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St. Ambrose cannot be counted among the founders of religious orders, although, like the great Doctors of the Church, he took a deep interest in the monastic life, and closely watched its beginnings in his diocese. He himself made provision for the wants of the monks who lived in a monastery outside the walls of the episcopal city under the guidance of one of his priests, as St. Augustine tells us in his "Confessions." Not all these monks, however, were actually a cause of pleasure to him; Sarmatian and Barbatian, indeed, who belonged to their community, gave him great anxiety by their evil conduct and their errors. Virginity, moreover, was but little in honour among the women of Milan at the time that St. Ambrose was called to rule the Church there, but his exhortations so overcame this indifference that the Milanese virgins, now grown to be numerous and fervent, formed the favourite portion of his flock, and widows strove to equal them in piety. Many of these holy women limited themselves to the obligations imposed by a chaste life, and shared the lives of their families in all other ways; others, however, withdrew altogether from their families and from the world, to live under the guidance of a superior a life of poverty and mortification filled with the praises of God, with meditation on the Holy Scripture and the exercise of various works of Christian charity. It was to one of such associations of virgins who took the instructions of the holy Bishop as their rule of life that St. Marcellina, the sister of St. Ambrose belonged. These teachings have been summed up in certain treatises of his which have come down to us, namely, in his three books "De virginibus," his one book "De viduis," and those "De virginitate," "De institutione virginis," "De exhortatione virginitatis," and "De lapsu virginis consecratae" (P.L., XVI, 187-389). St. Ambrose is, in fact, the one Father who has written most concerning virginity. His writings, and the example of what was taking place at Milan, did much to foster vocations to virginity and the formation of those communities which were later to grow into monasteries of women. The whole movement, indeed, is one of the most remarkable in the Christian life of the second half of the fourth century. These holy women, while waiting to have rules for the religious life specially written for them, contented themselves with the Bible, with certain treatises of the Fathers concerning their state, and certain traditions concerning the practical ordering of their lives. Some of these rules unquestionably dated back to the holy Doctors who had presided over the formation of the earliest communities, so that it becomes easy to understand the influence which St. Ambrose exercised over the beginnings of the religious life among women.

The order of St. Ambrose

The Order of St. Ambrose was the name of two religious congregations, one of men and one of women, founded in the neighbourhood of Milan during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, under the patronage and invocation of St. Ambrose.

(a) The cradle of the first was a wood near Milan where three noble Milanese, Alexander Grivelli, Antonio Petrasancta, and Albert Besuzzi, sought a retreat from the world. Other solitaires, and even priests, joined them, and Gregory XI gave them the Rule of St. Augustine, with certain special constitutions (1375). Thenceforward they had a canonical existence, and took the name of "Fratres Sancti Ambrosii ad Nemus." Their habit consisted of a tunic, scapular, and hood, of a chestnut colour, and they elected their own prior, who was subsequently instituted by the Archbishop of Milan. The priests of the congregation devoted themselves to preaching and to the labours of the apostolic ministry; they were not, however, allowed to accept the charge of a parish. In matters of liturgy they all followed the Ambrosian Rite. Various monasteries were founded on these lines, whose sole bond of union was a community of customs, and which Eugenius IV merged into one congregation, in 1441, under the name of "Congregatio Sancti Ambrosii ad Nemus," with the original house as its centre. The general chapter met every three years, and elected the priors, whose term of office was for the same period. The rector, or superior-general, had two visitors to assist him. Their discipline had become relaxed in the time of St. Charles Borromeo who successfully undertook their reform (1579). In 1589 Sixtus V united the monasteries of the "Brothers of the Apostles of the Poor Life," also known as "Apostolini" or "Brothers of St. Barnabas," to the Congregation of St. Ambrose. Their houses were situated in the Province of Genoa and in the March of Ancona; the order had been founded by Giovanni Scarpa at the end of the fifteenth century. After this union, which was confirmed by Paul V in 1606, the congregation added the name of St. Barnabas to its title, adopted new constitutions, divided its houses into four provinces, two of the houses, St. Clement's and St. Pancras's, being in Rome. Ascanio Tasca and Michele Mulozzani, each of whom was superior-general have left several works, as have Zaccaria Visconti, and Francesco-Maria Guazzi. Another member of the order, Paolo Fabulotti, was the author of a treatise "De potestate papae super concilium" (Venice, 1613), of which there have been several editions. Various Ambrosians, moreover, have received the title of Blessed, namely: Antonio Gonzaga of Mantua, Filippo of Fermo, and Gerardo of Monza. The order was dissolved by Innocent X in 1650.

