de la Salle, John Baptist, St.
DE LA SALLE, JOHN BAPTIST, ST.
Founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, religious educator; b. Reims, Apr. 30, 1651;d. Saint-Yon, Rouen, Apr. 7, 1719.
John Baptist, the eldest son of a well-to-do bourgeois family, was appointed canon of the cathedral chapter at Reims at age 16. After obtaining a master of arts degree from the Collège des Bons Enfants, he entered the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice and attended courses at the Sorbonne. When his studies were interrupted by the death of his parents, he enrolled in the University of Reims, was ordained in 1678, and received the degree of doctor of theology in 1680. Despite the unsuitability of his upbringing for the work and the social gulf separating the rich and the poor in 17th-century France, he became interested, through a meeting with M. Nyel from Rouen, in assisting the poorly prepared schoolteachers Nyel had recruited to open schools for the poor. The idea of devoting himself completely to this enterprise had never occurred to him and, on his own testimony, the association with the uncouth schoolteachers was distasteful in the extreme. Once he became convinced that his divinely appointed mission was to conduct these schools for the poor, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the work, left home and family, resigned his canonry, gave away his personal fortune and reduced himself to the level of the poor to whom he henceforth consecrated his life.
Founding of the Brothers. His first concern was to train the teachers Nyel had recruited. He brought them into his home, taught them good manners and self-discipline, provided them with religious motivation for their work, and discussed with them the best method of coping with the large number of poor boys in their classes. As Nyel faded from the scene, De La Salle took over the supervision of the teachers in three schools in Reims and three more in the surrounding towns of Rethel, Guise, and Laon. Discouraged by the hard and unrewarding life, the first teachers gave up the work, but other young men of even better quality replaced them. It was at this point in 1682 that De La Salle left his own home, moved with them to a rented house in a poor neighborhood, and gradually formed them into a community of celibate laymen living a religious lifestyle.
On Trinity Sunday, 1686, after lengthy deliberation, De La Salle and 12 of the teachers bound themselves by a vow of obedience for three years, renewable annually, formalized the adoption of a distinctive habit that was neither clerical nor secular and the title brothers of the christian schools. The drawing up of a rule, however, was postponed until further experience had been gained. Neither the founder nor the brothers wanted to conform to any of the forms of religious life then prevalent in the church. They were not to be cloistered monks, medicant friars, or clerks regular, but dedicated teaching brothers with a religious lifestyle, derived to some extent from other traditions, but modified to suit their distinctive mission. Realizing that the success of the first schools was due to the teamwork of the brothers, so different from the isolated schoolmasters of the time, the brothers established a policy that schools would be conducted "together and by association," never assigning only one brother alone to a school. When De La Salle was unable to accommodate requests for a single brother for country parishes, he established in Reims a sort of normal school, the first of its kind, to train lay teachers for the country parishes. In later years, two more such schools would be established in the outskirts of Paris.
Up until this time, with a few notable exceptions, the parish charity schools for poor boys were marked by incompetent and poorly motivated teachers, lack of organization, inefficient methods, and the students unkempt, unruly, and frequently absent. Religious instruction was rarely provided or inadequate at best. If the poor were not to be permanently abandoned to ignorance, squalor, and degradation, there was needed a community of religiously dedicated men committed to this apostolate. In his view of faith, De La Salle saw the discrepancy between God's will that "all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth," and the situation of the poor youngsters who had little hope of salvation either in this world or the next. The term "Christian Schools" was adopted to indicate that they would be characterized by quality education provided by dedicated teachers free of charge, religious instruction, a practical curriculum, and good discipline. Eventually the schools became so efficient that they attracted boys without charge from families that could afford the fees charged by the schoolmaster of the "little schools" as they were called. This would later lead to trouble.
When the Archbishop of Reims offered to sponsor and finance the work of the brothers, provided that they restrict their activity to the archdiocese, in 1688 De La Salle accepted an offer from the Sulpicians to open a school and center his activity in Paris. After initial success in the capital the enterprise began to fall apart. Morale was low with some brothers leaving, many sick, and all of them overworked. De La Salle himself fell ill, recovering only after a close brush with death. The prospects seemed so discouraging at this point that he and two companions vowed never to abandon the work even if only they remained and had to beg for bread to survive. Eventually he was able to restore morale, open a novitiate and, after extensive consultation with the brothers, develop a rule combining inspiration and specific practices of religious living with policies and procedures relating to the conduct of the schools. In 1694, a general chapter was held that elected De la Salle as superior with the stipulation that thenceforth the society would remain exclusively lay and that no one in Holy Orders would be accepted as superior. On that occasion, De La Salle and 12 of the principal brothers bound themselves by vows of association to conduct gratuitous schools with stability and obedience, an important step in establishing the new society on a firm basis.
