St. Stephen's De La Salle

Welcome to our special page dedicated to the history of our Founder, St. John Baptist De La Salle. Here, you will learn all about the life of De La Salle and his visionary methods for teaching, his mission to educate the poor, as well as a number of quotes from the Patron Saint of Teachers. We hope you enjoy the fascinating story that is the life of Saint John Baptist De La Salle.

Addressing a group of Brothers in Maynooth, Co. Kildare during his 1979 visit to Ireland, Pope John Paul II said, “I ask God to bless you with renewed fidelity to your vocation and with increased vocations to your Institutes. The Church in Ireland and on the missions owes much to the Brothers.” And so, recognised by the Pope himself, was Saint John Baptist De La Salle – Priest, Founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, Patron of Christian Teachers and a pioneer in the field of education, with ideas beyond his time. Read on to learn more about this man’s amazing journey through life, his battle to care for the poor through education and kindness, and the selflessness he displayed in giving his life to the education of children and devotion to God. This is the story of Saint John Baptist De La Salle.

During the 17th century, and the reign of King Louis XIV of France, the time became known as “Le Grand Siecle”, which is French for “the great century”. The title came from the many military victories of Louis XIV, but also from famous men of this time whose writings and art helped to make France well known after years of wars.
But still there was much poverty and misery among the people. Crowds of people could be found living along the sides of roads, and medicine was still in its early days. There weren’t many hospitals, and the sick were badly cared for. One man who tried to remedy this was St. Vincent de Paul, who gave his life to help the poor. When he died in 1660, he left behind a charitable organisation which is still with us today. But as serious as the poverty, was the lack of education for ordinary children – which no-one seemed too bothered about.

Born on April 30, 1651, at Reims, France, into a wealthy family, was John Baptist De La Salle. He decided at an early age that he wanted to become a priest. It was normal at the time for young boys to show their intention of becoming priests by receiving the clerical tonsure. And so it was that on March 11, 1662, 11 year old John Baptist De La Salle received the tonsure. (Later, De La Salle’s sister and two of his brothers would dedicate their lives to the service of God.) He was then named Canon of Reims Cathedral at sixteen.
De La Salle was forced to return to Reims in 1678 when his mother and father died within a short space of time. Though he had to assume the administration of family affairs, he completed his theological studies and was ordained priest on 9 April, 1678. During his first months as a priest, he began to wonder if he should give up his Canonry and spend all his time and energy helping the poor people of Reims. The Archbishop was completely against it. Still, De La Salle could not help wondering if he was doing all that he could. All around him, he saw poverty and suffering, but he felt that, as a priest, he was removed from the real problems that existed.

Meanwhile, in different parts of France well-meaning people had begun to see that poor children had no chance to get an education or training of any kind. Fr. Nicholas Barré, a priest in Normandy, began to see the need for opening small schools for poor children. But as always, money was needed. With the help of a wealthy woman named Jeanne Maillefer from Rouen, though born in Reims, Fr. Barré was able to open more and more free schools for girls. He opened a training centre in Paris for his female teachers whom he called “The Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus”.

On a March morning in 1679, two travellers arrived at the door of the convent of the Infant Jesus. They had with them a letter from Madame Maillefer, who wanted to set up free schools for boys in her native city. The Mother Superior sent the two men straight to De La Salle. One of them was a man named Adrian Nyel, who had already been involved in setting up free schools in Rouen. The parish priest of Saint Maurice gave De La Salle permission to open a free school in his parish, and the first class took place on April 15, 1679. At Christmas, 1679, De La Salle placed the teachers in a special house near his own, and gave them a set of rules and regulations. Soon a second and third school were opened, but Nyel showed little interest once the schools were set up, and so De La Salle sought out Fr. Barré for advice on what to do next. Fr. Barré’s answer was, “your mission is to help the teachers to take an interest in their jobs. To do this properly, you will have to take them into your own home and live with them.” De La Salle duly obliged, bringing them into his house for meals in June, 1680.

De La Salle supported his teachers and urged them on and consoled them when they became discouraged. He taught them how to have confidence and trust in God. He reminded them of words from St. Matthew’s Gospel, and he stressed the end which read: “Set your hearts on the Kingdom of God first and on doing the right things and everything else will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will look after itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” While these words moved some, still others were not too sure, pointing out that De La Salle was well off but they were still poor. He again spoke with Fr. Barré, who told him to resign his Canonry, give up his fortune and place both himself and the community in God’s hands. In 1683, John Baptist De La Salle resigned his Canonry, along with the income that came with it and now, like his teachers, he was dependent on grants from the school’s patrons.

