The suppression and closure of Augustinian – and other - monasteries in Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century was at the hands of secular rulers. For example, in 1768 the Duke of Moderna closed twenty Augustinian monasteries, and the senate of Venice did likewise to several Augustinian monasteries a year later. A year later again, the boundaries of a number of Augustinian Provinces were redrawn (i.e., certain monasteries were changed from one Province to another) at the insistence of lay rulers in Umbria. This had nothing to do with any benefit to the monasteries or to the Order, and in fact most often was at the Order’s inconvenience and detriment.
Harsher steps were soon taken in other regions of Italy and in other European lands by rulers of the “enlightenment.” The prevailing mood imposed on the Order was one of caution because of external coercion, rather than one of confidence. The post-Reformation reduction in vocations (new membership) to the Order – and not exclusively to the Augustinians, by any means - and financial strictures precluded expansion almost everywhere except on the Iberian Peninsula. Entering the period between 1648 and 1789, Spain was largely untouched by the Protestant Reformation. The Church and the Order in that country had benefited from vigorous reforms of the subsequent Council of Trent (1545 - 1564).
By 1776 there were four Provinces in Spain with a total of 130 houses, plus the headquarters of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in the Philippines, which had been founded in Spain in 1575 to recruit and train men to become Augustinians for missionary service in Asia – China, Japan and principally the Philippines. Since 1759 this Province had its famed missionary seminary at Valladolid, Spain (which still operates). By 1600 this Province had fifty Augustinian houses on six of the Philippine islands. The four Spanish Augustinian provinces allowed their members to transfer to the missionary Philippines Province if the foreign missions attracted them.
In this way, and through direct recruitment of Spanish men to Augustinian Order by the Philippines Province, an estimated 2,900 friars went from Spain to the Philippines between 1569 and 1898. This Province in 1776 had twenty-eight monasteries, mainly in Asia, and from them conducted 165 missionary sub-centres called doctrinas.
Photos (at right) Picture 1: The Escolania (residential choir school) of the Escorial. Conducted by the Augustinians. Picture 2: A class in the Escolania. Picture 3: Choir rehearsal in the Escolania.
Before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, six Provinces of the Order had been founded in Latin America from the Province of Spain (or Castile): Mexico in 1568, Peru in 1575, Ecuador in 1579, New Granada (today the area of Colombia and Venezuela) in 1601, Michoacan Province (a second province in Mexico) in 1602, and Chile 1627. As well, the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in the Philippines (established in Spain to evangelise in Asia) was formed in 1575.
Even as the Spanish wealth and power became depleted and eventually exhausted, the Order in Spain still attracted men for the missions in Latin America and the Philippines. These 140 years after 1648 were the ending of the so called “golden years” of rapid Augustinian growth outside of Europe. Since 1572, the Province of Portugal had its "Congregation of the Hermits of Saint Augustine of the East Indies." Twelve men had left Lisbon in March 1572, and reached Goa off the coast of India six months later. Soon twelve other groups followed. By the year 1650, thirty groups of Portuguese Augustinians had gone to Africa and Asia. Already by the year 1638, about 240 members of the Order from Portugal had gone to the colonies of their nation in West Africa, East Africa, Arabia, India and Asia. This trend continued through the remainder of the seventeenth century, right up to the suppression of all religious houses in Portugal and its colonies in 1834.
In Italy, there were in 1750 sixteen Augustinian provinces and thirteen semi-autonomous Augustinian observant congregations, totalling between 4,000 and 5,000 members. The Protestant Reformation had no great effect on the number of Augustinian priories in Italy, but one of the twenty popes between 1648 and 1789 certainly did. Previously in March 1649 Pope Innocent X – the Pope ignored in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – began planning the closure of religious communities that did not have at least six members. The Pope published on 17th December 1649 a constitution entitled Inter caetera. Granted that the pope at the outset expressed his deep concern for the maintenance of religious observance (and temporarily forbade the reception of any further novices into religious orders), it is abundantly clear from the constitution that the Holy See was primarily interested in the amount of money that could be realised from the sale of the properties of small religious houses.
Video (Christmas concert: 46 minutes): Escolania Escorial. The choir of the Escorial palace/monastery. The choristers are students of the Augustinian school in the Escorial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbcKhH-h9mE
It was no secret that the money from the sale of the monasteries was to be diverted for the provision and upkeep of diocesan seminaries, and hence to fostering vocations to the secular priesthood. How so? It has to be said in truth, however unpalatable, by holding out financial inducements to would-be aspirants in the form of extra parishes, new benefices and chaplancies - all at the expense of the religious orders - could be made available. The implementation of this papal plan was ordered in a second papal bull, Instaurandae regularis disciplinae, published on 15th October 1652. The effect was the wholesale suppression of monasteries with less than six members.
Suppression meant that thousands of Religious were uprooted, their houses and churches taken, and not a penny was granted for the upkeep of the dispossessed now accommodated in the larger houses of their order. This was expropriation on a vast scale, the like of which had not been seen since the reformation in England under King Henry VIII. The mendicant friars were the hardest hit of all in this suppression. The Augustinians stood to lose 328 houses, amounting to almost half of their foundations in Italy. The friars, however, proved to be not without friends, especially in high places, who intervened on their behalf with the Holy See.
In 1654, two years after the decree of suppression was promulgated, 123 houses of the Augustinian Order were exempted from this regulation with the help of Cardinal Fabio Chigi, the Cardinal Priest of Santa Maria del Popolo (the Augustinian Church in Rome containing the Chigi Chapel) and Secretary of State of the Holy See. Members of the Chigi family in Siena had become Augustinians in Lecceto as early as the period of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Two of these reprieved houses were connected to the Augustinian observantine congregation centred at Lecceto, of which congregation Chigi was the official Cardinal Protector. Chigi then became Pope Alexander VII in April 1655.
In France also during the period of 1648 to 1789, the Order of Saint Augustine was in poor condition. Vocations had dwindled, and leadership was generally inept. The Gallic spirit resisted Roman influence, even though the persuasive power of the Italian-born Priors General was then generally weak. In 1768 King Louis XV of France ordered the closing of all small monasteries, allowing only one monastery of the same religious order in each city, and insisted, among other requirements, that monasteries have at least nine members. As a consequence, the Augustinians at a Chapter in 1771 decided to give up 44 of their 123 monasteries in France, which were grouped in six different Provinces. All the remaining monasteries, containing about 500 Augustinians, were lost to the Order during the French Revolution some three decades later.
In Belgium there were two Provinces in 1776, the Province of Flanders (Flemish-speaking) and the French-speaking Belgian Province. The Augustinian monasteries totalled about thirty. In Poland, the Province there had 18 monasteries.