(b) The Nuns of St. Ambrose (Ambrosian Sisters) wore a habit of the same chestnut colour as the Brothers of St. Ambrose, followed the Ambrosian Liturgy, and conformed to their constitutions without, however, being under the jurisdiction of their superiors and general chapters, Sixtus IV having at their request given the nuns this canonical standing in 1474. Their monastery built on the top of Monte Varese, near Lago Maggiore, was under the invocation of Our Lady of the Mount. Their foundress was the Blessed Catarina Morigia, or of Palanza, who first led a solitary life on this spot, and is commemorated 6 April. Several of her original companions died in the odour of sanctity, namely: the Blessed Juliana of Puriselli, Benedetta Bimia, and Lucia Alciata. Our Lady of the Mount was their one monastery. The nuns long maintained their fervour, and were held in high esteem by St. Charles Borromeo. The Annunciatae of Lombardy are also called "Nuns of St. Ambrose," or "Sisters of St. Marcellina," and were founded in 1408 by three young women of Pavia — Dorothea Morosini, Eleonora Contarini, and Veronica Duodi — who were under the direction of the Benedictine, Beccaria. Their houses, scattered throughout Lombardy and Venetia, were united into a congregation by St. Pius V, under the Rule of St. Augustine. The mother-house is at Pavia. It is the residence of the prioress-general, who is elected every three years by the general chapter of the congregation. Mother Joanna of Parma, who entered the Order in 1470, did more than anyone else towards giving it a definite organization. The nuns lived in cloister under the jurisdiction of the bishops. One of their number was St. Catharine Fieschi Adorno, who died, 14 September, 1510.

The oblates of St. Ambrose and of St. Charles

St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, early realized the assistance which the various religious orders would be to him in the reform of his diocese in compliance with the injunction of the Council of Trent. The help of the Barnabites, Somaschi, and Theatines was therefore enlisted by him, and he entrusted the management of his seminary to the Jesuits, who were great favourites of his, though he found himself subsequently obliged to take it from them. These various auxiliaries, however, great as was their devotion, were not sufficiently at his disposal to supply all the needs connected with the government of a vast diocese. Accordingly the Archbishop, in order to fill this gap, decided to found a diocesan religious society whose members, all priests or destined to become priests, should take a simple vow of obedience to their bishop. Such a society, in fact already existed at Brescia, under the name of "Priests of Peace." St. Charles endeavoured, without success, to win over the canons of his cathedral to his idea, but had more success with the "Priests of the Holy Crown," who served the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and lived in community. His exhortations to his clergy during the synodal meetings led certain men of good will to fall in with his views, and he was able to install them in the church of the Holy Sepulchre and the adjoining buildings, 16 August, 1578, giving them the name of "Oblates of St. Ambrose." Their community was endowed with the revenues of certain diocesan benefices, and with a portion of the properties belonging to the Congregation of the Humiliati, which had just been dissolved by the Holy See. The rules by which the new congregation were to be governed were submitted by their author to St. Philip Neri and to St. Felix of Cantalice, the latter of whom persuaded him not to impose the vow of poverty, and, in their definite form, received the approbation of Gregory XIII. It was to be the duty of the Oblates to assist the Archbishop in the government and administration of the Diocese, to fill all such offices as he should entrust to them, to go on missions to the most abandoned places, to serve vacant parishes, to manage seminaries, colleges, and Christian schools, to give retreats, and, in a word, to devote themselves to the whole work of the ministry in compliance with the orders and wishes of the bishop. They were divided into two bodies, one remaining attached to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the other labouring in the city and diocese. These latter formed six groups, or associations, under the direction of a responsible superior. The first, taking for their model the method followed at Rome by St. Philip and his priests of the Oratory, made their basilica a veritable centre of pious and charitable life, the effect of which was felt throughout the city.

Their work was directed by St. Charles himself, who was glad to stay among them, sharing their manner of life, and taking part in their exercises and in their tasks, nor is his memory so kept in honour anywhere as in this house. He was wont to say that of all the institutions which he had created that of the Oblates was the one he held most dear and on which he set the greatest value. The Oblates of the Holy Sepulchre, moreover, established, for their own assistance, a confraternity of lay Oblates, composed of magistrates and prominent men, who bound themselves to visit the sick and the poor, to teach the ignorant, to reconcile enemies, and to defend the Faith. The "Company of the Ladies of the Oratory," also founded by them, aimed at fostering the practice of a serious Christian life among women of the world. They further undertook the management of the diocesan seminary, and of the colleges established by their holy founder; they preached the Gospel in the country districts, and even journeyed into the mountains in search of heretics. St. Charles was preparing to establish them in the famous sanctuary of Our Lady of Rho, the very year of his death (1584). The first Oblates belonged to the best of the Milanese clergy, among whom learning and virtue were always held in honour. The archbishops of Milan fostered the growth of the institution by all the means in their power, and it soon numbered two hundred members. Cardinal Frederic Borromeo caused their constitutions to be printed in 1613, nor did they cease to labour in the service of the diocese until their dispersion by Napoleon I in 1810. The Oblates of Our Lady of Rho, however, escaped attention, and were left unmolested. They were reorganized by Msgr. Romilli, under the name of "Oblates of St. Charles," in 1848, and reinstated in their house of the Holy Sepulchre. The community is now, as in the past, one of learned and virtuous priests. One of their number, Ballerini, died Patriarch of Antioch, after having governed the Church of Milan; another Ramazotti, was Patriarch of Venice (1861). Several Oblates, moreover, have become known by their theological and historical writings. The following may be mentioned: Giovanni Stupano (d. 1580), author of a treatise concerning the powers of the Church's ministers, and of the Pope in particular; Martino Bonacina (d. 1631), one of the foremost moralists of his age, whose theological works have been several times republished, and who died suddenly on his way to fill the position of Nuncio of Urban VIII at the court of the Emperor; Giussano, one of the best biographers of St. Charles; Sormano and, especially, his contemporary, Sassi (Saxius, d. 1751), who succeeded Muratori as librarian. It is to him that we owe the edition, in five volumes, of the homilies of St. Charles, a history of the archbishops of Milan, and a treatise on the journey of St. Barnabas to that city.

