A new college is continuing the bold mission of the post-Revolutionary French Church, says Conor Taafe "ON 31 July, 1801, a young priest was making his way towards Chavagnes-enPaillers. Scarcely had he crossed the parish boundary, than he stopped, blessed himself and went on his way ... When he arrived at the town, he went straight to the church, a poor church that had been ransacked and patched up many times through good will offerings, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. Before he crossed the threshold, he prostrated himself for a few minutes, then having moved forward as far as the sanctuary, he said a heartfelt prayer, bowed his head and rose full of confidence and courage. This was Father Louis-Marie Baudouin, the new Parish Priest of Chavagnes" — History of the Junior Seminary of Chavagnes-enPaillers by Fr Pierre-Yves Chaille, FMI.
The Junior Seminary of Chavagnes-enPaillers was founded by Venerable Fr Louis-Marie Baudouin in 1802, in the Vendee, an area of western France decimated by war, to provide spiritual and moral leaders capable of undertaking the painful process of rebuilding a traumatised society. Two centuries on, and in the same spirit, it is being re-founded by a group of young Catholics in September as Chavagnes International College. This time it will serve as part of an effort to turn the tide in a similar conflict: the conflict with our twenty-first century culture of death.
For Ferdi McDermott, the originator of the project, it is the latest in a series of successful ventures to promote and defend Catholic faith and culture. In 1996, he founded Saint Austin Press, a publishing house, now with over 50 titles under its belt and a bookshop in Glasgow. In September 2001, Saint Austin Press launched a new monthly magazine, StAR (which stands for Saint Austin Review) with the subtitle Reclaiming Culture. Ferdi observed in the inaugural issue: "Our culture is broken, and we must fix it; our minds and our children's minds are sick with the living death of modern life and we must all start taking our medicine ... We must rescue the broken body of our culture " Enter the new cathedralstandard choir school, enter daily Mass (with the full sung Latin liturgy twice a week), enter the old Trivium and the Quadrivium curriculum and you've entered Chavagnes International College, the latest addition to a growing armoury in the struggle to build what the post-conciliar popes, Paul VI and John Paul II describe as "the civilisation of love".
That the Vendee (the departement or county in which Chavagnes is situated) should have produced the first officially approved seminary, so soon after Napoleon's reinstatement of the right to freedom of worship, in January 1800, is hardly surprising. It had shared so intimately in the cross of a persecution that is properly referred to as `genocide.' An Englishman, Tim Hayward, has written a readable 100 page account of this period of the region's history entitled just that, Genocide: The Civil War in the Vendee Militaire 17931799.
It is no exaggeration to compare the Vendee in the last decade of the eighteenth century with Rwanda and Bosnia in the last of the twentieth. Within a year of the uprising breaking out in March 1793, the new government decided to teach the Vendee a lesson that would never be forgotten, so that nothing like the insurrection would ever happen again. A policy of "extermination" was adopted. Turreau, the newly appointed commander of the Republican forces, made his intentions clear: "All will be burned or killed during a year no man, no animal should be able to find subsistence on that soil." From early 1794 these death squads, like the Serbian chetniks in BosniaHerzegovina, or the Hutu interahamwe in Rwanda, went from village to village burning, pillaging and massacring.
The persecution, in spite of the Republicans' proclamation of the rights of man, denied one of the most fundamental rights of all; that of freedom of conscience as expressed by freedom of worship. This issue was central to the Vendee's disillusionment with a revolution it had initially supported. More specifically, it was the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which stipulated that bishops and priests were, henceforth, to be voted into office by the electorate, whether the voters were believers or not. Priests, like Fr Baudouin, who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Republic, were to be deported and replaced with loyal "Juror-Priests" Fr Baudouin himself paid a price of seven months in jail for his own refusal to swear this oath. On his release, in September 1792, he left for Spain. It was while in exile, in Toledo, that he first dreamed of renewing the battered people of La Vendee by forming priests to shepherd them. This was the best way he could see of achieving his purpose and he made his first, though unsuccessful, attempt to found a seminary. In August 1797, he returned to risk his life as an underground priest (much as the Jesuits did for England in penal times) until the reinstatement of the freedom of worship in January 1800, when he could safely come out of hiding.
After this, but before his above described arrival in Chavagnes in July 1801, he had served in several nearby parishes. Inspired by his example, Placide Guinemand and Jean-Jacques Bruneteau, two young men from La Jonchere who felt called to be priests, placed themselves under his direction. Fr Baudouin agreed to educate and train them, in preparation for ordination and when he moved to Chavagnes, he invited them to follow him there, which they did, to be joined by Mathieu Lucet, Fr Baudouin's successor at the head of Chavagnes. This took place in 1802 and was the formal beginning of his infor mal seminary. It had no buildings, no teachers besides Fr Baudouin, hardly any books and even less money. Between the French Revolution and 1954, the time of Fr Chaille's History of the Junior Seminary, the Vendee gave 3,000 priests to the Church in France and to the missions, an achievement in which Chavagnes played a huge part.
