Jacques was born in Tourcoing on September 7th 1882 in a very Christian family, really involved in social action. His father, Adolphe, who worked in textile industry, and his mother, Louise Hennion, a musician and artist, raised him in the love of God.
Jacques’ dreaming and lonely childhood was marked by the death of two of his brothers, between Tourcoing (North – Pas-de-Calais region), where he attended the Public School of the Sacred-Heart, and Dunkerque. Then he went to the Divine Providence high school, led by Jesuits in Amiens, where he wrote poems. Throughout his life, he went on writing poems and songs. In Amiens, his teacher father Duvocelle applied quite original pedagogical methods. The form was divided into two camps, called after the names of two frigates: Alerte and Joyeuse; on the walls of the school, the shield of an Order of Knights was shining ; pupils could gradually become knight, baron, earl, marquis, duke and finally Great Master. This developed in him a certain passion for medieval chivalry, that he would use for scouting later on, and for navy, making him dream of becoming a sailor.
After getting his diploma at the end of school in 1898, he was sent to England by his father, in order to cure frequent headaches. In 1890, he applied to an English course at the Catholic University of Lille.
At the age of twelve, he had heard the call to become a priest, but the decisive call happened on the feast of saint Teresa of Avila, a fortnight after the death of saint Thérèse of Lisieux on October 1st 1897. Jacques Sevin’s sacerdotal vocation matured quickly and on September 3rd 1900 he joined the Jesuits of Saint-Acheul in Amiens for a training course that was meant to last 14 years. In 1901, the law of
suppression of religious congregations in France constrained him to migrate to Arlon, Belgium, where he received his formation in a very difficult period when the properties of the Church in France were confiscated and when the religious congregations were condemned to exile.
In 1903, he passed his English degree in Tournai (Belgium), then he taught that language in various high
schools, and he improved his knowledge by staying frequently in the suburbs of London. “Without knowing it, I was getting ready for scouting”, he declared later on. Indeed, during those stays, he had the opportunity to discover scouting and when, in 1913, the Jesuit magazine “Etudes” published two articles¹ from father Caye that were very critical towards scouting, he asked for and got the permission to go back to England in order to check by himself the accusations against the scout movement. He first met cardinal Bourne, the archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic Primate, who had supported scouting from the very beginning. Years later, he wrote that on September 20th he “drank his first cup of tea with Baden-Powell” at the Alexandra Palace, during a meeting gathering scouts from North London. He went back to Belgium, conquered by Baden-Powell’s personality and by his educational method.
On August 2nd 1914, he was ordained priest. But simultaneously the First World War burst out. Sevin managed to escape from the German occupation of Belgium; he went back to France and asked to be sent to the front as a military chaplain. Nevertheless, his request was rejected and the Provincial Father ordered him to go back to Belgium. He managed to go through the German lines but then remained blocked for four years in Enghien high school because of the German occupation. In order not to let the fathers idle, their superior asked them to develop a pedagogical project for the future reopening of the school at the end of the war.
So Sevin returned to the notes that he had gathered about scouting, and that work lasted until Spring 1917. It gave birth to a book called “Scouting”, that was printed in 1922 only. It is a core text for Catholic scouting. During the Summer 1917, he also made some illegal experiences of scouting with the refugee pupils of the apostolic school sheltered in Le Touquet. On February 13th 1918, he founded in Mouscron the “Company of Girl Guides of saint Thérèse de l’Enfant Jesus”, his first scout troop, still illegal and without uniform, because of the risk of deportation. For the badge, he had chosen the cross of Jerusalem surmounted by the scout lily flower.
He went back to Lille after the war and, in 1919, travelling through Paris, he met canon Antoine-Louis Cornette, who had founded in the parish of St-Honoré d’Eylau the “Trainers of Saint Honoré d’Eylau”, an association inspired by scouting. Back in Lille, he founded a troop named “Association des Scouts de France”. Soon afterwards, he was sent to Metz, where he could not practice scouting because the rector of the school was opposed to it.
In Spring 1920, he went back to Paris, where he met Cornette again and, with him and Edouard de Macedo, he founded, on July 25th 1920, the “Catholic Federation of Scouts de France”. The badge of the new movement was similar to the one of Mouscron except that the cross of Jerusalem was surmounted by a shamrock and the lily flower, because at that time in France the lily flower was a political symbol linked to monarchy.
With about fifteen boys and chiefs, he took part in the London Jamboree. Once again, he had
the opportunity to meet the Italian and Belgian founders of Catholic Scouting, Mario di Carpegna
and Jean Corbisier, with whom he constituted the “International Office of Catholic Scouts”, a liaison
body between the Catholic associations and groups throughout the world, the chairman of
which was Carpegna, Sevin the secretary, and Cardinal Bourne the honorary chairman.
