The Life of Saint John Baptist de La Salle
Founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools and Patron Saint of Educators
John Baptist de La Salle was born on April 30, 1651. The age was the Golden Age of the Great Monarch, King Louis XIV. The place was Rheims, the famous city in the wine country of northern France, known for its wines, cloth, and cathedral. John was the oldest of eleven children, four of whom died in infancy. His father was a Court Magistrate (judge) and his mother, Nicolle Moet de Bruillet, was a daughter of a family prominent for centuries in the history and politics of Rheims. John Baptist grew up in a world of faith and church on the one hand, and wealth, commerce, and law on the other.
As the oldest of seven children, John had a great deal of responsibility placed upon him very early in life. He was educated in a school called the College des Bons Enfants, "The School for Good Children." Faith and his devout Catholic upbringing drew him early in life to the priesthood, a vocation for which he found no opposition from his family. His mother and his grandmother had a great and supportive influence upon him. At the age of 11 he received the tonsure, a ceremony of cutting some hair off the top of the head symbolizing his desire to become a priest. At the age of 16, John Baptist became a Canon of the Cathedral, a position that was given to him by his uncle and involved reciting publicly the official prayer of the Church. This position brought with it not only status within the church community but also an annual income. At the age of 18 he received his degree from the University of Rheims, an extension of the College des Bons Enfants, and at 19 he left home to study for the priesthood at St. Sulpice in Paris.
Shortly after leaving home, John's mother died at the age of 36 and less than a year later his father died at the age of 47. With the death of both parents, John Baptist had to leave the seminary in Paris and return home to take care of his brothers and sisters. At this time he was only 21 years of age. Upon returning to Rheims, John continued his studies and graduated summa cum laude with the master's and later with a doctorate in theology. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Rheims in 1678 and retained a lifelong responsibility for the management of some of the family affairs.
At the request of Canon Nicolas Roland, his friend and spiritual counselor, John Baptist served as administrator of a school for girls, run by an order of Sisters, where his tenure, though brief, evidently marked him as a good manager with a feeling for education. While visiting with the sisters one day he happened to meet a man named Adrien Nyel. This meeting was to prove to be a turning point in his life. Nyel had been sent by a rich lady in Rouen to open a school for poor boys in the city of Rheims. John Baptist invited Nyel to live with him in his family home while the arrangements could be made for the opening of this school.
Nyel was a loving, zealous man of 53 who had been founding and directing schools for about 27 years prior to his meeting with De La Salle. He was a native of Laon and had been in charge of the city of Rouen's hospital system, which included the welfare for indigent families. He taught the children of these dependent families reading, writing, and catechism, and he supervised adolescent apprentices and children living on welfare at the hospital. In Nyel, De La Salle met a man of proven commitment to educating the disadvantaged.
John Baptist was 28 when he met Nyel and invited him into his home. With the help of some priest friends, De La Salle was able to assist Nyel in starting this school for poor boys. Shortly after this, at the request of another wealthy lady, De La Salle opened another school for poor boys in the city of Rheims. De La Salle assumed the responsibility for this new school, hiring and training the teachers, giving them advice with their class work, and supervising the running of the school. Adrien Nyel was a visionary, but he was frequently absent from the schools he established. He had little sense of organization and no aptitude for stability or professionalism. De La Salle soon found himself impelled to the practical steps related to the business of running a successful school, not only for the school he opened but for the school opened by Nyel. Before long, De La Salle found himself renting a house for the teachers from both schools to live in and inviting them into his own home for meals.
One thing led to another, and soon De La Salle found it imperative that the teachers in these schools, for the sake of forming them into a community of educators, needed to be more closely supervised and trained. He, therefore, took them into his own home where he could provide the guidance and supervision that was necessary. These men who joined De La Salle in his home were poor, relatively uneducated, lacking in manners and of whom De La Salle sadly remarked, reproaching himself, he had originally regarded as lower than his own valet. This move did not sit well with his family and relatives. This was the year 1680.
In a relatively short period of time, the reputation of these early schoolmasters grew and they were known as men who knew how to run excellent schools. A number of new schools were opened in four cities close to Rheims. The community of teachers that De La Salle was forming became known as "Brothers," and they adopted a distinctive type of clothing. This name and clothing gave them a certain identity. De La Salle, however, still did not have in mind the idea of starting a religious order in the Catholic Church. He was drawn into the whole business a step at a time by the teachers themselves, by the poor children they taught, and by God.
The way of life that De La Salle outlined for his teachers was harsh, and many of these first teachers left the schools and De La Salle's community. The classes were large, the food was plain and meager, the furnishings makeshift, and the day was long with class duties and community prayers. They were being asked to depend on God's Providence to provide for their needs. They challenged De La Salle, who was still receiving a salary and provided for by his inheritance, to also rely on Providence and to give up his wealth. Realizing that he would have no credibility with his teachers if he continued living as he had, De La Salle relinquished his canonry and distributed his inheritance to the poor of Rheims during the harsh winter of 1683-1684. By doing this he now identified himself definitively with the world of the poor. There was no turning back now. He had burned his bridges behind him. De La Salle had become one with his Brothers and with the poor whom they served.
