140 years on Jesuit education in Egypt: “The men you produce”

17-05-2019 02:12 PM

Dalia Victor


As the Collège de la Sainte Famille, the boys’ school established in Cairo by the Jesuits in 1879, celebrates its 140th anniversary, Watani delves into the story of what has today become one of the most prestigious boys’ schools in Egypt


“We strive for our school to remain a mainstay of education and peace.” So said Father Nader Michel, Principal of the Collège de la Sainte Famille, CSF, (The College of the Holy Family) in Cairo, during the official celebration of the 140th anniversary of the school.

“The foundation of our mission is love for Egypt,” he said, explaining that the school’s purpose is to serve Egypt best by offering her generations of men of integrity who would be tolerant of various cultures, generous in spirit, eager to work, devoted to service, and dedicated to the good of the country. As such, CSF has become an emblem for graduating young men with strength of character, resilience, and human values that mark them for a lifetime.

Today, CSF offers education for boys mainly in the French language, but according to the Egyptian national curriculum. Its senior school students, however, have the option of choosing to continue with the national curriculum and sit for the Egyptian Secondary School Certificate, or diverting their studies to follow the French curriculum and sit for the Baccalauréat Français.


Early days

The CSF, also known as Jésuites, has over its 140 years’ lifetime attained the enviable calibre of being one of the most prestigious in the country. It is among a number of schools founded in the late 19th century and early 20th century by Catholic and Evangelical missions that came to Egypt with the aim of serving the underprivileged, also aiding Egyptians by establishing services such as schools and hospitals. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had aroused world interest in Egypt as being at the crossroads between East and West, and drawing attention to the country’s ancient civilisation and need for development.

The story of the CSF, written in a book published by the school in 1979 to mark its centenary, goes back to Pope Leo XIII, Pope of the Vatican in 1878 – 1903. Pope Leo XIII wished to establish a seminary in Egypt to educate future Coptic Catholic priests and promote the education of young Egyptians, as a service to Egypt. He took his desire to the Jesuit fathers who were known for their cultural and educational acumen. In January 1879, Father Rémi Normand, who was the Father Superior of the Jesuit mission in Syria, came to Cairo and rented a house in Muski, an area in central Cairo, to start a school. A month later, the three Jesuits: Father Joseph Heury, Father Paulin Garnier and Brother Jean Smirly, started working on the project. They fostered good relations with civil and religious authorities, and were even received by the then ruler of Egypt Khedive Ismail and shared with him their vision to build an educational institution. Khedive Ismail liked what he heard and promised to help them. They were later received by his son and successor Khedive Tewfik who made the same pledge as his father had. The three Jesuits also visited the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, Pope Kyrillos V, who warmly received them and even later visited them himself.


Which curriculum to teach?

The first school year took off in October 1879 in Muski’s Boghos Palace which had a spacious, pleasant garden. Egyptian and non-Egyptian families in Egypt were eager for their children to benefit from the world-renowned Jesuit education. School started with two classes of around 16 students; eight boarders, and eight half-boarders or external students. During the school year the number of students leapt to 30.

The Jesuits were at a loss as to which curriculum to offer their students, also whether to teach them Latin, French or Greek? Or Arabic, their native language? Or maybe English, since Egypt was then occupied by the British. They finally chose to harmoniously blend French humanism and classical Arab culture to form men with open spirits and minds who would be in the service of their country. Some Latin and Greek were also taught.


New campus

In 1881/1882, the Orabi nationalist revolution erupted in Egypt, predictably causing unrest. The Jesuit fathers had to leave to Lebanon, not knowing if they would ever be back, especially given that they were facing severe financial difficulties. But in September 1882, the Principal Father Jullien returned to Cairo with his team and school resumed. That school year started off with 112 students: 65 Catholics, 29 Orthodox, 12 Muslims and 6 Jews. The following month Father Normand visited Egypt once more, and, after he saw the school and students in full activity, decided there was need for “a proper school”.

CSF students in 1883

In 1883, the Jesuits in Cairo were given the consent by their superiors in Lyon to acquire land and build a new school. Father Jullien thus went on the lookout for a large plot of land that could house a school for the future. He eyed several plots of land in Faggala, overlooking the then Ismailiya Canal, today’s Ramses Street, a main Cairo thoroughfare. The area was famous for its fields of radish, figl in Arabic, from which the neighbourhood of Faggala took its name. The Jesuits purchased the land, a full 11500 square metres, which has since housed the CSF campus.

