1887-1921: Prehistory: The International Union of Catholic Students
“If Catholics were not the first to found an international student union, it seems at least that they were the first to have the idea.” In 1887, Baron George de Montenach of Fribourg, Switzerland, the president of the Swiss Students’ Society proposed the idea at the General Assembly of the Society to create an “International Union of Catholic Students.” On August 23rd, 1887, Montenach’s idea was accepted by the Society and it was approved by Pope Leo XIII. The bishop of the diocese, the future Cardinal Mermillod, led the discussions of the provisional committee. Georges de Montenach was chosen as President of the Union and traveled around Europe to visit with the existing student organizations and to help in the establishing of new ones.
Because of the efforts of Montenach and other leaders, over 7,000 students traveled to Rome in 1891 for a pilgrimage. As part of that event, 1,700 of them attended the assembly of the Union and 300 of them worked on drafting the statutes, with Fribourg as the headquarters. “Unfortunately, political complication soon gave a mortal blow to this young Union. And eventually very little remained of this Congress. Different efforts, notably in 1893, 1900 and 1917, to give life again to the Union, were fruitless.”
The Union would play an important role as it was closely linked with what was called the Fribourg Union. The Fribourg Union, made up of lay intellectuals met each October from 1885 to 1891 to study contemporary problems that had emerged with the divisions of classes, the emergence of the industrial worker class and the other social problems emerging in the era of industrialization. Because of this work, the Fribourg Union was charged with the task to be a “think-tank” in helping Pope Leo XIII to draft the historic foundational document of modern Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XII.
Although the International Union of Catholic Students was short lived its vision would continue with the national groups, especially the Swiss Students’ Society, the Federazione Universitaria Cattolica Italiana (FUCI) and the different German student associations.