Growing up in
northern Maine meant many things to a
Catholic, one of which was the name, St. John Baptist de la Salle, as
the majority of Catholics were of French heritage and his name was
legendary. The Catholic high school in Bangor was named for him. The
above holy card image is an exact likeness, taken from an actual
portrait painted of the Saint. He is shown wearing the habit of his
order, typical in 18th century France.
He was sent to the College des Bons Enfants, where he pursed the higher studies and, taking the degree of Master of Arts in 1669. Canon Pierre Dozet, chancellor of the University of Reims, was the presiding officer at the academic sessions, and in the discharge of his function had opportunity to study the character of his young cousin, de la Salle, with the result that he determined on resigning his canonry in his favor. Louis de la Salle, however, cherished the hope that John Baptist would select the profession of law, and thereby maintain the family tradition. But young de la Salle insisted that he was called to serve the Church, and accordingly he received the tonsure March 11, 1662, and was solemnly installed as a canon of the metropolitan See of Reims, 7 January, 1667.<>When de la Salle had completed his classical, literary, and philosophical courses and had read the Schoolmen, he was sent to Paris to enter the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice on 18 October, 1670. While residing here he attended the lectures in theology at the Sorbonne. There, under the direction of Louis Tronson, he made such rapid progress in virtue, that M. Lechassier, superior general of the Congregation of Saint-Sulpice, renders this testimony of him: "De la Salle was a constant observer of the rule. His conversation was always pleasing and above reproach. He seems never to have given offense to any one, nor to have incurred any one's censure." While at the seminary de la Salle distinguished himself by his piety as well as by the vigor of his intellectual progress and the ability with which he handled theological subjects. Nine months after his arrival in Paris, his mother died in 1671, and an year later, so, too, his father. This circumstance obliged him to leave Saint-Sulpice, 19 April, 1672. He was now twenty-one, the head of the family, and as such had the responsibility of educating his brothers and sisters. His whole attention was devoted to his domestic affairs, and he provided for every circumstance by his discreet, businesslike administration. Canon Blain says that he underwent at this time many mental struggles. Distrusting his own lights, de la Salle had recourse to prayer and the guidance of discreet advisers, among them, Nicolas Roland, canon and theologian of Reims, a man of great spiritual discernment. Acting upon the advice of the latter, the future founder was ordained subdeacon at Cambrai, by Archbishop Ladislas Jonnart, June 2, 1672. He was ordained to the priesthood by the Archbishop of Reims, on Holy Saturday, 9 April, 1678. The young priest was a model of piety, and his biographers say that persons went to assist at his Mass to be edified, and to share his piety. After Mass there were many who sought his counsel and put themselves under his spiritual guidance. De La Salle never omitted Holy Mass, save when prevented by sickness. In June, 1680, he submitted to his final examination and took his doctorate in theology. At this period of his life de La Salle evinced a docility of spirit, a self-diffidence, that bespoke the character of the man and Saint. In physical appearance he was of commanding presence, somewhat above the medium height, and well-proportioned. He had large, penetrating blue eyes and a broad forehead. His portraits present a picture of sweetness and dignity, beaming with intelligence and breathing an air of modesty and refined grace. A smile plays about the finely chiseled lips and illumines a countenance to which the large lustrous eyes give an air of commanding intelligence.
During the few years that intervened between his ordination to the priesthood and the establishing of the institute, de La Salle was occupied in carrying out the last will and testament of Nicolas Roland, who, when dying, had confided to him the newly established Congregation of the Sisters of the Child Jesus. "Your zeal will bring it to prosperity", said Nicolas Roland to him. "You will complete the work which I have begun. In all this, Father Barre will be your model and guide." Thus was de La Salle imperceptibly drawn towards his life-work. "The idea never occurred to me", de La Salle wrote in a memoir. "If I had ever though that what I did out of pure charity for the poor school teachers would make it incumbent upon me to live with them, I would have given it up at once." This sentiment he again expressed towards the close of his life in these emphatic words: "If God had revealed to me the good that could be accomplished by this institute, and had likewise made known to me the trials and sufferings which would accompany it, my courage would have failed me, and I would never have undertaken it." At this period de La Salle was still occupied with his functions as canon. He was, however, aroused to the higher calling by a message from Madame Maillefer, in March, 1679, requesting him to aid Adrien Nyel in opening a free school at Reims. But hardly had he succeeded in establishing the school of St-Maurice when he quietly withdrew from the work, as if it were not his mission. Shortly afterwards the opening of another free school in St-Jacques parish lured him again from his seclusion, but he soon retired again.
