Œuvre des Écoles d'Orient

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Œuvre des Écoles d'Orient, a periodical bulletin, later Œuvre d'Orient, trimonthly publication

As an indirect consequence of the signing of the Capitulations, the expatriate western Christians in the Ottoman Empire were allowed to have chaplains. Coming from several congregations (Jesuits, Lazarists, Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans), these chaplains offered their services to the ambassador in Istanbul and the consuls appointed to the “Échelles du Levant”. Furthermore, their presence maintained a bond with the Eastern Christian communities. For them, they provided a discreet ministry and schools, firstly for boys at the end of the 17th century, then for girls during the next century, after the arrival of female congregations, in dispensaries and hospitals during the 19th century. These institutions, especially academic ones, allowed Eastern Christians to occupy an important place in the cultural life of such cities as Aleppo, Istanbul, Mosul, Damascus, Bagdad Alexandria and Cairo, to such an extent that they figured among the main promulgators of the Nahda.

It was in this context that, in 1856, the Œuvre des Ecoles d’Orient was born, after the Crimean War. It was founded by two professors at the Collège de France, the mathematician Augustin Cauchy and the Egyptologist Charles Lenormant. While the members of the board of the association were secular, its editor was religious, Abbé Lavigerie, who at the time lectured at the Sorbonne. His assistant, Abbé Soubiranne, later succeeded him, remaining for a long period.

Given its objective and its founders, the bulletin of the Œuvre des écoles d’Orient, which the association began publishing in 1857, devoted a lot of space to education. Starting with bulletin n°1(November 1857), this orientation could be seen in the report about the Lazarist mission in the Levant written by the Superior General Father Etienne, who described the academic establishments in the Ottoman Empire, in Constantinople, Smyrna, Salonika, in Greece, in Naxos and Santorini, in Syria, in Damascus and Aleppo, in the current Lebanon, and Tripoli and Aintoura. In the same bulletin, the Father Superior of the Jesuit mission in Syria dealt with the schools and orphanages of Zahlé, Bikfaya, Beirut and Ghazir. A 3rd article evokes the sponsorship organised by the students at the Jesuit college of Mongré (near Villefranche sur Rhône) to finance the schooling of young Syrians.

In 1860, there were massacres of Christians in the Chouf district of Lebanon and in Zahlé, planned by their Druze neighbours, while, in Damascus, the Ottoman authorities gave free rein to Sunni rioters. France sent out an expeditionary corps which was stationed on Mount Lebanon. The Œuvre helped to open orphanages coupled with schools, especially “to allow orphans whose fathers have been murdered to be able to help their mothers, because women in the Orient earn nothing” (bulletin n°15, 1864).

The intervention zones of the Œuvre included Egypt, Syria, Mount Lebanon, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Balkan provinces (Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia), the regency of Tunis, and the kingdom of Greece.

Donators were recruited in all the bishoprics of France; the French congregations sponsored the training and the upkeep of Maronite, Melkite, and Armenian monks and nuns (bulletin n° 17 provided a list of the 38 sisters of the Sacré-Coeur of Beqaa, sponsored by French nuns from 30 convents, and n° 24 that of 54 Mariameh sisters sponsored by the same number of benefactors).  Gifts came from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Holland, the USA, and Oceania. In 1861, the receipts reached 110,000 francs. The obituary pages spoke of donators from France and abroad. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and the adoption of orphans by French families, were encouraged.

Among the columnists, the Jesuit Father of Damascus, who was the chaplain of the expeditionary corps in the Crimea, described the vicissitudes of the growing Catholic community in Bulgaria (n° 14), and the massacres on Mount Lebanon of the Maronites by the Druze in 1860 (n° 24).

In the cultural field, the Œuvre subsidised the publication of the famous French/Arabic dictionary in 1863 which is still in use today, and the printing house of the Dominican Father of Mosul, whose publications were exhibited at the Archives Nationales in 2015.

The anticlerical politics of the 3rd Republic, expelling the religious orders from the national territory, meant that a large number of their members went to the Ottoman Empire (where one subject out of four was Christian in 1900), allowing for the opening of new establishments which were to become prestigious, educating Christian, Muslim and Jewish children, and also the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut. Thus, Eastern Christians obtained a more important position in their respective countries. The bulletins reported on this fact. In 1931, the title Œuvre d'Orient replaced Œuvre des écoles d'Orient.

The dramatic current situation, in which certain Christian communities are being forcibly displaced, such as in Mosul and the villages on the plain of Nineveh, or having fled under the threat of terrorist movements in Syria and Egypt, is an important issue for the Œuvre d'Orient, and its bulletins display the efforts made to rehouse with dignity the families in question in less exposed zones, or else for them to be welcomed to France.

Thus, for 160 years, the bulletin of the Œuvre des écoles d’Orient, then the Œuvre d’Orient, has stood as a vital source, bearing witness at once to the lives of Eastern Christian communities as well as to their relations with French and other European Catholics.


Légende de l'image : Oeuvre des écoles d'Orient, periodical bulletin. April 1923

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