The Congregation of Cellites, or Alexian Brothers (CFA), evolved from the needs of the victims of the Black Death of 14th-century Europe. The work of caring for the sick and burying the dead fell to the lot of men and women whose heroic charity overcame a natural fear of infection and death. One such group, founded in Brabant, Belgium, became known as the Poor Brothers, Bread Brothers, or Cellite Brothers. Those living in St. Alexius House at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen, Germany) bound themselves by the vows of religion, according to the Rule of St. Augustine. In 1469 the Holy See raised the society to a religious order. They chose St. Alexius, who worked among the poor, as their chief patron and have since been known as the Alexian Brothers.
Despite European wars and political upheavals, the congregation at its peak had several thousand brothers working in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, and northern France in establishments that were closely affiliated, but locally independent. At a low point, following the French Revolution, the Alexians were revitalized chiefly through the efforts of the superior of the Aachen house, Brother Dominic Brock, known as the "Pater." In 1854 he and four others renewed their vows, which had become almost meaningless because of government interference. Vocations increased and new institutions for the physically and mentally ill were established. In 1870 Clement Wallrath (Pater Dominic's successor) obtained full papal approval from Pius IX, becoming the first superior general responsible directly to the Holy See. Leo XIII urged the independent Alexian houses to unite under Pater Clement, but few actually did so.
Meanwhile, Brother Bonaventure Thelen, who in 1865 was sent to establish the congregation in the U. S., opened Alexian Brothers Hospital in Chicago, Ill., the following year. During the next few years, the brothers pioneered many medical advances and erected hospitals in St. Louis, Mo., Oshkosh, Wis., and Elizabeth, N.J. Under Brother Aloysius Schyns, they incorporated their school of nursing in Chicago in 1898, the only Catholic school of nursing for male students in the nation. In 1938 a home for retired men and women was opened in Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tenn.; in 1955 the brothers took over the operation of the clinic for Father Edward Flanagan's Boys Home at Boys Town, Nebr.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Brothers operate medical and healthcare facilities in Germany, Belgium, England, Ireland, and the United States, with missions in the Philippines and India.
Bibliography: Official Catholic Directory #0120; c. j. kauffman, Tamers of Death: The History of the Alexian Brothers from 1300 to 1789 (New York 1976). c. j. kauffman, The Ministry of Healing: The History of the Alexian Brothers from 1789 to the Present (New York 1978). w. b. faherty, To Rest In Charity: A History of the Alexian Brothers in Saint Louis (1869–1984) (St. Louis 1984). l. davidson, The Alexian Brothers in Chicago: An Evolutionary Look at the Monastery and Modern Health Care (New York 1990).