The history of Religious Orders is very similar to the history of the Church in general. They have their periods of decline, suppression, confiscation and rejuvenation. The nineteenth century witnessed a period of great trial for the Church, and the Religious Orders shared greatly in the vicissitudes of that time.
Image (below): Pope Pius VII, the first of a number of pontiffs in the nineteenth century who occupied the papacy for a lengthy period. He was Pope from 1800 to 1823. His successors were Leo XII (1823-29), Pius VIII (1829-31), Gregory XVI (1832-46) and Pius IX (1846-78).
The Augustinian Order, in particular, suffered greatly during the century preceding the pontificate of Leo XIII (from 1878 to 1903), and it seemed as though that the centuries-old Order which had begun in 1256 seemed to be heading for extinction. During the nineteenth century the Order was to face on virtually an international scale the trauma and disruption of the enforced confiscation and closure of more of its communities and houses than had happened in the sixteenth century during and after the Protestant Reformation. With the helping hand of the Pope Leo XIII, however, the situation changed, and by the end of Leo XIII's reign the Order was again increasing.
Serious ill fortune for the Augustinian Order actually began in the previous century. In 1767 Ferdinand of Parma suppressed seven Augustinian convents in his realm. In 1771 in France, the Commission on Regulars, instituted by the civil government and lacking all ecclesiastical authority, changed the Constitutions of the Order, resulting in the closing of forty French Augustinian priories. As a result, within three years the number of Augustinians in France dwindled from 2,435 to 1,935. With the triumph of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s ravage of Europe, nine provinces of the Order were suppressed in France, Germany, Alsace, and Belgium. In Italy alone, 390 Augustinian priories were suppressed during the French occupation.
With the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, all the convents in that Augustinian stronghold were closed, and when they were allowed to reopen they were subject to the Spanish bishops. This was because of a papal bull by Pius VII (pope from 1800 to 1823). His bull, lnter graviores, of 1804, provided for the government of the Spanish houses of the Order by a Spanish Vicar General, who had full authority over them, thereby separating the Spanish Augustinians from the rule of the Prior General at Rome for almost a century.\ In the revolution of 1831, which placed Isabel II on the throne and an anticlerical regime in control of the state, all the Augustinian priories were forcibly closed once more (except the Augustinian missionary training college at Valladolid). The Valladolid convent was the seed from which sprang the vigorous renaissance of the Order in Spain. In 1844, with the burning of Saint Augustine's Church and Priory at Philadelphia in the U.S.A., the tide of trouble reached across the Atlantic Ocean, where for a while the life of the Order in the U.S.A. seemed to depend on one man - Father John P. O'Dwyer O.S.A..
The year 1855 saw the suppression of the convents of the Order in Piedmont and Sardinia by the "Sicardi Laws." In eleven years, 124 Augustinian priories were suppressed in Italy. Then the two Mexican provinces were suppressed by an anticlerical government in 1860. In 1864 the Russian government suppressed many of the Augustinian convents in Poland, and separated the remaining houses there from any contact with the jurisdiction of the Prior General at Rome. The General Chapter of the Order which met in Rome in 1865 was indeed a memorable one; the next General Chapter did not convene until 1889. At the General Chapter held in the Convent of Saint Augustine in Rome, Fr John Belluomini was elected Prior General. Political upheavals made the holding of General Chapters impossible for a long time after 1865, and for the crisis which the Order was about to face, Fr Belluomini, sincere and holy man though he was, was not equal to the overpowering task that lay before him.
The climax of the Prior General's fears was to come in the next decade with the invasion of Rome by the Italian Nationalists. When Rome was invaded and occupied in 1871 by the Italian nationalists, the motherhouse of the Order, the Convent of Saint Augustine, was occupied by Italian troops. The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where the Grand Union of the Order was held 1256, was also lost to the Order. Likewise the famous Biblioteca Angelica, founded by the Augustinian scholar, Angelo Rocca O.S.A., in 1614, was taken from the Order and became state property, and has remained so until the present day. The period from 1870 to 1880 seems to have been the darkest decade in the 750-year history of the Order. Prior General Fr Giovanni Belluomini, with his pessimistic outlook, continued as General, and the Chapters that should have met in 1871 and 1877 were prorogued because of the political conditions. It is worth recalling that the last General Chapter at which the whole order was represented was held in 1786; delegates of forty-eight provinces had attended.
At the General Chapter held in Rome in 1865, only twelve struggling Provinces managed to have representation, and most of these were subsequently suppressed within the next fifteen years. Pope Pius IX, after a turbulent reign of thirty-two years, died on 2nd February 1878, at which time the Augustinian Order seemed head for extinction. With the pontificate of the new Pope Leo XIII, however, a new chapter was about to be written into the history of the Order.