In the nineteenth century, French Roman Catholic missions underwent a significant transformation, evolving from addressing the needs of local Catholics to becoming integral components of France’s religious and cultural imperialism. They also aligned with the Holy See’s efforts to unify the Eastern Christian Churches under Rome. The Vatican’s goal was to eradicate the causes of competition between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches, fostering a complete mobilization of efforts towards reconciliation. Accordingly, the Holy See issued instructions for establishing schools dedicated to educating young clerics from their respective nationalities (i.e., Greek, and Armenian) and other institutions providing students with the opportunity to devoutly practice and understand their rites. The preservation of Eastern rites was of paramount importance for the effective integration of Eastern Christians into Roman Catholicism.1
The education institutions established by French Roman Catholic orders and congregations gained popularity among Ottoman Christians. The Ottoman Edicts of 1839 and 1856, designed to modernize the Empire, aimed to offer non-Muslims who were striving for equality with Muslims opportunities in the civil service. Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, acknowledging the importance of the French language in Ottoman foreign diplomacy, set aside religious and sectarian differences. They actively sought education in French schools to facilitate their later entry into government service.
The Augustinians of the Assumption – the Assumptionists – founded in Nimes in 1845 by Emmanuel D’Alzon, played a pivotal role in these missions by fostering the exchange of knowledge between the East and the West, as well as the emancipation of different Ottoman communities within their Mission d’Orient.2 The Assumptionists, along with their female counterpart, the Oblates (founded in 1865), advocated the inculturation of distinct Ottoman communities to ensure the success of their mission. They emphasized the importance of quality education and free healthcare in this endeavor. Furthermore, Assumptionist educational institutions served as vital conduits for cultural exchange between Europe and the Ottoman Orient, facilitating the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and experiences. This cultural bridge significantly contributed to cultural brokerage that fostered mutual understanding and establishing a platform for dialogue between the Catholics and the Orthodox as well as the Ottoman Orient and Europe.
To gain a quantifiable understanding of the missionary influence in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, it would be necessary to examine the archives of every missionary order and congregation that was present. However, in a report addressed to the Quai d’Orsay in November 1904, there were 4,055 Catholic clergy members under French protection. This comprised 2,308 French, 658 Ottoman, and 1,085 individuals of diverse nationalities. Additionally, various reports from the same period provide insights into the enrollment figures for schools offering instruction in French during the academic year 1905–1906, estimating the student population to be between 80,000 and 110,000.3
The Roman Catholic missions in the Ottoman Empire successfully served the local communities due to their educational and healthcare institutions. The missionary education consisted of the education of the French clergy on local populations, the Catholic education of the local clergy (i.e., Greek and Slavic Catholics), and the schooling of children. According to Fr. D’Alzon, the only path to achieving the union was through education. In Le Directoire (1859) he wrote: “Teaching is one of the most powerful ways of fulfilling the desire to make the Kingdom of Jesus Christ come.”4
Between their passion for knowledge and their ultramontane zeal, the Assumptionists believed in modern education. Their educational establishments included seminaries, schools, alumnates, orphanages, parishes for other rites, and noviciates. Moreover, they played a significant role in advancing knowledge transfer through their pilgrimage organizations, research, and publications on Byzantine and Ottoman culture and history.
The educational endeavors of the Assumptionist and Oblate missions in the Ottoman Empire were not solely instrumental in advancing the Vatican’s campaign to unify Eastern churches under Rome and promoting France’s cultural influence over Eastern Christians. Thus, I argue here that the missionary activities were propelled not only by these geopolitical dimensions but by a more expansive goal: establishing a religious-cultural bridge. This bridge aimed to foster mutual understanding and provide a foundational platform for dialogue between the Eastern Christians and Rome, as well as between the Ottoman Orient and Europe.
To encourage the return of Eastern Christians, a strategic approach involved providing them with qualified ministers who possessed both doctrinal knowledge and piety. The objective was to persuade them to embrace the desired unity. Moreover, it was deemed essential to familiarize them with Catholic wisdom and a Catholic lifestyle in a manner congruent with their national character.5
The Congress of Jerusalem in 1893, guided by Leo XIII, served as a platform for significant discussions on Eastern rites. It reflected the Catholic Church’s intentions of fostering connections with the Orthodox Churches. The presentation of the Western (and Roman Catholic) lifestyle was a way to connect the Eastern and Western populations. Thus, the education of the Assumptionists in local communities, the education of local clergy, and the research on Byzantine and Ottoman history, all of which were crucial to building this bridge, occurred in the seminaries. The seminaries were where the Eastern clergy and Latin adherents interacted and were involved in the congregation’s work to expand Catholicism.
