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John-Baptist de La Salle

(1651—1719)


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(1651–1719),

founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Born at Reims of a noble family, de la Salle was early destined for the Church. He was tonsured at eleven years of age and became a canon of Reims at sixteen. Three years later he went to study at Saint-Sulpice and was ordained priest in 1678. In collaboration with a layman, Adrian Nyel, he opened two schools for poor boys in a society in which there were few such schools and fewer opportunities for social mobility. First, he rented a house for them and later invited them to share his own home; this caused the departure of two of his own brothers, but five of the schoolmasters soon left as well. They were gradually replaced; de la Salle gave up his canonry, sold all his goods, and devoted the proceeds to famine-relief in Champagne and dedicated his life to education.

He opened four schools in spite of the difficulty of finding suitable teachers, but twelve of these eventually joined a religious community under his direction, which soon grew and prospered, partly owing to youths of fifteen to twenty years of age, whom de la Salle set up in a ‘junior novitiate’ under his own supervision. Soon parish priests sent him young men to train as teachers before returning to schools in their own villages: to meet this need he established the first training college for teachers at Reims in 1686, which was followed by others at Paris and Saint-Denis. At Paris also he established two free schools which proved remarkably successful.

Later he accepted an invitation from James II, king of England, then in exile in France, to start a school for fifty young gentlemen. This brought his ideas and techniques into contact with a more influential sector of society. These included the replacement of individual instruction by class teaching in the vernacular (instead of Latin), the insistence on the silence of the pupils while the teaching took place, and providing on Sundays religious instruction combined with technical education for artisans. Yet another innovation of de la Salle was the foundation of reformatories for disturbed boys: the recent activity of his Order in the ‘approved schools’ has been a direct development of his ideals and practice.

One characteristic of his Order, which remains today, is that no member of it can ever be ordained a priest and no priest can become a member. His Order suffered from internal conflict during his lifetime as well as external opposition, partly from those who rejected all education for the poor except in manual skills. He drew up a Rule in 1695, but suffered some sort of deposition in 1702, which, however, was allowed to lapse because of strong opposition to it inside his Order: in fact he remained in charge until his resignation in 1717. He died on 7 April 1719, aged sixty-eight. He was canonized in 1900 and declared patron of all school-teachers in 1950. His relics were translated to Rome in 1937.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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