John Baptist de la Salle was a man ahead of his time. Born in Rheims in 1651 he received the tonsure at 11 years of age, becoming Canon of Rheims Cathedral at the age of 16. He was ordained a priest in 1678.
Born to well off parents, he could have opted for an easy life, but De La Salle was moved by the desperate plight of those young boys who roamed around the city, born into poverty they had no possible way of escaping. He knew that education had the ability to empower them, but as the eldest son of wealthy parents why would he concern himself with these street urchins? Why get involved, they weren’t anything to do with him.
De La Salle was convinced of one important thing however; these young people whom society had cast aside as worthless, were in fact infinitely precious to God, of this he was sure, and this being the case, their well-being was tied up with his own and with every member of society. It was this belief that motivated him to improve their lot.
Up until then education had been the preserve of the rich who would hire private tutors to teach their children in Latin and Greek. De La Salle is credited with establishing the education model we are so familiar with to this day; children being educated in large classes in their own language. People told him it would never succeed, but De La Salle did not allow their advice to distract him, instead, he allowed himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
I had imagined that the care which I assumed of the schools and the masters would amount only to a marginal involvement committing me to no more than providing for the subsistence of the masters and assuring that they acquitted themselves of their tasks with piety and devotedness …Indeed, if I had ever thought that the care I was taking of the schoolmasters out of pure charity would ever have made it my duty to live with them, I would have dropped the whole project…God, who guides all things with wisdom and serenity, whose way it is not to force the inclinations of persons, willed to commit me entirely to the development of the schools. He did this in an imperceptible way and over a long period of time so that one commitment led to another in a way that I did not foresee.
He renounced his position as Canon and abandoned his family home, to live amongst the teachers who had volunteered to teach in the schools he established. This was the beginning of the community that became known as the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
The ecclesiastical authorities didn’t approve of the creation of this new type of religious community, one of consecrated laymen running free schools “together and by association.” Neither did the educational establishment, which resented De La Salle’s innovative methods and his insistence on providing each child with a free education regardless of whether they could afford to pay or not.
Despite the abundant opposition, De La Salle and his fellow Brothers managed to create a network of quality schools throughout France.
Children were grouped according to their ability, parental involvement was encouraged and religious instruction was integrated with secular subjects. The teachers were well-prepared, with a sense of vocation and mission, thanks to De La Salle’s pioneering programmes for training lay teachers and Sunday courses for working young men.
De La Salle also founded one of the first institutions in France for the care of delinquents and pioneered technical schools and secondary schools for modern languages, arts, and sciences.
In addition to all his hard work building up the schools and training teachers, De La Salle also took time to develop his philosophy through his writing. His Meditations and Reflections are rich in wisdom, and though they were written over 300 years ago, they are true to this day.
Worn out by austerities and exhausting labours, John Baptist De La Salle died at Saint Yon near Rouen on Good Friday 1719, just weeks before his sixty-eighth birthday.
De La Salle could not have foreseen the impact of his actions. Today there are Lasallian schools, training colleges, universities and pastoral centres in 80 countries around the world. We are proud to be part of this wider Lasallian family.