The oblates outside of Italy

The example of St. Charles was followed, in the nineteenth century, by Msgr. Pie, Bishop of Poitiers, and by Msgr. Martin, Bishop of Paderborn. The former founded a society of priests on the lines of the Milanese Oblates, and with a similar mission, to whom he gave the name of "Oblates of St. Hilary," the patron saint of his diocese (1850). The latter called his new society the "Congregation of the Priests of Mary." The most famous society of Oblates, however, outside of Italy, is that of the Oblates of St. Charles, in London, founded by Cardinal Wiseman. The religious orders established in his diocese did not seem to him to answer adequately to modern conditions, nor were they wholly at his disposal. The priests of the Oratory, gathered round Faber and Newman, showed him, however, what may be looked for from one of these diocesan societies when directed by a man of ability. Manning was at that time at the Cardinal's disposal, and it was to him that the duty was entrusted of founding the new society, and of drawing up its rules. Manning took the Oblates of Milan as his pattern, and gave his priests the title of "Oblates of St. Charles." The rules which he prescribed for them were practically those drawn up by St. Charles for his disciples adapted to English conditions, and were approved by the Holy See in 1857 and in 1877. Wiseman installed his Oblates, with their superior and founder, at the church of St. Mary of the Angels, Bayswater, on Whit Monday of the latter year. Before long they had created other missions or religious centres in the diocese of Westminster, and had their full share in the movement of conversions, which was then taking place in England. Nor did the opposition of Errington, Wiseman's coadjutor, and of the Westminster chapter, hinder the advance of the society, though the Cardinal found himself, indeed under the necessity of withdrawing them from his seminary at St. Edmund's, where he had placed them. The staff of this house had supplied Manning with some of his best subjects, among others with Herbert Vaughan, who was to succeed him at Westminster. Under Manning's direction, the Oblates devoted themselves to various apostolic labours in London, and in other missions in the two dioceses of Westminster and Southwark. They have founded in London elementary schools, a higher school for boys, and the College of St. Charles, an institution for secondary education. They have had a house in Rome since 1861; in 1867 Pius IX appointed the superior, Father O'Callaghan, rector of the English College, thus giving the Oblates the means of exercising a greater influence on the clergy. The Archconfraternity of the Holy Ghost, Manning's favourite devotion, with its centre at St. Mary of the Angels, has grown largely under their direction. Manning governed the Bayswater community from 1857 to 1868. He held that the mission of the Oblates was to revive the English secular clergy by taking part in its life and in its labours, and thus setting them an example. Their community life helps them to sanctify themselves by the practices of an approved rule; they devote themselves to ecclesiastical studies, but more especially to ascetical and mystical theology, which enables them to give pious souls an enlightened guidance; they undertake all the tasks entrusted to them by the archbishop, whose missionaries they are, and to whom they owe complete obedience.


(I) TILLEMONT, Mémoires pour servir a l'hist. ecclesiast. des six premiers siecles, X, 102-109, 229-231; BAUNARD, Histoire de Saint Ambroise (Paris, 1872), 149-192, 513-519; (II) HELYOT, Hist. des ordres relig. et milit., (Paris, 1792), IV, 56-68; HEIMBUCHER, Die Orden und Kongregat. der Katholisch. Kirche (Paderborn, 1806), 488, 489, 510, 511; CESAR TETTAMENTIUS, Ecclesiae et Parthenonis Beatae Mariae de Monte supra Varesium plena historia et descriptio (Milan, 1655); (III) BARTH. ROSSI, De origine et progressu congregationis Oblatorum Sanctorum Ambrosii et Caroli (Milan, 1734); Acta Ecclesioe mediolanensis a Carolo episcopo condita (Milan, 1549), 826 seq.; Sancti Caroli Borromoei homilioe, I, 286-296: IV, 271-281; SYLVAIN, Histoire de Saint Charles Borromee (Lille, 1884), III, 79-106; HELYOT, ut supr., VIII, 29-37; HEIMBUCHER, ut supr., III, 336-338. (IV) BAUNARD, Histoire du Cardinal Pie (Paris, 1886), I, 432 sq.; see, also, the various biographies of Cardinals Wiseman and Manning; The Religious Houses in the United Kingdom (London, 1887); Constitutiones Congregationis Anglicanoe Oblatorum Sancti Caroli (London, 1877).

About this page

APA citation. Besse, J. (1907). Ambrosians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Besse, Jean. "Ambrosians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Fobian. In memory of Joseph Gimler.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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