Spread of the Institute. In the closing years of the 17th century, schools were opened in Chartres and Calais, while in Paris there were several new ventures: a new center to train lay teachers for the country parishes, a Sunday academy providing working teenagers with either the elementary education they never had or classes in more advanced subjects combined with suitable religious instruction, and a new house for the novitiate. King James II of England, living in exile, confided to De La Salle 50 Irish youths, sons of his faithful followers. The king visited the novitiate house in Paris where the lads were housed and educated, probably in advanced subjects, encouraging the brothers in the work they were doing. In Calais a second school was opened near the seaport where courses in navigation were added to the curriculum for the children of mariners.
The first decade of the 18th century saw the beginning of a series of persecutions directed primarily at the person of the founder rather than the work of the brothers. It began out of a conflict with the pastors of Saint-Sulpice, upon whom De La Salle depended to be allowed to conduct the schools, but who wanted also to have some control over the internal affairs of the society. At one point the cardinal was persuaded to appoint another superior to replace De La Salle, but the brothers obstinately refused to accept anyone but De La Salle as superior. A compromise of sorts was worked out, but the relationship between De La Salle and the local ecclesiastical authorities remained strained. Without the strong support of the parish priest, De La Salle then became the target of the writing masters who brought him to court for violating their monopoly granted by the king for teaching writing, especially teaching teachers of writing in the novitiate and the teacher-training center. At the same time the guild of schoolmasters accused De La Salle of infringing on their franchises granted by the archdiocese by accepting without charge students who could afford to pay. In the system of the time, parish charity schools were restricted to the certified poor. De La Salle eventually lost the court cases, was fined, and forbidden to assign teachers, or to post any signs using a corporate title without "letters patent" from the king. The brothers continued to teach in the schools under the authority of the pastor, but the teacher-training center had to be closed.
In the face of these difficulties De La Salle remained calm, trusting in the providence of God and the work of the institute which he saw as God's work. He did not remain idle, but continued to open schools throughout France beyond the bounds of Paris. In 1702, he sent two brothers to Rome, only one of whom, Br. Gabriel Drolin, remained to keep a presence of the institute in the eternal city. In the following years there were new foundations in Avignon, Dijon, Troyes, Marseilles, Grenoble, Mende and the towns that were centers of Protestant resistance in the southwest, Versailles, and Boulogne.
In 1705, De La Salle took over several new schools in Rouen and then rented an extensive property in Saint-Yon just outside the city where he made his headquarters and reestablished the novitiate. To support the novitiate and to supplement the meager salaries of the brothers, he opened a boarding school. Unlike the colleges in France conducted by other religious congregations intended to cater to the upper classes, Saint-Yon offered a more practical course of studies which excluded the classics and was designed to meet a growing demand of the bourgeoisie for a more vocational-oriented alternative to the traditional curriculum in liberal arts. A separate division was established for delinquent youngsters to provide for the needs of children in need of correction and rehabilitation. A third program was designed for older men, many of them sons of well-known families who had been imprisoned under lettres de cachet. On arrival they had to be kept locked up until they gradually became tractable and in some cases gave proof of genuine conversion. The work of the brothers in such programs became well known and served as models and precedent for similar institutions in the subsequent history of the institute.
