As the newest addition to the Vincentian Family Executive Committee (VFEC) they happily presented this rich and extensive background material of their 170 year journey inspired by the charism. Brother Lawrence Obiko, Superior General of the Brothers CMM, referred this article to the Vincentian Family Office, saying,
On behalf of the members of my Congregation I would like to thank you for inviting me to write at the time of the “400th Anniversary of the Vincentian Family serving the Poor” an article on the way we Brothers CMM, as one of the little branches of the Vincentian Family, have been inspired by the Vincentian spirituality and lived and adapted the Vincentian charism during the recent years.
THE WAY IN WHICH THE BROTHERS CMM BRANCH OF THE VINCENTIAN FAMILY IS INSPIRED BY, LIVES AND ADAPTED THE VINCENTIAN CHARISM
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND BROTHERS CMM
When the Congregation of the Brothers of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy (Brothers CMM) was founded, Saint Vincent became its patron saint and an inspiring example of evangelical service. For more than 170 years the Brothers CMM have been working in several countries in the fields of education, youth work and in the building up the Church community. Their attention is especially focused on the poor and on youth growing up under difficult circumstances.
The Congregation of the Brothers CMM was founded in 1844 in Tilburg, the Netherlands. The founder, Bishop Joannes Zwijsen, was deeply moved by the poverty he encountered in this quickly growing industrial town and in the countryside around it. Many children received hardly any schooling and there were only limited means to help the sick, the elderly, the orphans and those who were handicapped. To alleviate this situation Zwijsen gathered a group of sisters (1832) and a group of brothers (1844) around him: religious who were eager to dedicate themselves to improve the living conditions in the town and to do this as religious congregations in the Catholic Church.
Zwijsen bestowed on both of his congregations a name related to mercy. They are called Sisters of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy and Brothers of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy. Popularly they are referred to as Sisters of Charity (SCMM) and Brothers of Tilburg (CMM).
Zwijsen was very successful in this effort since his congregations were attracting many members. Around 1850 there were already nearly one thousand sisters and more than one hundred brothers engaged in numerous educational, social and Church projects. These initiatives were mostly to assist the poor and to support Catholic education, projects which Zwijsen called ‘works of charity’, ‘works of mercy’.
The history of the brothers stretches over a period of 170 years. In total, there have been more than 3.800 brothers.
Joannes Zwijsen (1794-1877), son of a miller of Kerkdriel, a village in the center of the Netherlands, was a passionate and idealistic person. At a time when the Catholic faith was suppressed, he asked to be ordained a priest. Being an enterprising man, he became in time one of the major organizers in the rebuilding of the Dutch Church. And this even more so when he was consecrated a bishop in 1842 and appointed archbishop. He played a pivotal role at the time of the restoration of the Dutch hierarchy in 1853.
He had an extensive personal network, which included a number of ecclesiastical as well as political contacts and many business connections. On top of it he was a close friend of the Dutch Kings William I and William II and had friendly relations with a large number of government ministers. Fully in accordance with the spirit of his time, Zwijsen grew into a ‘Prince of the Church’, ruling the Dutch Catholic Church from his residence near Den Bosch. He was an influential bishop, admired all over Europe.
In his ‘Tilburg period’ (1832-1855) Zwijsen was appalled by the poverty, the illiteracy and the spiritual negligence of the youth in this upcoming industrial town and took drastic measures: he forbade First Holy Communion to children lacking an acceptable schooling. From the point of view of the Church, this may have been a dubious directive, but it surely had a major impact on the local population. What actually happened was that child labour decreased, while school attendance increased. Zwijsen was inspired by a powerful vision to create a better world, a world in which the weak person was not abandoned or neglected, but fully taken into account. In his eyes all people had the responsibility to commit themselves to merciful action. In the needy person they would encounter the person of Christ. That was something in which he fully believed, and with that inspiration Zwijsen knew how to motivate other people to start working. But Zwijsen was not just a visionary. Level-headed and acting efficiently, he built up the required networks and knew how to realize many of his ideals. In his eyes, mercy was also a matter of good organization. Zwijsen had great admiration for Saint Vincent de Paul, whom he took as his role model. He gave his Congregation Mary, under the title ‘Mother of Mercy’ as patron saint. As second patron saint he gave Saint Vincent de Paul, whose work for the poor, the ignorant and the distressed in 17th century France was inspired by merciful love. Zwijsen, like Vincent, saw the suffering, was moved by it and got into action, having the courage to roll up his sleeves and do the needed work of fighting illiteracy and poverty. One of Zwijsen’s beloved expressions was: ‘In order to succeed, you just have to start working.’ He was not only a strong-willed bishop, but also a pioneer in the fields of education and social health projects, and a prophet of mercy as well. It is understandable that he was called therefore the ‘Vincentius of Tilburg’.
Immediately after the foundation of the Congregation Zwijsen received invitations to start communities of brothers and schools in other towns. He could not immediately respond to such requests; there were hardly any brothers and the financial means were scarce. The bishop waited till the Congregation had a few dozen members before he opened a new community in the Belgian city Maaseik. That was in 1851, barely seven years after the foundation of the Congregation.
Zwijsen and the brothers took on all types of work. At that time they spoke of ‘works of charity’ and ‘works of mercy’. Within the first ten years they started a center for orphans and began teaching children in neglected parts of town; they also initiated a boarding school, a Roman Catholic commercial school and a seminary training for the priesthood, a teacher training school, an institute for blind and deaf children, a few Sunday schools and a number of Catholic organizations for leisure activities. Besides all that, they established, together with the orphans, a printing press, a cobbler’s workshop and a tailoring shop. The printing press was initially intended to provide job training and jobs for the orphans, but over time it became a superb publishing house for school books and religious publications. All these initiatives were in a broad sense considered works of mercy. They were launched in the course of the first ten years, and all were intended to improve the living conditions of large groups of people.
Thus, the brothers did not hesitate to undertake quite different types of work, continue reading on the Vincentian Encyclopedia..