John Baptist de La Salle was born into a world very different from our own. He was the first son of wealthy parents living in France over 300 years ago. Born at Reims, John Baptist de La Salle received the tonsure at age eleven and was named Canon of the Reims Cathedral at sixteen. Though he had to assume the administration of family affairs after his parents died, he completed his theological studies and was ordained a priest on April 9, 1678. Two years later he received a doctorate in theology. Meanwhile he became tentatively involved with a group of rough and barely literate young men in order to establish schools for poor boys.
At that time, most people were extremely poor: peasants in the country, and slum dwellers in the towns. Only, a few could send their children to school and most children had little hope for the future. Moved by the plight of the poor who seemed so “far from salvation” either in this world or the next, he determined to put his own talents and advanced education at the service of the children “often left to themselves and badly brought up.”
To be more effective, he abandoned his family home, moved in with the teachers, renounced his prestigious position as Canon and his wealth, and so formed the community that became known as the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
His enterprise met opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities who resisted the creation of a new form of religious life; a community of consecrated laymen to conduct gratuitous schools “together and by association.” The educational establishment resented his innovative methods and his insistence on gratuity and equality for all, regardless of whether they could afford to pay. Nevertheless De La Salle and his Brothers succeeded in creating a network of quality schools throughout France that featured instruction in the vernacular, students grouped according to ability and achievement, integration of religious instruction with secular subjects, well-prepared teachers with a sense of vocation and mission, and the involvement of parents.
John Baptist de La Salle was a pioneer in founding training colleges for teachers, reform schools for delinquents, technical schools, and secondary schools for modern languages, arts, and sciences. In addition to this, De La Salle pioneered in programmes for training teachers, Sunday courses for working young men, and one of the first institutions in France for the care of delinquents.
His work quickly spread through France and, after his death in 1719, continued to spread across the globe. In 1900 John Baptist de La Salle was declared a Saint. In 1950, because of his life and inspirational writings, he was made Patron Saint of all those who work in the field of education.
Born at Reims, France; April 30, 1651
Died in Rouen, France; April 7, 1719
Canonized May 24, 1900 by Pope Leo XIII
Proclaimed Patron of Christian Teachers May 15, 1950 by Pope Pius XII