Within the Scouts de France, Sevin assumed the role of general secretary from 1920 to 1922,
then of general commissioner (1922-1924), so commissioner in charge of the chiefs’ training. In
order to better accomplish that task, he created in Chamarande (Essonne) a stationary camp
similar to Gilwell Park.
In August 1922 in Gilwell Park, he took part in a training-camp at the end of which Baden-Powell
gave him the certificate of Deputy Camp Chief for the Boy Scout branch. The following year, he got the certificate of Akela Leader. Those two titles allowed him to lead in France training-camps for the Boy Scout branch and the Yellow branch, validated by Gilwell.
He founded and took personal care of the magazine for chiefs, “Le Chef”, the first issue of which was published on March 13th 1923. But on March 15th 1933, some dissensions and internal fights within the executive board of Scouts de France obliged him to leave all his functions and Sevin went back to Lille as a mere troop assistant.
Requested by a female leader, Jacqueline Brière, he matured the project of a scout female religious congregation. On January 15th 1944, Sevin founded the “Sainte Croix de Jérusalem” and the first “Dames” were two Akelas and two guide leaders. After the first difficult moments and after some removals, the “Dames” – who had become more numerous meanwhile – settled in Boran-sur-Oise where their mother-house still exists.
During one of his visits to Boran-sur-Oise, Sevin got cold, became ill, did not recover and gently passed away during the night of July 19th to 20th 1951.
Worried about the renewal of the pedagogical methods in the Jesuit schools, father Sevin perceived a certain gap between the missionary spirit of the origins and the concrete life of the schools. Baden-Powell’s scouting seemed to offer him the necessary instruments for a return to the origins and to find again the proper Ignatian intuition of active, generous and missionary education, in which methods are inspired by the aims.
Father Sevin was an educator but also a spiritual and contemplative man and, in a sense, a mystical. Son of saint Ignatius, he was a disciple of saint Teresa of Avila and read a lot of Thérèse de Lisieux’ writings, from which he found his inspiration for what he called “the scout joy”, looked for and found in the daily little things. His spiritual intuition was focused on Jesus’ glorious cross, the cross of Jerusalem, on which he placed Baden-Powell’s lily flower. Father Sevin wrote a new version of the scout law, the promise and all the core texts. He enriched the scout life with a spiritual proposal of camp and of the road, thus contributing, in a determined way, to root deeply the profile of what could be defined as the scout spirit, that he was the first to put in practice during the training camps of chiefs in Chamarande.
Close to the trend of “Action Populaire” of father Desbuquois, father Sevin considered that action in scouting must be “social” in the full meaning that this term had at that time. “The children whom we
consider as ours are those refused by the existing service works”². His style conveyed a mixture of aesthetics and symbolism thanks to his capacities of poet, musician, drawer. His writings and his songs were spread throughout the whole Catholic scout world. Among his songs, the most famous in European scouting are : “Le chant de la promesse”, “Notre-Dame des éclaireurs”, “Le cantique des patrouilles”, “La légende du feu”.
As we have already said, Baden-Powell really appreciated father Sevin’s work, so that he affirmed: “The best realisation of my thought is what has been done by this French priest”³. Baden-Powell did not write this declaration but he said it orally during a big scout meeting in France. It was transmitted orally in the French Catholic scouting, but we can find a written record of it in the testimony nr. 53 of the diocesan process of canonisation of God’s Servant Jacques Sevin: 1986, letter of father Pasty, sj, who heard it personally and which is kept in the archives of the “Congregation of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem” (4). Father Pasty, sj, wrote: “The one who writes to you is a former scout and one of the first disciples of father Jacques Sevin, a disciple faithful to his spirit and to his teaching for all his life, who has never accepted to modify the only truly Christian formula of a scouting, the venerated founder of which, Baden-Powell, proclaimed, during a big rally, in Lyon (was it in 1931?) – we were there – that he was the best realisation of his own thought”.
In 1989, the cause of beatification of father Sevin was introduced. In 1993, the diocesan phase of the process ended and the documents were transmitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. On January 10th 2012, this congregation promulgated a decree on the “heroic virtue” of father Sevin. On May 12th 2012, the Holy Father Benedict XVI proclaimed father Sevin “venerable”.
This constitutes the first step towards beatification and, let us hope, towards the canonisation of this Jesuit who was able to give to Baden-Powell’s pedagogy a fully Christian soul, with a new interpretation of the law and the promise, creating a “liturgy” of commitments thanks to the Ceremonial and writing a lot of little poems to support a joyful spirituality, based on the promise relying on baptism.
1 February 20th and March 5th
2 Father Jacques Sevin, Le Scoutisme, p. 206
3 Madeleine Bourcereau, Jacques Sevin, fondateur et mystique (1882-1951), Salvator, Paris, p. 9 and 144
4 The female order founded by father Sevin, the mother-house of which is in Boran-sur-Oise, France.