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Société des Œuvres de Mer (France)

Last modified: 2014-04-30 by ivan sache
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Flag of Société des Œuvres de Mer - Image by Ivan Sache, 17 January 2014


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Presentation of Société des Œuvres de Mer

Société des Œuvres de Mer was founded in 1894 by Lieutenant Bernard Bailly, with the support of his two brothers, the Assumptionist fathers Emmanuel and Vincent de Paul Bailly.
Article 2 of the first Statutes of the society describes its goal as "providing material, medical, moral and religious assistance to French and foreign ships, especially to those involved in the grande pêche, by operating hospital ships".
At the time, the grande pêche (big fishing or grand métier - great job) meant cod fishing on the banks of Newfoundland, Iceland, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Greenland. Some 300 sailing ships (terre-neuvas or terre-neuviers), based either in continental France or Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, were manned by more than 10,000 seamen. The best-seller Pêcheur d'Islande, published in 1886 by Pierre Loti put the emphasis of the harsh life of the seamen, boosting the establishment of assistance societies. Father Yvon (see below) nicknamed them "the convicts of the sea", while R. Convenant nicknamed them "the galley slaves in the mist".

The society established in Saint-Pierre the "Maison de Famille", directed by Father Hamon, and an hospital managed by nuns. Its main activity, however, was the operation of hospital ships that provided first aid and medical to seamen, mostly French and Portuguese. The seamen suffered from respiratory diseases (sore throat, bronchitis, pleurisy, tuberculosis), traumas (sprains, fractures, contusions), digestive troubles (diarrhoea, dysentery, gastritis), abscesses, whitlows, phlegmons and toothaches; typhoid fever and scurvy were not uncommon. The best doctors from the Health Service of the Navy, and, subsequently, civil doctors, served on the ships, contributing to the progress of maritime medicine.
Seven hospital ships sailed from 1896 to 1939. The society's first hospital ship, the three-master Saint-Pierre, was launched in 1896. Lost on 30 May 1896 off Newfoundland, the ship was quickly replaced by two similar three masters, Saint-Pierre II and Saint-Paul. Launched on 18 March 1897, the Saint-Pierre II was visited by Commandant Charcot in July 1900 off Iceland and eventually sold to a shipowner from Saint-Pierre in 1905. The Saint-Paul was lost in 4 April 1898 in the Bay of Reykjavik.
The next ship, and probably the biggest, of the society was the Saint-François d'Assise, with a steel hull, big sails and an auxiliary engine of 300 hp. Manned by 27 seamen, the ship was operated until the First World War. The chaplain of the Saint-François d'Assise received 537,802 letters from 1897 to 1919; he served also as a public writer, since most seamen could not write, and campaigned against alcoholism. Requisitioned in 1914, the ship served as an hospital ship during the Dardanelles campaign; renamed El Hadj, she subsequently transported pilgrims to Mecca.
The Notre-Dame de la Mer - formerly, the trawler Occident - completed only the 1914 campaign. Requisitioned during the First World War, the ship, deemed obsolete, was sold in 1920. The Sainte-Jehanne, launched on 2 March 1914, completed the 1914 campaign and was then requisitioned; the ship is said to have sunk the U17 on 30 March 1915, which is disputed. Totally revamped in 1924-1925 and renamed Sainte-Jeanne d'Arc, the ship was equipped with wireless telegraphy, allowing the seamen to send telegrams. The Sainte-Jeanne d'Arc completed 16 campaigns from 1914 to 1933, embarking a doctor, a chaplain and the Delegate for Fishing - from 1920 to 1925, the "gentleman explorer" Raymond Rallier du Baty (1881-1978).
The Saint-Yves, blessed in Saint-Malo on Easter Monday 1935 was a small (8 berths) but modern hospital ship. The chaplain, Father Yvon, established onboard Radio Morue (Cod Radio) in the ship. The ship completed five campaigns from 1935 to 1939.

The society also established dispensaries and home for retired seamen in several French ports. All of them were progressively closed in the 1960-1970s (Paimpol, 1961; Hyères, 1966; Saint-Jean-de-Luz, 1968; Le Havre, 1970; Toulon, 1972; and Cherbourg, 1973) except two homes in Brest and the Stella Maris home in Saint-Pierre.
In the 1980s, dispensaries were re-established to assist modern seamen living in the same miserable conditions as did the cod fishers one century ago. The first such dispensary, open in in 1986 in Port-de-Bouc, was sponsored by Princess Ann of England; subsequent dispensaries were inaugurated in Sète (1996), Marseilles (1997), La Palice (1998), Le Havre, Nantes, La Rochelle, Lorient, Rouen and Calais. The society also supports crews abandoned in ports of commerce by rogue shipowners, and offers supports to the Assumptionist missions in Japanese, Chilean and Mauritanian ports.

[B. Dulou, La Société des Œuvres de Mer, 2010 (PDF]

Ivan Sache, 17 January 2014


House flag of Société des Œuvres de Mer

The Société des Œuvres de Mer was granted a house flag, white with a red cross in the middle and the French ensign in canton.

Ivan Sache, 17 January 2014