The Augustinians of the Assumption (A.A.) constitute a congregation of Catholic brothers in France. It was active in many countries. The French branch played a major role in French political and social history in the 19th century.
It was founded in Nîmes, southern France, by Fr. Emmanuel d'Alzon in 1845, initially approved by Rome in 1857 and definitively approved in 1864 (the Constitutions were approved in 1923). The current Rule of Life of the congregation draws its inspiration from that of St. Augustine of Hippo.
This international congregation is present in nearly 30 countries throughout the world, with the most recent foundations being established in 2006 in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Togo. The congregation has long been involved in education, the press, ecumenism, pilgrimages, and the missions. In the 1870s, religious launched several magazines which have, over the years, expanded into one of the largest Catholic publishing houses in the world, Bayard Presse, which publishes the award-winning daily French newspaper, La Croix, and more than 100 magazines in 15 languages (in English its best known publication is Catholic Digest). In 1873 these religious also began a series of large-scale pilgrimages both within France and to the Holy Land which developed into such current endeavors as the popular national pilgrimage to Lourdes every year on the occasion of the feast of the Assumption, gathering thousands of pilgrims.
In addition to the Assumptionists, a number of other congregations belong to the larger Assumption Family: The Religious (Sisters) of the Assumption, the Oblates (Missionary Sisters) of the Assumption, the Little Sisters of the Assumption, the Orantes of the Assumption, the Sisters of St. Joan of Arc, the Brothers of the Assumption, the Little Sisters of the Presentation of Our Lady, the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption, and the Sisters of the Cross.
Assumptionists/Augustinians of the Assumption
The congregation was founded by Fr. Emmanuel d'Alzon (1810-1880), vicar general of the diocese of Nîmes, on Christmas evening 1845 in Nîmes. This priest, born in Le Vigan on August 30, 1810, received his initial formation in the major seminary of Montpellier (1832-1833) which he completed with high-ranking Churchmen as his tutors in Rome. A student of Félicité de Lamennais, he broke with his former mentor but remained marked by several of his intuitions. A generous and productive apostle, he launched numerous pastoral initiatives in the diocese of Nîmes under successive bishops : Claude Petit Benoit de Chaffoy (1822-1835), Jean-François-Marie Cart (1837–1855), Claude-Henri Plantier (1855–1875), and François-Nicolas Besson (1875–1878).
D'Alzon founded two congregations, one for men (the Assumptionists) and one for women (the Oblates of the Assumption). The congregation of the Augustinians of the Assumption received its initial approval (‘decree of praise’) in 1857 and its definitive approval in 1864 (although its constitutions were not finally approved until 1923), and d'Alzon resigned from his post as vicar general in 1878 after 43 years of service. With his first disciples he undertook bold apostolic goals: the foreign missions (Australia, eastern Europe), education, the press, and pilgrimages. He died on November 21, 1880 in Nîmes and was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in December 1991.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the Assumptionists were famed for their use of modern organizational and media techniques, founding one of the oldest and most influential daily newspapers in France, La Croix. Secularists and Republicans recognized the order as a great enemy, particularly after their paper took the lead in attacking Dreyfus as a traitor. When the Republican party came to power, it forced several Catholic religious orders, including the Assumptionists, into exile. Many priests went abroad; other remained in France as secular priests under the authority of local bishops.In 1900 it, along with other religious institutes, was dissolved in France and forced into exile. This turn of events became the occasion for its foundation in several countries.
In 1925, the Assumptionists absorbed the English branch of the Fathers of St. Edmund, also known as the Oblates of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, founded in 1843 by Dom Muard.
At the General Chapter of 2005, the Very Reverend Father Richard Lamoureux, an American priest who had been first elected as the ninth superior general in 1999, was re-elected; his assistants are: André Brombart, Emmanuel Kahindo, and Julio Navarro Román (vicar general). Jean-Daniel Gullung was elected general treasurer and Lucas Chuffart general secretary.
