The Crypt at Stanislas College: Friendship and facts

Here are a couple of great articles on the origins of The Crypt, the group of students from Stanislas College, Paris, whose work eventually blossomed into the movement known as Le Sillon, many of whose objectives and methods later inspired Cardijn in the development of the JOC.

La Crypte first began to meet at the end of 1893 in a subterranean hall at Stanislas College that gave them their name. Marc Sangnier powerfully tells the story of their beginnings here (French) and here (English).

One of the group’s first initiatives was to launch a literary and social commentary magazine named Le Sillon (The Furrow) which in turn gave its name to the movement that gradually emerged from the Crypt group.

As the Stanislas students moved on to other universities and colleges, into military service and the world of work and business, they took with them the ideas and methods that the Crypt had developed and sought to launch new groups modelled on the same approach.

Indeed, they quickly began to organise a strategy to do so, founding a Comité d’Initiative (Initiative Committee) to coordinate their efforts.

To further this development, they also launched another journal, the Bulletin de la Crypte, the first issue of which was published in December 1897.

Here, Etienne Isabelle, who had become the president of the Initiative Committee, presented their aims and strategy in a beautiful leading article, addressed  A Nos Amis (To Our Friends).

The very title indicates the group’s aim not only to reach beyond the circles of Stanislas College but also to reach out beyond the Catholic community itself not by means of proselytism or conversion but through and in friendship.

Concerned with the “gravity of the moral and social problems of the present time” and the corresponding “need for solidarity of all” to address these issues, they also sought to unite the French people in tackling these problems.

They recognised that France was no longer a “Catholic” nation as it may have once been prior to the French Revolution, they looked on France’s developing diversity as a positive rather than a negative. They sought to promote what they characterised as a “shared apostolate” that would bring people together”.

Etienne Isabelle explains their method as follows:

En principe, l’amitié – celle qui repose sur la fraternité des esprits et des coeurs; nous fùmes tout au commencement un petit groupe d’amis, d’autres groupes se sont rencontrés et se rencontrent quotidiennement avec nous; et ils se compénètrent et se recrutent les uns les autres.

Pratiquement, des conférences – où l’un de nous apporte des faits caractéristiques et des idées synthétiques — et où ensuite et surtout nous discutons librement : et là se nourrit notre foi intellectuelle et notre ardeur d’action, là se forge notre « âme commune ». Souvent, des hommes compétents ont bien voulu avoir le dévouement et la modestie de se mêler à nos réunions et de nous communiquer leurs conseils et leur zèle.

English translation:

Primarily, friendship based on a brotherhood of minds and hearts. At the beginning we were merely a small group of friends. However, other groups soon began to join and meet with us on a daily basis; and they quickly intermingled and recruited others.

They achieved this practically at meetings where members reported characteristic facts and synthetic ideas that we discussed freely. In this way, our intellectual faith and eagerness for action helped forge “our communal soul.” Capable speakers were often kind enough to join our meetings and share their advice and their enthusiasm.

While the friendship step seems simple enough, the point is how different it was from the methods of other competing social groups of the time, who either sought to proselytise or else to (violently) combat the errors or perceived errors of others.

The second step of their method, i.e. sharing “characteristic facts” and discussing them, is also highly signficant. Although Isabelle does not specify the next steps, it is, I believe, a clear anticipation of the “see, judge, act” method of the JOC albeit in incomplete and unnamed form. (Elsewhere, Marc Sangnier clearly anticipates the see, judge, act.)

This twofold approach based on building friendship and developing a common understanding of the facts and thus the society in which they lived thus provided the building blocks for developing the “communal soul” they sought.”

As I’ve written in another blog post, the origins of the Crypt-Sillon notion of the “communal soul” appears to be classical Greek philosophy. Aristotle, for example, characterised friendship as “One soul abiding in two bodies”.

And as I have shown in another post, the “see, judge, act” itself was also derived from Aristotle’s analysis of the political virtue of prudence necessary for political leaders whose task was to “see clearly, judge well and decide” as Léon Ollé-Laprune expressed it.

Indeed, in these articles by Marc Sangnier and Etienne Isabelle, there are many echoes of Léon Ollé-Laprune, who has even been described as “the founder” of the Sillon. 

Personally, I think it is more precise to say that the ideas of the Sillon have their foundation in the thought and writings of Léon Ollé-Laprune.

Stefan Gigacz


Etienne Isabelle, A Nos Amis (To Our Friends)

Marc Sangnier, Le Crypte de Stanislas, Le Sillon, 1897 (French)

Marc Sangnier, The Crypt at Stanislas, Le Sillon, 1897 (English).