BY HELEN HARWOOD
THE GILBERTINE Order — England’s only native monastic order — is being renewed in Sao Paolo, Brazil some 500 years after its dissolution at the Reformation.
St Gilbert of Sempringham was born in 1083 in that same village some nine miles north of Bourne in Lincolnshire.
At the time of Gilbert’s death the order had 13 houses mainly in the east of England constituting 700 men and 1,500 sisters.
The charism of the saint is kept alive by the Oblates of St Gilbert, a devotional society of lay people who came together in 1984 under the guidance of Fr Hilary Costello of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey, Leicestershire.
Brazilian priest Fr Carlos Aparecido Marchesani, who also shares an interest in St Gilbert, came to England in September 1999 to spend a week with the Gilbertines and visited both Sempringham and Walsingham.
Fr Carlos later persuaded the diocesan Bishop of Sao Paolo to grant his approval in setting up a Gilbertine house “ad experimentum”.
In September 2003 around a thousand people gathered for a solemn Mass presided over by the bishop, during which the four new Gilbertines, including Fr Carlos, received their habits.
On February 2 this year, 70 lay people began their postulancy and another 46 entered the aspirancy.
This was followed on February 4 — Saint Gilbert’s day by three novices making their first religious vows and a further six young men entering their postulancy.
Fr Carlos is holding talks with the Benedictine Abbot of Sao Paolo about the possibility of using their monastery in Jundiai as a Gilbertine house.
The story of St Gilbert has been recorded at some length by hagiographers. As a boy he was something of a disappointment to his father Jocelin de Sempringham, a Norman knight, because he was born with a physical deformity possibly he was a hunchback — and so was unfit for the calling of knightly arms.
Gilbert either fled or was sent to France to be educated as a clerk in holy orders and on his return became respected for his goodness and learning. He opened a school for the boys and also, more unusually, for the girls of the neighbourhood.
In 1112 Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln, sent for Gilbert to be clerk in his household. It was to be another nine years before Gilbert finally returned to Sempringham as parish priest and heir to his deceased father’s large estate. With his inheritance, he planned to start a religious order based around the parish church, but after a fruitless search for men Gilbert turned to “seven maidens” whom he had previously taught at his school. This was the beginning of the Gilbertine movement.
Gilbert died at Sempringham on 4 February 1189 in his 106th year and was buried in the medial wall of the priory. In this way, the women were able to attend the grave on one side and the men on the other.