Saints for Our Times: St. Gilbert founded only religious order to begin in England
By Mary Lou Gibson
A physical disability can either limit a person’s life choices or point them in a new direction. This is what happened to Gilbert of Sempringham. He was born in about 1083, the son of a Norman named Jocelin. His father received the estate of Sempringham as a reward for his services to William the Conqueror. Gilbert was destined for a knightly career, but the physical disability he suffered from birth prevented him from that path.
Instead, he was sent to study in Paris. He returned with a master of arts and opened a school at Sempringham for girls and boys. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that such a co-educational school was most unusual for the time.
Gilbert received the churches of Sempringham and West Torrington from his father. He was not yet a priest but was appointed vicar for church services. He could have had a comfortable life from the revenues from the two parishes, but he chose to live in poverty. Gilbert made his parishes a model of devout behavior.
He next became a household clerk for Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln. When Bloet died, he was succeeded by Alexander who ordained Gilbert. So now Gilbert was the lord of Sempringham as well as the parson of the parish.
There was a group of seven young women among his parishioners who lived under his direction in a house he had built for them. David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that Gilbert’s rule for these women was based on the Rule of St. Benedict. The community grew and lay sisters and lay brothers were added to help work the land.
Gilbert sought help for how the houses were to be ruled. Burns writes that he went to Citeaux hoping to have the house placed under Cistercian rule. But his request was refused because the Cistercians had taken on other new commitments. Pope Eugenius III persuaded Gilbert to retain responsibility and appointed him first Master General of the Order of Sempringham, generally known as the Gilbertines.
The Gilbertines were the only religious order to have been founded in England. The order was based on a pattern of a double monastery. Editor Dom Basil Watkins explains in “The Book of Saints” that the nuns followed the Benedictine rule and the canons who were the community’s spiritual directors followed the rule of St. Augustine with all sharing a church.
As master general, Gilbert continued his austere way of living, traveling frequently from house to house, mainly in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. According to Farmer, he also worked at copying manuscripts, making furniture and building. Gilbert was master general until he went blind late in life. At the time of his death in 1189, there were 13 houses, and he also founded orphanages and leper hospitals.
In 1164, the order came into conflict with King Henry II over Thomas Becket. Gilbert was accused of helping Thomas Becket escape from England after Thomas had been condemned for opposing the king. Farmer writes that Gilbert made no secret of his support for Becket and when he was summoned to the king, he obtained pardon and immunity for himself and his order.
And years later when Gilbert was nearly 90, he faced problems from within the order. Farmer describes a rebellion of the lay brothers who complained that there was too much work and not enough food. They went to Rome with their complaints, but Gilbert was upheld by Pope Alexander III. Gilbert accepted them back and improved their food and dress.
One of Gilbert’s long standing habits was to place a plate at his side at table. Omer Englebert writes in “Lives of the Saints” that he said it was “the plate of the Lord Jesus” in which he put the best food. This became the custom in his order and that food became the portion of the poor. What was left was for Gilbert himself.
Gilbert was more than 100 years old when he died on Feb. 4, 1189, at Sempringham. He was canonized 13 years later by Pope Innocent III in 1202.
The order doubled in size over nearly 350 years but all the houses were dissolved by Henry VIII and were never revived. Gilbert’s shrine was a place of pilgrimage at the great double monastery with its vast church. Today, only crop marks remain near the surviving parish church at Sempringham.
The school that Gilbert started for boys and girls is the existing primary school at Sempringham and is still named after him: St. Gilbert of Sempringham Church of England School.