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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

St Omer to Bruges – a college on the move

Print showing a large rectangular building with garden in courtyard and additional buildings to right and grounds or farm/orchard at rear
St Omers College

On the 9th of August 1762, the English College began its migration from St Omer in Artois, to Bruges. Initially founded in 1593 by Fr Robert Persons SJ as the College of Saint-Omer in Artois, France (then part of the Spanish Netherlands), the school was forced to relocate twice due to the suppression of the Jesuit order, first to Bruges in 1762 and then Liege in 1773, before migrating a third and final time to Stonyhurst in England where it became Stonyhurst College in 1794.

Since Catholic education had been prohibited in England, several colleges had been founded on the Continent at Douai, Rome, and Valladollid; their primary objective was the education of the clergy. Within 10 years of its foundation, the college at St Omer’s numbered over 100 scholars. 30 years later this number had doubled. In 1678 the Province of Artois passed into the hands of the French. Initially the Government was friendly to the college and it continued to prosper until 1762. On the night of the 6th of August, however, after a sitting of 16 hours, the Paris Parlement passed unanimously the decree suppressing the Society of Jesus within its jurisdiction. With most of the provincial Parlements following suit, some 3,500 Jesuits found themselves homeless. Fearing that a decree was in preparation forbidding the boys to leave the College, it was decided that they would begin to evacuate the following Monday. That morning, Procurator Fr Darell set off for Bruges accompanied by one of the older boys, John Lawson, who was the nephew of the Minister, to make arrangements at Bruges.

At about one o’ clock [9 August] ... a party of twenty-four boys with some Masters went off into the country for a first class walk. That was a common enough sight for the townsfolk: and it was hoped that the few they might meet would fail to notice that the boys’ pockets were bulging with such personal property as they could stuff into them. Nobody seems to have observed that these classes never returned. The first contingent was followed next morning by a second, of twenty-eight boys; whilst on the following Monday, 16 August, thirty-three younger boys with three members of the Community took similar evasive action. The same amount of provisions continued to be ordered for the kitchen and elsewhere, and nobody outside the College appeared any the wiser.

(Hubert Chadwick SJ, St Omers to Stonyhurst, London 1962)

On the 19th of October 1762, Fr Lawson (Minister) and his fellow Jesuits set out for Bruges, and so ended the Jesuit connection with St Omers after 169 years. A formal application to the Court of Vienna was made on the 11th of September for leave to settle permanently in Bruges. The English Jesuits would only enjoy 11 years of peace in Bruges however. By the Papal Brief Dominus ac Redemptor, 21 July 1773, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus and they were forced to relocate once again, reassembling in Lieges under the protection of the bishop there. In 1794 yet another move was forced upon the school, and a new home was found at Stonyhurst Hall in Lancashire, which continues to this day as a direct lineal descendant of the College of Saint-Omer.

Left: Liege College

Right: A former student, Thomas Weld, donated a mansion and grounds at Stonyhurst, in Lancashire.

For more information about archive and library material held in the Jesuits in Britain Archives which relate to the English College, the Suppression and Restoration of the Society, please contact us.

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