A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Jean Baptiste de La Salle

7 April: A Saint who influenced Fr Colin and Fr Champagnat

When the Society of Mary started out in the period after the French Revolution, the early Marists were very conscious of the lack of educational opportunities, especially in the rural areas. Fr Marcellin Champagnat was particularly concerned that the Marist project include brothers teaching in schools. In many things the Marists were influenced by the Jesuits, but their model for a company of teaching brothers were the Brothers of the Christian Schools. 

Before the Revolution there had been about a thousand Brothers teaching in France. They were almost entirely suppressed and their institutes closed during the Revolution. The Marists saw themselves as picking up on the work the Brothers of the Christian Schools had been doing and they naturally looked to the style and the spirit of their founder Saint Jean Baptiste de La Salle.

Jean Baptiste de La Salle was born into a wealthy family in Reims, France in 1651. His father wanted his intelligent son to become a lawyer but from an early age Jean Baptiste was determined to work in the Church. He took the tonsure (minor orders) at age 11 and was ordained priest and installed as a canon of the diocese of Reims when he was only 16. He studied at the Collège des Bons Enfants, the Sorbonne, and the University of Reims, gaining a doctorate in Theology in 1680.

He became interested in the formation of schoolteachers, despite an initial impression that associating with such uncouth types was beneath him. He came to see this as God’s call for him and threw himself into the work, giving away his personal fortune and resigning as a canon.

Church schools for the poor in his time had been characterised by incompetent and unmotivated teachers, a lack of organisation, and inefficient teaching methods. De La Salle saw the need for a well-trained community of religious committed to this work. They were to be neither cloistered monks, mendicant friars, nor clerks regular but a community of teaching brothers who lived and worked together. This was a radical innovation – a new style of religious life.

St Jean Baptiste de La Salle and Fr Jean-Claude Colin

He experienced a lot of opposition, but his congregation grew. He revolutionised teacher training and educational practices in France. His brothers taught reading and writing in French rather than in Latin. He expounded a very practical method of teaching (for example: how to deal with very large classes) in his Conduct of Schools, a work which was constantly revised during his lifetime and was based on feedback from the brothers on what did and didn’t work.

Jean Baptiste de La Salle died on 7 April 1719. His congregation revived after the French Revolution and there are now many schools in the ‘Lasallian’ tradition throughout the world. In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared him the patron saint of all teachers of Christian youth. 

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