Oblates of St. Francis de Sales
OBLATES OF ST. FRANCIS DE SALES
A religious congregation of men, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, at times popularly known today as "De Sales Oblates," were founded in Troyes, France, by Reverend Louis Brisson in 1872. His early death prevented St. Francis de Sales from proceeding very far in his desire to establish a congregation of men whose spirit would be similar to that of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary which he had co-founded in 1610 with St. Jane de Chantal. After his death, however, St. Jane de Chantal encouraged Reverend Raymond Bonal to make a similar foundation which lasted until the early 18th century. Mother Marie de Sales Chappuis, the Superior of the Troyes Visitation Monastery, persuaded the Monastery's chaplain, Father Brisson, to make another attempt.
Early History. Father Brisson asked Father Claude Perrot, a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Notre Dame des Ermites in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, to assist him in the formulation of constitutions for the projected congregation. Father Perrot's initial attempts, short treatises on spiritual subjects, were taken verbatim from the writings of St. Francis de Sales. In time, they were formulated into constitutions in the canonical sense. To these was added the "Spiritual Directory" which is a series of brief, insightful instructions on the right manner and disposition for performing "the actions of every day." When his bishop asked Father Brisson to take over the administration of St. Stephen's, a failing diocesan school for boys, he saw this request as the opportunity which Providence was providing him for bringing about his new foundation. In the fall of 1872, the clerical faculty members of the School, now named Saint Bernard's, began their novitiate. The congregation received its first Roman approval, the Decretum laudis, in December, 1875, and its definitive approval on Dec. 8, 1897.
Charism of the Congregation. The charism of the Oblates is the imitation of St. Francis de Sales in his own celebrated imitation of Jesus. The members of the congregation live and spread the spirit and doctrine of their Patron through sharing his spiritual legacy as found in his major works such as the Introduction to the Devout Life and the Treatise on the Love of God. For the congregation, a principal focus of Salesian spirituality is the saint's "Spiritual Directory." This masterpiece is not so much a book as it is a spiritual strategy for living the spirit of Jesuus in simple and concrete way throughout the course of each day. Its essential practices, such as the direction of intention and interior prayer, lead, in time, to a state of continual, loving union with God in heart, will, and life. This is how Scripture describes the human life of Jesus and how Oblates live Jesus themselves and teach others to do so. In this way, they participate in his saving mission today.
Imbued with the inviting spirituality of their Patron, the members of the congregation, priests and lay brothers, work to satisfy the human family's hunger for union with the Holy. They do this by showing those they serve how to observe Jesus's double commandment of love. In imitation of Jesus, they are shown how to love God with affective love, that is, in prayerful union with Him and with effective love by generously responding to His divine will for them as that will unfolds in the course of each succeeding present moment of life. They are taught how to love others by meeting their spiritual and human needs in a compassionate, concrete and caring manner; and by living the relational virtues with them: charity, humility, gentleness, patience, simplicity, and joyful optimism.
While being responsive to the Church's changing apostolic needs, the Oblates are generally involved in the Christian education of youth, parochial ministry, and foreign missions.
Expansion. In July 1882 five missionaries were sent to Pella, a small village in the region of South Africa know as Namaqualand. With later territorial additions, this region became the Apostolic Vicariate of the Orange River, which was later divided into what are now the Diocese of Keimoes-Upington, in South Africa, and the Diocese of Keetmanshoop in Namibia. Even today, Oblates continue to constitute the largest number of clergy in both dioceses. Because of political unrest and anticlerical sentiment, the Oblates who had been assigned to Brazil in 1885 were soon transferred to Montevideo, Uruguay. As soon as conditions improved, however, the congregation returned to Brazil, this time to Rio Grande do Sul. In July, 1889, the congregation established a school in Naxos, Greece, which was soon followed by one in Athens. By the end of the 19th century, European foundations had also been established in Italy, Austria, and England. Although the congregation later withdrew from England and Greece, its presence in Europe continues in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Monaco, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
In 1893 Father Joseph Maréchaux was assigned as chaplain to a new congregation of sisters in White Plains, New York—the Sisters of Divine Compassion. Three years later, five companions joined him, forming the original community of Oblates in the United States. Within a few years, all were assigned elsewhere, however. In the meantime, another Oblate had been sent as chaplain to the Monastery of the Visitation, then located in Wilmington, Delaware. Two other Oblates, fleeing anti-religious laws in France, joined him there in 1903. Together they established Salesianum, a private high school for boys in Wilmington, as well as a novitiate. The first provincial for the United States was appointed in 1906, the same year that the novitiate was transferred to Childs, Maryland. In 1924 the congregation established a house of studies for its scholastics near The Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC.
In 1926 the congregation accepted an invitation from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to staff the newly established Northeast Catholic High School for boys. Rapidly following that foundation, the congregation spread throughout the United States, principally along the East Coast: Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; in the Midwest: Michigan and Ohio; and in the West: California, Oklahoma, and Utah.
Recent Developments. In 1983, after an extensive period of discernment and two exploratory visits, the congregation established a foundation in Bangalore, India. At present, there is a flourishing house of studies there, with plans underway for further expansion in India and elsewhere in Asia. In recent years, Oblates have begun small but promising ministries in Bénin, Ecuador, Ukraine, Haiti, and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
The Mother House of the congregation is located in Rome. The congregation is governed by a Superior General who is elected for a six-year term, once renewable, and by four general councillors, three of whom are elected by the General Chapter while one is appointed by the Superior General. World-wide, there are 650 Oblates in ten provinces or regions. Each province or region is governed by a major superior who is either elected or appointed according to the prescriptions of particular statutes for a four-year term, twice renewable. They are assisted in governance by an elected council. The novitiate lasts one year. The perpetual profession of simple vows follows three years or more of annual vows.
Bibliography: OSFS, Official Catholic Directory #0920. p. dufour, Les Oblats de Saint François de Sales (Paris 1938). k. burton, So Much so Soon: Father Brisson, Founder of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (New York 1953).
[l. s. fiorelli]