St. Omer, College of
ST. OMER, COLLEGE OF
The College of St. Omer, also known under the anglicized form, St. Omers, was founded in Saint-Omer, France, by Robert Persons, SJ, in 1593. It represented a reaction to a proposal to make even harsher the already stringent laws against Catholic education in England. Philip II of Spain acceded to Persons' request to aid in the establishment of an English college in Flanders, then under Spanish rule. He promised an annual subsidy and chose the site of the proposed college, which formally opened in a rented house in Saint-Omer in November 1593.
In its early years the College was simply a residence for English boys who followed the classes in the local Jesuit school. It was considerably hindered by financial difficulties, by opposition from municipal officials, and by the restriction of its enrollment to 16 scholars. Most of these difficulties, however, were overcome by Giles Schoondonch, SJ, who became rector in 1601. Before he died in office in 1617, he had transferred the College to a new and permanent location and had provided it with a public church and its own faculty. The number of students had risen to 130.
The curriculum and regime at St. Omers were very much like those of other Jesuit schools. Boys entered at about age 12 and proceeded through the six classes of figures, rudiments, grammar, syntax, poetry, and rhetoric. The staple of instruction was Latin and Greek with great emphasis on eloquence in the classical languages and on debating ability. Of the four features that distinguished the College, the first two, special emphasis on Greek and a marked enthusiasm for music and drama, are attributed to Schoondonch. In his time the splendor of the theatrical presentations at St. Omers was recognized throughout Europe. The last two, a mild disciplinary regime suited to the English temperament, and a great missionary spirit, were introduced and fostered by the first English rector, William Baldwin, SJ (1621–32).
During the first half of the 17th century the College press, under the direction of John Wilson, SJ, was the most important source of the proscribed Catholic literature that nourished the piety and loyalty of English recusants. In 1635 the number of scholars rose to 200, but in 1651 the English Civil War reduced enrollment to 110. It hovered around that figure throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The fortunes of the College, moreover, reflected the tribulations of the English Catholic body in the homeland. St. Omers consequently suffered hardships during the oates plot and the bitter repressions following the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745.
Although the College was originally destined for the education of the laity as well as of future priests, the latter were generally in the majority. By the middle of the 17th century more than half of the new English province of the Society of Jesus were alumni of St. Omers. Among the earliest were Bl. Thomas garnet (d. 1608), the college's protomartyr, and Andrew white, the apostle of Maryland. St. Omers was also an important source of recruits for the seminaries of the secular clergy in Rome and Spain.
Many boys came from Maryland in the 18th century, among them Charles carroll of Carrollton and John carroll, first Archbishop of Baltimore. The latter, on the completion of his studies at St. Omers, entered the Jesuit novitiate at nearby Watten in 1753. He later returned to teach at his Alma Mater in 1758 and went into exile with the whole school when the Jesuits were expelled from France in 1762.
The Jesuit school continued its corporate existence first in Bruges, Belgium (1762–73), and then, after the suppression of the Jesuits, in Liège, Belgium (1773–94). Driven out of that principality by the French Revolution, they returned to England. There, one of their alumni, Thomas Weld, gave them refuge at Stonyhurst in Lancashire, the present home of the College, which claims continuity with that founded by Persons in 1593.
After the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, the buildings at St. Omers were taken over by the English secular clergy who conducted a school there until driven out by the French Revolution in 1793. Some of the scholars and teachers took refuge in England at the new college of St. Edmunds at Old Hall.
Bibliography: h. chadwick, St. Omers to Stonyhurst (London 1962). b. n. ward, The Dawn of the Catholic Revival in England, 1781–1803, 2 v. (London 1909). t. a. hughes, The History of the Society of Jesus in North America: Colonial and Federal, 4v. (London 1907–17) v.2.
[t. h. clancy]