Object of the week: St Omers Customs Book

POST BY JGraffius

St Omers Customs Book
St Omers Customs Book

This week’s object may seem less exciting that some previous examples, consisting as it does of a 20th century typescript of a lost 17th century document, but it is of critical importance in the shaping of the College’s mission early in its history, and has had a lasting, profound effect on the development of the College ethos since 1601.

In 1617, the second Rector of St Omers College, Fr Giles Schondonch, became aware that his end was near and he was keen to pass on his hard-won experience to his successor. He had been an inspiration and motivator, moving the fledgling school he had governed since his appointment some seventeen years earlier, from a basic educational facility to a successful and influential missionary enterprise. His vision defined the College’s role for the following 200 years, and still underpins its development today. He recognised that St Omers had a unique role to play, that the boys in his care needed special qualities to enable them to return home, at the age of eighteen, to a hostile native country and to hold their own in the face of cultural, communal and official hostility to their own deeply held beliefs. Fr Schondonch prided himself on his understanding of the Anglo-Saxon mentality, and for him, a Fleming, the highest compliment was to be called ‘totally English’.

In the three months prior to his death in 1617 Giles Schondonch dictated the accumulated, distilled wisdom of a natural born teacher to his successor. His failing strength is obvious as the sentences shorten and become more urgent. The dictation ends abruptly and poignantly mid-sentence. His document is known as the Customs Book of St Omers, and exists only in this unique transcript at Stonyhurst, fortuitously copied in 1914 from the original which was destroyed in the infamous Nazi inflagration of the ancient library at Leuven University in the Second World War.

Schondonch’s wisdom pervades every line of this remarkable document, from haircuts (he was very much against the Cavalier ringlets of some of the more rebellious boys), to pest control in the dormitories and the importance of table manners, to encouraging his staff to really understand the mentality of their young charges. He wrote spiritual exercises specifically adapted to English adolescents, appointed female playroom saints as role models for boys deprived of mothers and sisters. He made St Omers the phenomenal success it was, and in many ways shaped the ethos of modern Stonyhurst. The underlying principle behind his deathbed dictation is as relevant today as it was in 1617-

Know yourself. Inform your conscience, your heart and your intellect. Don’t follow the herd. Expect opposition and misunderstanding. Stand fast. You are not alone.