6. Foundation and Closures in Europe
Monasteries of Women: In the period 2000-2014 there were 21 foundations in Europe, of which 7 were in Italy, 3 in Ukraine, 2 in Belorussia, 2 in France, 2 in the United Kingdom, one in Belgium, Georgia, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands respectively. Among these, 2 occurred between 2010 and 2014.
During the same period there were 52 closures, of which 18 were in Italy, 10 in France, 4 in Germany, 4 in the United Kingdom, 4 in Poland, 3 in Ukraine, 2 in Belgium, 2 in Spain, one in Portugal, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Belorussia and Rumania respectively. Among these, 7 occurred between 2010 and 2014.
Monasteries of Men: In the same period there were 20 foundations of monasteries of men, of which one occurred between 2010 and 2014, in Italy. There were 16 closures, or which 3 occurred between 2010 and 2014.
Cumulatively, for monasteries of women and of men, there were 41 foundations of which only 3 occurred between 2010 and 2014, and 68 closures, of which 18 occurred between 2010 and 2014.
Commentary: So Europe remains active, despite the closures, whose number is higher than any other continent. It is true that the continent of Europe contains more monasteries than any other, so that it is logical that it should be most affected by closures. What is the character of the foundations in Europe? Certainly, some are in Eastern Europe – six exactly. But there are also many in Italy, the country which has the highest number of monasteries. The Congregations founded in that country are: the Benedictine Sisters of Tyburn (Rome), those of Maria Montevergine (Sta Maria di Castellabate), the oblate sisters of St Scholastica (San Michele de Serrastreta), the Camaldolese (Valledacqua), the Sisters of the Federation of the Nuns of Italy (Amelia – Terni founded by Offida), and the sisters without Congregation (St Oyen and Fossano, founded by Isola San Giulia).
‘The relationship between the new foundations and the closures of monasteries in Italy is very complex, for there are many historic monasteries with very small and aged communities which are on the point of closing, and at the same time there are foundations of small monasteries or monastic houses. The fact that the Cassinese Congregation has joined the Congregation of Subiaco is a good example of the complexity: the small monasteries of the Cassinese Congregation have become dependent houses of other Abbeys, for example the monastery of Assisi, which is now dependent on the Abbey of Montevergine, or the monastery of Perugia dependent on Farfa, or the monastery of Cesena, dependent on the Abbey of Pontida.
Some monasteries of nuns, which needed help to maintain the life of their community, have invited sisters from other countries like Nigeria, Congo-Kinshasa (DRC) or the Philippines, but there are also new monasteries of nuns founded by Italian communities. It is also remarkable that many monasteries of nuns in Italy are members of no Congregation or Federation, but remain autonomous and directly linked to the local bishop.
While the Olivetan monastery of Bologna closed, the monastery was re-opened by monks of the Brazilian Congregation. Other monasteries of Italian monks have begun foundations in Africa and Asia and are receiving monks from countries such as Congo-Kinshasa (DRC) or India.
Unfortunately it seems likely that in years to come there will be quite a large number of closures of monasteries of aged and fragile communities, for they have had no vocations for a decade or two. Nor is it reasonable to expect many new foundations in Italy, either for men or for women. But another question must be asked: in such a landscape what is the correct way? To allow aged and sparse communities to join together and live a new reality, or to envisage paths of renewal, possibly a change of location or the abandonment of certain outdated structures? Only time can give an answer to such questions.’
France has seen the foundation of a community of Sisters of Tyburn in the diocese of Langres in the East, and the opening of a priory of Servants of the Poor at Meyzieu in the diocese of Lyons. The message of these is that the movement of foundations in Europe is not extinct; indeed, it is not far below the number of foundations in Africa. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, as everywhere else, it has slowed considerably in the last five years.
7. Foundations and Closures in Oceania
Monasteries of Women: between 2000 and 2014 there was one foundation in New Zealand, and during the same period 25 closures in Australia.
Monasteries of Men: neither foundation nor closure.
8. Recapitulation of foundations and closures worldwide
Monasteries of Women
• A large number of new foundations and closures concern dependent houses linked to a mission and belonging to a Congregation of Benedictine Sisters.
• Certain monasteries have a very small community of sick and aged members.
• Countries where most foundations in the period 2000-2014 occurred: Tanzania (20), Korea (18), India (16), Italy (7), Philippines (6).
• Countries where there have been most closures during this period: Australia (25), USA (21), Italy (18), France (10), Korea (8), Brazil (6), Poland (4).
• Countries where Benedictines have come for the first time: Zambia, Indonesia, Myanmar.
Monasteries of Men
• Since 2000 countries where Benedictines have come for the first time: Bangladesh, Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Lithuania, Namibia, Slovakia, Mozambique, Thailand.
