History of the Order of St. Paul the First Hermit
The Paulines can actually claim to be part of a rather exclusive club. Many people assume that Paulines are hermits, like their patron saint, Paul the First Hermit. Rather Paulines are canonically monks. As such they are, properly speaking, one of 7 orders of Monks in the Western Church. They have their place just after the Carthusians and before the Hieronymites. The Benedictines dominate monastic life in the Western Church, this makes the Paulines special indeed, because they follow the Rule of St Augustine. Many people confuse Paulines with Dominicans, or assume that Pauline are friars. This mistake is easy enough to make, considering the Pauline habit is very similar to the Dominican and the orders are organised into provinces. But Dominicans are friars, whilst Paulines are monks.
The Paulines were founded in Hungry by Blessed Eusebius of Esztergom around 1250. He had had a vision in which he saw many little flames in the hills around Esztergom come together into one large fire. He took this vision to mean that he was called to gather all the hermits that lived in the hills together into one monastic community.
These monks soon were joined by another community that had formed under Bishop Bartholomew of Pécs, from whom we were to receive our first rule. It was the decision of this new community of hermits become monks to take as their patron saint, one that was very dear to them, St. Paul the First Hermit.
The next big moment in our Order was when in 1308 we received official approval from Rome and received a new religious rule, that of St. Augustine. This really started the golden age for our Order. We rapidly spread from Hungry, where we soon had over a hundred monasteries, to the surrounding countries such as Croatia, Germany, Poland and Sweden. In 1381 we received the relics of St. Paul at one of our Monasteries in Hungry. The next year, 1382, a monastery was founded on Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, Poland in which was placed the icon of the Black Madonna.
Though during this time we may have reached a peak of about 8000 monks, these good times were not to last for us. In 1526, following the battle of Mochas, the Kingdom of Hungary fell to and was occupied by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The invading Turks martyred many thousands of Monks and the invaders despoiled a great number of monasteries. Because Hungary formed the heart of the Order and the Order itself never really spread beyond Central Europe, the fall of Hungary delivered a crippling blow to the Pauline Order.
In the 18th century, by the order of the Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II, our Order, along with many others that were not involved in active work, were suppressed. This essentially wiped out the order in Croatia, Austria and what little remained in Hungary. Poland the last stronghold of the order was finally divided and partitioned amongst its hostile neighbours in 1795, during which the few remaining houses of the order were isolated, weakened and eventually dissolved.
By the turn of the 20th century, we had only two houses left in Poland. One being the Monastery of Jasna Góra, which I mentioned before. The other being another important shrine at Kraków dedicated to Saint Stanislaus who is patron saint of Poland and has a story that is similar to that of Thomas á Becket. It did not help much that one house was on the German side of Poland, and the other on the Russian side.