Challenges, challenges

In 1884 Father Antoine Foujols was sent to Cairo to replace Father Jullien; he was assigned with the mission of liquidating the Muski school and reconsidering construction of a new school in Faggala. The Jesuits had already launched a school in Alexandria, and the Superior thought there might be no need for another in Cairo, let alone for building a new one. After studying the situation on the ground, Father Foujols was adamant not to close down the Cairo school and sent to his superiors defending his viewpoint. He apparently pleaded his cause so eloquently that he was granted the funds needed for construction of the new school.

In 1888, the Egyptian authorities gave the green light to start construction; in fact as per the directives of Khedive Tewfik who was in total support of the project which he believed worked for the benefit of future Egyptian generations. Egyptian authorities cooperated with the Jesuit fathers and offered facilities and eased procedures. The Minister of Public Works offered a large quantity of the Nile silt for the garden of the nascent school and for backfilling the court, and the Minister of Finance exempted the school from paying acquisition dues [droits de l’octroi].

Construction was a challenge given the proximity of Ismailiya Canal which might pose a threat to the foundation. The architect in charge, Brother François Mourier decided to found a cement table over which the entire building was erected.


Men in service of their nation

The foundation stone for the new school was officially laid in April 1888, attending was Egypt’s Prime Minister Nubar Pasha and a plethora of Cairo elites and representatives of the diplomatic corps. “Here will rise the fortress of teaching and education,” Father Foujols said during the ceremony. “We want to pay Egypt back the hospitality she has so generously extended to us, by providing her with a colossal structure designed to raise its children on knowledge and sublime ethics. We will be happy when we can provide her with a generation of devoted men of character, a legion of young people who will place their intellects, light, words and arms in the service of their nation.”

Thirteen months later construction of the school was complete.

On 30 May 1889, the school Principal Father Foujols, accompanied by the students, toured the school and blessed the new building, classrooms, corridors, chambers and dining rooms.

The school opened that year in its new building, with 282 students.

In 1891 the school’s church was consecrated in a separate building next to the school’s main building. It took two and a half years to build the church, which was built in the Mozarabic style, inspired by the Andalusian style. The iron cross that rises above it is distinctive and was the first to rise that high in the neighbourhood.

In 1892 the school theatre was inaugurated, and in 1904 an additional floor was added to the school’s main building.


Ethics and intellect

In 1904, the Jesuit fathers reconsidered the curriculum they were offering their students. Observing the considerable difference between the Egyptian and the European civilisations, the Jesuits realised they had to adapt their teaching methods and curricula with the Egyptian mind set. From then on, they set a golden rule for modern inculturation: “In our programmes, we can and must bend to the minds and needs of the country where we are.” This would remain the main motto of the CSF.

The school continued to expand. In 1925, a new building was erected to cater for the growing number of students. By 1930, the school boasted of 600 students from inside and outside Egypt; in 1930 and 1934 two new campuses were added offering primary education.

CSF students in 1932

The school’s treasure is its library which opened in 1975, and includes some 65,000 titles, mainly on Ancient and modern Egypt, French Literature, and Arab and Islamic culture.

In 1916, Sultan Hussein Kamel, ruler of Egypt (1914 – 1917) visited the school, and was impressed by what he saw.

Letter sent from Sultan Hussein Kamel to CSF notifying of his visit

“What I love about you is your respect for the beliefs of others: you have students of various faiths and they are all very much at home,” Sultan Hussein Kamel said addressing the Jesuits during his visit. “Your work is beautiful and you accomplish it with dedication, I thank you and I wish that this work lasts centuries and centuries,” he said. After a tour of the school, Sultan Hussein told the Principal, Father Badin: “This is the first time I visit your school, but I know it by the men it has produced, and I admire its method of education which joins the ethical and the intellectual.”


CSF emulated

Sultan Hussein Kamel’s words were picked up by Egypt’s Minister of Education, Tarek Shawki, in his address during the celebration marking the 140th anniversary of the CSF last March.

