Georges Abrassart, a Belgian Sillonist priest

Born in 1883, Georges Abrassart was a Belgian priest credited by Henri Tonnet as being responsible for “forming the soul and spirit” of his brother, lay co-founder of the YCW, Fernand Tonnet.

In April 1911, Fernand moved to the town of Quiévrain on Belgium’s southern border with France following his father who worked there as a customs officer. There in the parish of St Martin, he met the dynamic young Fr Abrassart, who was already known in the area for his social engagement.

According to Henri Tonnet, Abrassart was a “convinced partisan of the Liege School” of Catholic social teaching and doctrine, inspired by a bishop of that city, Victor Doutreloux, who organised three international conferences on Catholic social thought between 1886 and 1890, and another progressive Belgian social activist priest concerned about worker issues, Fr Antoine Pottier (1849-1923).

Even more significantly, Henri Tonnet wrote, “in the coal country” of the Borinage region, Fr Abrassart “had inhaled the penetrating and healthy influence of the Sillon of Marc Sangnier.”

As a result, Fr Abrassart

rythmait avec joie les éloquentes images (de Sangnier) : “Le christianisme seul engendre la vraie démocratie”. – “L’homme d’action est celui qui se fait le champion de ses croyances”. – “L’ordre économique n’est pas humain s’il ne laisse au pauvre que la liberté de mourir de faim”. – “Conquête du peuple”. – “Faire des apôtres”. – “Cultiver et embellir les âmes”. Slogans, qu’un jour Fernand allait reprendre à son tour et faire vibrer devant les auditoires de jeunes.

Or, in English translation, Fr Abrassart:

joyfully chanted the eloquent phrases (of Marc Sangnier): “Only Christianity can generate true democracy”. – “The man of action is he who champions his beliefs.” – “The economic order is not human if it simply allows the poor the liberty of dying of hunger.” – “Conquest of the people.” – “Make apostles.” – “Cultivate and beautify souls.” – Slogans that one day Fernand would take up in his own turn and intone before his youthful audiences.

Unfortunately, the Sillon had recently closed following Pope Pius X’s dramatic letter, Our Apostolic Mandate, to the French bishops on 25 August 1910, condemning Sangnier’s movement for “escaping” hierarchical control” as well as for being infected with the spirits of “socialism” and democracy.

However, this clearly did not deter Fr Abrassart, who continued to develop a young workers programme in his parish based on the sillonnist methods of formation and action.

In Fernand Tonnet, he found an enthusiastic young partner, an altar server who became his protégé as a youth leader, helping to establish a ‘patronage’ (parish youth club) that aimed to reach out to the vast number of young workers of the Borinage mining region.

Together they visited housing estates, workshops and coal mines that enabled Fernand to learn about life via the “social observation method” pioneered by Frédéric Le Play.

According to Henri Tonnet, it was while doing this work that Fernand learnt to conduct small-scale enquiries, and to fill out exercise books with “written notes on tragic social cases.”

Consequently, Fernand also acquired “the gift and sense of the truth, the concrete and real life with which he was so endowed.” And in this way, Henri Tonnet noted, Fr Abrassart “convinced (Fernand) to devote his life to Catholic action and the social apostolate.”

All this background helps explain why, when Fernand moved back to the parish of Notre Dame, Laeken, in April 1912, he quickly made himself known to the new curate, Joseph Cardijn, who was also so heavily influenced by the Sillon, launching the collaboration that would lead to the emergence of the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC) or Young Christian Workers (YCW) by 1925.

Sadly, however, beyond the fact that he died in 1937, we know little more of the life of Fr Abrassart, the priest who set Fernand on this path.

Fortunately, thanks to Henri Tonnet, we still possess the beautiful photo tribute (perhaps an ordination photo) to Georges Abrassart with his clearly devoted and no doubt equally devout parents.

“Homage to Georges Abrassart

In the marshes of Picardy,* he formed the soul and spirit of

Fernand Tonnet

And convinced him to devote his life to

Catholic action and the social apostolate.”

Stefan Gigacz

Note

* As a matter of interest, while Picardy is today a northern French region between Paris and Lille, apparently in medieval times it was also regarded as extending to Belgium’s Hainaut region where Quiévrain is located (Picardy, Britannica.com)

References

Stefan Gigacz, The Sillon and the YCW, Part II, Laeken and Brussels Social Works, 1997.

Stefan Gigacz, The Leaven in the Council, Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist Network at Vatican II, Chapter 2, Lamennais, Le Sillon and the JOC, Australian Cardijn Institute, 2021.

Michael J. Schuck, Early modern Roman Catholic social thought 1740-1890, Chapter 4 in Kenneth R. Himes OFM, Modern Catholic Social Teaching, Commentaries and Interpretations, Georgetown University Press.

Henri Tonnet, Fernand Tonnet, président-fondateur de la Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne 1894-1945, Causerie Henri Tonnet, Librairie Saint Luc, Bruxelles, 1957.

Henri Tonnet, Henri Tonnet et Jeune Garde Catholique à Notre Dame de Laeken 1909-1914, Librairie Saint Luc, Bruxelles, 1958.

Henri Tonnet, La génèse de la JOC et la vie immolée de son président fondateur Fernand Tonnet, unpublished, 15 March 1964

Photo credit

Archives Fernand Tonnet, Folder No. 1, CARHOP: www.carhop.be