Saint Norbert was born in Xanten, near the Rhineland in Germany. He grew up and was also educated in Xanten, near Wesel, in the Electorate of Cologne. His father, Heribert, Count of Gennep, was a member of the high nobility of the Holy Roman Empire and related to the imperial house and also to the House of Lorraine. His mother was Hedwig of Guise.
Through the influence of his family he obtained a financial subsidy from the parish church of St. Victor at Xanten when he accepted ordination to the subdeaconate. His only task was to chant the Divine Office at the Church, but he apparently paid someone a small fee to take his place in the choir, because he gained an appointment as a chaplain (religious counselor) to the emperor Henry V in Cologne. The salaries from the Xanten fund and the royal treasury were enough to equip him to live in the style of the nobility of the times.
Norbert chose a valley in the Forest of Coucy (a grant from the Bishop of Laon), about 10 miles from Laon, named Prémontré. Blessed Hugh of Fosses, Saint Evermode, Antony of Nivelles, seven students of the celebrated school of Anselm, and Ralph of Laon were among his first thirteen disciples. By the next year the community had grown to 40. They all took their vows and the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré was founded. The young community at first lived in huts of wood and clay, arranged like a camp around the chapel of Saint John the Baptist, but they soon built a larger church and a monastery for the religious who joined them in increasing numbers. Going to Cologne to obtain relics for their church, Norbert is said to have discovered, through a dream, the spot where those of Saint Ursula and her companions, of Saint Gereon, and of other martyrs lay hidden. In 1125, the constitution for the order was approved by Pope Honorius II.
St Norbert gained adherents in Germany, France, Belgium and Transylvania, and houses of his order were founded in Floreffe, Viviers, St-Josse, Ardenne, Cuissy, Laon, Liège, Antwerp, Varlar, Kappenberg, Grosswardein (Oradea/Nagyvárad) and elsewhere. Count Theobald II of Champagne wanted to enter the new order, but Norbert counseled him to remain a layman and marry. Norbert prescribed a few rules and invested Theobald with the white scapular of the order, and thus, in 1122, the Third Order of St. Norbert was instituted. He continued to preach throughout France, Belgium and Germany and was successful in combatting a eucharistic heresy in Antwerp proposed by one Tanchelm. In commemoration of this, St. Norbert has been proclaimed the “Apostle of Antwerp”.
In the 12th century in the French region of Premontre, Saint Norbert founded a religious Order known as the Praemonstratensians or the Norbertines. His founding of the Order was a monumental tasks: combating rampant heresies—particularly regarding the Blessed Sacrament, revitalizing many of the faithful who had grown indifferent and dissolute, plus effecting peace and reconciliation among enemies.
Norbert entertained no pretensions about his own ability to accomplish this multiple task. Even with the aid of a goodly number of men who joined his Order, he realized that nothing could be effectively done without God’s power. Finding this help especially in devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, he and his Norbertines praised God for success in converting heretics, reconciling numerous enemies, and rebuilding faith in indifferent believers. Many of them lived in central houses during the week and served in parishes on weekends.
Reluctantly, Norbert became archbishop of Magdeburg in central Germany, a territory half pagan and half Christian. In this position he zealously and courageously continued his work for the Church until his death on June 6, 1134.
When Norbert died in Magdeburg on 6 June 1134, both the canons at the cathedral and the canons at St. Mary’s Abbey claimed the body. The two parties resorted to Lothair III who decreed the body should be buried in the Norbertine Abbey. In 1524, Martin Luther preached in the city and, as a result, Magdeburg became a Protestant city. Numerous attempts were made over the centuries by the Abbey of Strahov in Prague to retrieve the saint’s body. Only after several military defeats at the hand of Emperor Ferdinand II was the abbot of Strahov able to claim the body. On 2 May 1627 the body was finally brought to Prague where it remains to this day, displayed as an auto-icon in a glass-fronted tomb.
Saint Norbert was canonized by Pope Gregory XIII in the year 1582, and his statue appears above the Piazza colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.