Ferdi McDermott

At Chavagnes International College, our English Catholic boarding school for boys, situated in the west of France, near Nantes, Mass is celebrated daily in the main College Chapel, Monday to Friday according to the 1962 missal, for all boys and Masters. On Sundays, Mass and Vespers in the Extraordinary form attract parents of pupils and a growing local following of friends and supporters. In addition, there are confessions, adoration, Benediction and other devotions held regularly in our chapel. The strains of Gregorian chant can be heard every day. Why, might you ask, do we place the Church’s liturgy at the heart of our life as a school? Perhaps I may answer this by an attempt at telling the story of Catholic education from an English standpoint, and with a very long view.

At Chavagnes, we take as our blueprint the checklist for Catholic schools from Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis: a broad education not just confined to religious teaching, a deep education which creates a habit of intellectual discipline, a moral formation and, lastly, a formation in prayer, especially in the context of the Sacred Liturgy. That document is nearly sixty years old now. But its philosophy is much older, as I will try and show.

When, about twenty years ago, I was setting up Chavagnes International College, I studied the handbooks of several leading English public schools to give me some inspiration for our own. Browsing through the correct and crisp prose on the arcana of uniform, haircuts and sports gear, I noticed a common feature of several leading boarding schools that surprised me. Boys were not only expected to attend daily chapel services, but especially obliged to be present in chapel on a Sunday, to keep the Sabbath day holy. In cases where parents took their sons home for the weekend, they were asked to provide the name and telephone number of the incumbent of the parish their son would be attending, to enable the school authorities to check that he had been to church. I even heard anecdotes of rich step-fathers waiting outside English country churches in their comfortable convertibles while their sleepy stepsons who had been hauled out of bed after a night of partying, dozed through Prayer Book Mattins and a dreary sermon in a discreet pew near the back door.

Boys pray at Chavagnes International College.

Nowadays such happenings are rare. Priorities have sadly changed. And with covid and its lockdown, many things will never be the same again. But within living memory our nation’s leading places of education recognised strongly the centrality of worship to education. Moreover, the only mandatory elements of State education until the 1980s were Christian Religious Instruction and a daily act of worship. No other country in Europe had a similar law. The roots of this tradition are very deep. In England today we still have hundreds of schools founded during the first millennium of English pre-Reformation Christianity. That is unique. And despite the trauma of the Reformation, many had, until perhaps the last decade, held on to the idea that the best education is one which has the worship of God at its heart. As I approach 50 next year, I remember with fondness the country primary school where we read the Bible, prayed several times a day and sang traditional hymns. It all seemed completely normal then. 

Later on, at senior school, there were perhaps fewer prayers, but there was much more study of Scripture and as a chorister I got to sing plenty of Palestrina, Bach and Mozart. I was a Catholic boy in an Anglican school. But I could tell it was a good one. And a positive experience of both primary and secondary school got me interested in education at an early age.

The Catechetical School in Alexandria as imagined by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini.

Let me tell you about the first ever Catholic boarding school for boys … in the late 2nd century, in the shadow of the great library of Alexandria, where, three centuries before, the chief librarian Eratosthenes had first calculated the circumference of the globe, St Clement of Alexandria ran a school for boys where the mathematics of Pythagoras, the oratory of Cicero and the epic poetry of Homer were taught alongside not only Sacred Scripture and Christian doctrine but also Greek athletics and dance. And every day, the pupils would recite the psalms and attend the liturgy. In fact they spent an incredible amount of time singing, and here is a hymn that Clement composed for them to sing, probably outside of the liturgy, and perhaps as they danced! We give it in an English translation which, although it omits many of the beautiful metaphors (the boys are untamed foals; Christ is the bit in their mouths; they later go out with him to haul in the fishes, etc) it is at least rhyming, metrical and easy to sing (to the melody of “Thou whose almighty Word”).

SHEPHERD of tender youth/ Guiding in love and truth/   Through devious ways;/ Christ our triumphant king, / We come Thy name to sing;/ Hither our children bring /  Tributes of praise.

So now, and till we die, /Sound we Thy praises high, /   And joyful sing./ Let all the holy throng/ Who to Thy Church belong, /Unite and swell the song/  To Christ our King!

We need to move on three hundred years to the Rule of St Benedict in the fifth century to understand how this great tradition came to spread throughout Europe and strike very deep roots in distant England. In his Rule Benedict calls the monks to practise each day a specific kind of prayer called ‘meditation’ in which the Christian repeats in a low voice the words of a sacred text, over and over, to draw out the meaning. But he can only do that if he can read the words. So Benedict orders that during ‘meditation time’ the boys, together with any men under 50 who cannot yet read, must be taught their letters. And then in addition the whole psalter should be recited each week, as well as the celebration of Masses. But monasteries, even before St Benedict, were not only places of prayer; they were also the repositories of secular knowledge going back to the Greeks. And schools qua schools, such as there were, were always very much communities of prayer.  These were the places that kept the light of civilisation burning while everything seemed to be collapsing in Europe. And it was the new rule of St Benedict which gave a new impetus to monasticism and to education, thus coming to the rescue of cultural continuity and also of the spreading of the Gospel . But this important role which the Rule of St Benedict played in the promotion of Christian education and culture is really all down to one man, St Gregory the Great. 

