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History of Brothers FIC

RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY (History of Brothers FIC)

Character of the age

In the extreme south of the Netherlands, on the river Maas (Meuse), lies the town of Maastricht. It is a very old town. A short time after the birth of Christ the Romans built a bridge across the river. In the fourth or fifth century a bishop named St Servatius lived there. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the town got two big churches, one in honour of Mary, the other in honour of St Servatius. Maastricht was a fortress town too. After 1200 a defensive wall had been built round it. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries more and more defences were added, which made Maastricht one of the strongest fortresses in Europe. Several times an enemy advanced to conquer the fortress. The last time this happened was in 1794. Then the French revolutionaries conquered the (bastion of the Low Countries) after bombarding it for a month.

Within its walls Maastricht retained the character of a medieval town, much of which is still visible. There were some large squares, the (Markt) with the town hall and the (Vrijthof) with the churches of St Servatius and St John. Since the Middle Ages most of the some fifteen thousand inhabitants, however, lived close together in narrow streets. They made their living by practising a trade or keeping a shop. There were as yet no factories. For centuries the town had a large garrison, which had to defend the fortress. Besides, there were fourteen monasteries for men or women. The four principal ones were those of the Jesuit Fathers, the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Augustinians. The ordinary faithful could go to church in the four parish churches and in various local chapels. In 1800 nothing of the chapels and monasteries remained; after 1794 the French revolutionaries had suppressed them all. The religious had been turned into the streets, the buildings were used for other purposes or had been closed. Only the parish churches continued to exist. The influence of the clergy diminished greatly.

Since the Middle Ages the level of prosperity had moved up and down, like everywhere in Europe. Times of prosperity alternated with times of poverty, of diseases, even hunger. In the eighteenth century, however, prosperity slowly began to increase. But this did not happen soon enough to provide a decent living for the population which, in the same century, was growing rapidly all over Western Europe. In Maastricht too the number of poor and destitute people was going up. Their educational level was low; most were illiterate. After the French Revolution and the reign of the Emperor Napoleon (1794-1814) it only grew worse. The - inadequate - help which used to be given to the needy by various ecclesiastical institutes had disappeared. The municipal authorities had taken over the poor relief, but this help too was insufficient.

There had always been poor people. But since the eighteenth century their number had been growing so rapidly, that nobody knew what to do about this. After 1750 the European world had an added problem to cope with: pauperism. The rapidly increasing industrialisation was making things even worse. The labour supply was so abundant that the factory owners could employ people for a mere pittance. When in the second half of the nineteenth century the labourers no longer put up with this, a second problem arose: the social question: how to provide a decent existence for the vast number of labourers.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries numerous people and institutes joined battle with those two great European evils, pauperism and the sorry state of the labourer. The Christian Churches too made a great effort to make life for the poor, the sick and the infirm more bearable. The eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, saw the birth of the idea that the spread of knowledge would directly contribute to the betterment of society. More and better education seemed the powerful lever to raise the poor and the labourers from their miserable state. Therefore social-minded  people of all kinds of denomination and political shade got ready to expand and to improve education. Their action reached its climax during the nineteenth century.

In the Netherlands the campaign for more and better education focused on three main points: freedom of education, financing of all education by the State, and general compulsory education. Freedom of education was achieved in 1848: any private person who met certain requirements set out by the State, was allowed to teach. However, the Dutch State paid only the expenses of its own state or public schools. Once freedom of education had been achieved, the discussion turned to the refunding of the expenses of the private or denominational schools by the State. But the State was a-denominational: it did not hold itself obliged to pay for the education based on any religious conviction whatsoever. It was at this juncture that the struggle started to oblige the secular State to cover also the cost of teachers and schools of some denomination, in point of fact the orthodox Protestants and the Catholics. For did not they also pay taxes, like any other citizen? Towards the end of the nineteenth century the solution was in sight; it was brought to its completion in 1917. In future public and private schools and their teachers would - as a matter of principle - receive equal payment from the treasury. It was also possible then to introduce general, compulsory education for children between the age of six and twelve.

The Congregation of the Maastricht Brothers was a child of its time, the nineteenth century. Its basic idea arose from the eighteenth-century belief in progress, which took for granted that the world was manageable and could therefore be improved. In this undertaking more and better education was to play a central role. Naturally, the Congregation could not agree with the a-religious element in the enlightened way of thinking of the eighteenth century. On the contrary, being an ultramontane, pope-centred, organisation, it stressed that a close tie with the pope and the Catholic Church would bring about the salvation of the sick society. In this spirit the Congregation has always tried to make its modest contribution to the advancement of Dutch society by teaching, and - when this was no longer very necessary - to the betterment of society elsewhere in the world.

