John Baptist de la Salle, Saint
Founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (1651-1719)
John Baptist de la Salle, Saint, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, educational reformer, and father of modern pedagogy, was born at Reims, April 30, 1651, and died at Saint-Yon, Rouen, on Good Friday, April 7, 1719. The family of de la Salle traces its origin to Johan Salla, who, in the early part of the ninth century, was Commander-in-chief of the Royal forces of Alfonso the Chaste. It was not, however, until about 1350 that the younger branch of this family, from which our saint is descended, removed to France and settled in Champagne. John Baptist was the eldest child of Louis de la Salle and Nicolle de Moet de Brouillet. His parents were very solicitous in the care they bestowed upon their child, especially in regard to his moral and intellectual development. After due preparation, he was sent to the College des Bons Enfants, where he pursued the higher studies, and, on July 10, 1669, he took the degree of Master of Arts. Canon Pierre Dozet, chancellor of the University of Reims, was the presiding officer at the academic sessions, and in the discharge of his function had opportunity to study the character of his young cousin, de la Salle, with the result that he determined on resigning his canonry in his favor. Louis de la Salle, however, cherished the hope that John Baptist would select the profession of law, and thereby maintain the family tradition. But young de la Salle insisted that he was called to serve the Church, and accordingly he received the tonsure March 11, 1662, and was solemnly installed as a canon of the metropolitan See of Reims, January 7, 1667.
When de la Salle had completed his classical, literary, and philosophical course and had read the School-men, he was sent to Paris to enter the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice on October 18, 1670. While residing here he attended the lectures in theology at the Sorbonne. There, under the direction of Louis Tronson, he made such rapid progress in virtue, that M. Lechassier, superior general of the Congregation of Saint-Sulpice, renders this testimony of him: “De la Salle was a constant observer of the rule. His conversation was always pleasing and above reproach. He seems never to have given offense to any one, nor to have incurred any one’s censure.” While at the seminary de la Salle distinguished himself by his piety as well as by the vigor of his intellectual progress and the ability with which he handled theological subjects. Nine months after his arrival in Paris, his mother died, July 19, 1671, and on April 9, 1672, his father died. This circumstance obliged him to leave Saint-Sulpice, April 19, 1672. He was now twenty-one, the head of the family, and as such had the responsibility of educating his brothers and sisters. His whole attention was devoted to his domestic affairs, and he provided for every circumstance by his discreet, businesslike administration. Canon Blain says that he underwent at this time many mental struggles. Distrusting his own lights, de la Salle had recourse to prayer and the guidance of discreet advisers, among them, Nicolas Roland, canon and theologian of Reims, a man of great spiritual discernment. Acting upon the advice of the latter, the future founder was ordained subdeacon at Cambrai, by Archbishop Ladislas Jonnart, June 2, 1672.
When not occupied with the duties of his canonry or with his theological studies, he was engaged in good works, under the guidance of his spiritual director. After four years, he was ordained deacon at Paris, March 21, 1676, by Francois Batailler, Bishop of Bethlehem. On this occasion de la Salle sought to obtain the permission of Maurice Le Tellier, Archbishop of Reims, to resign his canonry and prepare for parish work. Nicolas Roland urged him to take this step, alleging that a rich canonry was little in harmony with youthful zeal and activity. His archbishop, however, refused his request. With humble submission, de la Salle accepted the decision and returned to Reims to pursue his studies and to make final preparations for his ordination to the priesthood. He was ordained priest by the Archbishop of Reims, on Holy Saturday, April 9, 1678. The young priest was a model of piety, and his biographers say that persons went to assist at his Mass to be edified, and to share his piety. After Mass there were many who sought his counsel and put themselves under his spiritual guidance. De la Salle never omitted Holy Mass, save when prevented by sickness. In June, 1680, he submitted to his final examination and took his doctorate in theology. At this period of his life de la Salle evinced a docility of spirit, a self-diffidence, that bespoke the character of the man and saint. In physical appearance he was of commanding presence, somewhat above the medium height, and well-proportioned. He had large, penetrating blue eyes and a broad forehead. His portraits present a picture of sweetness and dignity, beaming with intelligence and breathing an air of modesty and refined grace. A smile plays about the finely chiseled lips and illumines a countenance to which the large lustrous eyes give an air of commanding intelligence.