Two hundred years on, Chavagnes International College represents an attempt to do something similar in the different context of our times; to form Catholic leaders in business, in education, in government and in the Church, who will contribute to the challenge of reclaiming our civilisation for Christ.
"Living in a building that has been a centre of Christian prayer and study for 200 years," Ferdi McDermott writes in the prospectus, "in a part of France where the memory of saints and martyrs is kept alive to this day, boys are bound to be inspired by the atmosphere of culture and spirituality."
Vice Principal Benedict O'Connor adds: "I believe that the successful education of the whole person can only be achieved when it is centred around the Mass." Benedict has recently returned to Europe, with his wife and three young children, having been in Zimbabwe for 11 years. For the last six years Benedict has been part of the senior management team, and head of sixth form at St George's College in Harare, a boys' boarding school with 700 pupils.
"At Chavagnes our ideal is to cultivate an environment where boys can grow spiritually. This can only be achieved when all aspects of College life, that is the academic, cultural and sporting activities, have God at their centre."
Zimbabwe's cultural meltdown has had dire consequences for the O'Connor family. Very happily settled and fulfilled in their jobs, the family, like so many others, had to radicaly re-examine their future in the light of Mugabe's tyrannical regime.
What does Benedict feel is distinctive about Chavagnes, which makes him so confident it will achieve its mission? "The staff are all practicing Catholics involved in a common prayer life themselves; there will be morning and evening prayer for all the staff, much as it would have been with the communities of teaching orders in the past. But most importantly of all, as a natural state of affairs, staff and students will be going to daily Mass. So, it is a combination of the freshness of our approach with the quality of the staff that will be distinctive."
The staff of Chavagnes must be doing it for love because they definitely aren't doing it for money. In the first year, teachers can expect about half of what they would earn elsewhere. Admittedly, west of France than it does in the UK and while it is the intention of Andrew McDermott to raise this figure sooner rather than later, the College will depend enormously on the sacrifices its teachers are prepared to make as part of their vocation. Andrew, the school's Bursar, is Ferdi's father and the financial brains behind the project. His ambition? "To leave this world, having done at least some good for the Catholic Church, into which I was received some 18 years ago, and for my fellow man. We cannot simply moan about the state of modern life. Something positive must be done about it."
Someone who has done just that is Robert Asch. In the summer of 1998, he co-founded with Ferdi McDermott St Cyprian's School, an annual summer school for European boys, combining learning the English language with cultural activities, sport as well as spiritual input including attendance at Mass. A convert from Reform Judaism, (Rabbi Hugo Gryn was a family friend) and the son of two Canadian opera singers, Robert was baptised at Farm Street in the summer of 1996 and has been co-editor of StAR since its launch last September. He read English and French Literature at the University of Toronto, but will be teaching English and History.
Robert's is an intriguing story. Shortly after completing his degree in 1990, he moved to what was then Czechoslovakia to teach English language and literature. As well as teaching teenagers at a state-funded gymnasium, only a year after the fall of communism, he also taught adults at the Institute for Nuclear Power and Safety. Eladia Gomez-Posthill, who will be teaching Spanish, knows all about boarding schools. As she was orphaned at an early age, she was brought up by nuns, which has made her a passionate and orthodox Catholic, full of ideas and dynamism. Eladia believes we should all familiarise ourselves with Spanish culture and literature because of the uninterrupted flow of Catholic traditions, customs and social structures, unaffected by the Reformation or the atheistic rationalism of the enlightenment.
Father of three, Yann Le Goaec, the College's Art teacher, has a pedigree wellsuited to the spirit of AngloFrench cooperation, with a Breton father and a mother of English recusant stock. A popular illustrator in France, his cartoons have also graced the pages of The Spectator and the DailyMail. Profiles of other staff, and much more about every aspect of the College, may be found on its website www.chavagnes.org Chavagnes takes much of its inspiration from the vision of Pope Paul VI for the "Evangelisation of cultures" as outlined in Evangelii Nuntiandi: "[F]or the Church it is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever wider geographic areas or to ever greater numbers of people, but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind's criteria of judgement, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation."
As though writing the mission statement for Chavagnes International College, he goes on: "The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times. Therefore, every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelisation of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel. But this encounter will not take place if the Gospel is not proclaimed."
At Chavagnes every effort will be made to proclaim that Gospel in word and Sacrament. Its hallowed walls cry out, with Venerable LouisMarie Baudouin, "Who will build the civilisation of love?" Will you? Will your son?
Conor Taaffe is the Development Officer of Chavagnes International College