The Founder Rutten

In the year 1809, on the eighth of December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, in the family of Nicholas Rutten, brewer at Maastricht (d. 1842), a son was born. At his baptism he was christened Ludovicus Hubertus; in Maastricht he was called - in the French way - Louis Hubert (1809-1891). His mother died as early as 1816, whereupon his grandmother took upon herself the upbringing of the children. Louis was the sixth of eight children, three boys and five girls, five of whom were to reach adulthood. Louis' father was a well-to-do man. So he could afford a good school for Louis. The boy has never become much of a scholar, however. The documents and letters from his hand that have been preserved do not give the impression of having been composed by a scholarly man. Louis did not work hard at school. He preferred to roam around in the fields and woods outside Maastricht. At the age of sixteen, having finished secondary education at the municipal Atheneum, he started working at a lawyer's office. His work consisted in copying letters and other documents. In the meantime, so his father thought, he would pick up bits of information which, in the future, would be useful in business. Louis did not like it very much. Why on earth should he work? Didn't his father have heaps of money? Two years later he returned to his long hikes outside the town.

Louis Rutten was eighteen now. Gradually it began to dawn on him that he could not spend his entire life just walking about. This made him think of going to do something for his fellowmen. What about becoming a priest? What exactly moved Louis to opt for the priesthood, remains obscure. As far as we know, he never expressed himself about this. But becoming a priest meant two things which he hated: taking up studying again and especially: going away from home, leaving his father, whom he loved dearly.

In 1830 Louis cut the knot. Through private lessons he started to brush up the knowledge he had gained at school. When after some months Louis had progressed so far that he could leave for the seminary, a revolt broke out in Belgium in August 1830. Belgium, which in 1815 had been joined to the Netherlands, separated from the North. In the South only the fortress town of Maastricht remained in Dutch hands, completely surrounded now by rebellious Belgian territory. Louis wanted to complete his training at the minor seminary of Kloosterrade, where an old abbey served as accommodation. After 1830 Kloosterrade, in French called Rolduc, was Belgian territory, a consequence of the state of war. It was not until 1831 that the people of Maastricht could leave the fortress again and travel through rebellious territory, though the state of war was to last until 1839. And thus at long last Louis could start his studies for the priesthood.

He did not find it easy going, accustomed as he was to the life of a son of wealthy parents. The seminary was a dilapidated building, where the students lived three in an unheated room. The food was pretty much the same as the accommodation: bad. Louis set about his studies the wrong way. He had to start with a two years' course in philosophy, but he thought he could do this in just one year. This went wrong. His conduct as a seminarian was irreproachable. His excessive devotion to studies, however, made him fall ill. During the rest of his years at the seminary he was to be slightly overstrained.

In 1833 Louis went to the major seminary of the cathedral town of Luik (Liège), 25 kilometers south of Maastricht. That town was Belgian. Maastricht people who studied there, did not get permission from the Dutch governor of the fortress Maastricht to enter their native town. For Louis this thought was unbearable: not to come back to his beloved Maastricht, so nearby! So he had no choice but to move to a seminary situated in the Netherlands. He completed his studies at Herlaer Castle near the town of 's-Hertogenbosch, in the Dutch province of Brabant. On Saturday, March 25, 1837, the feast of the Annunciation of our Lady, he was ordained. Ten days later, on April 4, Louis Rutten celebrated his first Mass in the Maastricht church of St Matthias, the church where he had been baptised.

Religious instruction

During the last few years at the seminary Louis had been reflecting on what he was going to do, once he had been ordained. His health was too weak for him to work as a parish priest. On the other hand he was rich, and what was the best thing for him to do as a rich priest without parish work? His idea was: to instruct young people in Maastricht in religious doctrine. In the words of that time: he was going to teach Maastricht boys and girls the catechism. In those days most children did not go to school at all or only for a short time. They could hardly read or write and had little skill in arithmetic. Nor were they well-informed about their Catholic faith and their Catholic Church, into which, with a single exception, they had all been baptised. Several seminary professors encouraged Rutten to start this work. It was the obvious thing to do. In that time more and better education was the cry all over Western Europe. Any improvement of society should start with good education of the youth. In this way children were going to be good citizens and would not be reduced to poverty. And for a Catholic and a priest it should be added: education was also a great means to train good Catholics: content with their lot on earth, because they were taught to live in the expectation of what comes in afterlife.

