Saint of the Day – 7 April – St John Baptiste de la Salle – (1651-1719 aged 67) Priest and founder of La Salle Schools and of the Brothers of the Christian Schools/ Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools or FSC (Fratres Scholarum Christianarum) educational reformer and pioneer, founder, writer – Patron of Teachers of Youth, (May 15, 1950, Pius XII), Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, Lasallian educational institutions, educators, school principals, teachers.
De La Salle was born to a wealthy family in Rheims, France on April 29, although some say 30, in 1651. He was the oldest child of Louis de La Salle and Nicolle de Moet de Brouillet. Nicolle’s family was a noble one and ran a successful winery business and she was a relative of Claude Moët, founder of Moët & Chandon
La Salle received the tonsure at age eleven and was named canon of Rheims Cathedral when he was sixteen. He was sent to the College des Bons Enfants, where he pursued higher studies and on July 10, 1669, he took the degree of Master of Arts. When De La Salle had completed his classical, literary and philosophical courses, he was sent to Paris to enter the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice on October 18, 1670. His mother died on July 19, 1671 and on April 9, 1672, his father died. This circumstance obliged him to leave Saint-Sulpice on April 19, 1672. He was now twenty-one, the head of the family and as such had the responsibility of educating his four brothers and two sisters. He completed his theological studies and was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 26 on April 9, 1678 . Two years later he received a Doctorate in Theology.
De La Salle was a man of refined manners, a cultured mind, and great practical ability, in whom personal prosperity was balanced with kindness and affability. In physical appearance he was of commanding presence, somewhat above the medium height. He had large, penetrating blue eyes and a broad forehead.
The Sisters of the Child Jesus were a new religious congregation whose work was the care of the sick and education of poor girls. The young priest had helped them in becoming established and then served as their chaplain and confessor. It was through his work with the Sisters that in 1679, he met Adrian Nyel. What began as a charitable effort to help Adrian Nyel establish a school for the poor in De La Salle’s home town gradually became his life’s work. With De La Salle’s help, a school was soon opened . Shortly thereafter, a wealthy woman in Rheims told Nyel that she also would endow a school but only if La Salle would help.
At that time, most children had little hope for social and economic advancement. Jean Baptiste de la Salle believed that education gave hope and opportunity for people to lead better lives of dignity and freedom. Moved by the plight of the poor who seemed so “far from salvation” either in this world or the next, he determined to put his own talents and advanced education at the service of the children “often left to themselves and badly brought up”.
La Salle knew that the teachers in Reims were struggling, lacking leadership, purpose, and training and he found himself taking increasingly deliberate steps to help this small group of men with their work. First, in 1680, he invited them to take their meals in his home, as much to teach them table manners as to inspire and instruct them in their work. This crossing of social boundaries was one that his relatives found difficult to bear. In 1681, De La Salle realized that he would have to take a further step – he brought the teachers into his own home to live with him. De La Salle’s relatives were deeply disturbed, his social class was scandalized. When, a year later, his family home was lost at auction because of a family lawsuit, De La Salle rented a house into which he and the handful of teachers moved.
La Salle decided to resign his canonry to devote his full attention to the establishment of schools and the training of teachers. He had inherited a considerable fortune and this might have been used to further his aims but on the advice of a Father Barre of Paris, he sold what he had and sent the money to the poor of the province of Champagne, where a famine was causing great hardship.
De La Salle thereby began a new religious institute, the first one with no priests at all among its members: the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, also known as the De La Salle Brothers (in the U.K., Ireland, Malta, Australasia, and Asia) or, most commonly in the United States, the Christian Brothers. (They are sometimes confused with a different congregation of the same name founded by Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice in Ireland, who are known in the U.S. as the Irish Christian Brothers.) The De La Salle Brothers were the first Roman Catholic teaching religious institute that did not include any priests. One decision led to another until De La Salle found himself doing something that he had never anticipated. De La Salle wrote:
“ I had imagined that the care which I assumed of the schools and the masters would amount only to a marginal involvement committing me to no more than providing for the subsistence of the masters and assuring that they acquitted themselves of their tasks with piety and devotedness …… Indeed, if I had ever thought that the care I was taking of the schoolmasters out of pure charity would ever have made it my duty to live with them, I would have dropped the whole project……. God, who guides all things with wisdom and serenity, whose way it is not to force the inclinations of persons, willed to commit me entirely to the development of the schools. He did this in an imperceptible way and over a long period of time so that one commitment led to another in a way that I did not foresee in the beginning.”
De La Salle’s enterprise met opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities who resisted the creation of a new form of religious life, a community of consecrated laymen to conduct free schools “together and by association”. The educational establishment resented his innovative methods. Nevertheless, De La Salle and his Brothers succeeded in creating a network of quality schools throughout France that featured instruction in the vernacular, students grouped according to ability and achievement, integration of religious instruction with secular subjects, well-prepared teachers with a sense of vocation and mission, and the involvement of parents
In 1685, De La Salle founded what is generally considered the first normal school — that is, a school whose purpose is to train teachers — in Rheims, France. In addition, De La Salle pioneered in programs for training lay teachers, Sunday courses for working young men, and one of the first institutions in France for the care of delinquents.
Worn out by austerities and exhausting labours, De La Salle died at Saint Yon, near Rouen, early in 1719 on Good Friday, only three weeks before his 68th birthday.
St John Baptiste de La Salle was a pioneer in founding training colleges for teachers, reform schools for delinquents, technical schools and secondary schools for modern languages, arts, and sciences. His work quickly spread through France and, after his death, continued to spread across the globe. In 1900 John Baptiste de La Salle was declared a Saint. In 1950, because of his life and inspirational writings, he was made Patron Saint of all those who work in the field of education. John Baptiste de La Salle inspired others how to teach and care for young people, how to meet failure and frailty with compassion, how to affirm, strengthen and heal. At the present time there are De La Salle schools in 80 different countries around the globe.