In the so-called Age of Enlightenment, philosophes like Voltaire worked zealously to destroy Christianity among the elite of society, at the same time, not caring one whit for “enlightening” the lower classes. In a letter to Diderot, the famous wit wrote, “Whatever you do, keep your eye on the wretch. It must be destroyed among the better sort; but we may leave it to the rabble for whom it was made.” Later, in a missive to D’Alembert, dripping with the usual sarcasm, he scribbled, “We never pretended to enlighten housemaids or shoemakers; we leave them to the apostles.” And so it was. While Voltaire and his fellow sophisters ignored the poor and displayed unveiled contempt for the lower classes, the Christian Brothers of St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle devoted their whole lives to educating the sons of the poor and the working class with no remuneration at all. Beyond merely teaching the impoverished boys the rudiments of education, good manners, and even some of the practical trades, de La Salle and the Brothers of the Christian Schools most importantly provided them with a solid Christian and moral education.
Jean-Baptiste was born at Rheims, France on April 30, 1651. His father, Louis, was a magistrate of the city of Rheims; his mother, Nicolle Moët de Brouillet, was born into a family of the noblesse de robe. Jean-Baptiste was the oldest of seven children. At the age of nine he began his studies in Rheims at the Collège Des Bons Enfants where he received a solid classical education. At an early age, the boy showed signs that he was destined for the priesthood. Having received the tonsure at the age of eleven, he became a canon at the Cathedral of Rheims at the age of sixteen. After completing his studies in Rheims, he entered the seminary of St. Sulpice, being ordained a priest in 1678. Three years later, he earned his Doctorate in Theology at the University of Rheims. Following the death of his father in 1672, he became the head of his family.
In seventeenth century Europe there were a number of religious congregations devoted to the education of poor girls; however, except for the Piarists of St. Joseph Calasanz, there existed none for poor boys. This was an educational void needing to be filled. De La Salle was led down the path of boys’ education by one Adrian Nyel, an itinerant, lay schoolmaster who was solicited by the town authorities of Rheims to found schools for poor boys. Through his friendship with Nyel, La Salle encouraged his work and took a fond interest in the teachers working with him. After seeing the physical hardship with which the men suffered, he rented a home for them, also inviting them to his own house for meals. Even though the uncouth manners of the men revolted him and his siblings, he patiently worked to imbue them with some of his educational ideals and to refine their manners. Finally, he invited the members of this budding community to dwell in his own house, a decision which greatly disturbed his family. His relatives and friends could not understand why a man of such talents could act so “foolishly.” Although many of his early collaborators left him—Nyel, for instance, wandered off to Rouen to found more schools—others came to stay, thereby forming the nucleus of his later congregation, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. In order to lessen the social gap between himself and his less fortunate disciples, he gave up his canonry, a position with an assured income. He now put his trust completely in God’s Providence.
At this point, de La Salle began seeing the Minim friar, Blessed Nicholas Barré, for spiritual direction. After consulting Fr. Barré about the many obstacles which were raised up against him, the saintly priest told him, “The greatest designs of God upon a soul are only achieved by contradictions. Exterior and interior trials and afflictions slaughter nature, but they invigorate the soul.” Fr. Barré also consulted him not to endow the new community with his private fortune. He must trust in God. Taking this cue to heart, de La Salle divested himself of all of his property and gave it to the poor. Having lived a fairly comfortable life thus far, de La Salle now launched into a much more austere lifestyle, living on coarse food and fasting often. He detached himself from his position, wealth, and even lawful pleasures.
The educational system in France of the seventeenth century was controlled primarily by the Church. In the large towns, the most prevalent schools for young children were the “Little Schools.” Students paid fees to their part-time instructors, women for girls, men for boys. Although these teachers provided them with the basics of knowledge, the instructors themselves had no pedagogical training. In late seventeenth century Paris, the quality of these schoolmasters was lampooned. Then there were the writing masters, a guild protected by the civil authorities. Very jealous of their rights, the writing masters attempted to secure a monopoly on the teaching of writing. Both the teachers at the “Little Schools” and the writing masters were hostile to La Salle’s Brothers, believing them to be encroaching on their fee-paying students. As the Brothers received no fees, they established schools and survived through the charitable funding of people of substance, local church officials, bequests, and even town councils.
Invited by the curé of St. Sulpice to resuscitate one of the free schools in that district, de La Salle and his companions came to Paris in 1688. He placed his most trusted companion Br. Henri L’Heureux, in charge of this project. He had chosen this brother as his successor, even preparing him for ordination. Nevertheless, following the sudden death of L’Heureux, de La Salle, after prayerful reflection, began to question the wisdom of having ordained priests in the congregation. He wanted the Institute free from any “caste” distinctions of clerics and laymen. As their charism was teaching and did not involve preaching or the administration of the sacraments, he determined that the members of the community should be laymen. It followed that no brother should ever aspire to the dignity of priest, and that no priest should ever join the congregation.