At the General Chapter of 2011, a French priest Benoit Griere, was elected on 11 May to succeed Father Lamoureaux- who had served the maximum of two successive six-year terms-as the 10th superior general. The religious institute's new superior general, a physician, theologian, and ethicist, was born in 1958 in Chauny, France. He studied medicine in Reims, France, and simultaneously began his formation as a candidate for the Assumptionist priesthood in seminary, studying philosophy and sacred theology. He entered the Assumptionists in 1991 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1995.
The Assumption Family
The thirteen religious families which, in one capacity or another, were born either directly under the inspiration of three major founding figures (Rev. Théodore Combalot, 1797-1873, Saint Marie-Eugénie de Jésus Milleret de Brou, 1817–1898, and Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon, 1810–1880) or indirectly under the inspiration their disciples are present in over 60 countries throughout the world. This international presence and the collaboration between members of the Assumption Family have proven to be not only defining traits of these religious institutes but also dimensions of their life together which have taken on ever greater importance in recent years.
In any case, this dispersion worldwide corresponds completely with the spiritual and apostolic vision of Fr. d’Alzon, who remained quite French, not to say “Nîmois” (a southerner) : “it is necessary to expand minds and hearts when dealing with the great question of the cause of God, to open broad horizons for the short-sighted, and to light a fire under those who are only looking to warm their feet and who are afraid of catching a cold if they are subjected to too much heat. Happy those superiors who embrace the entire world in their vision because they want to make Jesus Christ reign everywhere.”
The Six Original Families of the Assumption: Spiritual Geography
The six original congregations of the Assumption, five of which originated in France and only one of which is masculine (not an unusual proportion in religious families), possess the common traits of a family, of character, and of apostolic involvement. All of them carry in their name as well as in their genes the official denominator “Assumption,” even if there existed already in their day and even before their time other religious families of the Assumption which were completely independent in their spirit and in their foundation. Concerning the six original congregations of the Assumption, we will list them in the chronological order of their foundation:
The Religious Sisters of the Assumption
The Religious of the Assumption founded in Paris (Seine), Férou Street, in 1839. The mother-house was located in the Auteuil mansion from 1857 till their expulsion in 1900 when they moved to Val Notre-Dame in Belgium, and back to Auteuil in 1953.
The foundress, Mother Marie-Eugénie de Jésus (Marie-Eugénie Milleret de Brou), was born in Metz on August 25, 1817. Her mother died when she was only 15. After being received into the Church in 1836, she met Rev. Théodore Combalot in 1837, who encouraged her to found a religious congregation under his inspiration. She was formed first of all by the Benedictines of the Blessed Sacrament in Paris and then by the Visitation Sisters of Mt. St. Andrew (Isère). At the age of 22, in 1839, she was elected superior of the new congregation. In 1841 Fr. d’Alzon became her spiritual guide. She made her final vows at Christmas 1844. She resigned as superior general in 1894 and was beatified by Paul VI on February 9, 1975. Subsequently, on June 3, 2007 she was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
Augustinians of the Assumption
Augustinians of the Assumption, known as the Assumptionists (A.A.)
Missionary Sisters of the Assumption
Missionary Sisters of the Assumption (M.S.A.) were founded in 1849 in Grahamstown (South Africa) as a result of a split with the Religious of the Assumption. The original mother-house was located in Grahamstown, but was later transferred to Johannesburg.
The first superior general was Mother Marie-Gertrude Henningsen (1822–1904). The current superior general is Sr Barbara Standing. There are approximately 70 religious in 10 communities.
Oblates of the Assumption
Oblates of the Assumption (O.A.) were founded in May 1865 in Rochebelle du Vigan (Gard). The original mother-house was established in Nîmes in 1873 on Séguier Street and later transferred in 1926 to Lecourbe Street in Paris.
The founders were Fr. d’Alzon and Marie Correnson, known in religion as Mother Emmanuel-Marie de la Compassion (1842-1900). From a middle class Nîmes family, she was born in Paris on July 28, 1842. Fr. d’Alzon chose her to be the first superior general.