A famine struck in 1684, a terrible year of misery and suffering in France, and De La Salle responded by selling all of his possessions to feed the poor of Reims. With all his wealth gone, he found himself having to beg for bread. Now when he spoke, his Brothers listened. He told them, “The more you can forget about money, the more good you will do.” It was about this time that De La Salle decided that the time had come to unite his Brothers with a special Rule of Life, vows, and to wear a religious habit, made up of a black robe with a collar of two linen bands. He decided that the Brothers would take one vow, of obedience for one year, to be renewed on Trinity Sunday. After a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Liesse, the Brothers placed themselves under the protection of the Most Blessed Virgin.

De La Salle had the common sense to see that a major problem in teaching the children was the common practice of teaching through Latin, so he decided that they would teach through French, the children’s own language. Another innovation he pioneered was to abandon the usual educational approach of teaching individually. De La Salle introduced the “simultaneous method”, which is teaching the whole class together. He taught pupils to read and write using books in French, instead of using Latin books which was the custom at the time, and when arranging classes, he grouped them according to age and ability – an amazing thing to do at that time, considering that it is now the generally accepted method of teaching in the 21st century.

In 1688, John Baptist De La Salle was delighted to be invited by the Parish Priest of St. Sulpice to come to Paris and take over responsibility for a charity school for poor children. De La Salle found that the school was badly run, but was able to restore order, by dividing the pupils into three classes according to ability and age. The former headmaster of the school, Mr Compagnon, was not happy with the success of the Brothers and he complained to the Parish Priest, who then forbade him to interfere with the affairs of the school. But the complaints against him grew and became more and more common, as De La Salle’s schools were accepting students from the teachers in the private schools and educating them for free. They saw the Brothers as rivals who would leave them without a source of income.

De La Salle soon opened a second school in the Rue du Bac. He brought Brother Henri L’Heureux from Reims to replace him in charge,  and sent a man called John Henry to take over in Reims. But the Brothers in Rue du Bac didn’t want a newcomer placed over them, while in Reims, Henry proved so harsh as a Superior that eight of the Brothers left. In the middle of these difficulties, De La Salle became very ill. He returned to Paris where he received the Last Sacraments, and told his Brothers, “Be united among yourselves and obey your Superiors.” But De La Salle recovered his health and on November 21st, 1691, John Baptist De La Salle and two Brothers, Gabriel Drolin and Nicholas Vuyart took a vow to work for the “complete establishment of the Society of Christian Schools … without withdrawing from this obligation even if only we three remained and had to beg for alms and live on bread alone.”

On Pentecost Sunday, 1694, De La Salle called the Brothers together and on the feast of the Holy Trinity, he and twelve others took vows for life. They took vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and to teach the poor gratuitously – and with that, the Institute received its unique identity. De La Salle also wrote books at this time, describing methods of teaching and education, and one book describing the rules of good behaviour and politeness. A new Parish Priest arrived in St. Sulpice, and De La Salle had many an argument with him. Around this time, the numbers of men joining the Brothers was increasing, as was the number of schools, but sadly, the opposition of teachers in the private schools was still strong and they went as far as to destroy the Brothers’ school at St. Placide. When it seemed that the world had turned against him, De La Salle accepted this as God’s will. He found strength in his devotions and always honoured the Mother of God – even correcting those who left out “Most” from her title of Most Blessed Virgin, telling them, “Please call her ‘Most Blessed’. She fully deserves it.” He always asked the Brothers to have great devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin because God himself honours her in this special way.

In May, 1717, on Pentecost Sunday, John Baptist De La Salle brought the principal Brothers together at St. Yon. Though he was just sixty-five years old, he was worn out by constant effort and was now suffering with rheumatism and asthma. De La Salle led them in a holy retreat and asked them to appoint Brother Barthelemy as their Superior General. To his delight, they agreed. De La Salle now emphasised to his Brothers that the direction of the Institute was now in the hands of their new Superior General, Brother Barthelemy. De La Salle began to step back from the day to day matters, instead spending many hours in prayer, but always finding the time to go to the schoolyard and chat with the youngsters who warmed to his personality and responded happily to his obviously genuine interest  in each of them and their company.