During the few years that intervened between his ordination to the priesthood and the establishing of his institute, de la Salle was occupied in carrying out the last will and testament of Nicolas Roland, who, when dying, had confided to him the newly established Congregation of the Sisters of the Child Jesus. “Your zeal will bring it to prosperity”, said Nicolas Roland to him. “You will complete the work which I have begun. In all this, Father Barre will be your model and guide.” Thus was de la Salle imperceptibly drawn towards his life-work. “The idea of it never occurred to me”, de la Salle wrote in a memoir. “If I had ever thought that what I did out of pure charity for the poor school teachers would make it incumbent upon me to live with them, I would have given it up at once.” This sentiment he again expressed towards the close of his life in these emphatic words: “If God had revealed to me the good that could be accomplished by this institute, and had likewise made known to me the trials and sufferings which would accompany it, my courage would have failed me, and I would never have undertaken it.” At this period de la Salle was still occupied with his functions as canon. He was, however, aroused to the higher calling by a message from Madame Maillefer, in March, 1679, requesting him to aid Adrien Nyel in opening a free school at Reims. But hardly had he succeeded in establishing the school of St-Maurice when he quietly withdrew from the work, as if it were not his mission. Shortly afterwards the opening of another free school in St-Jacques parish lured him again from his seclusion, but he soon retired again.
Although instrumental in opening these elementary free schools at Reims, de la Salle seemed to allow Adrien Nyel to share all the honors resulting therefrom, while he was content to labor assiduously for the real progress of both schools. He was unconsciously attracted to the work. Daily he visited the teachers to encourage them or suggest practical methods to attain definite results. But when he found that the teachers became discouraged, owing to the lack of proper guidance after school hours, he undertook to house them, that he might be able to direct them and give them practical lessons in the useful employment of time, and to prevent weariness and disgust. Not only did he aid them in class and after class but he made good any deficit in the cost of living. He even admitted them to his own table and later on sheltered them under his roof. Thus was he drawn closer and closer to them, forming an intimate fellowship with the teachers of the poor. “It was, indeed”, says Msgr. Guibert, “his love that induced de la Salle to devote himself to the young teachers of Reims. They were like abandoned sheep without a shepherd. He assumed the responsibility of uniting them.” As yet de la Salle had no definitive plans for the future, even as late as June 24, 1682, when he transferred his little community to the vicinity of rue Neuve. He simply kept himself in readiness to follow the guidance of Providence. He resigned his canonry in July, 1683, and he distributed his fortune to the poor in the winter of 1684, thus giving convincing proofs that he would not hesitate to make any sacrifices necessary to complete the good work he had begun. Pere Barre counseled de la Salle to give up whatever might divert his attention from procuring God’s glory. In reply to the earnest remonstrances of his friends and kinsfolk, he meekly answered: “I must do the work of God, and if the worst should come to pass, we shall have to beg alms.” Reliance upon Providence was henceforth to be the foundation of the Christian Schools.
