One can say that evangelizers teach. They teach, in the context we are using, God, religion, the Holy Scriptures. It can also be said that teachers evangelize. They teach thinking processes, the bigger picture, how to coordinate one set of facts with another. Today’s evangelizer was a priest who evangelized people by teaching people.
Jean Baptiste de la Salle was the first of seven children born to Louis de la Salle, a lawyer, and Nicolle de Moet de Brouillet, related to the Moets who, to this day, market champagne and other wines. They lived in Rheims, in the northeast section of the country, 80 miles from Paris. Jean Baptiste was tutored at home then went to the cathedral school, named the College des Bons Enfants. Here he was noted for his intellectual capacity as well as his piety. The courses were given exclusively in Latin. In later years, it is interesting to see how De la Salle reacted to such classes when he started his own schools for the ordinary children of the town. His father planned on him becoming a lawyer and carrying on the family tradition. But Jean Baptiste could not be shaken from his dream of becoming a priest. At the young age of eleven, he took the tonsure. At the age of sixteen, Jean Baptiste presented a theological paper so impressive that the canon of the cathedral gave up his position to the young man. Thus, he became the canon of the cathedral at Rheims. A canon would, without taking a vow of poverty, live in community with others at the cathedral and attend to liturgical decisions and be on the bishop’s council. By 18, he had completed his Master of Arts degree at the school.
In the fall of his 19th year, Jean Baptiste entered the seminary at St. Sulpice, in Paris. There he was distinguished by his piety, his vigor of intellectual progress and his ability to handle theological subjects. At this point, however, life began to deal a series of severe blows. At the end of his first year of seminary, his mother died. Before the end of his second year of seminary, his father died. Jean Baptiste had to leave the seminary. He was, at 21, the head of a household of six children and he was responsible for making sure they were educated and raised properly. A young man who has been at school all his life is not well trained to raise children. He depended upon a number of discreet advisors to help him. And he had a spiritual advisor, Fr. Nicolas Roland.
Fr. Roland had dreams of being a missionary, but a very bad sea journey persuaded him to remain in France and finish his seminary training. He met Father Nicolas Barre, who had organized a group of men and women who had worked in free schools in the city of Rouen. Fr. Roland had lived there for a while. He returned to Rheims with the intention of doing the same in that city. Soon after his return, an orphanage founded by Marie Varlet was entrusted to him. He shortly turned it into a real school. He asked Fr. Barre for two teachers from the Sisters of Providence to help him. They opened on July 13, 1673. Later, Fr. Roland and the two sisters founded the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, dedicated to the education of poor and abandoned girls. Fr. Roland tried to persuade Jean Baptiste to develop a school for boys, but without success at that time.
When Jean Baptiste had organized the family, after the death of his parents, he returned to his studies in Paris, keeping in touch with Fr. Roland. From this young priest, only 10 years older than Jean Baptiste, the seminarian learned a type of spiritual detachment which he used to great avail during his lifetime. Meanwhile, he was ordained a deacon in 1676 and a priest on April 7, 1678. His friend and counselor, Fr. Roland, attended Jean Baptiste’s first Mass and died within weeks. He left behind a legacy of four schools, one asylum (they had begun to care for the sick) and 20 sisters. In accord with Fr. Roland’s will, Jean Baptiste took over the good father’s duties as chaplain and confessor of the congregation. This was in addition to his duties as canon of the cathedral, and living in his family home to watch over his youngest siblings.
Within a year, Fr. De la Salle met an older man, Adrian Nyel. M. Nyel, a layman and friend of Fr. Barre had opened four public schools in Rouen. One of Fr. De la Salle’s relatives who lived in Rouen sent M. Nyel to Rheims requesting help in forming a free school for boys. She promised to subsidize it. Nyel first visited the Sisters of the Infant Jesus to ask for help in his endeavor. As it happened, Fr. De la Salle came in. In discussing the details of Nyel’s concept, the young priest invited Nyel and a fourteen year old assistant home for dinner. This was the beginning of a new venture for Fr. De la Salle.
The first school was opened at the parish of St. Maurice. It was not a charity school. Those who could pay, did. Within months, another wealthy woman offered to establish a similar school in her parish, but only if Fr. De la Salle was involved. A third parish opened soon afterwards at St. Jacques parish. M. Nyel, described as a brusque and impulsive man, left Rheims a year later, to begin schools in other cities, leaving De la Salle to handle the administration of the Rheims schools. Nyel, however, left the spark that burned brightly for years.
The one thing that Fr. De la Salle noted was the lack of understanding of culture, manners and hope among not only the children, but also among the young educators. The teachers of the boys were men. They had little education. They were struggling to teach and they had no leadership. This was too common at the time. As Fr. De la Salle had invited M. Nyel to dine with him, he naturally thought to invite the young men teachers to do the same. He thought he could inspire and instruct them himself. And, perhaps, teach them some table manners, much to the chagrin of his siblings. When, after some months, that did not seem to be sufficient, the good priest invited the men to move in with him in his family’s home. This did nothing to make the relatives happy. Within a short time, a family feud broke out, followed by a lawsuit. Fr. De la Salle lost the house.
This did not deter Fr. De la Salle. He rented a house in another part of Rheims and invited his teachers to move in. Then he proceeded to leave the service of the cathedral. He sold his sizeable inheritance and sent money to the poor of the region of Champagne, where a famine was wreaking havoc. The good father went back to concentrating on children who were “often left to themselves and badly brought up.”
The young teachers were becoming more educated and more professional in their outlook by 1685. The schools were succeeding and Fr. De la Salle was thinking of the next step in organization. He did not want a cleric-dominated organization. He applied to the ecclesiastical superiors for help in developing a religious institute. They resisted the creation of a new form of religious life, consecrated laymen to conduct free schools. The educational establishment did not approve of his very progressive ideas on teaching. This consisted of instruction in the vernacular (which the children could understand and remember better), children grouped according to ability (so they could study together), integration of religious instruction with secular subjects, well-prepared teachers and the involvement of parents.
The new Brothers of the Christian Schools could not be stopped. They expanded throughout France over the next thirty years. They did not limit themselves to day schools. The rented house became the first “normal school” for teachers in Rheims by 1694. Other cities slowly developed teacher training schools. They developed reform schools for delinquents, technical schools, Sunday courses for young working men and secondary schools. However, the order was not finally approved by Pope Benedict XIII until 1725.
From 1702 on, however, Fr. De la Salle was in the grip of a persecution on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. In November of 1702, he was deposed by Cardinal de Noailles and replaced by Rev. Bricot. In 1703, one of his most trusted disciples, Nicolas Vuyart, deserted him. For the next ten years, the good priest struggled to keep his institution afloat. His name was attacked in a financial civil suit. He appeared in civil court where he found no justice. His family members were angry with him for years for having abandoned them for his dream. The writer’s guild sued him for teaching writing. The Church authorities tried him for teaching religion using non-clerics. The deaths and illnesses among the brothers made teaching the large groups of children difficult. Then the Jansenists lied so well about him that the teachers at the school in Mende would not let him in.
While all this was going on, Fr. De la Salle wrote. Some books were published after his death. “The Duties of a Christian”, two series of “Meditations” were published during his life. “The Conduct of Christian Schools”, an explanation of how students should be educated, was published in 1720.
The last two years of his life were finally quiet. Fr. De la Salle died on Good Friday, 1719. Reading of this good priest’s life, we have to admit that the slander and lies claiming that “the Catholic Church is against progress” is absolutely not true. Perhaps some politically minded people in the Catholic Church may have been against progress, but, surely, not its members.
Advice from St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle: “Follow the inspirations that come to you from God.”