The cross followed De La Salle wherever he went and his final years were no exception. The victim of a trumped-up charge of taking advantage of a young ecclesiastic who offered to help establish a new training college for teachers, the founder was condemned in criminal court and forced to flee to the south. At first he was well received, but in Marseilles there soon developed opposition to his person and his policies. His bold anti-Jansenist stance and loyalty to the Holy See was part of it, but so also were his refusal have the brothers tonsured, his insistence that the school brothers live in the newly established novitiate, and his plans to assign brothers wherever they were most needed. Convinced that even some the brothers had abandoned him and that he was becoming an obstacle to the work, he fled to the grotto of the Sainte-Baume where he underwent a devastating experience of "the dark night of the soul." Thinking that perhaps he should leave the brothers to their own devices, he retired to the hermitage of Parmenie outside Grenoble and sought the advice of a Sister Louise, renowned for her gift of spiritual direction. But at that juncture, the principal brothers in Paris, learning of his whereabouts and fearful for the independent future of the institute, wrote a forceful letter commanding him to return in virtue of the vow he had made to obey the body of the society. Priest though he was, on the advice of Sister Louise he accepted the summons from the brothers. He returned to steady the situation in Paris, but gradually handed over the day-to-day operations to Brother Bartholomew who, at a general chapter in 1717, was elected to succeed him as superior, thus averting any danger that the ecclesiastical authorities would impose a priest as superior after his death. He spent the last years of his life at Saint-Yon, counseling the novices, writing meditations for the brothers and his Method of Interior Prayer, and revising the rule according to the suggestions from the brothers at the general chapter.
De La Salle died at Saint-Yon on Good Friday, Apr. 7, 1719. Though he had always shunned notoriety and lived in seclusion, the news of his death was followed by a manifestation of public sympathy and veneration. "All Rouen regrets him and looks upon him as a saint," wrote brother Bartholomew to Br. Gabriel Drolin in Rome. De La Salle's nephew, Dom Elie Maillefer OSB, in his biography described him as "kindhearted, generous and sincere," with "a peculiar gift for bringing back to God the most hardened sinners, whose conversion he never undertook in vain." Maillefer went on to explain that "by nature he was resolute and intrepid; he took his stand after mature reflection, held to it when he thought it was conformable to the will of God, and was always ready to undertake the most difficult things for God's sake." The earliest biography to be published was that by Canon J.B. Blain which appeared in two volumes divided into four books in 1733: La vie de M. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, instituteur des Frères des Ecoles chrétiennes.
After the death of De La Salle, the brothers were successful on obtaining letters patent from King Louis XV in 1724 and approval as a lay institute of pontifical right by the Bull of approbation granted by Pope Benedict XIII in 1725. During the century following the institute expanded throughout France numbering just about 1,000 brothers at the beginning of the French Revolution. All but suppressed during the revolution, the reorganization during the nineteenth century was accompanied by extraordinary growth both in numbers and in missionary activity. By the end of Vatican Council II in 1965 there were more than 16,000 brothers conducting schools in 80 countries on all six continents. In the aftermath of the ensuing changes in church and religious life, the numbers declined, until at the turn of the millennium there were just over 6,000 brothers, less than half of them still active in educational ministry. On the other hand there were new initiatives in favor of direct service of the poor and numerical growth in third world countries. It was also seen as a grace that the Lasallian mission and spirituality were riches to be shared between brothers and lay associates everywhere. Meanwhile, there was a new interest in the life, achievement and vision of John Baptist De La Salle due to the extensive research undertaken by Lasallian scholars, published in the 60 volumes of Cahiers lasalliens, and propagated through workshops and formation programs for brothers and lay partners alike with a view to keeping the Lasallian tradition alive and effective in the educational world.
Religious Educator. De La Salle's teaching method is found principally in the Conduct of Schools, continually revised during his lifetime in collaboration with the brothers in the light of their experience, and first published in 1720. He was not a theorist; his method of education was strictly practical. Because his schools were always filled to capacity and the classes large, he discarded the tutorial model in use in the charity schools of the time in favor of a simultaneous method, training his teachers to control large groups of pupils by maintaining strict discipline and sub-dividing the classes according to the ability and progress of the pupils. He also discarded the use of Latin, hitherto considered the vehicle for learning to read, and used the vernacular instead. In these matters, which are today taken for granted, he was a pioneer and met with considerable opposition. It was in response to new needs as he met them that led him to establish the schools for training lay teachers, schools for delinquents, and boarding schools with offerings in advanced technical or pre-professional courses, unavailable and unheard of in the colleges and universities at the time.
