This month marks the hundredth anniversary of the scout movement. In August, 1907, Lord Baden-Powell held the first scout camp on the island of Brownsea. It is less well known that the largest scouting group in France was begun by the Jesuit, Jacques Sevin.
In 1913 the young Fr. Sevin went to England to meet Baden-Powell and study the scout movement. This was adventurous – the Catholic Church in France, particularly through the Jesuit magazine Etudes, was suspicious of scouting that seemed tainted by English perfidy, particularly in the shape of freemasonry, Protestantism and lay control.
Sevin lived in occupied Belgium during the first world war, and like Baden-Powell discovered the attraction and power the movement had for the young in the time of war. Baden-Powell recognised and exploited the skills and taste of adolescents for intelligence and other tasks during the Siege of Mafeking in 1899. In German occupied Belgium, scout groups were forbidden to meet but Sevin found enormous vitality and creativity in the clandestine group he led. It was rare for Jesuits to be able to lead rather than decry the taste of young people for adventure and the forbidden.
In 1920 he founded the Association of Scouts of France, whose official prayer remains the “Teach me Lord to be generous’, attributed to St. Ignatius. This is also the scouting prayer for Rovers in England. Under Sevin, the Scouts combined the taste for activity with faith, and he wrote the handbook for the movement. Baden Powell had already included the service of God among the goals of the scouts. Sevin emphasised the knowledge and love of Christ also as the context of the movement.
One of the fruits of the Scout movement in France was a religious congregation. Sevin saw the need for a religious congregation that could work with young women. Many scout leaders wanted to bring the spirituality that they had found into religius life. So a number of young women under Sevin’s guidance formed the Congregation of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. Their emblem was the Cross, formed by the fleur de lys, the scouting emblem. They have houses in France, Palestine, Chad and Chile.
Sevin’s health was always frail, and in his later years he gave himself to retreats and spiritual guidance. He died in 1951.