A Catholic Monthly Magazine

From Small Beginnings

The Story of St Marcellin Champagnat

Br Edward Clisby FMS

The teacher sat at his place in front of the class and looked around for a boy to read to him. His eye lit on a newcomer and he beckoned him to come up. Timidly, the child approached, but just as he arrived, another pupil pushed in front of him. The teacher reacted angrily, boxing the boy’s ears and sending him sobbing to the back of the room. The newcomer shook all over and, as he revealed much later, was more inclined to cry than to read. The incident shook him so badly, in fact, that he refused to return to school, despite the entreaties of his parents. Marcellin Champagnat’s first day in school was also his last.

Years later, applying to King Louis-Philippe in 1834 for legal authorisation for his congregation of teaching brothers, Fr Champagnat was to mention the lack of capable teachers in the country areas as the major reason for founding his brothers.

Joseph Benedict Marcellin Champagnat was born in the parish of Marlhes in the hill country of the Loire in south-east France on 20 May 1789. He was one of the youngest children of a farming family and, under normal circumstances, would probably have grown up to become a hardworking and successful farmer himself. But the times were hardly normal. His first 10 years of life coincided with the decade of the French Revolution and its accompanying social and religious turmoil and revolutionary wars. When he made his first communion in 1800 at the age of 11, the Church had just recovered relative freedom under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte and was looking to replace the clergy decimated or scattered by the Revolution. Thus, the recruiter who came to Marlhes in the summer of 1803 was inclined to look with favour on this intelligent and pious youth, if unpromising student.

La Valla

In his letter to the King, Champagnat revealed that he had learned to read and write only after making tremendous efforts. And to enter the seminary, he also needed to study Latin. He spent a year in nearby St Sauveur with his brother-in-law who tried to teach him Latin and ended up telling him he was wasting his time. And at the end of his first year in the minor seminary, he was told he did not have the talent to continue with his studies. Yet, with characteristic obstinacy and tenacity of purpose, he persevered and made sufficient progress over the years to enter the major seminary in Lyon in November 1813.

It was there that he became involved with a small group of seminarians, including one Jean-Claude Colin, who had the idea of forming a religious society dedicated to Mary, which would work for the renewal of the Church in France and for the spread of the Gospel in other parts of the world. This society would comprise men and women in vows and dedicated lay people working together under a common leadership. Champagnat’s contribution was to stress the need for catechist or teaching brothers and this became his responsibility. Most of the group, the nucleus of what was to become the Society of Mary, were ordained in July 1816. Shortly after, on the 23rd of that month, they gathered at the famous Marian shrine of Fourvière, on the hill overlooking the city, and pledged themselves to work towards founding the new congregation.

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

Three weeks later, the new priest arrived in Lavalla, a small village in his home area, the centre of a sprawling and mountainous parish. France was once again recovering from crisis, the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath, the effects visible in this parish in undermanned farms, demobilised soldiers, orphans, food shortages, and erratic schooling. So there was plenty of work for a young and energetic curate. Children died young in that period and it was the death of one, an adolescent almost entirely ignorant of his religion, that pushed Champagnat to set up what he hoped would be the brothers’ branch of the projected Society. On 2 January 1817 he was joined by two youths, virtually uneducated, one a 22 year old ex-soldier, the other a boy of 14, looking to join the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Within five years, he had eight brothers and two in training, running four schools and teaching catechism in the surrounding hamlets.

St Marcellin’s deathbed at the Hermitage

and his ossuary in the Hermitage chapel

Icon of St Marcellin Champagnat
Carmel de la Théotokos et de l'Unité, Harissa, Lebanon

The parish priests of the area were happy to have reliable and inexpensive teachers for their schools, but bridled at the idea that an upstart curate could tell them how to run them. When that same upstart curate was released from parish work to commit himself full-time to the guidance of a growing religious congregation, undertaking the building of a monastic establishment capable of housing some 150, he faced a veritable storm of criticism, some even from his friends. He was judged imprudent, overambitious, full of pride, even crazy, to take on such a project with so few resources. Over the years he had to face the mockery and obstruction of government officials, the opposition of diocesan authorities, the criticism and defections of priests working with him at the Hermitage, the opposition and defection of some of his senior brothers. Yet, time and again, he found the resources required – finances, recruits, patrons, authorisations – to solve a problem and continue with his work. And he had no doubt about the origin of those resources and that help. As he was to confide to Bishop Pompallier towards the end of his life, in May 1838: “How powerful is the holy name of Mary! Mary – there you have the whole resource of our society”.

Worn out from his labours, St Marcellin Champagnat died in June 1840. He left a congregation of 250 brothers teaching over 5,000 boys in 43 establishments ranging from the far northwest to the southeast of France.

He died as a member of a Society of Mary registered and recognised by Rome, with nine of his brothers already on the other side of the world working with Marist priests in the evangelisation of the Pacific. The mustard seed had indeed become a flourishing tree.

We celebrate and thank God for St Marcellin Champagnat on 6 June.

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