St. Stephen Harding was born in England and educated at Sherborne Abbey. When he had finished his studies, he visited the monastery at Molesme and met the abbot, Robert of Molesme, and the prior Alberic (both of whom later became saints). Stephen was impressed by their community and joined them.
After a few years there, the three men led 20 other monks to establish an austere monastery in Citeaux. Robert eventually returned to Molesme to resume his duties as abbot, and Alberic, who became abbot in his absence, died in 1110. Stephen was then elected as abbot.
Stephen established the famous “Charter of Charity,” which became the standard for Cistercian monasticism. Although very few men were joining the monastery at the time, and the monks there suffered from hunger and sickness, Stephen persevered. In 1112, St. Bernard of Clairvaux joined the community, bringing with him 30 other companions. The next year, Stephen was able to found a colony at La Ferte.
By the time he died in 1134, Stephen had established 13 monasteries, and by the end of the century, there were 500 across Europe.