6th century St Gregory the Great was a rich young man who had set up a community following St Benedict’s Rule in his family villa. When he became Pope, he famously sent Augustine all the way to Canterbury with a group of Anglo-Saxon boys discovered in the slave market of Rome. He had seen these fair-haired youths and wondered at their strange appearance. When he enquired as to their identity he was told ‘Angli sunt’, meaning “they are Angles”.  ‘Non angli sed angeli’ … “Not Angles, but angels … if only they were Christians” he is said to have answered.

And so the boys were bought out of slavery, then no doubt offered a few hot dinners and fresh clothes, beforing accepting baptism and the monastic tonsure. Thus was English Catholicism born. They accompanied Augustine across the channel as his translators. And out of this community grew the first English Catholic boarding school, with the worship of God at its heart.  First there was Canterbury, then Rochester. Other monastic schools began to spring up everywhere in England, under the influence of Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis. Several of them still exist today, 1,400 years later. It ought to be mentioned that in the Celtic fringes of the north and west, and in Ireland, the Catholic faith had been present since Roman times. In Ireland, monastic schools, and even whole monastic villages, had existed since the 5th century.

The Last Chapter: St Bede dictates to one of his pupils, a young Saxon boy.

We know all about the adventures of St Augustine of Canterbury from the writings of St Bede, who himself benefited from a 7th century monastic education in the monastery of Jarrow, near Durham, in the north of England. Bede wrote mighty pedagogical treatises too, proof that only a generation or two after the mission to the Anglo-Saxons, the school system was well and truly up and running all over England.

In the time of the 9th century Alfred the Great, who himself translated Pope Gregory’s Encyclical into Anglo-Saxon, the call was renewed across the land, during a substantial 15-year period of truce with the Danes: “education for all.” And that meant girls as well as boys. The main thing was to learn to read, so that the knowledge of books and the words of prayer could enter the soul through the window of the eye.  And not just Latin, but also Old English. For when the Normans conquered England two centuries later in 1066, they subdued a pragmatic, more egalitarian and more learned race which already had a flourishing written literature in their native tongue, while written French was only in its infancy.

And so in what we came to call the Dark Ages, with the Roman Empire in collapse and the threat of the Norsemen ever present, the English (with the Welsh, the Irish and the Scots) busied themselves with the creation of centres of prayer, culture and learning. In a climate of uncertainty, but in a spirit of faith, the whole of England had taken, as it were,  “the Benedict Option”. The teaching of Greek suffered a decline, but the Latin flourished and many Greek stories were retold in Latin, while the Mathematical writings of Euclid, translated into Latin, were widely studied. There was no Imperial system to keep all this going, but the Church made a surprisingly good job of it, especially in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, despite their considerable distance from Rome. Continental Europe was in turmoil, but in faraway Britain even the girls went to school, while in Ireland, the penitential monks were busy reciting all 150 psalms, not weekly, but daily. They were praying like mad … for Europe. While Alfred started his chain of Saxon schools, Charlemagne did the same in France. But he needed an Irishman (St Clement of Ireland) to run his Cathedral school for boys in Paris while an Englishman (Alcuin of York) ran the Palace School in Aachen (Aix la Chapelle).

And so when at the end of the 13th century, Innocent III asked every religious house in Christendom to open a school, England already had a massive head start. By the time of the Reformation there were Catholic schools in every English town: monastic schools, chantry schools, colleges, grammar schools, all founded with the gifts of the faithful and built on daily prayer and worship. Hundreds of them still exist , although they have sadly departed from the faith that prompted their creation. 

The Chapel of Eton College, founded 1440.

The school I attended in Southampton produced the celebrated hymn writer Isaac Watts. It was founded in 1554 to replace a chantry school which had existed for centuries but was abolished, like all the chantries, in 1548. It seems likely that the late medieval Chantry of St Mary was itself a consolidation of earlier educational endeavours going back perhaps to the 8th or 9th century when Southampton was already becoming an important town in the Kingdom of Wessex. I felt very privileged to share in these traditions when I was a boy and even then I thought about my Masters in their black gowns and the long chain of Masters and monks before them, peacefully and prayerfully handing on what Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, called “the best that has been thought and said.”