Although instrumental in opening these elementary free schools at Reims, de La Salle seemed to allow Adrien Nyel to share all the honors resulting therefrom, while he was content to labor assiduously for the real progress of both schools. He was unconsciously attracted to the work. Daily he visited the teachers to encourage the or suggest practical methods to attain definite results. But when he found that the teachers became discouraged, owing to the lack of proper guidance after school hours, he undertook to house them, that he might be able to direct them and give them practical lessons in the useful employment of time, and to prevent weariness and disgust. Not only did he aid them in class and after class, but he made good any deficit in the cost of living. He even admitted them to his own table and later on sheltered them under his roof. Thus was he drawn closer and closer to them, forming an intimate fellowship with the teachers of the poor. "It was, indeed", says Mgr. Guibert, "his love that induced de La Salle to devote himself to the young teachers of Reims. They were like abandoned sheep without a shepherd. He assumed the responsibility of uniting them." As yet de La Salle had no definitive plans for the future, even as late as 2 June, 182, when he transferred his little community to the vicinity of rue Neuve. He simply kept himself in readiness to follow the guidance of Providence. He resigned his canonry in July, 1683, and he distributed his fortune to the poor in the winter of 184, thus giving convincing proofs that he would not hesitate to make any sacrifices necessary to complete the good work he had begun. Father Barre counselled de La Salle to give up whatever might divert his attention from procuring God's glory. In reply to the earnest remonstrances of his friends and kinsfolk, he meekly answered: "I must do the work of God, and if the worst should come to pass, we shall have to beg alms." Reliance upon Providence was henceforth to be the foundation of the Christian Schools.
At this time the institute lacked the characteristics of a permanent organization. From 1694 to 1717, the struggle for existence was most critical. In 1692 the institute was so weakened by deaths and defections that de La Salle could hardly find two Brothers who were willing to bind themselves by vow to maintain the free schools. The death of Henri L'Heureux in December, 1690, materially affected the rules of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. De La Salle, intending this gifted young Brother to be the future superior of the congregation, entertained the hope of having him ordained priest, and with this view he sent him to Paris to pursue his theological studies at the Sorbonne. After a brilliant course, Brother Henri L'Heureux was ready for ordination, but before this event took place the young candidate fell sick and died. The loss of this Brother was a blow to the founder. After passing the whole night in prayer, he rose up, not only comforted but strengthened, but also enlightened as to the character of his future institute. He then determined that there should be no priests among the members of his institute. Although there were priests and lay brothers in nearly all existing religious orders, de La Salle was convinced that the time had come for a change in this matter in the new congregation. Brother Lucard, the Annalist of the institute, thus sums up the matter: "Since the death of Henri L'Heureux, de La Salle was firmly convinced that his institute was to be founded on simplicity and humility. No Brother could, without compromising his congregation, allow himself to be diverted from his functions as a teacher, by devoting himself to special studies, the saying of the Divine Office, or the fulfillment of other duties obligatory on the sacred ministry." Therefore, no Brother can aspire to the priesthood nor perform any priestly function, and no ecclesiastic can become a member of the institute. This is the new rule that de La Salle added, and it is embodied in the Constitution of the institute.