Leo XIII encouraged the Assumptionists to expand their influence to the Anatolian side of the city. The Seminary of Saint Leo, established in Kadıköy, Istanbul, in 1895, stood out as a significant Assumptionist seminary. The primary goal was to cater to the needs of the local Latin and Greek communities to improve interaction between the two groups.6 The seminary primarily functioned as a college of professors entrusted with the responsibility of educating indigenous (i.e., Greek) priests who worked specifically with the Greek and Slavic communities while serving as a place of education for the French clergy on Greek and Slavic language(s), histories, and cultures. For instance, in the dining halls, the clergy were encouraged to use Greek or Bulgarian for readings and conversations.7
To facilitate the dissemination of Catholicism and promote cross-cultural understanding, it was considered imperative to represent Catholicism in alignment with the national identity of Ottoman Christians. To accomplish this goal, educational institutions were strategically established to provide high-quality education to the youth. Roman Catholic missions aimed to shape a pro-Western Ottoman citizenry by educating children, thereby exerting influence on the broader population through them.
Additionally, Roman Catholic orders were adapted in response to French republican ideals. In the opening statement of the 1897 curriculum, Fr. Picard described their ideology as follows: “Let’s have a horror of the routine as we do of novelties; but let’s develop our intelligence by welcoming all the means of education that are multiplying these days and deserve our attention.”8
The Assumptionists and the Oblates worked as one in their educational endeavors. Their school curriculum encompassed five key areas: Religious Education, Classical Education, Schedule, Discipline, and Pedagogical Matters. Religious education included subjects such as Catechism, Church History, Practices of Piety, and Spiritual Exercises (with Muslims and Jews exempted from religious practices). Moreover, subjects like Reading and Writing, French as the primary language, European and local languages, Geography, Sciences, Painting, Singing, Gymnastics, and Courtesy were included.
The schools were diverse, embracing students of various religions and nationalities to promote cultural brokerage, and forbidding all kinds of discrimination. The instructors avoided expressing patriotism or making biased comparisons between the West and the East, acknowledging that such truths were not exclusive to any particular country.9 In Eskisehir, for instance, the school had sixty children of different backgrounds, including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Greeks, Gregorian Armenians, Muslims, Jews, and Europeans.
The Oblates were set to play a more proactive role in the congregation’s deeds as their connection to local communities was stronger than the Assumptionists due to the free healthcare provided in dispensaries. They were encouraged to delve into language studies and guide their students to attend their respective church rites.10 Moreover, they introduced a fairly new concept to Ottoman society by establishing schools for girls, thus challenging prevailing opinions on female education. Despite skepticism, the Oblates overseeing these schools achieved success. One successful example was the Haydarpaşa School, which had 125 female students in 1896.11
Research into local populations primarily took place within the seminaries. On October 7, 1895, the Assumptionists established the Center for Oriental Studies at the St. Leo Seminary in Istanbul. Subsequently, this center evolved into the Institute of Byzantine Studies and played a pivotal role in transmitting knowledge to Europe through the publication of Assumptionist periodicals, notably the Echos d’Orient (1897–1943).12 The research the Assumptionists published here was an integral part of a broader movement showing the Vatican’s interest in creating a rapprochement between the West and the culture, history, language, and traditions of the Ottoman Christians. Edmond Bouvy, a specialist in Oriental Christianity, described the Assumptionists’ purpose in publishing the journal as follows:
The Échos d’Orient is beyond being solely a speculative journal focused on archaeology, history, liturgy, and Byzantine literature. We have a specific and, let it be emphatically stated, supernatural and apostolic objective: to involve Western Christians in Eastern Christian communities; to contribute to the resolution of the schism actively, and to catalyze a threefold movement within the Church, particularly in France, encompassing prayer, study, and action in support of the East and Eastern affairs.13
The Assumptionists published most of their scholarly contributions in French to allow European readers to learn about the Ottoman Orient. Some of the key contributors included Father Martin Jugie, who was renowned for his expertise in Byzantine Studies; Father Raymond Janin, distinguished for his focus on the topography and ecclesiastical geography of the Byzantine era; Louis Petit, the founding figure of Échos d’Orient; and Sévérien Salaville, who dedicated his scholarly pursuits to the Christian Orient. These publications played a significant role in augmenting the seminary’s impact on research pertinent to local communities. The Assumptionists believed that the success of their mission depended on educating the youth. They envisioned that young individuals, educated in a Western-Catholic manner, would contribute directly to the mission or influence their community. The institutions established by the Assumptionists earned a reputation for providing high-quality Western Roman Catholic education and healthcare. They were appreciated by people of various religious communities for their inclusive approach, welcoming individuals without distinction, and respecting their cultural and traditional backgrounds. Additionally, the Oblate dispensaries gained high regard for their commitment to serving everyone, irrespective of ethnicity, nationality, language, or religion, earning appreciation from both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.14
The Augustinians of the Assumption – with the support of their female counterparts, the Oblates – played a significant role in providing high-quality French Roman Catholic education with various objectives within the Ottoman Empire between 1863 and 1924. From the beginning of the Mission d’Orient in 1863, the Vatican supported and guided the Assumptionists in their missionary activities because the value of quality Catholic education and free healthcare was crucial to building a bridge between Eastern and Western Churches and their communities.