Little Sisters of the Assumption
Little Sisters of the Assumption L.S.A. were founded in Paris (Seine) in July 1865. The first mother-house was located on Vanneau Street and quickly moved to St. Dominique Street. Finally it was established at Violet Street in 1870.
The Little Sisters of the Assumption were founded jointly by Fr. Etienne Pernet, A.A. (1824–1899) and Sr. Antoinette Fage, known in the convent as Mother Marie de Jésus (1824–1883). Fr. d’Alzon greatly admired Mother Marie, who had been deeply affected by her encounter with Fr. Pernet. The congregation, from its foundation, has been dedicated to the home care of the sickly poor. They were first recognized in 1875 by Cardinal Guibert, the Archbishop of Paris, and by Rome in 1897 and 1901. In 1946 they divided into provinces. In 1949 they incorporated the Servas dos Pobres of Portugal and in 1962 the Little Sisters of Champs, founded in 1844 in Gandalou (Tarn-et-Garonne) by. Rev. Jean-Baptiste Marie Delpech (1807–1887). In 1993 there was a split in the Italian province, part of which formed the new congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Assumption (S.C.A.).
The Orantes of the Assumption
The Orantes of the Assumption (Or. A.) were founded in Paris (Seine) on François I Street in December 1896. They had successive mother-houses: first on Berton Street in Paris, then in Sceaux (Hauts de Seine) in 1919, then in Bonnelles (Yvelines) in 1970, and finally in Cachan (Val-de-Marne). They, too, had dual founders: Fr. François, Picard, A.A. (1831–1903) and Isabelle de Clermont-Tonnerre, known in religion as Mother Isabelle of Gethsemani (she had been married to Henri d'Ursel). It has remained a modest-sized congregation. In 1941 it incorporated the Sacramentine Sisters of Marseille, founded in 1639 by Fr. Antoine Le Quien, O.P.
The other foundations of the Assumption Family took place in the 20th century and not all of them bear the name “Assumption” even if they owe their origin to an Assumptionist.
The Sisters of St. Joan of Arc (S.J.A.) were founded in 1914 in Worcester, MA (USA) by Fr. Marie-Clément Staub, A.A and Sr. Jeanne du Sacre Coeur, born Célina Benoît. (1876–1936). The mother-house was established in Sillery, Québec in 1917.
The Servas Obreras Catequistas (S.O.C.) were founded in Argentina by Fr. Joseph-Marie Moreau, A.A. (1897–1947) in 1934.
The Sisters of the Cross were founded in Athens in 1939. Their mother-house is located on Ipirou Street Agia Paraskevi. This congregation was founded by Fr. Elpide Iannis Stephanou, A.A.(1896–1978).
The Brothers of the Assumption were founded in 1951 in Beni (Democratic Republic of the Congo) by Bishop Henri Piérard, A.A. (1893–1975), as a lay diocesan institute for the diocese of Beni-Butembo. It has remained a small congregation.
The Little Sisters of the Presentation of Our Lady were founded in 1948 also by Bishop Piérard as a diocesan institute. Its mother-house is now located in Butembo, North Kivu (DRC).
The Little Missionaries of the Cross were founded in Bogotá in 1955. They later became and remain a secular institute with no particular link to the Assumptionists.
The Sisters of Charity of the Assumption (S.C.A.) were founded as a result of a split with the Little Sisters of the Assumption in Italy in 1993. They are associated with the Comunione e Liberazione Movement.
In a small booklet, entitled, “Origins of the Religious Families of the Assumption,” Fr. Pierre Touveneraud, A.A. (1926–1979), former general archivist of the congregation, summarized in 1972 the common patrimony of the six original branches of the Assumption which, while fully respecting their particular vocations, their autonomous governing structures, and their apostolic works, bears witness to their common history strengthened by spiritual friendship, apostolic support, and fraternal collaboration. Some of the traits they share are: an Augustinian spirituality, Christocentrism (special emphasis on the mystical Incarnation and the Kingdom of God), love of the Church and the centrality of the Eucharist, love of Mary, strong common life, common prayer, the role of study. He also points out some of the difficulties, tensions, trials and misunderstandings that occurred over the years among the various members of the Family.