Of course England famously looks very medieval, even when most of it is Victorian. The Houses of Parliament and the St Pancras Hotel look like strange and ancient shrines, but they are pure 19th century. This romantic appeal to the ages of faith came from the heart.  Englishmen were looking collectively back to a lost golden age; partly because scientific progress was so fast as to feel destabilising, and because the vast expansion of the empire was bewildering too. People needed a sure and certain anchor to hold on to.  And they sought it out in education, in a big way. Provincial grammar schools, close to their communities, were in fair shape. But the prestigious boarding schools now frequented by the aristocracy, such as Eton and Rugby, were now in bad shape and in need of reform. They needed a revival, and when they got one, it was as much religious as pedagogical. It was, even within the worldview of an essentially Protestant religious settlement, a call back to our ancient medieval roots. England, in the midst of age of steam and automation, set about filling the landscape with towering but reassuring gothic steeples. And many of them were those of a new cohort of collegiate establishments conceived in imitation of the medieval tradition. These brand new schools all featured the daily solemn worship of God at their very heart. 

The revival of this ideal in the 19th century, including Nathaniel Woodard’s founding of the amazing Lancing College with its enormous chapel (the biggest school chapel in the world) and of course the reforms of the enlightened and kindly Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, were all part of a general religious awakening brought about by the Oxford Movement and other associated reactions to liberalism in the established Church. 

The Chapel of Lancing College.

The great Catholic schools founded at this time were part of that same spiritual revival,  but they of course enjoyed the singular privilege of being the closest to its true Eucharistic heart, the Mass: the source and summit of all Christian endeavors. The Benedictine schools, such as Downside and Ampleforth, tended to attempt somehow to short-circuit back to the English middle ages and ended up creating Catholic versions of Eton and Winchester. This was successful for over a century. Meanwhile the Jesuits at Stonyhurst followed their own continental tradition going back to their Ratio Studiorum of 1599. They bolted on to this the, by now, legendary sporting traditions of the English public schools and ended up gaining an excellent reputation for rugby.

Newman wrote of the Anglican “public school” tradition admiringly, critical of its defects but essentially convinced that the English educational establishment of the first thousand years had a very solid base. His efforts to create a school and a university (in Reading and Dublin) that would be an Eton and an Oxford as if the Reformation had not happened, produced a mixed bag of results. He was an ideas man and not an administrator. His Idea of a University is inspiring, though a bit dreamy, and not without internal contradictions. Until very recently his school in Reading maintained its identity quite strongly. It has now gone coeducational and the numbers of non-Catholic pupils are rising quickly. It requires real tenacity to keep sight of one’s heritage in such shifting sands.

The religious communities of Stonyhurst, Ampleforth and Downside have been hit by a series of crises and are in freefall. Their schools have all gone co-educational and these communities are currently in the process of slowly disentangling themselves from the schools they created.

None of this was really foreseeable twenty years ago. I remember that when I visited Downside, for example,  in the late 1990s, co-education was out of the question, Catholic orthodoxy was back in vogue and the educational tradition I have been discussing was back on the table after a generation of hippiedom. And the liturgical and sacramental heart of a Christian education was again being recognised by many in the private sector as essential. It seemed like young teachers and priests in the leading private schools would perhaps manage to carry out a counter-reformation against the progressives and that perhaps the good they did would spread out to the state-subsidized Catholic schools too. It didn’t happen that way. Somehow the left managed to regroup, and in the state sector they managed to turn tools invented by the right (like the national curriculum) into a sleek, ideological machine at the service of the progressive left. The Catholic private sector, desperately humiliated by the sexual misbehaviour of some of its priests and monks, gave up the fight.

Our College was founded in 2002, in a former junior seminary on whose site once stood a medieval Benedictine monastery. We opened at a time when a few independent schools in the UK, on both sides of the Reformation divide,  belonged still quite recognisably to the tradition I have described. And at that point many of the leading Catholic independent schools were finding their way back to a classical and confident orthodoxy. The main problem with them however was that they were busy pricing themselves out of the market in a race to improve their facilities. Few Catholic families could afford their fees. We addressed that by charging about a third of what they did. This has sometimes meant that we have had to cut a few corners. That makes for a humble school, but still a good one.

The Chapel of Chavagnes International College.

Since 2002 the ground has shifted considerably. We are now the only ones left standing, at least in the sense of an officially recognised English Catholic secondary school for boys, with the liturgy at its heart, attempting to perpetuate those traditions of Clement, Benedict, Gregory, Augustine and Alfred  – and of course Newman –  in our own time. And we are in France! Although we are in that part of France which belonged for a long time to the English kings!  But I keep an eye on what is happening back home, and it seems to me that there is a rising generation of young Catholic intellectuals who are drawn to tradition and to learning. If they make it into education, then a revival is perhaps not too far off. I predict that there will be a “Third Spring …” that might compare favourably to that “Second Spring” of which Newman spoke so fervently on the occasion of the consecration of the chapel of Ushaw College, about the time of the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England.

