A Catholic educator and a revolutionary
In France, Ferdi McDermott is doing something unique and extraordinary in faithful Catholic education
One night last month, in an upstairs room of a London pub, I was sitting listening to revolutionary talk. “Education is about freeing minds!” he said. The battleground for the revolution in question was education. The revolutionary speaking was Ferdi McDermott.
When I first came across McDermott in the late 1990s, he was the prime mover behind a number of innovative publishing ventures. He started the St. Austin Press and launched the St. Austin Review, a magazine now edited by Joseph Pearce. Both of these ventures formed part of a wider manifesto to rebuild Christian civilization through the arts and the renewal of culture. And yet, when all seemed set fair for a renaissance in the world of Catholic letters, McDermott, its main catalyst, vanished.
To be more exact, McDermott disappeared to France to start a school. At the time, I remember many saying that it was all folly and would end in tears: Even for experienced educators, education was a neverending challenge. In 2002, Chavagnes International College, a boarding school for boys, was founded with just 10 pupils. The fact that today it continues and continues to flourish proves the naysayers wrong. The intervening years have proved as much a source of surprise for those watching as for those concerned in the adventure.
The day after the talk I met with McDermott in London to hear more of his plans for revolution.
“A Catholic school is the most valuable thing in the world,” McDermott says, and in so doing summarized his ongoing motivation. It is fair to say that education, and Catholic education in particular, have been the twin drivers of McDermott’s life for the last 20 years. Even when working in publishing, it was his work with and for Catholic educators that most interested him. The challenges involved, the scale of those challenges, and the prize of meeting them are the enterprise to which he has devoted his life since. Still, that doesn’t answer the question: Why go all the way to France to set up a Catholic school?
McDermott’s move to France was a pragmatic and perhaps a providential one. He responded to the offer of a former junior seminary in the Vendée that was then standing unused. Upon visiting Chavagnes, McDermott immediately saw that the building and land around it, to say nothing of the welcome afforded by the local bishop and diocese, provided the basis on which to build his education venture.
Proud of its many Catholic martyrs during the terrors of 1789 and beyond, the Vendée has historically been a stronghold of Catholicism. Now, a counter-revolution in Catholic education has begun in the Vendée if one conducted mainly in the English tongue. Initially, most of the pupils at Chavagnes came from the British Isles. That is now changing as more boys come from across Europe as well as others from North America. The school was and continues to be truly international in its outlook.
This is apt as the education on offer draws on and offers the richest traditions of Western Civilization. As McDermott says, Chavagnes offers “a classical education for a 21st century boy.” As well as traditional subjects, there is an emphasis on learning Latin and singing plainchant, with Holy Mass offered each day. The quality of the school choir is by all accounts exceptional.
At Chavagnes, the teachers stroll the corridors in gowns, embodying a living tradition of learning and giving the air of a bygone era in British education, if one lately made fashionable again via the fantasy of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Having spoken to some of the school’s past and present pupils, the atmosphere created is one that its charges clearly enjoy. Nevertheless, McDermott wants to create something new from the European legacy of a classical, Christian education.
“Love of man and love of God, as ultimate expressions of the Good, the True and the Beautiful—[that] is what education is all about… At Chavagnes the finality of all that we study is the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. And as Blessed John Henry Newman and St. John Paul II so tirelessly taught, there can be no conflict between Faith and Reason, because both are bound up in a love for truth.”
Listening to McDermott, then, there is nothing nostalgic or narrow about what he is planning. His vision is nothing less than an education that will play its foundational part in a broader vision of a new Europe returned to its Christian roots. Although raised a Catholic, McDermott’s own education was at an Anglican Public School in his native Southampton. The experience marked him in two ways. First, the experience of being a Catholic in a non-Catholic school made him an “apologist” for the faith from an early age. Secondly, his experience of the kindness and the care of the teachers for their pupils also left its mark. Both of these formative aspects he wishes to emulate at Chavagnes.
The pupils of Chavagnes are taught through the medium of English. From its inception the school might have been seen as an eccentric Anglophone plant in rural France. Thus far this has not been the case. In fact, as McDermott is quick to point out the biggest supporter of the venture from the start has been the local diocese. The fact that the school is now attracting pupils away from the excellent French school system speaks of the unique contribution Chavagnes makes. After nearly two decades, it appears that Chavagnes International College is here to stay; but, intriguingly, it is the first of a number of new educational enterprises.
Plans are afoot to open another school in the autumn of 2020. Again, it is a boarding school for boys, this time located on the French Riviera. What has been tried and tested at Chavagnes will now be offered on the Côte d’Azur. This new school is not all that is planned, however. McDermott’s education revolution is now moving into further education.
The idea of a third level Catholic educational institution is McDermott’s most ambitious project to date. This is in keeping with one of his characteristics, namely, his ability to see and act upon a bigger canvas than most. The need for a Catholic university is obvious to anyone familiar with what further education has become in the West—years when many young Catholics fall away from the faith. McDermott’s own time at Edinburgh University showed him even then the need for a more holistic, and, simply, a more holy experience for all concerned at university. His plans for a third level education establishment, a Studium, are for a return to that more holistic, more organic union of faith and learning, one called for by St John Paul II in Ex Cordae Ecclesiae (Aug. 15, 1990).
As McDermott says: “The Studium hopes to bring to Catholics and others on this side of the Atlantic an education in the liberal arts tradition which Europe has lost and needs to recover if it is to be faithful to itself and to its heritage. At the same time, we offer to Americans the chance to rediscover the roots of the western tradition, right in the heart of Europe. And their coming here to study could be part of a renaissance of European Christian learning that Europe desperately needs. They might well be missionaries as well as pioneers!”
McDermott has already put one key component in place. The Studium’s liberal arts degree is accredited by ICES, the Catholic university in the Vendée, and by Lublin University in Poland. The existing grounds and buildings at Chavagnes will provide ample accommodation for the new educational institute, at least initially. McDermott has already recruited the faculty to start the enterprise this fall.
Vocation is clearly the key to all this. And yet, McDermott’s vocation as an educator speaks to a broader vision of rebuilding Christian Culture. “We prepare the soil for the seeds of faith to grow,” he says. To some, his life to date may seem adventurous. The reality has been the hard slog of creating an educational establishment and persevering with it through thick and thin—the mark of a true vocation. During the last 15 years, he has experienced all the challenges and pleasures, joys, trials, and achievements that one would expect in running an independent school. Still, he admits to enjoying every minute of it and, looking at him, this does indeed appear to be the case.
Where the next 15 years takes McDermott, his two schools, and nascent university shall be interesting to see. Thinking on this, as we said goodbye, I remembered the Chavagnes naysayers of 15 years ago. They have been proved wrong. In the light of that, it would seem foolish to underestimate Ferdi McDermott and the revolution he is fermenting.
This article was originally published in the National Catholic Register on Feb. 19 and is republished with permission.
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