From 1702 the founder began to endure a long period of trial, aggravated by persecution on the part of certain ecclesiastical authorities. In November, 1702, he was deposed by Cardinal de Noailles, and supplanted for a time by the Rev. B. Bricot. In 1703 one of his most trusted disciples, Nicolas Vuyart, treacherously deserted him. For the next ten years the holy founded was engaged in a series of struggles for the preservation of his institute, in the course of which his name was attacked, and justice denied him before the civil tribunals. After thirty-five years of hard labor, his work seemed to be almost on the verge of ruin. His confidence in God was so firm and unshaken that he was never really discouraged. In 171 he convoked a chapter for the purpose of solidifying the work and for the election of a superior general. His aim was to have a Brother elected during his lifetime and thus perfect the government of the institute in accordance with the rule he had formulated. The choice of the assembled Brothers fell upon Brother Barthelemy, a man whom all esteemed for his learning and virtue. The institute was now an accomplished fact. And from the first interview with Adrien Nyel, in 1679, de La Salle belonged wholly to the Brothers, sharing with them the burden of labor and observing the common rule. He never left them to engage in other works.
De La Salle was too prudent and too well inspired by God, not
to give his institute a positive character in its twofold object: the
Christian education of youth and the cultivation of that spirit of
faith, piety, mortification, and obedience which should characterize
its members. His gift of gaining souls to God, and of leading them to
make great sacrifices, was supplemented by the splendid executive
ability that enabled him to found an institute and to supervise and
direct its gradual development.
A new school was established on the Rue Saint Placid and was
soon filled to capacity. The schoolmasters of the district violently
protested this because, again, they said, it was drawing away from
their own schools children of families capable of paying tuition. The
Brothers' school was closed for eight months during the dispute but
once again de La Salle himself appeared in court, disproved the false
allegations and won the case. When the school was reopened enrollment
reached over four hundred students instructed by four Brothers.
The Saint would not restrict his charity to the poor when children of nobility were in need of education. To the mother house in Paris came fifty young Irish boys, sons of the nobles in exile with James II of England. De La Salle established a boarding school for them and personally instructed them, to the great satisfaction of the deposed monarch.
This extraordinary educator was far ahead of his time in many of his undertakings and often could only lay the foundation for institutions he envisioned. One of his cherished projects was to resurrect the teachers' college that had failed at Rheims. Teaching in seventeenth century France was generally regarded a profession which required little, if any, training. To raise the standards of education especially among the poorer children in rural areas he opened a "seminary" for Catholic lay teachers in the parish of Saint Hippolytus. The success of the college, however, was short-lived. The Brother director of the institution, contrary to his vow of poverty, accepted the inheritance of the parish priest. As owner of the school building he continued to manage the college after renouncing his vows and separating from the congregation. The entire effort soon failed to the chagrin of the avaricious defector.
Other disappointments beclouded the noble labors of the Saint. A Sunday school, the first of its kind in France, offered young men a weekly two-hour session of catechism, reading, writing, and arithmetic essentials necessary for business competence. Sadly, the two Brothers assigned to this task attributed its success to their own abilities and left the congregation to found their own school.
There were other problems. Unknown to La Salle, a novice-master carried out his duties with such lack of charity that resentment grew in the students. A charge was made and La Salle was made to answer to them. Only a soul completely forgetful of self and dedicated only to pleasing god could have accepted this unfairness. Like Jesus, his Master, our Saint, when unjustly accused, responded with meekness and silence as his only defense. Eventually he was relieved of his duties as superior and humbly accepted his fate. Although a compromise was later worked out, relations with the chancery and the parish priest of Saint-Sulpice was never the same. In 1703 de La Salle and the community relocated to the parish of Saint Paul, opening schools in the locale. Rival schoolmasters soon made more trouble and again the Brothers and their superior were dragged into court and forced to close the schools. They had to abandon their work in Paris. However, the rapid success of their schools elsewhere, all throughout France compensated for the failure in Paris. The congregation even spread to Rome, due to faith, obedience, fidelity and heroic persistence that gained them Papal recognition.
A bad harvest and severe winter brought on the famine of 1709. It was unquestionably the most severe test of survival experienced by the congregation that was now spread throughout France. De La Salle and his religious were frequently without food and without money. The Saint's confidence in God never wavered and Heaven never failed to provide when the need was greatest.
The Devil tried every possible means to derail the good being accomplished by the Brothers' schools. As the work advanced, the attacks on the holy founder became more frequent and serious. An ambitious Brother carried on a campaign to depose the founder from his authority. In spite of de La Salle's kindness, the Brother continued in bitter obstinacy and had to be expelled from the congregation. The pattern continued. After being betrayed by his Brothers, he was again falsely accused by his enemies, abandoned by his friends, and even condemned by the courts as one unfit to superintend schools.