Up to this period (1684) the institute had lacked the characteristics of a permanent organization. From 1694 to 1717, the struggle for existence was most critical. In 1692 the institute was so weakened by deaths and defections that de la Salle could hardly find two Brothers who were willing to bind themselves by vow to maintain the free schools. The death of Henri L’Heureux in December, 1690, materially affected the rules of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. De la Salle, intending this gifted young Brother to be the future superior of the congregation, entertained the hope of having him ordained priest, and with this view he sent him to Paris to pursue his theological studies at the Sorbonne. After a brilliant course, Brother Henri L’Heureux was ready for ordination, but before this event took place the young candidate fell sick and died. The loss of this Brother was a blow to the founder. After passing the whole night in prayer, he rose up, not only comforted and strengthened, but also enlightened as to the character of his future institute. He then determined that there should be no priests among the members of his institute. Although there were priests and lay brothers in nearly all existing religious orders, de la Salle was convinced that the time had come for a change in this matter in the new congregation. Brother Lucard, the Annalist of the institute, thus sums up the matter: “Since the death of Henri L’Heureux, de la Salle was firmly convinced that his institute was to be founded on simplicity and humility. No Brother could, without compromising his congregation, allow himself to be diverted from his functions as a teacher, by devoting himself to special studies, the saying of the Divine Office, or the fulfillment of other duties obligatory on the sacred ministry.” Therefore, no Brother can aspire to the priesthood nor perform any priestly function, and no ecclesiastic can become a member of the institute. This is the new rule that de la Salle added, and it is embodied in the Constitution of the institute.
From 1702 the founder began to endure a long period of trial, aggravated by persecution on the part of certain ecclesiastical authorities. In November. 1702, he was deposed by Cardinal de Noailles, and supplanted for a time by the Rev. M. Bricot. In 1703 one of his most trusted disciples, Nicolas Vuyart, treacherously deserted him. For the next ten years the holy founder was engaged in a series of struggles for the preservation of his institute, in the course of which his name was attacked, and justice denied him before the civil tribunals. After thirty-five years of hard labor, his work seemed to be almost on the verge of ruin. His confidence in God was so firm and unshaken that he was never really discouraged. In 1717 he convoked a chapter for the purpose of solidifying the work and for the election of a superior general. His aim was to have a Brother elected during his lifetime and thus perfect the government of the institute in accordance with the rule he had formulated. The choice of the assembled Brothers fell upon Brother Barthelemy, a man whom all esteemed for his learning and virtue. The institute was now an accomplished fact. And from the first interview with Adrien Nyel, in 1679, de la Salle belonged wholly to the Brothers, sharing with them the burden of labor and observing the common rule. He never left them to engage in other works.
De la Salle was too prudent and too well inspired by God, not to give his institute a positive character in its twofold object: the Christian education of youth and the cultivation of that spirit of faith, piety, mortification, and obedience which should characterize its members. His gift of gaining souls to God, and of leading them to make great sacrifices, was supplemented by the splendid executive ability that enabled him to found an institute and to supervise and direct its gradual development. A study of the extraordinary religious, social, and educational conditions, at the time the institute was founded by de la Salle, will show the peculiar character of the difficulties he had to encounter and overcome. Jansenism had gained the ascendency in France and spread broadcast its pernicious doctrines; it fostered internal dissensions and promoted Gallicanism, to the great detriment of the Faith and of loyalty to the Holy See. In the social order, a spirit of exaggerated independence was abroad, contemning authority or thrusting it aside. When such conditions prevailed in the upper classes, one may well ask, what must have been the condition of the masses? The incessant foreign and internal wars, with their consequent evils, told with disastrous effect upon the people. Exorbitant demands on the part of army officials, the violence of the soldiery, the rapine of supervisors, the wholesale plunder of crops, followed by famine and ruin, left whole provinces of France under the weight of terrible sufferings and untold misery. The peasants frequently had no bread, and when they had it the circumstances were such as to deprive them of any hope of sustenance for the morrow. Even when the gloom of intestine turmoil had been momentarily brightened by the splendid victories abroad, the sad effect of the glory of the reign of Louis XIV made the mourning in cottages only the more bitter owing to the loss of the loved ones on foreign battlefields. Evidently, morals among the masses under these dire circumstances were threatened with ruin, as were the social and economic conditions; for false doctrines were spread and took hold among the people, destroying their faith and stultifying their consciences. Schools there were, but they were poorly attended and shamefully neglected. The children and the people generally were ignorant, and vice, according to contemporary authorities, was rampant among all classes. De la Salle carefully studied these conditions and, moved to compassion for the poor, resolved to improve their social and moral status. The founder grasped the situation and proposed as a remedy, popular free schools thoroughly graded and supplied with zealous teachers, who would implant in the hearts of the children the germs of those virtues that would tend towards the regeneration of both the pupils and the parents. He saw that a religious congregation composed of enlightened men, eager for the salvation of souls, could alone stem the tide of irreligion, vice, and ignorance. He clearly perceived that, in the peculiar conditions which surround any institute at the period of its origin, the work proposed to be done should embody in its ends the special requirements of the age in which it originates. He also foresaw that, while the guiding spirit of such an institute must ever remain fundamentally the same, its scope, as a permanent organization working for the welfare of humanity, should have the character of a social force answering to the needs and conditions of any age and country.
