|History of the Alexian Brothers|
The Congregation of Alexian Brothers is a religious brotherhood within the Catholic Church. We were founded in 1334 and emerged from an earlier group or brotherhood known as Beghards. The old Rule Book of the Brothers called us "Alexian or Cellite Brothers". Many streets today in Holland and Belgium still bear testimony to the existence of the Brothers prior to the Reformation; almost every large town or city, including Amsterdam, has a street named "Cellabroeder Straat".
To recapture the early Alexians (or pre-Alexians) we have to go back in imagination to medieval Europe centering on the great cities of Aachen, Cologne and Antwerp. It was pretty well a scene of 'survival of the fittest' in the early thirteenth century-the 'big, and ugly and the bad'. In the middle of this scenario there existed several groups of monastic brothers who begged for bread and thus became known as Brot-Beghards. These Beghards were the 'pre-Alexian Brothers'. Beghards lived a communal life in small cells within their respective monastic communities, hence the name Cellites the title which is still retained in our Constitutions.
Although monastic in character these Beghards served a specific function in that given at this time in the social fabric there was an increase in aristocracy in both Church and State due to the increased population of the city centres and a selective distribution of varied talents. As a result there was an increase in capitalism and as an inevitable consequence an increase in the number of urban poor.
The Beghards were active in the lanes of urban poverty, nursing the sick, burying the dead and preaching the Gospel by word and deed.
In amongst all this the Beghards were inspired by a new spirituality, Scholasticism, introduced by a German Dominican, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327).
'God's foundation is my foundation and
My foundation is God's foundation.
Here I am on my own ground, just as
God is on his own ground.
Actions spring up from the ground
Without asking why?'
The Beghards were inspired by this because of the identity between the believer and God with Beghards and Christ. Already the spark underlying the Alexian charism and spirituality had begun.
The Black Plague
Between 1347-1383 there were four major outbreaks of the Black Plague (Bubonic Plague) in Europe. Without the medical knowledge and preventative measures and modern drugs people in medieval Europe died in their thousands.
Within three years, 1347-1350, twenty million people died, twice the number of those who perished in World War II. In amongst all this the Alexian Brothers made their significant impression on the history of mankind.
We must remember that the early Alexians were still Beghards. It was not the response to the needs of the plague that originated the early Alexians. The distinguishing hallmark came as a response to those struck by the plague, a task very few had the courage to perform. Ultimately, this was a result of their roots in their unconscious charism. Whereas before they had responded to need without asking why, these Beghards saw their actions as a response to a religious need. This seems to have come about by their pondering on the nature of man and the human person. The person, is a tangible part of God. So when a person is dying they are reaching the limit of their earthly existence. The Beghards aimed to assist the dying person through nursing, caring and thus prepare the person for eternal life.
Even after death the ministry had not concluded because there was a ritual to ensure a Christian burial which the Beghards carried out to ensure proper completion.
It was the Beghards commitment, dedication, endeavour and willingness to risk, even to the point of loosing a number of their own community, during the Black Plague that brought about their recognition in Rome. By 1472 they were declared a religious Congregation by Pope Sixtus 1V. It was about this time the Beghards choose St Alexis (or the Latin spelling St Alexius) as their Patron Saint. The Rule of St Augustine was also adopted at this time.
After the Black Death the Alexians were engaged in a variety of ministries, but the most common and unifying ministerial expression was the care and burial of plague and pest victims.
By 1600 the Alexians were well known for their care of the mentally ill, pestilence and plague victims. Many other Alexian communities remained tied to burials, home nursing and plague care until the nineteenth century.
Today the brothers work in a variety of ministries. Professionally we are trained to work mainly within the health field.