Congregation of Alexian Brothers History
The Alexian Brothers ministry began in the Middle Ages, as Europe slowly emerged from centuries of ignorance and superstition. In the Low Countries and along the Rhine, small groups of men and women banded together to carry on Christ's commands. They would tend the sick, feed the hungry and bury the dead. These were dangerously unorthodox activities in the 12th century. Most people, out of fear, shunned the sick and dying, forcing them outside the city gates, to subsist on the leavings of the more fortunate.
The first written account of the Brothers is dated 1259 in a document referring to the Beguines and Beghards. The name of these communities evolved from the word "Algignese" which means "heretics." These communes of celibate men and women were looked upon as unorthodox or heretical because of the type of life they lived. Gradually, these communes became more organized. By the middle of the 13th century, many received support from the Franciscan order. But some among them maintained their independence. It was from these-a handful of dedicated laymen along the Rhine - that the Alexian Brothers grew.
Horror struck the continent in 1346 - the Black Death ... the Plague. In a single generation it undermined the very foundations of European society. Family ties became meaningless as the healthy fled in terror from their stricken kin. The Brothers stayed, risking their lives, to nurse the victims of the plague, to care for them and bury them when they died.
When the Plague passed, the men chose St. Alexius, a fifth century saint who was devoted to the poor and sick, as the patron of their first chapel. With the passing of time, reference was made to them as "Alexian Brothers" by the people they served.
One of the first communities of Alexian Brothers was in the historic city of Aachen, Germany. In surrounding villages and towns, smaller, loosely formed communities were established primarily in the Low Countries and the Rhineland. In 1472, Pope Sixtus IV approved and confirmed the Alexian Brothers as a religious community under the rule of St. Augustine.
Hard times were in store for the Brothers. A fire destroyed their house in Aachen in 1656, which they rebuilt into one of the first hospitals for the mentally ill. Then came the French Revolution in 1797, with all religious orders abolished by law with the exception of the Ursuline teaching Sisters and nursing orders. Laws limited the Brothers to twelve men, and their property and administration came under government control. By 1812, after the Concordat with Napoleon, only three Brothers were left in the community of Aachen.
Torn, and under suspicion by the government, the Brothers were forced into secular life-style until 1856. Brother Dominic Brock, in 1854, began to rebuild the decimated community just in time to send his men to battlefields and field hospitals in the wars of 1864, 1866, and 1870.
Under Brother Dominic the Brothers' numbers grew and their work began to spread from Germany to the United States, England, Ireland and then Belgium. Brother Bonaventure Thelen landed in the United States in 1866 and established the first Alexian Brothers Hospital for men and boys in a small house on Dearborn Street in Chicago. After a move to larger quarters, the great fire of 1871 destroyed everything they had worked so hard for. Quick to rebuild on the same site, the city plans of a new elevated line forced them to move to yet another location, Belden Avenue.
During this period the headquarters of the Immaculate Conception Province was established in Chicago (1869), where it remains to this day. The Brothers expanded their work, establishing hospitals in St. Louis, Missouri (1870), Oshkosh, Wisconsin (1880) and Elizabeth, New Jersey (1892).
Today, the Alexian Brothers are located in Germany, Belgium, England, Ireland, the Philippines, Hungary, and the United States. The Alexian Brothers story is by no means finished. The Brothers remain committed to the healing ministry and the community, as they did more than seven centuries ago. The names and faces may change, but the spirit of love and sacrifice remains. There is still much work to be done