Chavagnes en Paillers has a long history of association with England, and with a general attitude of welcoming outsiders. The motto on the official arms of the village comes from the 133rd Psalm (Ecce Quam Bonum): ‘Habitare fratres in unum’ (Behold how good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.)
The land on which the College is built, formerly the site of a Roman villa, was given to a community of Benedictine monks in the thirteenth century by the Anglo-French family, Harpedan de Belleville, who then ruled the area. The monastery built at that time was dedicated to St Anthony of Egypt (also called St Anthony the Great), the founder of monasticism. The monastery received a canonical visitation from a Papal Legate, Bertrand de Got in the late 12th century. He subsequently became the first Pope at Avignon, Clement V.
In the years that followed, Chavagnes saw many changes and upheavals. In the nineteenth century, its walls housed the first junior seminary in France after the Revolution, founded by the Venerable Louis-Marie Baudouin in 1802. Father Baudouin recounted a prophecy whispered to him by a dying priest, renowned for his sanctity: “il y aura toujours un séminaire à Chavagnes”(“there will always be a seminary in Chavagnes”). This legend would later inspire several successful attempts to keep the seminary open against the will of the Emperor Napoleon, the Fourth Republic and the Nazis.
Already recognised by Napoleon (who actually met Father Baudouin and his pupils), and under the authority of the diocesan bishop, it received a royal charter from Charles X (pictured left) in 1825, as the ‘Ecclesiastical school of Chavagnes’, during the brief period of the restored Bourbon monarchy (1824–30).
The buildings were confiscated from the Church in 1905 as part of the anti-clerical crackdown throughout France. The priests then involved with educating the boys at Chavagnes were exiled to Shaftesbury in Dorset. In 1912 the buildings were bought back by a local aristocrat, the Comte de Suzannet, and reopened as a junior seminary, much to the chagrin of the Paris authorities.
The College was shared between German soldiers and junior seminarians during World War II, housing a small garrison and a military hospital. A machine-gun was placed in the clock tower, dominating the village, but the Nazi soldiers turned a blind eye to over 50 Jewish children sheltered by local families until the liberation. The villagers were so good at keeping a secret regarding the hidden Jewish children, that the information only emerged in the 1990s.
Chavagnes of the Popes
Shortly after the Second World War the College (then the Petit Séminaire de Chavagnes) received the visit of Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, Papal Nuncio in Paris. The then Mayor, Mr Gilbert de Guerry de Beauregard, gave a welcome speech in which he alluded to the previous visit of a Papal Legate in the 12th Century and mentioned that the last one had become a Pope. He suggested that Cardinal Roncalli might also share the same destiny. Roncalli became Pope John XXIII a few years’ later. In an interesting turn, the Pope of the day, Pius XII sent a long letter of greeting to the people of Chavagnes, referring to the historic faith of the people of the Vendée area, in the wake of this visit. The letter was signed by a substitute, by the name of Martini, later Pope Paul VI.
In 1997, as had happened many times before in the history of Chavagnes, the building closed its doors for a time. In 1999 the buildings housed 50 refugees from Kosovo. Finally, in September 2002, with the active support and blessing of the local Bishop, a group of English, American, Australian and Irish teachers, led by Ferdi McDermott, reopened the school, but with a different, international emphasis.
In 2004, two founding Masters of Chavagnes International College, Robert Asch and Ferdi McDermott, were invited to visit Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome. Cardinal Ratzinger blessed rosaries for the boys at the College and expressed the hope that his forthcoming retirement would enable him to work more closely with his visitors.
However, he too became Pope, as Benedict XVI, making him the fourth Pope with a particular link to this remote French village and with its little “ecclesiastical school”. In one of his last acts as Pope, Benedict XVI gave the title Venerable to Father Baudouin (the founder of the Petit Séminaire de Chavagnes) on 20 December 2012.
Arms and Motto
The arms of the College combine those on the second Great Seal of King Richard I of England, used by his successors until 1340 with the French fleurs-de-lis and the ecclesiastical mitre: “Sinister, three golden lions passant guardant, on a red field; impaled, dexter, with Azure, two fleurs-de-lis of the Kingdom of France, and an episcopal mitre between them.”
Richard I of England, Duke of Normandy (as Richard IV), Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes, and Overlord of Brittany, (reigned 1189-1199) ruled Poitou at the time of the foundation of the original monastery in Chavagnes, and founded other monasteries himself in the surrounding area, including a Priory of Grandmont. These arms of England are combined with the right hand side representing the recognition of the French monarchy under Charles X (by the fleurs de lis) and the patronage of Bishops of Luçon (with the mitre) to this day.
As well as representing England and France, three other levels of symbolism exist in the coat of arms. The two sides of the arms may be taken to represent allegorically the Blessed Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary; also on the one hand the theological virtues, on the other the virtue of purity, supported by the Sacraments of the Church. Lastly the Lions symbolise heroic courage; whilst the lilies symbolise beauty, and the mitre truth and goodness: three values which the courage of the lions must serve if it is to be truly heroic. Echoing these sentiments, the full heraldic achievement features two croziers (one abbatial and one episcopal) and two lions rampant.
The College’s motto is In electis tuis mitte radices, ‘Put down roots in those Thou hast chosen’. It is a reference to the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Chapter 24, verse 13 in which Wisdom is bidden by God to take root among his Elect, the people of Israel. On a nineteenth century statue of the Virgin and Child, under the devotion Our Lady of the Sceptre in the front Quad of Chavagnes, an inscription attributes the words to the Child Jesus, addressing His mother: ‘in electis meis mitte radices’ (‘put down your roots in my Elect’).