A town named after St Omer, in the Pas-de-Calais, played a crucial role in educating English Catholics
Omer, or Audomar (c595-c670), was a seventh-century bishop, after whom St Omer, in the Pas-de-Calais, was named. Nine, 10 and more centuries after his death, from 1593 to 1762, the town would play an important part in educating English Catholics.
Omer was born near Coutances, just south of the Contentin peninsular, in what is now Normandy.
Yet, even in Coutances, the reputation of Luxeuil, the monastery which St Columbanus had founded some 500 miles away near Besançon, exerted a call. About 615 Omer travelled there with his father to enrol as monks.
In the late 630s King Dagobert, apparently advised by Bishop Acharius of Noyon, a former monk at Luxeuil, appointed Omer to the bishopric of Thérouanne, in what is now the Pas-de-Calais.
The area had relapsed into heathenism, if indeed it had ever been properly converted; and Omer successfully set about reclaiming it for the faith. A monastery which he founded on the marshy banks of the River Aa and dedicated to Bertin, one of his helpers, spawned a second house nearby, consecrated to the Virgin.
For centuries the two monasteries would be rivals. The first foundation evolved into an important abbey, while the second, where St Omer was buried, was magnificently rebuilt from the 13th century, becoming a cathedral in 1559.
Commerce followed religion. Houses sprang up alongside the monasteries, and by the ninth century there was a town called St Omer. Disputed for centuries between French, Flemings and Spanish, St Omer was rarely a peaceful town. Nevertheless, in 1593 Fr Robert Persons established an English Jesuit college there.
This school differed from other English Catholic colleges on the continent – Douai, Rome and Valladolid – in that it was primarily for laymen. Nevertheless, St Omer educated three Jesuit martyrs: St Thomas Garnet, St John Plessington and St Philip Evans.
In 1677 the French, under Louis XIV, finally succeeded in capturing St Omer, which was then fortified by Vauban.
Under the protection of the French monarchy, the college attained its prime in the first part of the 18th century, when there were as many as 200 pupils, some of them even sent from America. The school fostered the unemotional but robust devotion of English Catholics, concerned rather with the depth than with the tumult of their souls.
From the 1760s, however, the Jesuits were under attack in France, before being finally expelled in 1774. The English College at St Omer was obliged to move, first, in 1762, to Bruges then (1773) to Liège, and finally (1794) to Stonyhurst in Lancashire.
There is now a lycée on the site of the English College in St Omer. The saint himself still commands devotion as a patron of the blind, having himself lost his sight in old age.