The Formative Years 1899 - 1914

Novice at  Aix-Provence 1899
Novice at Aix-Provence 1899

Teilhard's training as a Jesuit provided him with the thoughtful stimulation to continue his devotion both to scientific investigation of the earth and to cultivation of a life of prayer. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-Provence in 1899. Here he further developed the ascetic piety that he had learned in his reading at Mongre. It was also at Aix-en-Provence that he began his friendship with Auguste Valensin who had already studied philosophy with Maurice Blondel.


In 1901, due to an anti-clerical movement in the French Republic, the Jesuits and other religious orders were expelled from France. The Aix-en-Provence novitiate that had moved in 1900 to Paris was transferred in 1902 to the English island of Jersey. Prior to the move to Jersey, however, on March 26, 1902 Pierre took his first vows in the Society of Jesus. At this time the security of Teilhard's religious life, apart from the political situation in France, was painfully disturbed by the gradual sickness that incapacitated his younger sister, Marguerite-Marie, and by the sudden illness of his oldest brother, Alberic.


Alberic's death in September, 1902, came as Pierre and his fellow Jesuits were quietly leaving Paris for Jersey. The death of this formerly successful, buoyant brother, followed in 1904 by the death of Louise, his youngest sister, caused Teilhard momentarily to turn away from concern for things of this world. Indeed, he indicates that but for Paul Trossard, his former novice master who encouraged him to follow science as a legitimate way to God, he would have discontinued those studies in favor of theology.

---------In Jersey about 1902--------
---------In Jersey about 1902--------

From Jersey Pierre was sent in 1905 to do his teaching internship at the Jesuit college of St. Francis in Cairo, Egypt. For the next three years Teilhard's naturalist inclinations were developed through prolonged forays into the countryside near Cairo studying the existing flora and fauna and also the fossils of Egypt's past.


While Teilhard carried on his teaching assignments assiduously he also made time for extensive collecting of fossils and for correspondence with naturalists in Egypt and France. His collected Letters from Egypt reveal a person with keen observational powers. In 1907 Teilhard published his first article, "A Week in Fayoum." He also learned in 1907 that due to his finds of shark teeth in Fayoum and in the quarries around Cairo a new species named Teilhardia and three new varieties of shark had been presented to the Geological Society of France by his French correspondent, Monseur Prieur.

From Cairo Pierre returned to England to complete his theological studies at Ore Place in Hastings. During the years 1908 to 1912 Teilhard lived the rigorously disciplined life of a Jesuit scholastic. Yet the close relation he maintained with his family is evident in the depth of feeling expressed at the death in 1911 of his elder sister, Francoise, in China. This sister, who was the only other family member in religious life, had become a Little Sister of the Poor and worked among the impoverished of Shanghai. For Teilhard her death was particularly poignant because of the selfless dedication of her life.

Jesuit philosophy students from Lyon taken in Jersey, 1905.  Pere Teilhard had finished his Scholasticate. He is in the center behind the pot of flowers.  Auguste Valensin is behind and just to the right of Pierre.


The photo below is Pierre Teilhard's  Philosophy class in Cairo, Egypt, 1906

Caption said Hastings, 1911 but seems earlier
Caption said Hastings, 1911 but seems earlier

His letters during this period at Hastings indicate that the demands of his theological studies left little time for geological explorations of the sandstone cliffs of Hastings or the clay of nearby Weald. Yet his letters also reveal his enthusiasm for both of these types of study. In summary, three different but interrelated developments occurred during this period which significantly affected the future course of Teilhard's life. These are the reading of Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution, the anti-Modernist attack by Pope Pius X, and his discovery of a fossil tooth in the region of Hastings.


In reading Henri Bergson's newly published Creative Evolution Teilhard encountered a thinker who dissolved the Aristotelian dualism of matter and spirit in favor of a movement through time of an evolving universe. Teilhard also found the word evolution in Bergson. He connected the very sound of the word, as he says, "with the extraordinary density and intensity with which the English landscape then appeared to me -especially at sunset - when the Sussex woods seemed to be laden with all the fossil life that I was exploring, from one quarry to another, in the soil of the Weald" (from The Heart of Matter, in Robert Speaight, The Life of Teilhard de Chardin, New York, 1967, p. 45).

