Champagnat, Marcellin Joseph Benoît, St.
CHAMPAGNAT, MARCELLIN JOSEPH BENOÎT, ST.
Baptized Joseph Benoît Champagnat, priest and founder of the marist brothers (Little Brothers of Mary); b. the hamlet of Rosey, Marlhes (south of Lyon) in the Loire Valley, France, May 20, 1789; d. Notre Dame de l'Hermitage, Loire, France, June 6, 1840. Champagnat was the ninth of ten children born to Jean-Baptiste, a farmer who also ran a wheat mill, and Marie-Thérèse. His mother and an older sister, Louise, a nun who returned home when her convent was destroyed during the French Revolution, shared with him their devout faith.
Champagnat had no formal education until he was fifteen when he was tutored by his brother-in-law, Benedict Arnaud, so that he could enter the junior seminary of Verrieres. At the major seminary in Lyons his fellow seminarians included St. Jean Baptiste vianney (the Cure of Ars), St. Peter chanel, and Ven. Jean Claude colin. Champagnat was one of the original group of seminarians at Lyons who discussed with Colin the foundation of the Marist Fathers. They planned the Society of Mary to encompass both teaching brothers, organized by Champagnat, and priests.
After ordination (1816) Champagnat was assigned as a curate in La Valla (Loire). An encounter there with a dying boy who was totally ignorant of Catholic teachings convinced him of the need for teachers who could provide excellent education in rural areas. This incident expedited the foundation of the Marist Brothers (Jan. 2,1817) with Jean Marie Granjon and Jean-Baptiste Audras as its first members. They opened their first school in Marlhes (1818). The archbishop of Lyons blessed their work and gave it financial support. In 1824, Champagnat was relieved of parish duties to devote himself to organizing and directing his institute.
Meanwhile, he continued to collaborate with Colin in establishing the Marist Fathers. He pronounced his vows as a member in 1836 when Rome approved the congregation. Champagnat was inclined to have the brothers subject to the superior of the Marist Fathers, but Colin, superior of the society, overruled him, making him the superior of the brothers. Champagnat published his pedagogical ideas in Guide des Écoles (1853), a work that has been reprinted many times and that serves as a norm for the Marist Brothers. In addition to instilling in students a sense of the transcendent, the need for social values, and commitment to fraternal and divine service, his principles stressed new methods of teaching literacy. Many of his letters to his brothers also survive. He died after dictating his "spiritual testament," and was buried in the cemetery at Notre Dame de l'Hermitage.
At the time of his death, 180 Marists taught 7,000 students in 43 schools in France. In 1852 they opened a school in Britain, the first outside France, and by 1860 there were 379 schools with a total of 50,000 pupils. Today about 5,000 Marists operate schools in 72 countries.
Champagnat was declared venerable by benedict xv in 1920 and beatified by Pope pius xii, May 29, 1955. During the canonization ceremony in St. Peter's Square on April 18, 1999, Pope John Paul II praised Champagnat's sensitivity to the spiritual and educational needs of his time and his efforts to overcome the prevailing religious ignorance and the abandonment that youth were experiencing. A statue of Champagnat holding a child on his shoulders can be found in the transept of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.
Feast: June 6.
Bibliography: Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 10 (1999): 459–461. L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, no. 16 (1999). Vatican Information Service (19 April 1999). br. jean baptiste, Life and Spirit of J. B. M. Champagnat (Paris 1947). g. chastel, Marcellin Champagnat (Paris 1939). j. coste and g. lessard, eds., Origines maristes, 4 v. (Rome 1960–66). m. a. dorado soto, El pensamiento educativo de la Institución Marista (Valencia 1984). j. Émile, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, 2:459–461. br. ignace, Le Bx. Marcellin Champagnat (Paris 1955). br. leÓ, Valor actual de la pedagogía del beato Marcelino Champagnat (Bogota 1956). s. d. sammon, A Heart that Knew No Bounds: The Life and Mission of Saint Marcellin Champagnat (New York 2000). j. vigon, Le Père Champagnat (Paris 1952).
[l. a. voegtle/eds.]