Meanwhile, here in the strange fruitfulness born of the pain of exile, we in fact have a great time in this, our little “school of the Lord’s service” , like every good scribe of the Kingdom, taking out from our store, things that are new and things that are old. 

When I set up our College, I was very clear in my mind that the main thing I wanted to do was to help young people to serve God better, in the middle of the world, by being the best at what they do, by being examples for others, drawing others to Christ and to the kind of life He wants us to lead. Over the eighteen years of our existence our pupils have gone on to do this in many different ways: for example, academia, business leadership, the law, medicine, or military careers and we have seen about one priestly vocation per year drawn from boys and Masters at Chavagnes. Most of those young men have joined congregations that celebrate the extraordinary form of the Latin Mass. Interestingly, from September 2002 to June 2020 we had both the ordinary and extraordinary forms here. But former pupils and teachers who have entered seminary have almost all opted for the FSSP, the ICKSP or the IBP. Those who have not have joined dioceses and orders which are open to both forms. Our decision last summer to make the classical form the default position of the College community is one we have arrived at gradually, but quite naturally, over time. For many years we had the ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form more or less on alternate days. We got used to chopping and changing, but it was always difficult to explain why we did it to newcomers.

Like anyone else I am a product of my upbringing, and I am blessed that it is the things I love which have made me who I am, rather than things I hated. So, it will come as no surprise to readers to learn that my university studies at Edinburgh included a fair amount of Old Norse, Old English, Old and Middle Irish and some Middle French. I also audited a course in the Latin of the Vulgate. And after a childhood filled with Anglican and Catholic hymnody in a school that formed Isaac Watts (Our God, our help in ages past, When I survey the wondrous Cross, etc), after service at the altar since the day of my First Communion and years of singing renaissance polyphony, both secular and sacred, I find myself – rather to my surprise – very comfortable and comforted by a regime of the Extraordinary Form which, à la française, does not frown on good vernacular hymnody, while paying its due reverence to the Liber Usualis. And of course there are days we psalm tone the Offertory or the Communion in order to fit in a wonderful hymn or a polyphonic motet; it is what people used to do, I suspect, in many places, a few generations ago. I think Augustine of Canterbury, or Alcuin of York or Alfred the Great or St Clement of Ireland would be quite at home here. Clement of Alexandria might be a little bit dazed after stepping out of his time machine, but he would get his bearings pretty quickly. Even Dr Arnold, after taking a dismayed look over his shoulder at what has become of the Church of England, would quickly settle in here. We belong to a tradition, and we are both humbled and proud to be part of it.

Aside from the package of small details that characterize our “look” and “feel”, our way of “being school” and “being Church”, if you will pardon the progressive phraseology, are not exactly original – we are seeking to perpetuate traditions that were for centuries widespread and normal – but in this day and age, have become something of an exception. Even in the universe of “La tradition”, no other schools – as far as I know – have daily Mass for everyone. It has been abandoned completely. Parents might be forgiven for being skeptical about whether it really works. The evidence that it does is only going to be anecdotal, but it is there. 

One good sign is that we have, so to speak, “repeat customers”. Several boys have stayed the whole course of seven years; one of those for example is in the seminary and another is studying engineering. We also have families who have come back to us with second and even third sons. This year, for example, we have a group of three brothers where one came to us and thrived, so the others followed later. And we have a boy from the United States whose older brother left us about six years ago. Another sign that we are getting something right is that we have a steady stream of former pupils coming back to work for their alma mater. This year we have, for example, two former pupils helping out for a year. We also have converts: boys who ask for baptism or reception into the Church.

We are the best option for faithful Catholic families in the UK and Ireland but we also have pupils from Spain, Russia, the USA and of course France. And we are currently working on a project to welcome Christian boys from the middle east as we also seek benefactors to sponsor places for boys whose own Christian institutions are sometimes in ruins or under threat.  Quite an adventure it is proving, these last eighteen years. It is a great place to be, with a healthy family atmosphere.

Please consider helping us to raise a new generation of thoughtful, resourceful, joyful and prayerful Catholic leaders by supporting us in prayer, by encouraging families to send us their sons or by donating to our work. If you would like to find out more about us, check our website www.chavagnes.org and follow us on facebook www.facebook.com/chavagnes 

Scholarships are available for boys from the UK and Ireland.

This article first appeared at http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/ and is reused with permission.

Ferdi McDermott is a graduate of the universities of Edinburgh and Buckingham. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the Chartered College of Teaching and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. When not busy teaching and administering Chavagnes International College, he is currently completing a doctorate in Education at the University of Buckingham.

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