In January 1719, De La Salle’s health took a turn for the worse, and following an accident where he hit his head against a low doorway, he began to suffer from headaches. On Ash Wednesday, he had wanted to begin his strict Lenten fast, but both Brother Barthelemy and his doctor forbade it, with the doctor confirming the seriousness of De La Salle’s condition. He managed to steel himself enough to celebrate mass on March 19th, for what would be his final time. It took place on the feast of St. Joseph, to whose patronage he had entrusted his Institute. John Baptist De La Salle received the Last Sacraments on Maundy Thursday, and, having asked to be dressed in his priestly clothing, fell to his knees on hearing the bell announcing the approach of the Blessed Sacrament. Following this, he spoke with his Brothers, encouraging them and asking them to love their vocation by avoiding wordly attitudes and values and to be faithful to their rule.

Early in the hours of Good Friday, April 7th, 1719, John Baptist De La Salle recited his most favourite prayer to Our Lady: “Mary, loving Mother, protect us from the enemy and receive us at the hour of our death.” He breathed heavily, and then said, “I adore in all things the will of God in my regard.” And with that, De La Salle breathed his last.

When news spread of his death, all who knew him were gripped by terrible mourning and for many days, crowds of people filed past his body in the chapel where his body lay, and paid him the highest of respect. De La Salle’s work had spread far and wide through France, with stories of his work reaching beyond the French borders. in 1725, Pope Benedict XIII approved the Institute built by De La Salle as a religious society. Indeed, when the Founder died in 1719, there were 274 Brothers in 26 houses. In 1838, Brother Philip became Superior General, and he governed for 36 years, during which time over 1000 new schools were opened and the number of Brothers grew from 2,700 to 11,570.

The first De La Salle Brothers came to Ireland in 1880, setting up their first school in Co. Roscommon. In 1888, John Baptist De La Salle was declared Blessed. Pope Leo XIII Canonised him on May 24, 1900,and in May 15, 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed St. John Baptist De La Salle patron of all teachers and educators. The feast of De La Salle entered the Roman Calendar on 15th May, but when the calendar was reordered in 1969, this reverted to April 7th, the anniversary of De La Salle’s death. The Institute continues to celebrate additionally on May 15th. Today, the De La Salle Brothers continue their mission in nearly eighty countries worldwide. 2019 sees the tercentenary (300th anniversary) of the passing of Saint La Salle. There are many events and activities planned around the world to mark a significant time in the story of De La Salle. And all of this comes from the vision of a man who wanted to help to stop the suffering and poverty by educating the poor of a city in France called Reims. That man was St. John Baptist De La Salle – our Founder.

The Significance of De La Salle in the 21st Century

Nowadays, we take schools so much for granted! Sometimes, maybe, our pupils will ask themselves “Who ever invented school?”, though it is usually not for the purpose of honouring the person. Their attitude is more easily summed up in William Shakespeare’s image of the schoolboy who “crawls like a snail unwillingly to school”. So from time to time, it is good to remind them that there are plenty of children in this world who do not have to go to school, especially in the big cities all over the world.
* There are boys of nine and ten who spend the whole day sitting in a crowded room stitching pieces of leather together to make footballs for a few pennies an hour.
* There are reports in the newspapers of Romanian orphans being taken to Berlin in groups and sent out every day by their minders to rob and steal. If they do not bring back the goods in the evening, they get beaten. They would love the chance to go to school instead!
* In Madurai, India, the street kids survive by getting up early in the morning to spend most of the day picking through the city’s rubbish to find things they can sell so as to get something to eat.
* The city of Bangkok is so big, and the rubbish dump is so enormous, that whole families go and live on the tip to ensure they get a good spot to start picking. Children are born and brought up on the rubbish dump, with no chance of going to school unless someone steps in to get them out of the trap they are in.

Not so long ago, things were bad enough in Europe (as the story of Oliver Twist illustrates). And even today, it is so easy for young people to make a mess of their lives by dropping out of the school system and following an “alternative education”. It is important to remind children that schools were invented to give them a chance to grow and develop, so as to make something of their lives. If they understand this, the children will be more inclined to think highly of the teachers who see it as their vocation to give them the benefit of an education. They will also understand why the Church honours the man who did more than most to invent schools as we know them today, and who is known as the Patron Saint of Teachers.

Visit the official website of Irish Association for the Lasallian Mission by clicking here.
Visit the official website of the De La Salle Order’s worldwide missions by clicking here.

Our thanks and gratitude go to Br. Michael Curran, of the De La Salle Association in Great Britain. In 2010, with Br. Michael’s invaluable help, we were able to compile this informative page about our Founder, which also contains some material and pictures lifted (with permission!) from the De La Salle Great Britain website at the time.


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