Louis' father was not very enthusiastic about his son's educational plans. A son of the family Rutten, wealthy brewers, was far too dignified to get involved with the children of the poor, was not he? Why did not he become a parish priest? This was - in the opinion of his father - more in accordance with his class and ancestry. But Louis managed to convince him, and in later life his father gave him excellent financial help to carry out his plans for the youth of Maastricht.

In the autumn of 1837 the young Rutten started his tiny school. He was now a priest whose only task it was, as agreed by the town dean, Rev. Van den Baer - from the Dutch province of Brabant - to teach the catechism. In the big church of St Servatius the dean had made available a church porch which Louis could use as a schoolroom. However, there was such a run on his school that this porch soon proved to be too small. In October Louis got more space for his two hundred children in a room close to the church, the classroom of the former chapter school. He received help from a retired army sergeant to control the turbulent youth. Very soon it became clear that teaching the youth religious doctrine was not that simple. Rutten found that his lessons effected hardly anything because the children did not know anything at all. For young men between 20 and 25 Rutten started evening classes. At two hundred Belgian francs a year he managed to get hold of a qualified teacher who was willing to give lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic in the evening, while Rutten, of course, gave religious instruction. The night school was cheap, only three cents a week, and the pupils came flocking in. Soon there were as many as 120.

For the very young Rutten opened a kindergarten. Though between 1806 and 1857 Dutch law contained a regulation concerning the foundation of kindergartens, this was hardly enforced. So Rutten could start such a school for the very young without let or hindrance, as happened in so many places in Belgium and the Netherlands at the time. For the youngest children Rutten found a place at the back of the house named In de Rooden Leeuw (In the Red Lion), an old brewery of the Rutten family in Bogaardenstraat. A father together with his two daughters took upon themselves the care of the one hundred and eighty toddlers. They kept them occupied with singing, praying, physical exercises and playing. The school was free, and here too there was a massive influx.

Foundation of the Brothers of the Immaculate Conception

Not everybody spoke highly of the plans and activities of the young priest. In 1821 the town council had set up a charity school for all denominations, in the former monastery church of the Augustinian Friars;  this had become a flourishing undertaking. The Protestant school inspector did not quite like the distinctly Catholic competition by Rutten. Moreover, Louis did not have an official permit to set up schools. The dean, on his part, did not find Rutten submissive enough. He wanted to get this stubborn curate out of the way, by promoting him from the high-class St Servatius's church to the common St Matthias's church, which was situated in a working-class area. But Louis did not yield: a transfer of this kind would mean the ruin of his schools to the advantage of the official town school. In those days all government education was non- denominational and a-religious; he did not want this. He was a priest of a new generation, the generation after the French Revolution, who detested any neutrality in religious matters. It was this generation of priests that set the tone for the way the Catholic faith would be lived in the nineteenth century and thereafter. This spirituality was to mark the life of the Maastricht Brothers too up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In the very same year 1837 that Louis Rutten launched his various schools, a congregation of sisters had been founded in Maastricht. This may have inspired Louis with the idea of starting something similar for men. Up to the French era there had been quite a number of monasteries in Maastricht, but these had disappeared forty years ago then. In Belgium a few were left, some of which dedicated to education. A congregation, an ecclesiastical association, with the aim of teaching in schools, might assure continuity of the work he had started in Maastricht. Initially Louis thought of a congregation of sisters, but this came to nothing. An additional problem was that in the Netherlands, and so in Maastricht too, the Government prohibited the founding of congregations. In Belgium and France things were different. There new congregations with a charitable aim shot up like mushrooms. Between 1830 and 1846, in neighbouring Belgium the number of female religious shot up from approximately 3,000 to 8,368, while the number of male religious rose from some 260 to 2,051. This too may have prompted Louis to start a congregation in Maastricht.

