St. Stephen Harding: Monk, Abbott, Founder of the Cistercian Order
The three founders of the monastery at Citeaux: from left to right, Stephen Harding, Saint Robert of Molesme, and Saint Alberic.
The saint of the day for April 17 is St. Stephen Harding (1060-1134), an English-born monk and abbot, who was one of the founders of the Cistercian Order in what is now France.
Stephen Harding, son of an English noble, was born at Sherborne in Dorsetshire, England in 1060. He consecrated himself to the monastic life in the Abbey of Sherbonne in Dorsetshire, where he received his early education. He later studied in Paris and Rome, where he pursued a brilliant course in humanities, philosophy and theology.
After studying in Paris and Rome, he visited the monastery of Molesmes. Impressed by its leaders, Robert of Molesmes and Alberic (who were later canonized), Stephen joined the community.
After a few years, the three men, along with another 20 monks, established a more austere monastery in Citeaux. Eventually, Robert was recalled to Molesme (1099), Alberic died (1110), and Stephen was elected abbot.
Stephen Harding is credited with writing the famous Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity – often referred to as the Charter of Love). It was a six page constitution which laid out the relationship between the Cistercian houses and their abbots, set out the obligations and duties inherent in these, and ensured the accountability of all the abbots and houses to the underlying themes of charity and living according to the rule of Benedict.
Since the monastery received very few novices, he began to have doubts that the new institution was pleasing to God. He prayed for enlightenment and received a response that encouraged him and his small community. From Bourgogne a noble youth arrived with 30 companions, asking to be admitted to the abbey. This noble was the future St. Bernard. In 1115 St. Stephen built the abbey of Clairvaux, and installed St. Bernard as its Abbot. From it 800 abbeys were born.
In 1133, Stephen resigned as the head of the order, due to age and disability, and died the following year. He was canonized in 1623 by Pope Urban VIII.