Dr Shawki said that the Sultan’s opinion of the school is still valid today, and reflects his own opinion, a sincere remark that went straight to the hearts of the audience. The Minister had been invited as guest of honour of the official ceremony, and was keen to oblige.

He was treated to a tour of the school, and said that he hoped to see the CSF experience emulated in all of Egypt’s schools.

Also attending the ceremony which was held in the courtyard of the school in Faggala were the ambassadors of the Vatican, France, Hungary and India, in addition to representatives of educational and cultural institutions in Cairo. The event was open for the school students, graduates and families to attend.


Not activities … education tools

During the ceremony, old and new pictures of the school were displayed on large screens installed for that purpose; the attendants were extremely impressed to see the pictures of the past, especially those depicting the early days of the school and its surrounding, beside the pictures of today, also pictures showing the various activities the school offers its students.

These activities were described by Fr Nader Michel as a substantial educational tool. Some of the pictures showed the students of the third Preparatory Year while on a five day walk to Suez, some 100 km east of Cairo.

Others showed students of the senior school cycling to the Red Sea resorts of Ain Sukhna, some 130km east of Cairo, and Hurghada, some 377km south of Suez. This besides pictures of the students of different classes doing volunteer projects with Abul-Reesh Children Hospital, the Cancer Institute, the Khanka Hospital for the mentally ill, and the Magdi Yacoub Heart Centre in Aswan, as well as projects in Nubia.


”For and with others”

Jesuit institutions around the world pride themselves in preparing students to become “men and women for and with others”. This motto has greatly affected current students and graduates of the school. Dr Ayman Georges, graduate of the class of 1983 told Watani that the school instilled in his generation the value of team work especially through the walking and cycling camps; “the values I learned,” he said, “have marked my life for good.”

Hamdi Loza, Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs and graduate of CSF class 1971, said that the school taught him discipline, depth, openness to others and to new ideas, and integrity.

Father Yacoub Ramses of the Coptic Orthodox Church who is also a graduate of class 1973 agreed with Loza in that discipline was among the most important values he acquired in school, but that even more important was the culture of love and tolerance that ran in the veins of the institution.

Yassin al-Zoghby, a graduate of class 2017 evoked a personal experience. He said that when he was 11, he sustained an accident that resulted in the amputation of his leg.

“I’ll never forget,” he said, “how the school, its teachers and my colleagues stood by me during this period. There was constantly droves of people from school with me during my prolonged stay in hospital.” According to Yassin, self-giving and service are the most remarkable qualities of the graduates of the Jésuites.

Student representatives also talked of their school experience and values which, interestingly, was very much like what the older generations of students had expressed.

The ceremony ended by a moving performance of the school hymn by students and graduates.



The official ceremony was not the only form of celebration; a family festival and fair was held in the school’s Heliopolis campus to also celebrate the 140th anniversary. The students, staff, families and friends spent a day together enjoying various fun activities, performances and a talent show. The following day the school in Faggala opened its doors for graduates of 1948 onwards. The graduates browsed through every nook and cranny, met old friends and teachers, and posed for photos and selfies in the classrooms, the school library and the courts. Senior school students accompanied the graduates on their tour, explaining to them about the renovations and expansions. The different generations warmly exchanged stories and notes. The graduates then gathered for a group photo that included representatives of the classes that graduated from the school from 1948 till 2018.

Mass was the fitting conclusion to the jubilation. It was celebrated in the school’s church, and members of the Jesuit fathers community in Cairo participated. Some had come from other Egyptian provinces, others had flown to Cairo from other countries. Fr José Alberto Mesa, International Secretary for Education of the Jesuits Society came to Egypt especially to attend Mass; Fr Dany Youness, Provincial Head of the Jesuit Society; and Fr Victor Aswad, Deputy to the Father Superior, flew especially to Egypt to attend the celebrations that culminated with Mass. Hearts overflowed with thanksgiving for God’s bountiful blessings throughout the rich history of the school.

The founding father of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola, believed in the saying “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” a Latin phrase which translates “For the Greater Glory of God”. It became the motto of Jesuit education, a motto which implies that even the smallest gesture has to be done for the glory of God. It is a motto manifested in the generations of men produced in the Cairo school and offered to the world.

Watani International

17 May 2019

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