It mattered little to the Saint that calumniators were continually assailing his reputation. His main concern was that the schools continue to spread and to prosper. He felt now that the main thrust of the opposition would subside if he withdrew from public and handed over, if not the office of superior, at least the responsibilities of authority to someone else. Informing him of his intention, he chose Brother Bartholomew to be his vicar with complete governing powers and left quietly from Paris to begin visiting the various houses throughout France.
To his great joy he was able to establish a novitiate in Marseilles to serve the needs of the schools in the south which were now flourishing. It didn't take long, however, for the Saint to find the enemy mixing cockle with the wheat. Jansenists, adherents to a heretical movement that claimed to champion ancient Christian rigorism, were extremely influential in the city. Hoping to find an ally in de La Salle, they made attractive proposals for the support of his work. When he denounced their errors they turned on him and began to attack and undermine the very efforts they had previously lavished with praise. With supreme hypocrisy, they expressed their displeasure with the Rule, which they said was too strict for the Brothers. De La Salle had no intention of changing the congregation's discipline and was labeled unreasonably attached to his own opinions. So insidious and unremitting were the libelous tales spread about the founder that discontentment soon found its way into the community. Some of the Brothers left the congregation and eventually the novitiate was closed. The great promise of extending the work in Marseilles was not to be realized.
De La Salle saw his presence there as only a source of aggravating the problems that had emerged. He was more than ever seriously tempted to think that he was the real obstacle to the congregation's peace and prosperity. But retiring to a hermitage a few miles from the city he regained his fortitude by silence and prayer before visiting other houses in southern France. At Mende, the Brothers, contaminated by stories from Marseilles, would not so much as extend to their founder lodging or a morsel of food. Silently accepting the rebuff, as one truly worthy of such treatment, the humble Saint went about the town begging alms. Towards the end of 1713 and into the next year he was well received at Grenoble where the Brothers truly esteemed their superior and faithfully lived the congregation's Rule. Here de La Salle spent many happy hours in prayer and recollection or in writing and substituting in the classroom. His visit would not have been complete without a stop at the Carthusian monastery, "La Grande Chartreuse" not far from Grenoble. Saint Bruno, the founder of this holy retreat, had been like de La Salle a canon at Rheims. For three days in silent solitude and penance the apostle of Christian schools implored Heaven's help for himself and for his congregation. He would have gladly remained there but he was certain that God willed otherwise.
The many hardships de La Salle endured upon leaving Paris more than sufficiently prove that his departure was no selfish escape from the duties and crosses of his vocation. Some judged as imprudent his lack of communication with the Brothers in Paris, at this time. Yet, ever seeking the greater glory of God, his actions, he hoped, were proving to the Brothers what he always believed, that the preservation of the institute had little to do with him, a frail instrument.
He suffered his last illness during Lent of 1719, with exceptional patience. He said, "I must think of my sins and prepare for death." After he died his remains were venerated for the next fifteen years and his intercession invoked, at the parish church of Saint Sever. When a church was built by the congregation at Saint Yon, his body was entombed there until 1937, when it was transferred to Rome to the chapel of the mother house. Pope Leo XIII beatified him 1988 and canonized him on May 15, 1900, but I get ahead of myself:
As he approached his final hour on Good Friday, April 7, 1719, he recited his favorite prayer to his beloved Virgin Mary:
"Mary, Mother of grace, of sweetness, and of clemency! Protect us against our enemies and receive us at the hour of death!" When asked if he willingly accepted his sufferings he replied, "Oh yes! In all things I adore the will of God in my regard."
The Bull of canonization included the following:
"You . . . who worthily bear the sacred title of teachers, have a model whom you can contemplate, whose virtues you can endeavor to imitate . . . and whom you can invoke as your intercessor with God, to snatch from the domination of Satan and of his followers the schools of Christian nations." Never has a patron of teachers been more in need today as Satan owns, for all practical purposes, the Godless, sex crazed public schools and has moved into most if not all Catholic schools.