There are other aspects as well which they share: the similarities of their rules of life, a missionary commitment, an insistence on certain human virtues (openness, simplicity, warmth), a balance of the three constitutive elements of religious life (prayer, community, and apostolate), emphasis on co-responsibility in governance, collaboration with the laity, and the importance of belonging to an international family.
Especially since the 1970s, the various congregations of the Assumption Family have highlighted in a more visible way their common origins and their similarities of spirit and life. These efforts have led to greater exchanges and shared programs: inter-novitiates, assemblies, get-togethers of young members of the Assumption Family, colloquia, annual meetings of the general councils of the congregations, joint foundations, collaboration on a provincial level, and the joint preparation of two magazines (Assomption et ses oeuvres and Itinéraires Augustiniens).
In every age, there have been attempts to define what is characteristic about Assumptionist spirituality, with mixed results. One of the latest attempts appeared in Rome in 1993, a series of articles gathered under the title, The Spirit of Assumption according to Emmanuel d’Alzon. Historically, it is possible to say that there have been three major schools of interpretation of the spirit and the spirituality of the Assumptionists. They are neither contradictory nor simply chronological; they are, in fact, complementary.
An Augustinian Interpretation
One interpretation follows the insights of the renowned Augustinian scholar, Fr. Fulbert Cayré (1884–1971), who holds to an Augustinian definition of the charism: the Assumption was born of Augustinian inspiration as evidenced, among other things, by its name, its rule, the institute it founded (Les Etudes augustiniennes), the number of references to St. Augustine in the founder’s writings (he once wrote that the City of God should be for the Assumption “a kind of second revelation”), and the many Assumptionist authors in the Augustinian tradition (Cayré, Edgar Bourque, Marcel Neusch, Goulven Madec, Ernest Fortin, George Folliet, Rémi Munsch, etc.). This interpretation, strongly founded on the facts, bears witness to the debt Assumption owes to Augustine. Still, in our opinion, Augustine remains second to d’Alzon himself.
Following the unrivaled work of Fr. Athanase Sage (1896–1971), who analyzed Fr. d’Alzon’s writings comprehensively and edited the Écrits spirituels, a compendium of the basic writings of the founder, the second interpretation has the immense advantage of focusing on the thought of the founder and using themes constitutive of his thinking, of his spiritual life, and his apostolic work: Kingdom, Mystical Incarnation, Christocentrism, the Augustinian tradition, and the influence of the French school of spirituality (Bérulle, Bossuet, Olier, etc.), which d’Alzon shared with Mother Marie Eugénie. The superiority of Fr. Sage’s analysis comes from his work on Fr. d’Alzon’s thought. He “explains” the Assumption from d’Alzon himself and shows the profoundly Christocentric doctrine of the founder.
Without calling into question the value of the preceding analyses, the third interpretation, which comes from an Assumptionist systematic theologian, Fr. George Tavard (1922–2007), a Frenchman living in the United States, places the emphasis on the deeply Trinitarian inspiration of d’Alzon’s writings, articulated around themes and actions which champion the rights of God. This undeniable aspect does not appear to us to invalidate the others because, on the one hand, d’Alzon was influenced by the Christocentric thought of his day and because, on the other hand, Fr. Tavard speaks more on or about Fr. d’Alzon than from Fr. d’Alzon himself.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Augustinians of the Assumption". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
- Harris, Ruth. "The Assumptionists and the Dreyfus affair." Past & present (2007) 194#1 pp: 175-211. online
- Mather, Judson. The Assumptionist Response to Secularisation, 1870-1900." in Robert J. Bezucha, ed., Modern European Social History pp 59-89.
- Mather, Judson Irving. "La Croix and the Assumptionist response to secularization in France, 1870-1900" PhD Dissertation. University of Michigan, 1971.