In addition to promoting Vatican and French cultural influence, the Assumptionist and Oblate missions within the Ottoman Empire endeavored to institute a religious-cultural bridge. The primary objective of this bridge was to cultivate mutual understanding and function as a nexus for facilitating East-West dialogue. The key factor contributing to their success in education was their strategy of prioritizing respect for local languages, cultures, and traditions while delivering a Western Catholic classical education. By integrating European modernity into a multiethnic society, they aimed to enhance communication among diverse groups and integrate women into education. The education received in Francophone schools, irrespective of religious affiliation, laid a valuable foundation for nurturing individuals inclined towards Western values and offered promising prospects within the multicultural and multinational society of the Ottoman Empire.
Overall, through their educational activities aiming to achieve the objectives of the Holy See’s unification project, the Assumptionist and Oblate missions demonstrated their ability to navigate complex sociopolitical dynamics and successfully fostered an environment where indigenous communities could embrace their cultural heritage while forging closer ties with Rome. Despite the Mission d’Orient not reaching its ultimate goal, the Assumptionist and Oblate efforts to facilitate cultural exchange between Europe and the Ottoman Orient enriched the broader dialogue between civilizations.
Ediz Hazir is a joint Ph.D. candidate in Modern History at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. His research project centers on religious diplomacy between France, the Vatican, and the Ottoman Empire (1863–1914). Specifically, his research looks at the Augustinians of the Assumption as a case study to explore their role in advancing French religious-cultural imperialism and contributing to the Vatican's mission of unifying Eastern and Western Churches.
- Leo XIII, “Orientalium Dignities on the Eastern Churches,” 1894. ↩︎
- Ediz Hazir, “Nurturing Faith and Enlightening Minds: Assumptionist Education in the Ottoman Empire,” Religions 15, no. 1 (2024): 132. ↩︎
- Assomptionist Archives in Rome (AAR) 2 CW 13. Cited in Christiane Babot, La Mission des Augustins de l’Assomption à Eski-Chéhir, 1891–1924 (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2011), 48. ↩︎
- Lucien Guissard, The Assumptionists: From Past to Present (Montreal: Bayard, 2002), 64. ↩︎
- Leo XIII, “Christi Nomen on Propagation of the Faith and the Eastern Churches,” 1894. ↩︎
- Leo XIII to Fr. Francois Picard A. A., July 2, 1895. The Vatican Archives (online). ↩︎
- François Picard, Missions des Augustins de l’Assomption en Orient: Conclusions des réunions tenues à Phanaraki en octobre 1902 (Paris: Imprimerie P. Feron-Vrau, 1903), 10. ↩︎
- François Picard, Les écoles des Augustins de l'Assomption en Orient: programme d'études (Paris: Typographie Augustinienne, 1897). ↩︎
- Ibid., 5. ↩︎
- Picard, Missions des Augustins, 8. ↩︎
- Jacques Thobie, Les intérêts culturels français dans l’Empire ottoman finissant: l’enseignement congréganiste (Istanbul: The ISIS Press, 2022), 658. ↩︎
- Albert Faillier, “Le centenaire de l’Institut byzantin des Assomptionnistes,” Revue des études byzantines 53 (1995): 5–40. ↩︎
- Edmond Bouvy, “Notre but,” Échos d’Orient 1, no: 9 (1898): 257. ↩︎
- Ediz Hazir, “Bridging Faiths and Empires: The Assumptionists and the Mission d’Orient (1863–1923),” Religions 14, no. 9 (2023): 1183. ↩︎