San Benedetto de Urbe was a late 19th century convent chapel, now demolished, at Via di San Nicola da Tolentino 22 which is in the rione Trevi.

The dedication was to St Benedict.

History Edit

Foundation of community Edit

This very obscure and briefly occupied chapel was opened in 1898, to serve the Monasterium Sancti Benedicti de Urbe. This new foundation of Benedictine nuns was not affiliated to any particular Benedictine congregation, but was an initiative of one Matilda Pynsent (a descendant of William Pynsent?). She became the first abbess, with the name in religion of Mechtildis, when the convent was founded in October 1895.

Her place in history is because she took an interest in the 17th century woman philosopher Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who had been buried at the Benedictine abbey of St Justina at Padua and whose tomb she arranged (somehow) to have opened up for her to look into. She allegedly gathered up the remains and put them in a casket which she had re-interred with a new memorial tablet -what was she looking for?

The community was under the authority of the Diocese, in the person of the Cardinal Vicar. The abbess had made a successful challenge in canon law that she and her nuns were not bound to affiliate to a Benedictine congregation, or to make vows to a male Benedictine major superior.

The community is described as English (monache inglesi), although there is a hint in the sources that only the abbess was. Another nun, Dame Placide McMahon, seems to have been Irish. Their main work seems to have been the publication of Benedictine historical sources under the title Spicilegium Benedictinum, which reached five volumes in their brief existence -an impressive achievement.

Establishment of monastery Edit

In 1898 the nuns moved to the unfinished complex of San Patrizio a Villa Ludovisi, which had been begun by the Irish Augustinian friars in 1888. The friars had run out of money, and so had to sell out. The nuns seem not to have continued with the uncompleted friary church, but seemed to have built their own. Diego Angeli, writing in 1903, had this to say:

"San Benedetto Abate. There is a small church attached to a convent of English Benedictine nuns in the Via Boncompagni. It was built in 1899, the architect being Alberto Manassei. In 1901 the church was taken from the nuns and given to the Augustinians. The ceiling vault and the apse are decorated with frescoes. On the main altar is an altarpiece of The Blessed Virgin, a copy of an original by Carlo Maratta at San Carlo al Corso. To the left is the chapel of St Benedict, with a copy of an icon kept at San Benedetto in Piscinula."

Disaster Edit

In April 1901, there was a serious scandal and the convent was forcibly shut down in August. The following is transcribed from the "New Zealand Herald" newspaper for 9 November 1901:

"ENGLISH NUNS IN ROME. STRANGE STORY OF PERSECUTION AND EVICTION. A remarkable letter appears in the Times [newspaper] from Mechtildis Pynsent, Abbess of the English Benedictine nuns in Rome, on the causes which have led to their dispersal. The abbess declares that congregations, cardinals, the Pope himself, and the British government have been appealed to, and that these ladies, deserted by all, are compelled, "for their own honour's sake" to lay their case before the British public.

