The presence of monastic communities following the Augustinian rule in Barcelona is supposedly very ancient. Admittedly, the further one goes back into local history and legend one finds the two somewhat inextricably intertwined. However it is often the case that legends have a significant basis in fact.
What we know for certain is that the important early Church father Saint Paulinus of Nola (354-431 A.D.), who was married to a Catalan lady and had land holdings in Catalonia, was ordained a priest in Barcelona on Christmas Day 393 A.D. by Lampius, the then-bishop of Barcelona. It is said that during the year or so he spent in Catalonia before returning to Italy (where he later became a bishop), he founded a community based along ideas adopted from his friend and contemporary Saint Augustine of Hippo. There is some documentary evidence that this proto-Augustinian community continued until the invasion of the Moors in the 8th century, and possibly survived it at the site of what is now the Romanesque church of Sant Pau del Camp, about which I have written previously.
Whatever their origin, it is formally documented that the Augustinians established a monastic community on Carrer del Comerç in Barcelona’s Borne district in 1309. This was close to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, which was the original resting place of Saint Eulalia, Patron Saint of the City, who is now interred in the crypt of Barcelona’s Cathedral. The cornerstone for the church of the monastery, dedicated to Saint Augustine, was laid in 1349, but construction on the enormous complex continued until around 1700. During their residence in the Borne, the monks at Sant Agustí assisted in pastoral functions for the parishioners at Santa Maria del Mar.
For centuries as the monks of Sant Agustí Vell ministered to the poor in the neighborhood, they simultaneously fostered good relationships with the wealthy merchants who built their medieval townhouse palaces nearby. For example, in 1529 several of the monks died while caring for victims of the black plague, which had hit the city that year. This combination of good will and good geography allowed the monastery to grow quite rich, and to commission works such as the magnificent Altarpiece of St. Augustine by the great Catalan medieval painter Jaume Huguet, completed in 1486, and which is now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art.
The church and much of the monastic complex were destroyed by massive shelling on the part of the Bourbons in 1714 during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, when the Catalans backed the losing Imperial Austrian House of Hapsburg. The new Bourbon King of Spain, the former Duke of Anjou, took the title Felipe V and ordered much of what remained of Sant Agustí demolished, so as to build a massive new citadel to keep Barcelona in check. The monks were forced to find new quarters in the Raval district, in the western part of the old city, and founded the Baroque complex of Sant Agustí Nou, whose church still stands.
The remains of the old complex, now known as Sant Agustí Vell or “Old St. Augustine’s”, including part of one side of the cloister and part of one of the lateral aisles of the church, were converted into a military barracks and storage depot. More recently, the city government took over the site and established the “Centre Cívic Convent Sant Agustí”. In addition to a bar/cafe, gallery and meeting rooms used by locals, it hosts a series of concerts, discussions, and exhibitions throughout the year. Over the past decade the site has become particularly well-known internationally for its biennial Festival of Electronic Music and Sound, featuring dozens of internationally-known digital artists, musicians and DJ’s.