Rutten had numerous conversations with his ecclesiastical superiors about his idea of founding a congregation, but this was not very productive. In the autumn of 1839 he made a retreat, a silent week of prayer and reflection, in 's-Hertogenbosch. In the quietude of this week he wrote down what moved him.  He named this document: Project of an association to be made up of unmarried people who for the time being will not bear a name but in the course of time will be called Brothers of Charity - Poor Brothers or suchlike designation. Even the long, clumsy title of the document is a clear indication that Rutten's ideas were far from matured. One thing, though, was absolutely clear: teaching was to be the main aim of his congregation, teaching of all social classes, the rich as well as the poor. What was also clear: an association of members with vows was the best guarantee that teaching would continue into the distant future.

His ideas had now been put in writing, be it very succinctly and a bit muddled. The actual implementation did not exactly go like clockwork. Rutten not only needed candidates in order to be able to start a congregation, these candidates should also have the opportunity to learn somewhere how to give shape to life in a religious congregation. The latter was achieved first. After some hesitation the authorities of the Brothers of Ghent in Belgium gave Rutten permission to house his first candidates in the monastery of the Ghent Brothers in the Belgian town of Sint- Truiden. The story of the first candidate came to a sad end. In September 1839 he travelled from 's-Hertogenbosch to Sint-Truiden, but died already in the following December. The second candidate fared better; he was from Tilburg: the 29-year-old son of a wood turner and shopkeeper, Jacques Hoecken (1810-1880). At Sint Truiden, he started, at the end of February 1840, at his own expense, the preparation for religious life prescribed by canon law: six months of postulancy followed by one year novitiate, which he entered on 10 August. He received the monastic habit and was given a religious name, Brother Bernard. He had a fellow aspirant, Charles van Weert from 's-Hertogenbosch, who, when he took the habit, received the name of Aloysius. All in all, the training for the religious life of the first two brothers of Maastricht had not lasted much longer than six months. They hardly made a start of the novitiate year proper, for, at the beginning of November, Rutten called Hoecken to Maastricht and Van Weert two months later, in January 1841.

So far his ecclesiastical superiors in 's-Hertogenbosch had been kindly disposed towards Rutten. They had not stood in his way and indeed often helped him. This was going to change now. During the revolt in Belgium (1830-1839) the town of Maastricht, which had remained Dutch, had been separated from the Belgian diocese of Liège to be temporarily joined to the Dutch vicariate of 's-Hertogenbosch, which subsequently was to become the diocese of Den Bosch. In 1841 Maastricht was going to be placed under another ecclesiastical administration. The new province of Dutch Limburg, with its capital Maastricht, would be separated from the diocese of Liège to receive a new administration. Rutten had to wait and see what this administration would think of founding a congregation. Instead of waiting he decided to get ahead of a possibly unfavourable change. So he ordered Hoecken to leave Sint-Truiden in hot haste and come to Maastricht. The fledgling religious was accommodated in the house “In de Rooden Leeuw”, in Bogaardenstraat. There, on 21 November 1840, the feast of the Presentation of our Lady, Rutten celebrated Holy Mass, after the dean of Maastricht had blessed the oratory. The Congregation of the Brothers of the Immaculate Conception had started out. Hoecken underlined this when, on 8 December - the feast of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady - he decided to start wearing the monastic dress. His habit was similar to that of the Brothers of Ghent; later some alterations were made.

The very first monastic community counted three men: Hoecken and the two leaders of the new kindergarten, the second one, in the Maastricht parish of our Lady. After some time they were joined by a cook. As mentioned above, in January 1841 Rutten recalled Charles van Weert from Sint-Truiden; a month later, however, Charles left and returned home.

A serious problem was how to find a way to transform this group of men into a genuine monastic community. Rutten was a devout priest, but he did not know how to set up the life of a religious community. At Sint-Truiden Hoecken, now Brother Bernard, had got no more than a whiff of it.  Guided by the Rule of the Brothers of Ghent, brought from Sint-Truiden, he bravely started putting together a Rule specifically for the Brothers of the Immaculate Conception. On 25 November 1841 Brother Bernard obtained the first canonical approval of the regulations of the fledgling Congregation, granted by monseigneur Paredis, apostolic administrator (acting bishop) of Dutch Limburg. It was on this Rule that on 2 February 1842, the feast of Candlemas, the Purification of our Lady, Brother Bernard and one of the leaders of the kindergarten took their temporary vows; Brother Bernard for five years, the other brother for three. In the course of 1842 another brother joined them; there were four novices at the time.

