Secondary School, Too

BESS TWISTON-DAVIES

A boarding school for English-speaking students sets down roots in a French village with a long Catholic heritage.

It is midday in a village in France, surrounded by acres of open country. The Angelus bell tolls: from the Church, the school, and

several convents tucked discreetly between the stone houses. You are two hours from Paris, in a remote village of the Loire Valley called Chavagnes-en-Pailliers. Nothing could seem more typically or authentically French.

Then you notice something odd. The village has a cricket pitch. And you catch the sound of voices reciting the Angelus — in English. Or at least that is what you might encounter in September, when a radically authentic Catholic school, centered on the teachings of Christ and his Church, opens in Chavagnes-en-Pailliers.

The founders of Chavagnes International College, a boys boarding school, say they hope it will begin to address what they describe as a “global crisis” in Catholic education. This is a crisis “which threatens souls,” says Eric Hester, a retired Catholic headmaster from England who is head of the college’s international advisory board. He continues:

If you think I am being alarmist, you have only to think about the soaring rates of lapsation among young people over the last 30 years and then ask yourself what is the root of the problem. Many schools have abandoned the authentic vision of Catholic education as taught by the magisterium of the Church.

The school is the brainchild of Ferdi McDermott, a 30-year-old British publisher and entrepreneur who is modeling Chavagnes after the traditional British boarding school, to which he adds a heavy dose of Catholicism. There will be plenty of team sports, choral singing, and Shakespeare, along with Latin Vespers, Compline, and sung Mass.

The school is open to American, Australian, and British boys aged 9 to 18 and will cost £8,000: about $11,500, including tuition and fees. All instruction (other than French classes) will be conducted in English. But the school will not become an isolated English-speaking colony. McDermott is planning to welcome the neighbors onto the campus, mindful that in this particular village, 10 percent of the residents are monks or nuns. Bishop Marc Santier of Luçon (once the see of Cardinal Richelieu) sold McDermott the property on which the new school is built, and remains a trustee of the institution; his lawyers have helped to establish the school as a diocesan trust. Every year, Chavagnes pupils will meet French Catholics their own age during the annual Pentecost pilgrimage between Notre Dame in Paris and the equally famous cathedral of Chartres. The walk takes three days, and pilgrims camp en route and attend daily Mass in Latin.

Assembling a staff

As McDermott sees it, religion should not be merely a question of daily worship. Nor will he be satisfied with the celebration of Catholic feast days at the school. He wants Catholic thought and Christian philosophy to influence academic subjects as well. To achieve that goal, he plans to use academic programs set up by British examination boards.

Unlike countries such as France, where the state decides the contents of school curricula, in England exam boards will tailor academic programs to the needs of particular schools. “That means if two or three schools want a religious-education syllabus containing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the exam boards in Britain will provide it—and in the case of the Catechism have done so already,” McDermott explains. “But if several schools required it, you could have academic syllabi that teach certain periods of history, or even include the Church’s position on population control in Social Geography classes, if the demand is there.”

As the founder of Mentor, a journal for Catholic educators, McDermott is well aware of the problems in Catholic schools worldwide. He explains the motives behind his ambitious new venture:

Every profession should be able to be evaluated. The difference between Roman Catholic schools and non-Catholic schools is that Roman Catholic schools are supposed to produce young people with a substantively different worldview. As recently as the 1970s, Catholic bishops were saying that Catholicism should permeate every aspect of the curriculum. How do you measure if this is successfully communicated? It doesn’t wash for Catholic headmasters and religious-education teachers to say, “Our pupils may not go to Mass, but they are very committed to world peace and social justice.” However, rather, than bemoaning this fact, we decided to do something about it.

All the members of McDermott’s staff are committed Catholics, including Joseph Pearce, the Catholic author who is currently teaching at Ave Maria College, Michigan. Pearce’s book, Literary Converts, charted the conversions of prominent Catholic writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Oscar Wilde, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Currently Pearce is writing a biography of Hilaire Belloc. The school choir will be led by Nicholas Bergstrom-Allen, the former director of Stockholm Cathedral Choir and, until last summer, the master of Cambridgeshire Boys’ Choir. Professor Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame is a member of the advisory board. Over a dozen Catholics teaching in British schools have also applied to join the staff of the new school, which will double as a Catholic cultural center during the holidays. McDermott is already planning retreats based on the spirituality of St Louis Grignon de Montfort, liturgical Latin courses, Gregorian chant seminars, and an international conference on the life and teaching of Pope Pius XII.

The region’s history

Chavagnes-en-Pailliers is located in La Vendée, the most heavily Catholic area of France. During one of the bloodiest phases of the French Revolution, thousands of local residents who refused to be disloyal to the Church were murdered by the Republican army in the peasant-royalist uprisings that began in 1793. Terrified villagers hid from soldiers in the local forest of Grasla, where Athanasius Hervé de Charette, a notable Catholic and royalist general buried his personal fortune prior to his arrest and execution. When fighting stopped, one of de Charette’s officers is said to have dug up the general’s treasure and used it to repair churches and finance new buildings, such as the junior seminary which is now McDermott’s school.

The seminary was founded by the Venerable Louis-Marie Beaudoin, the priest to whom the neo-gothic school chapel is dedicated. A stained glass window in the parish church also shows Pére Beaudoin, who founded two teaching orders in Chavagnes-en-Pailliers, helping to establish the religious character that still marks the town. Like many other priests of the turbulent years of the Revolution, he has never been forgotten by the people of La Vendée—although his seminary has had mixed fortunes.

Napoleon moved the seminary, and the French government closed it down at the start of the 20th century. Later a friendly aristocrat bought the property and returned it to the Church. But in 1940, the Nazi regime moved in, converting the seminary into a regional headquarters, and swathing it with swastika flags. Luckily they never detected the fifty Jewish children whom villagers quietly adopted in 1941 under the guidance of their parish priest and a village doctor. Recently the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded medals of thanksgiving to the villagers of Chavagnes-en-Pailliers — whose town motto, Une Volonté d’Accueil (“A Will to Welcome”) is said to date from the World War II era.

As his school prepares to receive its first class of students, McDermott is inviting interested parents to visit the school and interview staff. The trip to the new school is a pleasant one, he notes. Chavagnes-en-Pailliers is a half hour from the city of Nantes, which has an international airport and Eurostar links to Paris and southern England.

For further details about Chavagnes International College, see the school’s web site at www.chavagnes.org

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Bess Twiston-Davies. "Secondary School, Too" Catholic World Report (April, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly.

THE AUTHOR

Bess Twiston-Davies is a Catholic freelance journalist working in the United Kingdom.

Copyright © 2002 Catholic World Report


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