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College of Saint Omer

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The well-known Jesuit college at St. Omer -- oftener spoken of under the anglicized form of St. Omers or St. Omer's -- was founded by Father Parsons in 1592 or 1593. All Catholic education having been prohibited in England, several colleges had been founded by Englishmen on the Continent -- at Douai, Rome, and Valladolid; their primary object was the education of the clergy. Father Parsons recognized the need of a college intended in the first instance for the laity, and for this purpose he chose a spot as near as possible to England. St. Omer was twenty-four miles from Calais, in the Province of Artois, then subject to the King of Spain. The first students were obtained by the removal of a small establishment which had been set up by Father Parsons at Eu, in Normandy. Other boys quickly arrived from England and within ten years of its foundation the college numbered over a hundred scholars. Thirty years later this number had been doubled. The character of the college was kept as English as possible, notwithstanding that several of the early rectors were Spanish. The buildings consisted of a large house joined to several smaller ones, and in 1610 a regular chapel was added. The whole was burnt down in 1684; but it was rebuilt on a comprehensive scale. A second fire, in 1725, led to further improvements in rebuilding and the greater part of the college then constructed is still standing. The college continued its work for over a century and a half. Many devout Catholics received their education within its walls, over twenty of whom won the crown of martyrdom.

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In 1678 the Province of Artois passed into the hands of the French; but the Government was friendly to the college, which continued to prosper till the year 1762, when the Parliament of Paris decreed the expulsion of all Jesuits from France, and proposed to place the college under the direction of secular priests. In order to defeat this scheme, the Jesuits determined to remove the whole establishment. The boys expressed their willingness to accompany their masters, and by one of the most dramatic adventures in the history of any school, they succeeded in escaping from France, and reassembling at Bruges. Here the college was carried on until the suppression of the Society throughout the world in 1773. Even then, the college did not finally come to an end. Most of the boys escaped, and many of them reassembled in the academy carried on by English ex- Jesuits under the protection of the prince-bishop at Liège. From there they were driven by the Revolution in 1794, and the Penal Laws in England having by that time been modified, they returned to their own country, where by the generosity of Mr. Thomas Weld, one of their former pupils, they were presented with the mansion and property at Stonyhurst, which celebrated college thus claims a descent from that established at Saint Omer by Father Parsons.

In the meantime, the French Government finding itself in possession of the building at St. Omer , but without either masters or scholars, invited the clergy of the English College at Douai to undertake its management. After some hesitation, they consented to do so, feeling that this was the only way to save it from the French, and hoping some day to restore it to its rightful owners. They accordingly transferred their preparatory school there and this became the nucleus of what was practically a new college. Their action was much traversed by the Jesuits, and a long altercation ensued. The facts were laid before the Holy See, and though no final decision was given, the Roman authorities refused to censure the action of the Douai clergy. In its new form, the college became fairly prosperous, the scholars numbering over one hundred. The learned Alban Butler was president from 1766 to 1773, and died in the college. At the outbreak of the Revolution, however, it came to an end. The students and professors were imprisoned at Anas, in August, 1793, whence they were afterwards removed to Doullens, in Picardy, and joined to the Douai community. After the fall of Robespierre, they were removed to Douai, and in February, 1795, they were set at liberty. They returned to England, and the president, Dr. Stapleton, became the head of the new College of St. Edmund at Old Hall. He was followed by two of the professors and a few of the scholars; but the college there was based chiefly on the traditions of Douai, and the secular College of St. Omer practically came to an end. After the restoration of the French monarchy, the building was restored to the executors of Dr. Stapleton, and by them sold to the French Government. It is used to this day as a military hospital.

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