The various educational reforms which de la Salle introduced prove that he legislated wisely. The courses of study for elementary free schools, technical schools, and colleges are evidences of his broad culture and wide grasp of educational problems. Hence, if the needs of a certain locality called for special branches, or if the times and conditions demanded certain advanced studies, de la Salle was not slow in responding nor in giving these subjects a place commensurate in importance with their educational value. De la Salle, furthermore, displayed his genius in giving his institute a distinctive character, that of a teaching body, consecrated to the work of popular education. Thus he became the author of a system of psychologic pedagogy which included the essential principles adopted by later workers in the field of educational reforms, notably by Pestalozzi, Frobel, Herbart, and others. In making the vernacular the basis of all instruction, de la Salle appealed to the intelligence of the child, prepared the way for the study of national literature, and opened up to the grown man those avenues of real knowledge and delight that had hitherto been closed against the eager multitude. With true scientific insight he perceived the absurdity of retaining Latin texts to teach the art of reading. For this change he gave the following reasons: (I) The teaching of the art of reading, in primary and elementary schools, through the vernacular, is of greater and wider utility than by Latin texts. (2) The vernacular is more easily taught to children, who already possess some knowledge of it, than the Latin of which they are wholly ignorant. (3) It requires considerably less time to learn the art of reading through the vernacular, than through a foreign tongue. (4) The boys and girls attending the primary and elementary schools, can spend only a few years under instruction. Now, if they are taught reading from a Latin text, they generally leave school without being able to read the vernacular, and with only an imperfect knowledge of how to read the Latin. Hence, they will soon forget the little they have learned, and, perhaps, even how to read the vernacular. (5) Reading is one of the most efficacious means of acquiring knowledge. With due care in the selection of books, children who can read in the vernacular could spread the Christian doctrine in the family circle, and, on evenings, read some useful or instructive books to the assembled household; whereas, if they could read the Latin only, without understanding it, they would be deprived of many valuable benefits resulting from the intelligent reading of a good book. (6) It is impossible for children in primary and elementary schools to master the reading of Latin texts, because they are not acquainted with its subject-matter. It is, therefore, the part of wisdom to train children thoroughly to the intelligent reading of works written in the vernacular. Thus, having mastered the art of reading in the vernacular, a few months would suffice to make them read the Latin fluently, whereas, if the traditional method were followed, it would require at least several years [Annales de l’Institut, I (1883), pp. 140, 141].—This fact proves that de la Salle was a profound thinker, a genius in the work of popular education. He embraced all classes, all conditions of society. By making the free schools popular, he grasped the growing needs of society in his own day and for all times. No phase of the educational problem escaped his penetrating vision.
