Saint of the Day – 7 April – St John Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) Priest, Founder of La Salle Schools and of the Brothers of the Christian Schools or FSC (Fratres Scholarum Christianarum), Educational Reformer, known as the “Father of Modern Education”. St John was born on 30 April 1651 at Rheims, France and died on 7 April 1719 at Saint-Yon, Rouen, France of natural causes. Patronages – Teachers of Youth, (15 May 1950, Pius XII), Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, Lasallian educational institutions, teachers, school principals.
St John’s parents were people of standing, his father holding a judicial post. From childhood he gave evidence of such unusual piety that he was designated for the priesthood. At eleven he received the tonsure and at sixteen became a canon of the cathedral chapter at Rheims. Later he was sent to the seminary of St Sulpice to complete his studies. The young canon, handsome in appearance and scholarly in his tastes, seemed destined for high ecclesiastical preferment. An altar server from the start, De La Salle regularly attended Mass and prayers in Rheims Cathedral and was a Canon for 16 years. This is also where he said his first Mass and around which his liturgical life revolved. Soon after his return to Rheims he was to discover his true life work—the education of the poor. It was to be a long, hard struggle, with few tangible rewards but he unquestionably started a movement which was to result in furthering free elementary instruction.
In 17th-century France, education was reserved for those who were rich and only by special providence did John Baptiste de La Salle become interested in schools for boys who were poor. By chance, John met Adrien Nyel, who was establishing some charitable schools for boys in need. John disliked the rough behaviour of those who were poor and the smells and sights of the slums but he sympathised with their poverty. John helped open a school for boys in need. He secured five teachers and rented a building. As John checked on his school, he witnessed shocking conditions. John decided he had to bring order to the school. He planned to upgrade the standards of the teachers and train them to be religious educators. His teachers quit. But soon men of better quality took their places and thrived under John’s training. John began to see that he must identify with his teachers, so he gave away his fortune and dedicated himself to education.
John founded the Brothers of Christian Schools to educate those who were poor. “The more religious a school is, the more successful it is,” was John’s philosophy. His boys attended daily Mass, were taught the catechism and prayers and had religion integrated into other subjects.
John motivated the students to prepare for a career and to live their lives by Christian principles. His schools attracted boys from fee-paying schools. Jealous instructors tried to bring lawsuits to ruin his work but his efforts were praised by the people. John opened boarding schools for boys in need and gave them courses in practical skills.
Although the schools had originally been founded for orphans and the children of the poor, a new departure was made at the request of King James II of England, who was then living in exile. He urged the founding of a college for the sons of his adherents, mainly Irish, who were living in France and Father John opened such a school for fifty young men of gentle birth. At about the same time he started a school for boys of the artisan class. Here technical instruction was combined with religious exercises and this type of school became very popular. There were also schools started for “troublesome boys,” now usually called “juvenile delinquents.” Efforts were thus being made to meet the needs of all types and classes of boys and young men. This constantly expanding work required insight and adaptability in an unusual degree.
Father John Baptist’s later years were spent at the College of St Yon, in Rouen, where the novitiate had been transferred in 1705, after it had functioned for some years in Paris. In 1716 he resigned from the active direction and government of the Institute and from then on would give no orders and lived like the humblest of the brothers, teaching the novices and young boarders. He wrote for them several treatises, including <A Method of Mental Prayer>. Worn out by illness and austerities, he passed away on Good Friday, April 7, 1719, at the age of sixty-seven. Six years after his death, the Christian Brothers’ institute was recognised by Pope Benedict XIII and its rule approved. Father John was canonised in 1900. To his valiant efforts we owe in large part the acceptance of the idea of universal education.
In spite of internal difficulties, chiefly concerning the degree of austerity to be observed by the Brothers, the schools spread and flourished up to the French Revolution. During that period of persecution, the Christian Brothers were at one point reduced to twenty active members. However, when the ban was lifted by Napoleon I in 1799, the community sprang back to life with remarkable resilience. During the nineteenth century the schools expanded steadily; then, from 1904 to 1908, there was another setback: 1285 establishments were closed by legislative decree in France. Meanwhile the Brothers had established themselves in other countries of Europe, in England, Ireland, the Levant, North and South America, the West Indies, South Africa and Australia. Their first school in the United States was founded in 1846, today many of them are on the college level.