Stephen Harding, an Englishman, was returning from a pilgrimage to Rome when he came upon a community of monks living an austere life in small huts in Molesme, France. Abandoning all thought of returning home, he decided to remain among them, under the leadership of their holy abbot, Robert. The community grew and prospered—so much, in fact, that several members of the monastery, including Stephen, Brother Alberic, and Abbot Robert, envisioned the idea of a new community, closer to the primitive spirit of the Benedictine Rule. With support from the archbishop of Lyons, they received permission to leave Molesme. Altogether, twenty monks set out, settling finally in a remote clearing in a forest in Cîteaux, where they established their new monastery. It was the foundation of the new Cistercian Order.
When Robert, the first abbot, eventually returned to Molesme, Alberic succeeded him. Upon Alberic’s death some years later, Stephen became the third abbot of Cîteaux. In this role he truly shaped the Cistercian ideal of austerity and purity. Insisting on strict poverty, he forbade any form of pomp. He discouraged the patronage of wealthy lords and restored the reliance on manual labor. And yet the community nearly foundered for want of vocations. This changed on the day when Bernard and thirty companions all applied at once for admission, thereby marking the turning point in the order’s fortunes. St. Stephen died in 1134.
“If there has been in me any good at all, and if any fruit has been produced from my littleness, it was through the help of the grace of God.” —Last words of St. Stephen Harding