Also known as Holy Trinity Fathers; the Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Ordo Sanctissimae Trinitatis, O.SS.T.; Official Catholic Directory #1310) was founded by (St.) john of matha (d. 1213) and approved by Innocent III in 1198. Because of the lack of records, the early Trinitarian history is surrounded by difficulties. Although (St.) felix of valois has been traditionally considered as cofounder with John of Matha, recent critics have questioned the existence of Felix. Some, however, have sought to identify him with a certain Felix who was the minister (superior) of the Trinitarian house in Marseilles. The order is dedicated primarily to promoting devotion to the Holy Trinity. In the beginning its unique apostolate was the redemption of Christians held captive by Muslims in Spain, North Africa, and the Near East. Later, the Trinitarians became engaged in teaching, serving in parishes, hospitals, and prisons, ministering to refugees and the homeless, and working for persecuted Christians.
Organization and Rule. The Trinitarians are an exempt mendicant order, combining elements of both contemplative and active life. Besides the three solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a fourth vow is taken, not to aspire after ecclesiastical dignities. The Trinitarians follow their own rule, which was included in the bull of approbation, Dec. 17, 1198. This rule, influenced by that of the monastery of Saint-Victor in Paris, provided a workable way of life for the friars who were to be both men of activity and men of prayer. Certain relaxations in prayer and fasting were permitted in conformity with the needs of the apostolate. According to this rule nearly all income was divided into three parts, with one third being devoted exclusively to ransoming captives. Although this division was a great aid in financing the redemptions, it proved a severe strain on the resources of the Trinitarians, so that they were not able to afford large libraries or even to further the causes of their members who were eligible for canonization. Although revised somewhat in the reform movement of the late 16th century, the original rule was kept virtually intact, except that the use of sandals was introduced. This rule, which is followed by Trinitarians today, is now supplemented by the revised constitutions of the order.
History. At the time of John of Matha, Muslims in North Africa, Palestine, and sections of Spain, held Christian captives who could be ransomed by individuals, families, or the Christian states. The Trinitarian Order was founded to systematize the ransoming procedure, to solicit the necessary funds and carry them to Muslim ports, and to provide released prisoners with spiritual, physical, and moral rehabilitation. The Trinitarians were one of the first religious orders to combine features of monasticism with an apostolate that was international in scope. The friars traveled extensively on their missions of redemption and thus established houses in most of Europe and in North Africa and Palestine. When John of Matra died in 1213, about 35 Trinitarian foundations had been made.
The order continued to grow in subsequent years, but by the end of the Middle Ages a decline had set in and the 16th century saw various reforms attempted. In France, the reformed Trinitarians, founded in 1578, introduced a strict observance. Later (1766), they separated themselves from the order and took the name Canons
Regular of the Most Holy Trinity, following the Rule of St. Augustine. This branch became extinct toward the end of the last century. The reform in Spain was led by (Bl.) john baptist of the conception who, in 1597, founded the Discalced Trinitarians and effected a return to the ancient observance. The influence of his group spread to other countries and in 1636 the discalced became autonomous under their own general superior. Of the three Trinitarian branches thus created—the original or unreformed friars, the French reformed, and the discalced—only the last has survived.
No accurate estimate can be given for the number of captives ransomed from the time of the first redemption in 1199 until the last one in 1855. For the discalced branch alone it is estimated that 9,692 captives were rescued between 1625 and 1855. A comprehensive figure, embracing the work of all the Trinitarians from the beginning, has been estimated to be as high as 140,000 captives ransomed.
American Foundation. Although the order did not appear in the U.S. until 1906, its work was known to Americans before that time. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, as minister to France, appealed to the Trinitarian minister general to aid in redeeming 21 American seamen held captive by the Dey of Algiers for a ransom of $58,800.
The poet John Greenleaf Whittier saw in the work of the Trinitarians a subject for his antislavery polemic and in 1865 published his ballad "The Mantle of St. John de Matha."
The American beginnings date from the attempt of an Italian Trinitarian to open a parish in the U.S. in 1906. He was not successful, but five years later another Italian priest arrived, and in 1912 he took charge of a parish in Asbury Park, N.J. When more Trinitarians arrived, a novitiate was established at Bristol, Pa., in 1921. The first American Trinitarian ordained was an African-American convert, Augustine Derricks (d. 1927). The order has since established other parishes, and in 1931 was able to open a house for clerics in Hyattsville, Md., also the site of a new high school for boys in 1946. In 1948 a Diocesan Eucharistic Congress was held at Johnston City, Ill., in honor of the 750th anniversary of the papal approval of the order. The following year the novitiate was moved to Pikesville, Md., where the provincial headquarters and a junior college are located. In 1950 the American foundations were made a separate province. The U.S. provincialate is in Baltimore, MD; the generalate is in Rome.
Bibliography: p. deslandres, L'Ordre des Trinitaires pour le rachat des captifs, 2 v. (Toulouse 1903).