A Catholic Monthly Magazine

St Marcellin Champagnat 1789 — 1840

By Br Romuald Gibson fms

January 1840

Yes, my name is Marcellin Champagnat, a priest of the Society of Mary – an old man now, perhaps not in years, certainly not in mind and heart, but the body is failing me. Frustrating, annoying at times, but, ah well, that’s life!

Life changed dramatically for me when I was fourteen, a farm lad working on Dad’s holdings in our little village, and yes, beginning to take an interest in the local lassies, when a priest came visiting our house and encouraged me to change my life, in fact, to become a priest! Impossible, of course, but intriguing. I had almost no schooling, couldn’t really read or write, and – well, farmhands would never even think of being priests, but amazingly, after some years of hard grind at studies, I was ordained!

Truly God works in strange ways and with unlikely people!

A priest, yes, but beyond that a particular path to walk as a priest – at the seminary, I joined a group of students saddened at the chaotic and depressed state of the Church in post-Revolutionary France, and together we forged the shape of a new kind of priesthood, a Society that would reach out to the poorer people, to the abandoned parishes and the almost forgotten villages and their people.

Men trained to teach

Thinking back on my own upbringing and the tedious struggle I had had to master my studies, and alert now to the growing need for education in a country that was entering the industrial revolution that was re-shaping Europe, I became more and more convinced that one of the basic and urgent needs, was to set up a body of men trained to teach, men ready to dedicate their lives to bringing Christian education to the villages, to the poorer folk, men who would live simply and frugally on the level of those they taught. I had no further to go, in giving them a model for their living, than Mary, the mother of Jesus, who lived for others, who reached out to the needy, whose life was shaped around her son, Jesus. My dogged insistence on the need for such need, supplementing the work of the priests, eventually saw the emergence of the ‘Little Brothers of Mary,’ in January 1817.

Notre Dame de l'Hermitage, built by St Marcellin and his first Brothers

Kids adrift in a changing world

I laugh now when I think back on our beginnings, the Brothers and I, setting up a new religious brotherhood! Two young men, indeed, one not quite fifteen, the other an ex-grenadier in Napoleon’s army, both unskilled in teaching, with little education themselves. Unlikely material yes, but their hearts became imbued with the same conviction and the same passion that I had for kids adrift in a rapidly changing world. Laboriously, step by step, we began to gather others, to apply ourselves to learn and to learn how to teach. I could honestly say of myself, ‘I can’t see a child without longing to tell him how dear he is to the Lord, how the Lord wants him to live life to the full, using the talents that God, in his goodness, has given him, for himself and for others.’

St Marcellin Champagnat, Parramatta Marist High School, sculpture by Linda Klarfeld

Genuine joy and a common passion

Ah, we stumbled along in those first few years, learning by our mistakes, learning by taking risks, somehow finding the money to keep the wobbly venture upright and moving forward. The sacrifices we made, the poverty we endured, living like the almost destitute – yet, and I still marvel at this, how much enthusiasm and genuine joy there was among us, what common passion – yes, there is no other word to describe it – what passion drove us forward. The psalm says, ‘How wonderful, how deeply satisfying it is when brothers dwell together in community!’, and that was such a feature of those, what I might call, our childhood days.

Requests for the Brothers flooded in from villages and then from towns; young men came to join us and the numbers grew, the numbers of Brothers and communities scattered through south-central France.

Lives given for the work of Mary

And with us, to our joy, the other branches of the Society of Mary, the priests, the sisters and the Third Order of Marist Laity, gradually took shape, found their feet and flourished. The sense of all being one, all united, as in a stream that gathers the tributary streams, grows and becomes a river – as I look back now, I can only marvel at the men and women who have given their lives and their talents to this work of Mary, not only here in France, but beyond that to Europe, to the emerging world of the Americas, the Pacific and to the East. Beyond our wildest dreams this work of Mary has graced our world and will continue to do so in the dawning future.

The last days

My last days are happy days, days of thanksgiving to the Lord, to Mary and to the marvellous men and women, the memory of whom, even now, bring tears to my eyes.

With Simeon, I can pray, ‘Now, I can die happy, Lord, for I have seen this saving work of your hands established!’

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