From La Jeunesse Syndicaliste to La Jeunesse Ouvrière

No, it’s not the actual centenary of the founding of the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC) or Young Christian Workers (YCW). Cardijn always insisted that the real foundation was in 1912 when he moved to Laeken and launched the first study circles for teenage female workers. And the “official” foundation date was when the Belgian movement held its first national congress was in 1925.

But this month IS the centenary of April 1924, when the Jeunesse Syndicaliste (Young Trade Unionist) movement changed the name of its magazine from Jeunesse Syndicaliste to Jeunesse Ouvrière (Working Youth). As such, it’s definitely an anniversary worth remembering. This was the first step towards the adoption of a new name for the movement: “La Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne.”

As mentioned, the first study circles of young female workers began in the parish of Notre Dame, at Laeken, after Cardijn became “vicaire” (curate) with responsibility for women’s projects. Study circles for boys, led by Fernand Tonnet, began soon after. But World War I prevented any immediate expansion beyond the boundaries of that parish.

La Jeunesse Syndicaliste

Once Tonnet had returned safely from the battlefront in 1919, things began to move again rapidly and on a much larger scale:

As Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert wrote:

(Tonnet) found his old friends of Laeken, including the curate moved on to higher tasks. Tonnet immediately decided to become Cardijn’s secretary and confidential collaborator. With the return of Tonnet, there was a renewal of the old apostolic link that had been forged back in 1912 between the new curate and the young people of Laeken. Paul Garcet continued to play an important part.

From 1919 groups were started in other parishes of Brussels, similar to those of Laeken. Jacques Meert, a young iron-worker was the prime mover in the start being made at Schaerbeek. 

Here and in the other groups they looked up old school mates now working and made contact with older lads in the parish guilds. Door to door calls brought in other young workers and work-mates were won over by the enthusiasm and friendship of these first leaders.

It was at one of the early meetings of the revived study circles that Cardijn foreshadowed his vision for the movement, exhorting them that: “If you have faith, we are going to conquer the world!”

The embryonic Jeunesse Syndicaliste did indeed grow rapidly, quickly enough to fan opposition from within the Christian Worker movement, envious of its own purported monopoly on reaching young Catholic workers, and from the Belgian Catholic Youth Association (ACJB), which also sought to ensure its own religious monopoly over Catholic youth programs.

Not even the fact that in 1922 the Jeunesse Syndicaliste had agreed to join the ACJB while maintaining its own autonomy was enough to allay opposition from within the Church to the Jeunesse Syndicaliste.

Growing opposition

Yet, although this opposition was couched in theological terms as the JS “wanting to carve up the Mystical Body of Christ,” there were also more political reasons for the conflict that was developing.

It was common knowledge that Cardijn and Tonnet were greatly influenced by the French democratic movement, Le Sillon, which had been closed down following Pope Pius X letter to French bishops on 25 August 1910 condemning a number of its positions. Indeed, Cardijn had publicly welcomed the Sillon founder, Marc Sangnier, to speak in Brussels in February 1921. And in 1923, Cardijn and Tonnet hoste another former Sillon leader, Edward Montier, on a speaking tour to Belgium.

This orientation clearly inflamed the Belgian supporters of Charles Maurras’ Action Française movement, which had fought the Sillon, and was now gaining ground in Belgium.

In addition, Fr Louis Picard, a key figure in the ACJB, had made himself known as an early supporter of Italy’s leader, Benito Mussolini, who had become prime minister in October 1922. In contrast, Tonnet took a public stand against fascism in July 1924.

As these tensions mounted, the Jeunesse Syndicaliste found itself forced to further clarify its identity.

Jeunesse Ouvrière

Hence, in April 1924, the movement changed the name of its magazine from Jeunesse Syndicaliste to Jeunesse Ouvrière.

Explaining this move, an editorial noted that they had “done so because we have been asked by various quarters to help, through our modest newsletter, all those who are devoted to the young workers in their region or commune.”

Nevertheless, it seems that the editors were reluctant to make the change, as the following somewhat apologetic paragraph of their editorial (see original French text below) indicated:

We were told: “Change your name” … it reawakens old fears, ineradicable susceptibilities, incurable timidities lurking in souls that are nevertheless ardent, zealous and conquering. We understood that we had to accept the advice of all those who believe that in many regions of the country it would be clumsy to want to recruit young workers by presenting ourselves solely and entirely as trade unionists.

First of all, there are connections to be made, an atmosphere to be created, a long-term education to be achieved….

And in another passage that further signaled their reluctance to change, they added:

We were going to forget about combative articles; we will always include them whenever they are aimed at an injustice, an abuse, a negligence or when we point out the hostile attitude towards the working class of some institution or newspaper. To do so is not to engage in class warfare; it is simply to show our companions that we echo the feelings of indignation they so often feel when they observe the social and economic actions of Catholics who are notorious for being such.

Nevertheless, they concluded by reassuring their readers and subscribers of their ongoing commitment to “the two hundred thousand young workers in Belgium who, because of their abandonment, no longer know that Christ suffered for them too and that He has risen to support and comfort them in their hard life.”

They would make that identification with the suffering Christ clear in the new name for the movement that would emerge over the following months: “La Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne.”

Stefan Gigacz


Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn, Chapter 4, Brussels (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn, Chapter 5, Pius XI and the first YCW Congress (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Jeunesse Ouvrière, avril 1924 (CARHOP)