A Brief Study of our Patron Saint
By Jim Christie, La Salle High School Faculty 1991-2004
John Baptist de La Salle was born in Rheims, France, on April 30, 1651. He was the oldest child born to a wealthy family. His father, Louis de La Salle, held a notable position in the field of law and his mother, Nicolle de Moet de Brouillet, was from an old and respected family. In 17th century France, one's station in life was everything, and young John Baptist de La Salle had been born into the right family. He was given all of the advantages and opportunities that a young man of good standing might expect, yet in the end he decided to forsake his life of luxury in order to serve God.
John Baptist de La Salle was notable during his youth for two distinct reasons. The first, and most obvious, was his extraordinary piety. While his father held out some hope that young John Baptist might follow the family footsteps into the field of law, it was quite obvious, even to the elder de La Salle, that the boy was destined for the priesthood. The other, and perhaps more interesting of de La Salle's traits, is that he was apparently quite handsome. Several of his biographers go to great length to describe de La Salle's "commanding presence," his "penetrating blue eyes," and his "chiseled lips." (Constantius).
As a boy, de La Salle pursued his religious and educational studies fervently and with distinction. He received the tonsure at age eleven and at sixteen became a canon of the cathedral chapter of Rheims. He earned the degree of Master of Arts at age eighteen in 1669 and went to Paris to the seminary of St. Sulpice in 1670. His studies and manners won him the respect of his fellow students and his teachers alike.
In 1671 and early 1672, de La Salle suffered the loss of his parents. Their deaths brought him home from the seminary and put him in charge of his family's estate and their business interests, especially the financial care of his younger siblings. De La Salle took over for his parents and learned to manage his assets, training that no doubt came in helpful later when it came time to manage operations of the Christian Brothers. Despite his loss and his return from the seminary, de La Salle continued his theological study and was ordained priest in 1678 and earned his doctorate in theology in 1680.
When de La Salle had returned to Rheims after the deaths of his parents, he had sought out a spiritual advisor and found one in Nicolas Roland, canon of Rheims. Roland and de La Salle became close and the elder man advised young de La Salle that he should resign his canonry and his connections and become more involved in the parish and the ministry to the poor. De La Salle took the advice offered by his mentor, but found himself unable to give up his position as his appeal was rebuffed by the Archbishop of Rheims. Roland's influence was soon to have a profound effect on the young priest, however, and alter the course of education in the western world forever.
Nicolas Roland passed away in 1678 and left to de La Salle the care of an orphanage for girls and the sisters who ran it. It seems that de La Salle had little interest in running schools or orphanages, but encouraged by his late friend's wishes and by members of his own family, he looked into the idea of institutions such as schools and orphanages. At this very time, into de La Salle's life came Adrien Nyel, a layman interested in opening schools that would serve the poor by offering a free education. Beginning their work together in 1679, de La Salle and Nyel founded two primary schools. The wealthy young priest encouraged and supported Nyel's efforts and through them, and especially through meeting and spending time with the teachers of these schools, John Baptist de La Salle became interested in education; specifically, he became interested in good teaching.
Hearing the complaints of the teachers of the poor, de La Salle offered them housing. As he came around them more often he became more involved with their lives outside of the school. Though he found them to be crude, vulgar and generally repulsive, eventually de La Salle invited the teachers to his table to eat and eventually, in 1681, he invited them to come and live in his own home. Bringing the teachers home with him caused his flesh and blood siblings a great deal of discomfort and created unpleasant relations with his younger brothers. Once they were living together, de La Salle and the teachers moved rather quickly toward the founding of the religious order which today is known as the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
The brothers moved out of de La Salle's family home to their own place in 1682. In 1683, acting on the advice given to him by his old spiritual advisor Roland as well as Roland's handpicked successor, Paris priest Father Barre, de La Salle resigned his canonry and in so doing gave up the material comfort it had brought. In 1684 he took the final step toward what he felt he must do in order to truly trust his mission to God's will; he gave away his family fortune. The Christian Brothers, as they came to be known, had put their fate entirely in the hands of providence.
The organizational structure, rules and codes of the Christian Brothers evolved slowly as in the earliest years de La Salle and his followers concentrated their energies primarily on developing teaching practices and schools. In 1690, for example, a major facet of the order came into being because of the death of one of its members. De La Salle had sent a favorite brother, Henri L'Heureux, to Paris to study and become a priest with the idea that young L'Heureux would return and become the new leader of the order. With such high hopes, de La Salle was of course crushed when the young man became ill and died just before his ordination. This death, a bad omen indeed, was a crisis for de La Salle and he prayed and meditated. Eventually, de La Salle drew strength from it and as a direct result set out a rule that would be one of the defining characteristics of the Christian Brothers as a religious order. De La Salle saw that his fledgling order might best be served by keeping it free of the distractions and demands put upon those who have been ordained as priests. He declared that all Christian Brothers would be laymen. It became a major part of the Christian Brothers that no brother could be a priest and a priest could never become a brother.