The English Benedictine nuns were founded in October, 1895, by three ladies, one of them being her whose goodness, talents, and money seemed to guarantee that if the work prospered in numbers the money would be forthcoming. The community increased. Their life was of great austerity -silence for hours, absolute obedience, and charity to the poor. They had a school for poor children, they fed the hungry, and the greatest interest was shown in the community. The nuns bought from the Irish Augustinians the building known as St Patrick's College, and moved in December 1898. On April 9 [1901] the lady on whom so much depended fled the monastery. "It is impossible to go into the details of this sad case" writes the abbess. "It must suffice to say that a priest belonging to Rome, and sent to the community by ecclesiastical authority, had been the cause of this desperate step. Another priest belonging to the most important congregation in Rome, that of the Bishops and Regulars, was an accessory to all that happened". This lady had given largely, but most of her property was tied up for another six years, and relying on her fervent protestations the Benedictines had agreed to pay the Irish £24 000 for their nunnery in six years, and had expended all their own money -about £4 000- on the necessary improvements and alterations. The flight of the nun who had riches was an "overwhelming disaster". They were soon living in the greatest poverty, often without money to buy food for the day. The abbess began to disperse the community, which continued to exist, although much reduced. Then the Irish Dominicans, seeing apparently little chance of getting their £24 000, sued the nuns in the Italian Courts for the return of the building. There was a technical flaw in the contract, drawn up by a lawyer high in repute at the Vatican, and the nuns lost. The eviction of nuns by friars is an ecclesiastical spectacle which has been reserved for the latter days of the pontificate of Leo XIII. "it will perhaps (says the abbess) show some of the animus of the Irish Augustinians against the English Benedictines when it is known that, pending the sentence of the civil tribunal, Father O'Keeffe actually sent an Augustinian lay brother to sleep in the monastery, the nuns being there". Appeals to Cardinal Rampolla and other Roman dignitaries to save the Church the scandal of an eviction were all fruitless, and on August 9, 1901, the remaining nuns were evicted by the Italian police. They had given up their positions in the world, had given all their means, and they are helpless. The creditors importune them, and "calumnies too painful to be repeated" are circulated in private by those who believe that they are doing a service to the Church. That up to date is the story of the Benedictine nuns in Rome".

Agnostic abbess Edit

William Brownlow, bishop of Clifton made a public reply, published in "The Times" in October. He admitted that the facts as presented by the abbess were substantially correct, but added:

"Your readers will be surprised to learn that Miss Pynsent does not believe in the Christian religion. She confided this to me in May, 1900, but begged me not to let anyone know. Early in this year she wrote to me to release me from my promise of secrecy, and said she did not care if all the world knew her unbelief. Many of your readers will not think any the worse of the lady for being an Agnostic, but I think they will all acknowledge that the Roman authorities of the Church could not assist to avert the dispersion and expulsion of a community which was presided over by an abbess who did not believe in Christianity. I shall be only too thankful if Miss Pynsent can deny this statement, which I should never have made except in defence of the ecclesiastical authorities and their policy of "silence" on her behalf".

Blessed Columba Marmion wrote this in a letter in 1901:

Leggo sui giornali inglesi che le Benedettine inglesi, da tempo stabilitesi a Roma, sono all’origine di un terribile scandalo! (I read in the English press that the English Benedictine nuns, for a time established in Rome, are the source of a terrible scandal!). 

The bishop usefully made clear that the abbess was becoming contemptuous about her lack of faith several months before the collapse of her monastery. It seems that the authorities in Rome had became aware of this, and exploited the institute's financial irregularity to bring about suppression.  

The fate of the quondam abbess seems not to be recorded, but the reference to her by the bishop as "Miss Pynsent" instead of "Dame Mechtildis" can be taken as a hint that she had apostatised from the Church by the time of his intervention. She had been in solemn vows as a nun, and dispensation from these was not readily or quickly available at the time. 

Friars return Edit

On repossessing the property, the friars went on to finish the church that they started, but seemed to have sold off the nuns' church for the building of a hospital. The friars also seem to have been granted the property on the Via di San Nicola da Tolentino, which would have given them another useful cash windfall.

The quick demolition of the nuns' church would have been a protection against any legal problems as regards ownership of the fabric, given that the nuns had spent their own money on it.

Appearance Edit

No historical reminders of the nuns survive to be seen. The location on the Via di San Nicola da Tolentino is now occupied by a neat and good-quality neo-Baroque edifice, obviously built after the suppression of the community.

External links Edit

Una lettera per l'anima by Blessed Columba_Marmion.

The Review of Reviews, Volume 18, July - December 1898 by Shaw, Albert, 1857-1947

Le chiese di Roma: guida storica e artistica delle basiliche, chiese e oratorii della città di Roma by Diego Angeli, Società editrice Dante Alighieri, 1903 - 662 pages


title=AN AGNOSTIC ABBESS - Weekly Mail, 1901-10-05, ed. Henry Mackenzie Thomas

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.