As de la Salle is especially identified with the “Simultaneous Method” of teaching, an explanation of the method and its history will prove of interest to the educator. By the “Simultaneous Method” the pupils are graded according to their capacity, putting those of equal attainments in the same class, giving them the same textbooks, and requiring them to follow the same lesson under one and the same teacher. This method has best stood the test of time and experience, and is that which the Brothers of the Christian Schools employ in all grades of instruction even at the present day. Like all fruitful ideas, the “Simultaneous Method” is not the exclusive property of any one man. Others besides de la Salle discerned its value, and even partially applied its essential principles, long before the founder of the Christian Schools made it live in his institute. It had no place in the university system of the Middle Ages. The plan adopted in those times was that which prevails to a great extent in the universities of our own day, namely, listening to lectures, taking notes thereon, and holding disputations upon the subject-matter. The Jesuits organized each class in subdivisions; each division being headed by an advanced pupil called a decurion, to whom the boys recited their lessons at stated times, while the teacher corrected exercises or heard the lessons of particular pupils. The whole class afterwards received explanations from the teacher. St. Peter Fourier (1565-1640) saw in Christian education the remedy for many of the disorders existing among the poor and laboring class. He was far-seeing, and anticipated more than one of our modern educational improvements. Indeed, he was one of the first to apply some of the principles of the “Simultaneous Method”. In his constitutions he prescribes that, as far as it can possibly be carried out, all the pupils of the same mistress shall have each the same book, in order to learn and read therein the same lesson; so that, whilst one is reading hers in an audible and intelligible voice before the mistress, all the others, hearing her and following this lesson in their books at the same time, may learn it sooner, more readily, and more perfectly. Herein the principle of the “Simultaneous Method” is, for the first time, clearly stated. Yet, when he enters into the details of practice, he seems to lose sight of the principle which he lays down. In the very next paragraph of the Constitutions, it is provided that the mistress shall call up two pupils at a time, and place them one at each side of her desk. The more advanced pupil shall read her lesson; the other shall listen to her, shall correct all the faults she may make, in the use of words, in pronunciation, or in the observance of pauses. This is the individual method. For the smaller pupils he recommends that four or six at a time come to her desk, and to make use of some graded cards, containing letters and syllables. (Sommaire des Constitutions des Religieuses de la Congregation de Notre-Dame, 1649, 3rd part.)
Comenius (or Amos Komensky, 1592-1674), in his “Didactica Magna”, requires the teacher to instruct his pupils semel et omnes simul, “all together at one and the same time” (edit. 1647, cap. xix, Probl. I, Col. 102, 103). Msgr. de Nesmond (1629-1715) divided the class into four or five groups, each having the same book, “in order that all the children of the same group or bench may receive the same lesson, and when one begins to read, the others are to read in a low voice at the same time” (Methode pour instruire en peu de temps les Enfants, p. 59). About 1674, Charles Demia, of Lyons, adopted the method of Msgr. de Nesmond. Like him, he gave the same reading-book to each group, requiring that each one follow, holding his finger or a marker on the words that are being read. The immediate precursor of St. John Baptist de la Salle was a theorist, the anonymous author of “Avis touchant les Petites Ecoles” (Bibl. Nat., 40, R. 556). In this little work, which Leopold Delisle places prior to 1680, the author complains of the condition of the primary schools and proposes a method by which a large number of pupils might be taught, by one teacher, one book, and one voice. The school, he tells us, should be so regulated that one and the same book, one and the same teacher, one and the same lesson, one and the same correction, should serve for all, so that each pupil would thereby possess his teacher wholly and entirely, and occupy all his care, all his time, and all his attention, as if he were the only pupil (pp. 13 and 19). It is reasonable to presume that de la Salle frequented the schools taught by the Congregation of Notre-Dame, which were founded at Reims in 1634, and observed the method of teaching employed in that congregation. We can have no doubt that he was equally well acquainted with the defects which rendered such methods useless. In 1682 de la Salle had organized the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and had given them the “Simultaneous Method”. Brother Azarias says: “What St. Peter Fourier touched, what Komensky and Msgr. de Nesmond and Charles Demia had glimmerings of, what the anonymous author could nowhere find and thought to