Rediscovering a French Connection

This past summer, Emma Doerfler (C'18) participated in the John Carroll Summer Internship Program, a two-year-old program that sends Georgetown students to Saint-Omer, France. Emma wrote this history of Georgetown's connection to Saint-Omer.

Famed for its Flemish-style houses and its cauliflower production, the northern French town of Saint-Omer (pop. 15,000) offers a marked contrast to the highly charged, urban environment of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Without this idyllic hamlet, however, Georgetown would not exist.

A fundamental connection

In the 1740s, the young John Carroll made a long and treacherous journey across the Atlantic, leaving the English colony in Maryland to begin his studies at the English Jesuit College in Saint-Omer.

Banished from Protestant England, the Jesuits had found refuge in France, joining the Walloon Jesuit College in Saint-Omer. Working and praying side by side, the English and French Jesuits became integral to the spiritual and cultural life of the town and became known for their animation in teaching the faith as well as their love of performance and spectacle. The Chapel of the Jesuits, completed in 1640 and located in the heart of Saint-Omer, served as both a center of prayer and a performance venue. 

Transatlantic values

In Saint-Omer, Carroll joined the Jesuit order and became a respected teacher, before the king of France banished the Jesuits from France in 1762. Undaunted, Fr. Carroll returned to the United States, where he would become the first bishop of Maryland and eventually found Georgetown College.

While the college blossomed into a thriving university in the following years, the Chapel of the Jesuits in Saint-Omer — where Fr. Carroll had absorbed the teachings that would shape his university — fell into disrepair. Desacralized since the mid-19th century, the Chapel was damaged by war and used as a flour storehouse, a training space for firefighters, and even a parking lot. By the 21st century, it had become a safety hazard.

A collaboration among the Urban Community of Saint-Omer, the Regional Cultural Affairs Department, the French Heritage Society, and the Gould Foundation made possible the preservation of the historic monument. Restoration of the exterior was completed in 2015, and restoration of the interior set to be finished in time for an official inauguration on the weekend of October 14, 2017. In the coming years, the Chapel will serve as a cultural venue for various live performances and expositions.

The John Carroll Summer Internship Program

As the restoration breathed new life into the Chapel, interest was renewed in the connections between Georgetown and Saint-Omer. Georgetown’s Department of French and Francophone Studies met with representatives from Saint-Omer in 2015, and by 2016, the John Carroll Summer Internship Program had been born.

In the summer of 2016, 12 Georgetown students spent seven weeks in Saint-Omer, where they completed internships and participating in cultural immersion activities; in 2017, thirteen more students made the trip.

Professors Lesko Baker and Mostowfi, along with 2017 student internship participant Emma Doerfler, will represent Georgetown at the Chapel’s official inauguration this month. The ceremonies will include a roundtable on interreligious dialogue and a photography exhibition by Sacha Goldberger, featuring portraits of both high school students from Saint-Omer and Georgetown interns dressed in 18th-century Jesuit attire.

The partnership — which owes much of its success to the efforts of Professor Farima Mostowfi of Georgetown College and Nicolas Rochas of the Urban Development Agency in Saint-Omer — will continue to flourish.