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.
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. Placed under the authority of the diocesan bishop, it received a royal charter from Charles X in 1825, as the ‘Ecclesiastical school of Chavagnes’, during the brief period of the restored monarchy.
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.
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 support 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.
The College claims to be a traditional English school in France. Although most boys come from Britain, there are also pupils from France, Spain and Ireland. In this international environment, modern languages are particularly strong, with many boys taking GCSE languages (French, German, Spanish, English) one or two years early. Several older boys speak four languages fluently.
All the other buildings date from between 1840 and the 1960s. The main building, in the form of a letter H, with various later extensions, is a a typical 19th century religious/scholastic building, with a large number of windows on all sides. The College clocktower contains a carillon of 9 bells which may be played with a system of levers. The original makers of the clock (circa 1850), Lussault, are currently repairing it and recasting one of the bells.
The neo-gothic Chapel was consecrated on 24th October 1866 and dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. It contains five full-size stained glass windows portraying Pentecost, the Finding in the Temple, the Coronation of the Virgin + The Immaculate Conception (with Pius IX pictured), 'Suffer the little children to come unto me' and the Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple, with Ss Joachim and Anna. The sanctuary is oak-panelled with large statues of twelve saints providing a typical gothic 'cloud of witness' as featured in many cathedrals.
The organ, built in the 1880s by the Nantes firm Debierre, is listed in the supplementary register of Historic Monuments. It has two manuals and some interesting extra features, such as a rather dramatic 'storm pedal' which needs to be used sparingly.
The marble altar features sculpted panels depicting our Lord with the Evangelists and Moses distributing manna to the children of Israel.
The large and impressive Stations of the Cross, framed in gothic style, are rather modern in execution. They are painted by a little-known artist, Alfred Sauvage, active in the early 20th century.
There are two other smaller chapels on site: one dedicated to St Joseph, and the Father Baudouin Memorial chapel, dedicated to our Lady. Both are mid-nineteenth century neo-gothic.
Totalling about 130,000 sq. ft., the buildings are too large for the College's current needs and only about 20% is currently in daily use.
The buildings stand on about 2.5 hectares of land. The College sports ground is situated about ten minutes' walk away.
From September 2007 a bilingual policy is being phased in at the lower end of the College. All boys in Year 7 are coached towards basic fluency in English/French and the lessons in other subjects are delivered in a bilingual setting. There are 9 boys in Year 8 for the 2007-2008 year, and as they progress through the College, the bilingual provision will follow them, although English will remain the predominant language of instruction in most classes. Boys aged 15 in 2011 will be given the option of sitting the French Brevet exam, as well as the usual raft of GCSEs at 15 and 16 (in the sessions of 2011 and 2012.) All tuition for the GCSE year (Year 11) and the A-level class will remain in English.
The college also puts on extra-curricular activities such as: religious processions, the election of a boy bishop on St Nicholas Day, an annual 110km pilgrimage on foot from Paris to Chartres, rising at dawn on Mayday, rowing (coxed fours), and Morris dancing. Other extra-curricular activities have in the past included tree-felling, hunting, drama, and the literary club. Boxing and compulsory poetry recitation (by heart) in various languages still feature regularly.
Most boys sing in the Choir and learn Gregorian chant. Other repertoire includes Mozart, Bach and Handel, although renaissance polyphony tends to dominate. The Choir made a tour of Sweden in 2004 and will visit Sicily in summer 2008. They have made two CDs: Les Choristes de Chavagnes in 2004 and "Chantons à Chavagnes" in 2008. The Choir sings at Mass for Sundays and Feastdays.
The College's pupils are divided into four houses. Each house is named after a General of the Vendéen Catholic uprising at the end of the nineteenth century : Charette, Cathelineau, Rochejacquelein and Suzannet. In addition to house tables for meals and inter-house competitions, boys also attend regular outdoor house meetings.
The boys, aged 10 to 18, live, medieval-style, in community with the teachers. Access to TV and the Internet, CD players and iPods is limited. Mass is attended daily and prayers are said at different times throughout the day.
The College describes itself as a 'voluntary community' and its discipline system is based on the presumption that boys fundamentally want to be there.
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Jun 19, 2007; My sons sat with me through Cutting Edge: the Dangerous School for Boys. I wanted them to realise that however fed up they...