With twelve men, de La Salle formed the nucleus of the budding community, all of them taking permanent vows in 1694. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they also took a fourth vow, teaching the poor gratuitously, and a fifth vow, never to leave the Institute. Again and again, he attempted to lay down his position as superior. Nevertheless his ecclesiastical superiors bade him resume his role again. De La Salle stated that the purpose of the Society of Christian Schools was the Christian and moral instruction of the sons of the working classes and the poor. In this endeavor, members of the Institute saw themselves primarily as catechists. Although they taught the children many secular disciplines, the teaching of the catechism was regarded as the essential area of instruction.
As the Brothers were exhausted from their long hours of work, de La Salle founded a retreat house in 1691 at Vaugirard, on the outskirts of Paris. This would provide a center for the physical and spiritual refreshment of the brethren; he would also establish a novitiate there. Although the early community was made up of grown men, he soon began to receive applications from youths. For this reason, he opened a junior novitiate in another residence, placing it under the supervision of a prudent and experienced brother.
In his pioneering work, The Conduct of Schools, de La Salle laid out the practical pedagogical methods to be used by the Christian Brothers. Although this work had circulated internally among the brethren since 1695, it was not published until 1720, the year following his death. At that time in Europe, most students were individually instructed. La Salle, although not the founder of the simultaneous method of instruction, was the first practitioner to use it on a wide scale. In a way, he had no choice. There were fifty to sixty students per class, sometimes up to a hundred, the students being graded according to their intellectual level. He required a means of teaching large numbers of children with a modest staff. As one of the principal means of establishing and maintaining order in the classroom, de La Salle underscored the importance of silence. He also insisted that the boys be taught in their native French rather than in Latin. It was mere common sense. The boys needed to be educated in and through the language which they would use every day. Although de La Salle did not completely abolish corporal punishment in his schools, he greatly moderated it. By creating an orderly, well-managed, and quiet environment, the Brothers found that they had much less reason to focus on discipline.
De La Salle was also the first to set up colleges for teacher training or what we call “normal schools.” Although many rural pastors requested de La Salle to open schools for them, he did not have the manpower to undertake this work. Therefore, he happened upon a novel idea, suggesting that these priests send promising young men to be trained gratis by his congregation. They would wear secular garb, and would be “taught the true maxims of Christian pedagogy, good reading, writing, and singing.” While the pupil-teacher took classes and studied under an experienced brother, he also would teach at the adjoining school, this being a practicum. He founded temporary training schools in Rheims, Paris, and St. Denis. This work would be later perfected by his disciples. Other educational innovations included reformatory schools for juvenile delinquents and popular Sunday courses for working young men, focusing both on Christian teaching and the secular disciplines.
St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle also suffered much on behalf of his congregation. The schoolmasters of the “Little Schools” and the writing masters mobilized themselves against him. These troubles led to confiscations, fines, and several lawsuits, causing him to close down his Parisian schools for some time. In the end a compromise was worked out and the Brothers returned. This persecution of the Christian Brothers in Paris ultimately bore fruit, leading to the founding of many other houses throughout France. Brother Drolin established the foundation of the Institute in Rome, singlehandedly manning the fort for almost thirty years. There were betrayals and slanders as well. One of de La Salle’s earliest collaborators, Br. Nicholas Vuyart, deserted him, telling him that “he wished to have nothing further to do with him.” At one point, Parisian ecclesiastical authorities stripped him of his position as superior. He humbly accepted his fate, though later regained his position. After being the victim of perjury in a financial legal case, de La Salle’s good name was also traduced. Furthermore, he was attacked by the Jansenists, who sowed division in his house at Marseilles and further calumniated his reputation. So influential were these lies, that his own brethren at Mende would not allow him to enter their house. The “Way of the Cross” was an integral part of his life.
Two years before he died, he laid down his authority and assumed the role of a humble brother. He died on Good Friday, April 7, 1719 at Saint-Yon, Rouen. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle was canonized by Pope Leo XIII on May 24, 1900. In 1950 Pope Pius XII named him the “Patron of all Teachers of Youth.”
The influential and uplifting work of St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle and the Christian Brothers contradicts the perennial and popular slander that “the Catholic Church is opposed to progress.” It is Christianity, here incarnated in the example of St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle and his disciples, which guided civilization down the path of true progress, ultimately elevating the spiritual, moral, and intellectual life of the working classes and the poor. The life and work of this great saint is merely one of numerous examples, proving that “To be deep in history is to recognize the enduring contributions of Catholicism to civilization.”