The Rule

Rutten was very happy with this growth. A lot of members meant that a lot of work could be done. But Brother Bernard questioned this view. He wanted to stress the praying rather than the working element of the community. How could he - with such a rapid growth and the acceptance of so much work - lay the foundation of a truly religious community? As early as 1848 there were no fewer than thirty brothers spread out over eight houses, in the Netherlands and in Belgium. Rutten saw hardly any wrong in putting newcomers to the novitiate immediately to work in a school or in nursing the sick. Indeed, in the early years the Brothers dedicated themselves also to nursing. After the French era the nursing of the sick could - in accordance with the law of the country in force at the time - be a basis to legalise the existence of a congregation. This may very well have been the reason why Rutten had introduced this work of charity alongside education. Brother Bernard was dead against this exaggerated stress on work. First and foremost the newcomers should be trained to be good religious, after this they could be employed for the work of the Congregation.

The dilemma of the choice between the different views of Brother Bernard and Rutten has in fact never been resolved, no more than in other congregations similar to the Brothers of Maastricht. Put in a simple way the dilemma was: had one become a brother mainly to pray and - in the second place - to work, or the other way round? Had one come first and foremost for one's own salvation or for that of others? At one time, the first, the contemplative element, was dominant with both brothers and superiors in the Congregation, at other times, the second, the active element.

This vexed question was not resolved either by the consecutive Rules of the Congregation. The first Rule, approved in November 1841, was a provisional sketch modelled on the Rule of the Brothers of Ghent, dating from 1832. In the following years Brother Bernard kept on polishing it up; in this enterprise the priest Founder Rutten played a restraining rather than an inspiring role. Brother Bernard received more constructive help from, at first, the Redemptorist Fathers who lived at the village of Wittem near Maastricht, and later, from the Jesuit Fathers once these had returned to Maastricht in 1852. In 1846 the final draft of the Rule was ready. In 1848 it received the approval from Rome, only provisional, though. Rome had discovered serious gaps: the Rule said nothing about the way the Congregation was governed or financed; moreover, it lacked a detailed application of the prescriptions to everyday life. Therefore a general meeting of the Brothers was held in 1855, which formulated what was called (Domestic customs and Applications to the Rule). The very same year the Bishop of the diocese of Roermond, which by now included Maastricht, ratified the (Application). In 1870 the Congregation received from Rome the final approbation of the Rule, which included the Applications. Henceforth Rule and Applications went together under the name (Constitutions). The (Domestic Customs) were issued in a separate booklet, the (Directory). 1917 saw the publication of an entirely new Code of Canon Law; it called for some adaptations of the text of the Rule. In 1936 Rome gave its approval to this revised Rule.

All those adaptations and modifications, produced in the course of years, did not change the essence of Brother Bernard's views as written around 1850. His spirituality was the spirituality of the nineteenth century; it dated back to the period before the French Revolution, and even as far back as the Middle Ages. Essentially, it was the so-called Rule of St Augustine dating from the eleventh and twelfth centuries which lay at the root of Brother Bernard's Rule. However, the times, the Church and the Congregation too were going to change. After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, when the whole Church was brought up to date, the Rule of the Brothers of Maastricht too was completely rewritten, and afterwards revised a few more times.

Everyday life in the Congregation

During the years when Brother Bernard wrote the Rule, 1842-1845, he had experienced that working together with the priest Founder was not easy. Rutten did not think much of clearly defined rights and duties, certainly not when these restricted him, the Founder of the Congregation, personally. In this matter Brother Bernard and Rutten totally disagreed. The resentment must have been mutual: each cherished his own opinion!

As a result the Congregation has always kept a deep-seated fear of any clerical interference. The administration of the Brothers of Maastricht as well as the individual brothers have always appreciated the advice given by priests, secular and religious. But when a final decision had to be taken, they could do it on their own! The Congregation has always been proud of being under papal rather than episcopal authority. Papal right authorises the Congregation to start work also outside the diocese of its foundation. Moreover, the pope was much further away than the bishop of Roermond, who lived less than fifty kilometers from Maastricht. This made self-rule - without clerical busybodies - a lot easier. This typical lay mentality probably explains the lack of enthusiasm evident in the Congregation after the Second Vatican Council to allow the ordination of its brothers. At first the General Chapter, the highest administrative body, which meets every six years, did not rule out ordination within the Congregation. As a result a few took this step. But the Congregation as a whole was less than enthusiastic about it. The brothers preferred to remain lay people in the ecclesiastical sense, i.e. non-ordained.






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