Saint of the Day – 17 April – St Stephen Harding O.Cist. (1050-1104) Monk, priest, writer, teacher and co-founder of the Cistercian Order – Patron of the Cistercians Attributes: Dressed in the Cistercian habit, abbot’s crozier, holding the Carta caritatis (“Charter of Charity”), a founding document for the Cistercian Order.
Harding was born in Sherborne, Dorset, in the Kingdom of England, and spoke English, Norman, French and Latin. He was placed in Sherborne Abbey at a young age, but eventually left the monastery and became a travelling scholar, journeying with one devout companion, into Scotland and afterwards to Paris and then to Rome. He eventually moved to Molesme Abbey in Burgundy, under the Abbot Robert of Molesme (c. 1027-1111).
When Robert left Molesme to avoid what he perceived to be the abbey’s increasing wealth and overly strong connections to the aristocracy, Harding and Alberic of Cîteaux went with him. Seeing no hope of a sufficient reformation in Molemse, Robert appointed another abbot for the abbey and then, with Alberic, Harding and twenty-one other monks, received permission from Hugh, the Archbishop of Lyons and legate of the Holy See, to found a new monastery in Citeaux, a marshy wilderness five leagues from Dijon. There, they formed a new, more austere, monastery. Eudes, afterwards Duke of Burgundy, built them a little church, which was placed under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, as all the churches of the Cistercians from that time have been.
Stephen became the third abbot of Cîteaux. However, very few were joining the community and the monks were suffering from hunger and sickness. In 1112, Bernard of Clairvaux entered the community, bringing with him thirty companions. Between 1112 and 1119, a dozen new Cistercian houses were founded to accommodate those joining the young order. Harding’s organisational skills were exceptional; he instituted the system of general chapters and regular visitations. In 1119, he received official approbation for the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity), an important document for the Cistercian Order, establishing its unifying principles.
Stephen Harding served Cîteaux Abbey as abbot for twenty-five years. While no single person is considered the founder of the Cistercian Order, the shape of Cistercian thought, and its rapid growth in the 12th century were arguably due to Harding’s leadership. Insisting on simplicity in all aspects of monastic life, he was largely responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture and the simple beauty of the Order’s liturgy. He was an accomplished scribe for the monastery’s scriptorium; his highest achievement is considered to be the Harding Bible, famous among medieval manuscripts. In 1133, he resigned as head of the order because of age and infirmity. He died on 28 March 1134, and was buried in the tomb of Alberic, his predecessor, in the cloisters at Cîteaux.
In a joint commemoration with Robert of Molesme and Alberic, the first two abbots of Cîteaux, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates Stephen Harding’s in a joint feast day on 26 January too.
The north aisle of the Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London was formerly a chapel dedicated to him.