During the years that followed, De La Salle took action when a situation called for it. In 1687, for example, at the urging of the Duke of Mazarin and some country pastors, he opened a training school for teachers working in the rural parishes. A request by King Louis and the Archbishop of Paris led to the founding of a boarding school for young Irish refugees in 1689. De La Salle's schools were free schools. The concept of the tuition-free school, open to all, was not original with De La Salle; he worked largely within the older tradition of the parish free school.
In the France of the "Sun King", nearly everyone had an opportunity to obtain some education, though the opportunities were not equal in availability, cost or quality. Those who could afford it -- the wealthy and most of the middle class -- attended the "colleges" or the schools of the Writing Masters, or, like the young De La Salle, were provided with tutors. Most parishes maintained some sort of school, often conducted by priests. And for the very poor there were the charity schools, operated as part of a town's hospital or welfare system, all too often unstable, badly organized and usually conducted by unprepared, unprofessional teachers. As he worked with Nyel, De La Salle became convinced that one route, perhaps the only route, for the poor to escape the grinding oppression of poverty and ignorance was through a free, basic, elementary education, with religious instruction as its cornerstone and the trained, dedicated teacher as its agent.
In order to accomplish this in the schools, known as Christian Schools, De La Salle needed teachers who were competent in both subject matter and methodology. He gave his teachers a conviction that theirs was not merely a job, but a vocation, a special lay ministry in the Church. He was particularly sensitive to the emotional trauma and moral deterioration of children. How to deal with the troubled child became an important element in his preparation of teachers. As his ideas developed through an ever-widening experience, De La Salle came to recognize the emotional and behavioral impairment suffered by many children through the pressures of inadequate family life, rigid and limiting social and economic structures, and often poverty.
As a consequence of the practical steps De La Salle took, the special characteristics of the Lasallian school developed more and more, and its superiority over other schools became noticeable. The Christian School (Lasallian School) was free and excluded no one. It was Christian in its commitment to the Church, in its policies and practices, and in its emphasis upon religious instruction. The teachers would be competent, trained, and dedicated; the school, well organized and orderly. In De La Salle's vision Christian Schools became the instrument for Church and society against the destructive consequences of ignorance and poverty. Lasallian education is rooted in the economic, social, moral and religious situation of the working class and the poor.
Troubles soon developed with the growing reputation of the Christian Schools. There were troubles with Church officials, with older groups of teachers who charged tuition (Writing Masters), with hassles over court appearances, seizure of schools, deaths and departures of the Brothers. Just at its darkest point, when all seemed to be failing and the work of Christian Schools seemed to be doomed, during a time of great crisis and uncertainty among the Brothers in France, De La Salle, along with two Brothers (Nicolas Vuyart and Gabriel Drolin) vowed "from now on and forever, until the last surviving one of us or until the complete establishment of the Society of the Christian Schools, make the vow of association and union to bring about and maintain the said establishment, without being able to withdraw from this obligation, even if only we three remained in the said Society and were obliged to beg for alms and live on bread alone." This vow was made on November 21, 1691 -- three hundred years ago. De La Salle was 40 years of age at this time.
Despite many setbacks the Christian Schools continued and prospered. A school was opened in Rome to which Brother Gabriel Drolin was assigned. Innovative methods of education were practiced and textbooks were written. Many new schools were opened. To meet the needs of the parish of Saint Sulpice in Paris, De La Salle in 1699 opened a Christian Academy, a unique Sunday school, both religious and technical, for young men working during the week. At the request of the people as well as the Church and civic authorities of Rouen, De La Salle established at St. Yon three very different kinds of residential educational programs, supported by fees and tuition. De La Salle spent his time visiting the Christian Schools throughout France and providing support and encouragement for his teachers. He wrote many letters to his Brothers, some of which exist today, which reveal much of his personal spirituality and philosophy. By the age of 60 De La Salle was tired, physically exhausted, and what was worse, he was worn out psychologically and spiritually. It was at this time that De La Salle experienced his "dark night of the soul." He felt that his work was done and he needed to withdraw from it, not only for his own good, but for the good of the Schools themselves. De La Salle went to the south of France and there spent two years. This was in 1712. He sought spiritual direction from a holy woman at Parmenie and was able to put things into focus and to pray to God for guidance. Finally a command came from the Brothers in Paris for De La Salle to return to Paris and "to resume without delay the responsibility for administrating the Institute." These Brothers had ordered De La Salle, their founder, under his vow of obedience to the society of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, to return. De La Salle did so in the year 1714.
In 1717 a general meeting was held of all of the Brothers and a new superior was elected. Up until this time, De La Salle had been their only superior. The new superior was Brother Barthelemy, a layman, not a cleric. De La Salle believed that the Brothers were to be laymen and not to aspire to the priesthood. He wanted his Brothers and their pupils to be on the same level.
After a long illness, on Friday (Good Friday), April 7, 1719, at the age of 68, De La Salle died at St. Yon. His last words are recorded as being "I adore in all things the will of God in my regard." For a man like De La Salle, divine Providence was the moving force in all he did. He saw God in all things and in all the events of his life. For him "every bush was burning." Late in his life De La Salle wrote with regard to the establishment of the Christian Schools: "God did this in a way that was entirely imperceptible . . .without my having foreseen any of it from the start." De La Salle was officially declared a saint in the Roman Catholic Church on May 24, 1900 by Pope Leo XIII and declared patron of Christian Educators in 1950.
Written by David Hotek, Lasallian Family Coordinator