Saint John Baptist de la Salle

St John Baptist de la Salle, Priest (Memorial)

John Baptist de la Salle was born in Rheims, France, on 30 April 1651, the eldest son of Louis de la Salle and Nicolle de Moet de Brouillet. Inheriting the rank and fortune of his parents, he was seemingly destined to be set apart from the poverty-stricken masses. At the age of 16, still a young student, he succeeded an uncle as a canon of the cathedral in Rheims. It looked like the first step in a successful church career. He then studied at Saint Sulpice and the Sorbonne in Paris for the priesthood and was ordained at the age of twenty-seven. Up to this point there was no indication what his future career would be nor did seem to have any idea himself. It was just then he was asked to cooperate in setting up some charitable schools in the city. This led to him to being responsible for the teachers and even taking them into his own home to train them.  As he gradually became more involved in this work, he began to realize that God wanted him to set up a proper system for the education of the poor.

In a century which was in many respects so outstanding, there was the great scandal of widespread poverty, ignorance and moral depravity. As he had by now made the will of God the guiding principle of his life, he decided to devote himself entirely to this challenge. He resigned his canonry and gave away his inherited wealth in order to be on the same level as the teachers with whom he lived. This did not at all please his relatives nor his peers among the moneyed classes but he had made up his mind. In 1684 he transformed his group of school teachers into a religious community under the name of Brothers of the Christian Schools, a religious institute which continues today under the same name and is spread all over the world. In order that the members should only devote themselves to teaching, he laid down that no brother could become a priest nor that any priest could join the congregation, a rule which is still observed.

The early years were marked by poverty and hardship but these were cheerfully endured, thanks especially to the example of self-denial and extraordinary power of leadership shown by de la Salle himself. He had vowed that he would live on bread alone, if necessary, rather than abandon the work he had begun. While the training of his brothers was his first priority, in order to answer the demand for more trained teachers, he set up a teacher training college in Rheims in 1687, the first example of such an institution. In 1683 he moved to Paris and took over a school in St Sulpice and also made his headquarters there. It was not long before the brothers were teaching more than 1,000 students. He set up another training college with a charity school attached and set up a ‘continuation’ school for young men already working. When the exiled English king, James II, entrusted 50 Irish boys to his care, he arranged for special courses to suit their needs. The success of his free schools, however, roused the hostility of some fee-paying schools which were losing students. Law suits were brought against de la Salle and his schools were even attacked. He was condemned and not allowed to open further training colleges or free schools anywhere in Paris. Though excluded from the capital, the Brothers were now established in other centres such as Rouen, Avignon and Chartres so the work continued. In fact, his teaching communities were now spreading all over France from as far north as Calais to Marseilles in the south.

In Rouen, he also set up two contrasting institutions. One was a fee-paying boarding school for the sons of the more prosperous, who wanted a better and more practical education, and the other was a reform school for boys in trouble with the law. Both proved very successful, and were forerunners of modern institutions of a similar kind.

De la Salle spent the last years of his life in Rouen, completing the organization of his institute, writing the Rule of the Brothers in its definitive form, and composing Meditations and a Method of Mental Prayer. He died on Good Friday, April 9th, 1718 in Saint-Yon, Rouen, at the age of 67. 

De la Salle’s pedagogical method is outlined in The Conduct of Schools, which he composed in 1695, and which is now considered an educational classic. He also wrote also several school manuals, notably The Rules of Good Behaviour and The Duties of a Christian, which proved very popular and went through over a hundred editions.

John Baptist de la Salle is the patron of teachers. His great achievement was to have provided a system of education when the poor were grossly neglected. He did this not by setting up charity schools which had so often failed but by creating an organised body of trained teachers. 

Currently, about 6,000 Brothers and 75,000 lay and religious colleagues worldwide serve as teachers, counsellors and guides to 900,000 students in over 1,000 educational institutions in 84 countries, carrying out the work of the founder into the 21st century.

He was canonised by Pope Leo XIII on May 24, 1900. His feast is celebrated in the Catholic Church on April 7, and at La Sallian institutions on May 15. He was proclaimed Patron Saint of Teachers in 1950 by Pope Pius XII.

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