Convinced that religion was the sound basis of true education, he considered the teaching of religion the most important duty of those entrusted with the training of the young, and the primary reason why the schools were established. He organized the school schedule with a view to maintaining a religious atmosphere, especially by recalling the presence of God at intervals during the day. He regarded the religion lesson as the most important and outlined in detail the method to be used, with emphasis on fundamentals and a level of understanding suitable to the age ability of the students. He published a manual of prayers for use in the schools and a booklet of prayers to be said during Mass. His three-volume work entitled The Duties of a Christian, contains a comprehensive exposition of Christian doctrine for the theological education of the teachers and a catechism for use in the schools. The catechism subsequently went through 250 editions, an indication of its enduring value beyond the schools of the brothers. In teaching catechism, De La Salle urged the teachers not to be satisfied with rote memorization and external observance, but "by touching hearts" to form their students into convinced disciples of Jesus Christ. In his 16 Meditations for the Time of Retreat he tells the teachers that they are "ambassadors and ministers of Jesus Christ," so that students would learn from the teacher's love and example what it means to encounter the living Christ. De La Salle had no interest in catechetical teaching apart from the school. He felt that religious education should be integrated with learning the skills needed to succeed in this world. By reason of the importance that he placed on the person of the teacher, he succeeded in raising the hitherto despised function of teaching school to the level not only of a profession but a vocation in the theological sense.
De La Salle was beatified in 1888 and canonized in 1900. During the French Revolution, his tomb was violated but the relics were left intact. They were enshrined at first in Rouen, then at the motherhouse in Lembecq in Belgium until they were moved in 1937 to the generalate in Rome where they are presently venerated. St. John Baptist De La Salle was declared the heavenly patron of all teachers of Christian youth by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
Feast: Apr. 7 (formerly May 15).
Bibliography: For the reproduction of original texts and documents relating to St. John Baptist De La Salle, see Cahiers lasalliens: Textes-études documents (Rome 1959) v. 60 to date. j. b. de la salle, Oeuvres complètes (Rome, 1993). Lasallian sources. The complete works of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, 6 v. (Romeoville, IL 1988–1990, Landover, MD 1993–2001): Letters (v.1), tr. c. molloy, ed. a. loes; The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility (v. 2), tr. r. arnandez, ed. g. wright; Collection of various short treatises (v. 3), tr. w. battersby, ed. d. burke; Meditations (v. 4), tr. r. arnandez and a. loes, ed. a. loes and f. huether; Explanation of the Method of Interior Prayer (v. 5), tr. r. arnandez, rev. tr. and ed., d.c. mouton; The Conduct of the Christian Schools (v.6), tr. f. de la fontainerie and r. arnandez, ed., w. mann. In Preparation: the Rule and foundational documents, Instructions and school prayers, duties of a Christian towards God. Lasallian resources; f.e. maillefer and brother bernard, John Baptist de La Salle: Two early Biographies, tr. w. j. quinn, rev. tr. of Reims MS of 1740 d.c. mouton, ed. p. grass (Landover, MD 1996). j. b. blain, The Life of John Baptist de La Salle, Founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. A Biography in Three Books, tr. r. arnansez, ed. l. salm (Landover, MD 2000). e. bannon, The Mind and Heart of St. John Baptist de La Salle (Oxford, nd). w. j. battersby, De La Salle: A Pioneer of Modern Education (New York, 1949); St. John Baptist de La Salle (London 1957). r.c. berger, ed. Spirituality in the Time of John Baptist de La Salle (Landover, MD 1999). l. burkhard, Encounters, De La Salle at Parmenie (Romeoville, IL 1983); Beyond the Boundaries (Landover, MD 1994). a. calcutt, De La Salle, a City Saint (Oxford nd). l. j. colhocker, ed. So Favored by Grace: Education in the Time of John Baptist de La Salle (Romeoville, IL 1991). s. gallego, Vida y Pensiamento de San Juan Bautista De La Salle (Madrid 1986). w. mann, ed. John Baptist de La Salle Today (Manila 1992). j. pungier, John Baptist de La Salle: The Message of his Catechism (Landover, MD 1999). l. salm, John Baptist de La Salle: The Formative Years (Romeoveille, IL 1989; The Work is Yours (2d ed. Landover, MD 1996). m. sauvage and m. campos, St. John Baptist de La Salle: Announcing the Gospel to the Poor, tr. m.j. o'connell (Romeoville, IL 1981). l. varella, Sacred Scripture in the Spirituality of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, tr. f. vessel, ed. d. c. mouton (Landover, MD 1999). o. wÜrth, John Baptist de La Salle and Special Education: A Study of Saint Yon, tr. a. loes, ed. f. huether and b. miner (Romeoville, IL 1988).
[w. j. battersby/