While the rules and governing philosophy of the order evolved and solidified, the remarkable revolution in education that de La Salle and his Brothers of the Christian Schools brought about began to spread. It can be argued that de La Salle was the father of public schooling in that his mission was to bring education to everyone, regardless of social standing. His greatest energies went into the founding of primary schools, but his greatest innovation was probably his work with the idea of training teachers. He stressed in the philosophical framework he laid that teachers need to teach things that are relevant to the children's needs and that the institution needs to adapt to meet the changing needs of the community and especially of the children of the community.
As the reputations of de La Salle and the Brothers of the Christian Schools grew, so did the demands on their resources. In order to handle the growing numbers of young people who wanted to become Christian Brothers, de La Salle founded a junior novitiate. In order to address the growing number of people sent to him by parish priests for training as teachers, de La Salle founded schools for specifically to educate people in the art of teaching.
De La Salle wrote extensively on the topic of educating children and many of his ideas sound remarkably fresh despite their age. He insisted, for example, that students be taught in their own language rather than Latin, the official language of the Church and the language most taught by schools in those days. De La Salle argued rather convincingly for teaching reading and writing of the vernacular because he knew that he only had a few years with these children and that the time was therefore too precious to squander on a language that most would not encounter at length. He argued for a practical education for the poor, one that would best serve them on a daily basis, and for him that meant teaching them to read the language that they would use the most.
Most of the ideas that de la Salle brought to education had been in practice at other places and at other times, and so his methods were not original. De La Salle's genius, aside from serving as a model of the selfless Christian educator, was in his ability to draw ideas from many sources and combine them into a remarkably sound pedagogy. When he started, for example, most students were educated individually, that is, each student worked on an assigned text and worked with his instructor in a one on one environment. De La Salle decreed that students should work as a class, with all of the students working out of the same text. De La Salle didn't invent or discover the "simultaneous method" as it was called, but his insistence that the Brothers of the Christian Schools use the method helped to establish it as the model that had predominated education since then. De La Salle also insisted that his teachers maintain discipline and order in their classes, ideas not original to the Christian Brothers that came to be standard in education when de La Salle's methodology proved successful.
The Brothers of the Christian Schools and John Baptist de La Salle weathered a number of attacks and setbacks in the early years of the order. Political and social rivalries within the church and the communities in which the Brothers settled caused some serious disputes. The Christian Brothers continued to grow and develop despite attempts by many different factions to end their work in education and eventually become the largest teaching order in the Catholic Church. De La Salle continued as the leader of the Brothers until 1717, and for the rest of his life he lived and worked among the Brothers he had once found so repulsive. He became ill during Lent in 1719 and passed away on Good Friday, April 7, of that same year.
Saint John Baptist de La Salle couldn't tolerate the coarse and vulgar teachers with whom he first became acquainted as a young man of privilege in 1679. He was wealthy, well-bred and refined and they were uncouth and unwashed. De La Salle found his calling in them, though, and despite his misgivings and his distaste he pursued his dream of providing the poor with a quality education. He began by eating meals with the teachers, then by lodging with the teachers, and ended his life forty years later living among them as their equal. He gave away his life of comfort, gave away his riches and gave up his high standing in society in order to give the less fortunate a chance through education. He chose the difficult road so that the journey of millions of others might be a little easier, and for that fact alone he is deserving of the title bestowed on him in 1950- heavenly patron of all school teachers.
Brother Constantius. "Saint John Baptist de La Salle." Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep Website.http://www.shcp.edu/history/lasalle.shtml0. November 17, 1999.
"Saint John Baptist de La Salle." The Catholic Resource Network: Trinity Communications. http://www.ewtn.com/library/Mary/lasalle.txt. November 17, 1999.
"The Brothers of the Christian Schools." The Manhattan College Website.http://www.mancol.edu/general/bro.html#DelaSalle. November 17, 1999.
Thurston, Herbert, S.J. and Donald Attwater, eds. Butler's Lives of the Saints. Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, Inc., 1980.
Wurth, Othmar, FSC. John Baptist de La Salle and Special Education. Romeoville, Illinois: Lasallian Publications, 1988.