Saint of the Day – 4 February – St Gilbert of Sempringham (c 1083-1189) Priest, Founder of the Gilbertine Order, fouder of 13 Monasteries and Churches, schools, homes and hostels for the sick and orphanages, miracle-worker. Born in c. 1083 at Sempringham, Lincolnshire, England and died on 4 February 1189 at Sempringham, Lincolnshire. The Gilbertines came to an end in the 16th century at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
A narrow track from the main road in the Lincolnshire Village of Sempringham leads eventually to the tiny Church dedicated to St Andrew. Standing on a hilltop and noticeably isolated are the visible remains where St. Gilbert of Sempringham began his work, which resulted in the only English monastic Order for nuns, canons,lay brothers and sisters being founded. Little may be known about him but his influence, even after some 900 years, has not been forgotten.
Gilbert was the eldest son of Jocelyn, a Norman Knight and his low born Anglo-saxon wife. He was born around 1083 (in most biographies it is 1083), his mother had a vision that he would be special before his birth. It was a time within memory of the Norman invasion of England and he was half Norman half Saxon.
He is said to have been born with some form of disability and a variety of suggestions have been made as to the form that this was manifest – curvature of the spine being one. Whatever it was, he was unfit for military service and in his very early childhood seemed to have no enthusiasm of learning and is said to have been cared for by his mother and this is maybe why he had such an affinity and kindness for women – in an age when women were not generally allowed an education. At some point, however, his education led him to France . He returned having acquire the title of Master, by which he was known for posterity.
When he returned we see him educating the local children, of both sexes, which was unusual for the time in his district of Lincolnshire. His father was impressed with his education and abilities and his religious manner and presented him with the Churches of Sempringham and West Torrington. At that time, he was a Deacon and for a time, joined the household of the Bishop of Lincoln, firstly with Robert Bloet (died 1123) and with Alexander (1123-1148.
He was not Ordained to the Priesthood until his 40th year, due to his reservations of being unworth and for similar reasons, he refused the position of Archdeacon in the Diocese, which stretched from the Humber to the Thames and was the largest Diocese in Europe .
In 1131 he founded a home for girls whose residence was attached to his Church at Sempringham and hired a Priest named Geoffrey and they shared rooms above the Church entrance. In 1139 he moved his small community to a new site, a field’s distance from his Church and in due course, this became the Motherhouse for the Gilbertine Order of Sempringham. He was later to add lay sisters, Priests and lay brothers. In 1147, Gilbert travelled to France hoping to persuade the Cistercian Order to adopt his community of Nuns. This was refused but with the encouragement of Pope St Eugene III, who himself had been a Cistercian Monk and St Bernard of Clairvaux, he drew up the Institutes of the Gilbertine Order.
Back in England Gilbert became “Master” of the Order by the Popes decree. He was not attached to any particular house and was not the Prior of Sempringham. It was his responsibility to visit all the houses.
At the point when in old age he became blind he transferred, with the consent of the Order, his responsibility to Roger, the Prior of Malton. Gilbert did not take the vows of the Gilbertine Order until he was close to death. He felt that doing so would be a sign of arrogance, as he had written the Gilbertine Rule.
Miracles were attributed to him during his lifetime as well as after his death. When he reached his centennial year he felt compelled to “pass from this life in which he was so greatly broken for penance which he had endured in God’s service but yet all his members were whole,… save his sight.”
On Christmas night in 1188, whilst at his island house of Cadney, he was taken ill. He was given Extreme Unction and carried by his companion Roger and chaplain to Sempringham, a distance of forty miles. On 3 February of 1189, the Priors of all his Convents went to Sempringham to receive his blessing. On the last day, he lay unconscious with Roger (Prior of Malton), his successor, at his bedside. He died the following morning about the hour of Matins. He was buried three days later. His tomb was placed between the Altars of St Mary and St Andrew, on either side of the wall which divided the Priests from the Nuns, so that all alike might see him. During his lifetime Gilbert had built 13 Monasteries, nine for men and women together, four for men only. Besides these he had also built hostels for the poor, the sick, the lepers, the widows and the orphans
Eleven years after his death, Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury sent the Priors of the Lincolnshire Gilbertine houses of Swineshead, Bourn and Croxton to make inquisition to write an account of his life and his miracles. On 9 January 1201, King John and some of his nobles, visited Gilbert’s tomb. The Abbots arrived the same day and were satisfied as to the truth of the miracles . The King, Archbishop, Bishops and the three Priors sent letters to Pope Innocent III, asking for the Canonisation of Gilbert of Sempringham. The Pope decreed a three day’s fast on the whole Order and a further investigation into the life and miracles of Gilbert; the fast took place, on24 September 1202 with the inquisition on the third day.
Five canons and six men cured of infirmities by Gilbert, set out for Rome arriving on 31 December 1202 . The Pope gave the decree on 11 January and the feast of St Gilbert was commanded to be on h February, The Papal Bull was issued on 30 January 1202 and sent to the two Archbishops (Canterbury & York) and the Gilbertine Order.
The occasion of the translation of St Gilbert’s relics is detailed in depth “marked by the manifestations of bright lights, sweet odours and incorrupt clothing.” Additionally the Archbishop of Canterbury was privileged with a cure from illness which threatened to prevent him continuing with the lengthy ceremonies. The Archbishop issued an indulgence of 40 days and an additional one of 169 days from Bishops assisting at the translation, to all those visiting the Shrine or making grants to the priory.
In the centuries which have followed the life and death of St Gilbert of Sempringham, little is now visible of the Convents and Monasteries that he founded. The Priory Church of Malton in Yorkshire is still in use, Chicksands, however, has the most substantial remains of a cloister of the twenty five that were built in England .
In 1984 a group of parishioners met at the Cistercian Abbey of Mount St Bernard , Leicestershire. As a result, an apostolate was formed, “The Oblates of St. Gilbert,” who meet regularly to recite the Gilbertine liturgy and exercise charity for the needy.