From Bergson, then, Teilhard received the vision of on-going evolution. For Bergson, evolution was continually expanding, a "Tide of Life" undirected by an ultimate purpose. Teilhard would eventually disagree with Bergson with respect to the direction of the universe. Later he put forward his own interpretation of the evolutionary process based on the intervening years of field work.

Pere Teilhard's ordination at 30 in England, 1911. From left, Pierre, Gonzague, Joseph, M. Teilhard de Chardin, Victor, Mme, Teilhard de Chardin.
Pere Teilhard's ordination at 30 in England, 1911. From left, Pierre, Gonzague, Joseph, M. Teilhard de Chardin, Victor, Mme, Teilhard de Chardin.

In 1903 while Pierre was in Egypt, Pius X succeeded Leo XIII as Pope. The forward-looking momentum of Leo was abandoned by the conservative Italian Curia in favor of retrenchment and attacks on a spectrum of ideas labelled "modernism" in the encyclical Pascendi (1907) and the decrees of Lamentabili (1907). Among the many new works eventually placed on the Index of Forbidden Works was Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution, although it was not yet suspect when Teilhard read it at Hastings. It is in this ecclesiastical milieu that Teilhard endeavored to articulate his emerging vision of the spiritual quality of the universe.


It was also during his years at Hastings that Teilhard and other Jesuits met Charles Dawson, an amateur paleontologist. Because of Pierre's years of collecting in Cairo he had acquired a growing interest in fossils and prehistoric life, but he was not an accomplished paleontologist, nor did his studies allow him the time to develop the skills needed to accurately date or determine pre-historic fossils. In his very limited association with Dawson, Teilhard discovered the fossil tooth in one of the diggings that caused his name to become known to the scientific community. Moreover, Teilhard's enthusiasm for the scientific study of prehistoric human life now crystallized as a possible direction after his ordination in August 1911.




Excavations in the Santander area in Spain, June, 1913.

At the Castillo cave.

From left: Nels C. Nelson, Paul Wernert, Hugo Obermaier, Miles C. Burkitt and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.



"What I've been doing is to shift a great deal of earth and of stones or watch them being shifted. In the morning, about 8, we go to the cave in our outlandish rig-out, and stay till six in the evening, in the open air and wonderful sunshine, with a magnificent view in front of us. We haven't made any sensational find; (...) but even so I find it extremely interesting, since this is the finest collection of Quaternary dwelling places known at present." (Letter to his parents, June 16, 1913)





At the Pasiega cave.

From left: M.C. Burkitt, Hugo Obermaier, unidentified, Nels C. Nelson, Paul Wernert, and in front Pere Teilhard.

Ore Place, Hastings, where Pere Teilhard studied theology from 1908 to 1912, and was ordained priest.
Ore Place, Hastings, where Pere Teilhard studied theology from 1908 to 1912, and was ordained priest.

Between 1912 and 1915 Teilhard continued his studies in paleontology. But because of his initiative in meeting Marcellin Boule at the Museum of Natural History and in taking courses at this Paris museum and at the Institute Catholique with Georges Boussac, Teilhard now began to develop that expertise in the geology of the Eocene Period that earned him a doctorate in 1922. In addition, Pierre also joined such accomplished paleontologists as the Abbe Henri Breuil, Father Hugo Obermaier, Jean Boussac and others in their excavations in the Aurignacian period caves of southern France, in the phosporite fossil fields of Belgium and in the fossil rich sands of the French Alps. While Teilhard was developing a promising scientific career he also renewed his acquaintance in Paris with his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon.

Through Marguerite, Teilhard entered into a social milieu in which he could exchange ideas and receive critical comment from several perspectives. In these surroundings Teilhard developed his thought until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.