• Countries where there have been most closures of houses or monasteries: USA (5), Italy (5), France (3), Brazil (2), Mexico (2) United Kingdom (2).
• As with monasteries of women, there is a certain number of small communities of aged and sick monks.
• In the long run China could be a new and fruitful territory.
This statistical work of noting the geographical origin and number of vocations, as well as the age-pattern in communities, should be continued.
In a rapidly-evolving world it is normal enough that monasteries should undergo changes. Nevertheless, it is quite surprising to see that a clear change is taking place on every continent in the dynamic of foundations since 2010. It is not easy to evaluate the reasons for this phenomenon. Is it the result of ageing and diminution of working members of communities? This would be true only of the USA and Europe and a small part of Latin America, continents where monastic life has existed for a longer period than in Africa and Asia, and is threatened by ageing. But even in these continents the slowing of foundations is unmistakable.
Does this suggest a climate where commitment has become more difficult and so lessened the vitality of monasteries? Is it the result of the financial crisis which makes it difficult to undertake the long-term and large investment required by a foundation? Or have monks and nuns become less inclined to undertake the human adventure? All these elements – and many others – surely play a part. In any case the making of a foundation requires real determination and courage, as well as a heavy commitment for a number of years. Not all communities are ready for this.
Another factor has been highly significant: the capacity of a founding house to provide a framework both for itself and for the new foundation. The question of leadership in communities becomes increasingly difficult to solve. In recent years there has been a large number of appointments of Prior/Prioress Administrator occasioned by failure to elect Abbot/Abbess. The same difficulty applies to Novice Masters and Mistresses, bursars and several obedientiaries. It is therefore imperative to arrange working sessions on this matter, meetings for formation and exchanges between different categories of those responsible.
The Cistercian Orders
Foundations and Closures within the Cistercian Order (OCist)
Monasteries closed between 2000 and 2014:
Sostrup in Denmark - Abbess Berenninkmejer and all the 40 Sisters have asked for and obtained a dispensation from their vows.
Colen in Belgium and Marienkron in Holland - in each case the remaining three monks have been registered as members of the Generalate.
• New foundations in Vietnam – no details.
• Two monasteries in California, founded from Vietnam:
13th January 2001: Monastery of St Joseph (Dan Vien Xito Than Giuse).
13th March 2001: Monastery of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Chau-Son Sacramento.
• A monastery in Germany at Nothgott, founded from Vietnam: Chau-Son. This is the name of a Cistercian Abbey of Lam Dong in the south of Vietnam. The Vietnamese monks were installed at Rüdesheim in 2013. Since the dissolution of the monastery of Eberbach in 1803, it is the first time there have again been Cistercians in the region. This new monastery should revive the ancient pilgrimage place of Nothgott (‘Mercy of God’) whose origins go back to the 14th century.
Foundations and Closures of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (OCSO)
In 2015 the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance counts 3,000 monks and 1,875 nuns in 172 monasteries.
Between 2000 and 2014 there were 13 new foundations or incorporations into the Order (6 of monks and 7 of nuns), of which two occurred between 2010 and 2014, in the following countries: Nigeria (2), Czech Republic (2), one each in Ruanda, Brazil, Nicaragua, Macao, Denmark, Spain.
There were also closures, especially between 2010 and 2014:
• Belgium: the Abbey of Achel was suppressed at the General Chapter of 2011, and the community established as an annex of Westmalle (at Achel).
• Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Abbey of Maria Zvijezda, founded in 1869, has been under the control of the Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life since 2003. Despite some hopes, it seems that the Order can no longer continue the regular life at Maria Zvijezda. The General Chapter of 2014 decided to look for a Congregation which can better serve the parish.
• Angola: the Priory of Bela Vista, founded in 1958, has had an Apostolic Administrator since 2010, and the community has been dispersed since the General Chapter of 2011. The brothers of Bela Vista must ‘transfer their stability’ that is, renew their vow of stability in other communities in order to continue their monastic life.
Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, Abbot General of the Trappists, made this comment at the General Chapter of 2014 (published in Bulletin 108 of the AIM),
‘Among the 48 older houses of the Order (where most of the fragility is present) are found the mother houses of 83 other houses of monks and 54 houses of nuns. This means that the support that a daughter house might need (in terms of pastoral care, formation, people or economically) may be put at risk.’
 Based on the Catalogus OSB of 2000, 2006, 2014 for the nuns and sisters, 2005, 2010, 2015 for the monks.
 The Polish Congregation did not submit its figures for 2014, and has been left out of account. In 2006 there were 138 members.
 Text edited by Dom Jeremias Schröder, President of the Congregation of St Ottilien.
 A report from Dom Paul Stonham, Abbot of Belmont (England).
 Text by Dom Geraldo Gonzalez y Lima.