Religious life at Farnborough did not start with the Benedictines. Premonstratensian Canons or ‘Norbertines’ were the pioneers here. There is no evidence of an approach to other orders, though the Norbertines later asserted that Dominicans, Jesuits, and Capuchins had all been asked but that their cause had been advocated by the Duke of Norfolk who had installed them at Storrington in Sussex. Two canons came from Storrington on April 30th 1887 to inspect the property and after much ‘cogitation,’ as Carey puts it, Abbot Paulin of Frigolet and the Empress agreed. The monastery would be theirs when completed the following year.The Norbertines were founded in the twelfth century and suppressed in French territory by 1791. Napoleon III’s reign had been a generally happy one for the French orders and among the foundations of the 1850’s was included the old Augustinian Abbey of Frigolet, which had been suppressed at the Revolution but had kept its buildings intact. In 1858 Edmond Boulbon, a former Trappist of Gard, at the instigation of Saint Jean Vianney installed a little community there with a Rule based on the statutes of Saint Norbert. The splendour of the liturgy was emphasised, and – as was the case with so many revivals – his rule was filled with rigorous fasts, silence, the common dormitory, night office, and a return to the primitive habit. Frigolet became an abbey in 1869 and dependant foundations were made. In 1880 there were about a hundred in the community, but the decrees of a Masonic government brought all to ruin in 1880. For three days the expulsion order was resisted by the community. The King of Spain offered Abbot Edmond a home at the Escorial but he refused. Two years later Storrington was founded. In 1883 the founder died. Under Abbot Paulin Boniface as Abbot General the community returned to Frigolet and foundations abounded.
Our Norbertine beginnings.
The Messager du Midi reported;
‘The foundation at Farnborough is exclusively French and the canons of that Chapter will be of French nationality. The religious who are destined for this foundation will be taken from among the different houses of the congregation and preference will be given to those who have been expelled by the government of the republic.’
The clerk of works’ diary for Farnborough records letters sent to Pietri (the imperial secretary) in Naples and it would appear that the Empress met Ambrose Garreau shortly before Christmas 1886. Born in 1827 at Vezin (Maine et Loire), Garreau became Curé of Lorcy near Orleans. In 1876 he left the diocese for the Norbertines. As a secular priest Garreau had suffered in the Franco-Prussian War. He
had been accused of harbouring French troops, and was carried off as a hostage by the Prussians with forty of his parishioners
On the 31st August 1887 he, together with Edouard Pierre, Juston Guyomard, Pierre Gouzer, and a cook called François, left Storrington early and arrived around midday. They lunched at The Imperial Arms near Farnborough North (!!!).
Garreau, as first prior, was well aware of the complexity of his obligations. He was a man of some experience. He entered Frigolet late in life (in 1877) and was procurator general of their Order in Rome in 1884. A Norbertine biography of him says that he knew better than anyone how much tact he had to employ to gently heal the wounds of an Eugénie robbed of her rôles of both wife and mother. He and his little pioneer band were put up in one of the Farnborough Hill lodges till the prieuré was habitable. Theirs was the genesis of the Farnborough Hill daily Mass, since the Empress came to the priory church only for the Grandes Fêtes and messes anniversaires. On 4th October the priory house was handed over, though work in the church continued. The marble floors were not finished till the end of the year, when two boys were employed for several days in polishing the wainscot floors of the sacristy nave and choir.
The Priory was a dolls’ house of a foundation. With only eleven cells it was not destined to be numerous. A contemporary journal describes the house as ‘having a degree of comfort compatible with the religious life.’ Furnishings included the Emperor’s death bed and bits and pieces from the villa at Biarritz.
Since the canonical life involved the Divine Office and daily Mass, the obligations placed on them of Masses for the Imperial dead and the intentions of the Empress cannot have been particularly burdensome, and the Bishop of Portsmouth was quick to fill any time they might have had on their hands. Bishop Vertue visited on October 29th, 1887 and expressed a hope that the canons would throw themselves into parochial responsibilities. They, of course, were French-speaking and there is no evidence that they spoke much English. A valid Mass was within their competence, but was a comprehensible English sermon?
While the acceptance of pastoral responsibilities was clearly within the tradition of the canons, it had not been part of the Empress’ vision of things. It would later lead to trouble.
The Premonstratensian moment of glory at Farnborough was the reception of the bodies of the Emperor and the Prince Imperial at the start of January 1888. The train left Chislehurst at half-past ten in the morning and arrived at Farnborough at one o’clock. Abbot Paulin himself came to greet the bodies at the Abbey doors. There was no Empress there to greet them that day. Eugénie was at home suffering, but in her presence Paulin celebrated a solemn requiem at the Abbey the next morning.
The community’s life must have had a strong monastic character to it, but their religious retirement was both punctured and punctuated by a succession of distinguished visitors. In 1888-1889 alone Queen Victoria, Princess Beatrice, the King of Sweden and numerous other personages were given the grand tour. As if this were not enough, the poor canons also found themselves regularly invited to the ritual of Imperial tea time. A distraction or an honour?
In an England which was still little more than mission territory for Catholics, the presence of a community and well-performed liturgical ceremonies brought visitors from far and wide. Some would come on the high festivals to glimpse the Empress, others would come to hear Mass sung with a dignity not easily found elsewhere. Fr Evermode, the second prior, wrote in 1890 for Christmas,
‘…the church was decorated with exquisite taste under the directions of Her Majesty, full of lights, flowers and greenery. The Solemn Day Mass, followed by Benediction was celebrated in the presence of the Empress and the Imperial household. The chant was executed with a rare perfection.’
All seemed rosy in the Norbertine English garden. In 1894 their catalogus recorded growth in the community. There were seven canons and two lay brothers. But the Annals of Frigolet in 1895 describe a sudden departure from Farnborough, back to Storrington. Something had clearly gone wrong. The departure was certainly brusque and where evidence is lacking, gossip has not been short. The first Benedictines of Farnborough record that the Canons were well-liked and fondly-remembered in the locality. The clash seems to have been with the Empress. Was it that ‘her’ community was too involved outside the priory? A French Norbertine tradition says that she ‘micro-managed’ the poor fathers, and gave them no peace.