realize, had become a fact”. De la Salle applied the Simultaneous Method not only to reading, as was done by his predecessors, but also to catechism, writing, spelling, and arithmetic in the elementary classes, and then to all the specialties taught in the colleges which he founded. He is, therefore, the genius who introduced and perfected the Simultaneous Method in all its practical details. De la Salle definitely points out the “Simultaneous Method” as the one which he wished his disciples to follow. It is no longer the one teacher governing a whole school; it is two or three, or more, according to the number of pupils, each taking those of the same capacity and teaching them together. His instructions on these heads are exact. “The Brothers”, he says, “shall pay special attention to three things in class: (I) During the lessons, to correct every word that the pupil who is reading pronounces badly; (2) To make all who read in the same lesson to follow therein; (3) To have silence strictly observed in the school” (Common Rules). The pupils follow in the same lesson, they observe strict silence, the teacher in correcting one, is correcting all. Here is the essence of the “Simultaneous Method”. De la Salle generalizes the principle for all lessons, thus: “In all the lessons from alphabet-cards, syllabaries, and other books, whether French or Latin, and even during arithmetic, while one reads, all the others of the same lesson shall follow; that is, they shall read to themselves from their books without making noises with their lips, what the one reading pronounces aloud from his book” (Conduite des ecoles chretiennes, Avignon, 1724).
With truth has Matthew Arnold said, in speaking of this handbook of Method: “Later works on the same subject have little improved the precepts, while they entirely lack the unction.” In the management of Christian schools, de la Salle states concisely the following practical rules for teaching methodically: “1. The teacher determines the relative intelligence of every pupil in his class. 2. He adapts his language and explanations to the capacity of his class, and is careful never to neglect the duller pupils. 3. He makes sure that the pupils know the meaning of the words they employ. 4. He advances from the simple to the complex, from the easy to the difficult. 5. He makes it a special point to insist greatly on the elementary part of each subject; not to advance until the pupils are well grounded on what goes before…. . 9. To state but few principles at a time, but to explain them well…. . 10. To speak much to the eyes of the pupils, making use of the blackboard…. . 11. To prepare every lesson carefully. 12. To place no faulty models or standards before the pupils; always to speak to them in a sensible manner, expressing one’s self in correct language, good English, and with clearness and precision. 13. To employ none but exact definitions and well-founded divisions…. . 18. To assert nothing without being positively certain of its truth, especially as regards facts, definitions, or principles. 19. To make frequent use of the system of question and answer” (Chap. V, art. ii, pp. 31-33).
It is true that de la Salle, in establishing his institute, had in mind principally the primary and elementary school, which was the real raison d’etre for the existence of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He was the organizer of the public instruction of his time, and no master of pedagogical science will deny him that distinction. But, if the primary and elementary school was the principal masterwork of de la Salle, there was yet another field of labor which likewise reveals his creative genius. At the opening of the eighteenth century, he was confronted with singularly perplexing conditions. The rising generation was weary of past glories, disgusted with the present and was ambitious to achieve renown in hitherto unexplored fields of activity. As education was gradually extending to the masses, with the light of instruction came new ideas, new occupations, new ventures, and a breaking away from the old civilization, with the desire to wrestle with the problems born of the new conditions. Even those who were trained in traditional methods became aware of a mighty change in men and things. They felt that there was a desideratum in the actual educational system. With their sons, they experienced the world-spirit breathing upon the moribund civilization of Louis XIV. The political horizon had changed, society became more degenerate, the intellectual world was awakened and cast off its lethargy, assuming a bolder attitude and aspiring to greater freedom in the realm of thought and research. De la Salle had been struck with the serious hiatus in the instruction reserved for the wealthy children, who were destined for the liberal professions. So, while organizing the primary and elementary school, he also created, in 1705, a special establishment until then unknown in the educational world. This new creation was the boarding college at Saint-Yon, wherein he inaugurated the system of modern secondary instruction. Saint-Yon became the type of all such colleges, and that of Passy, Paris, became the modern exemplar of similar institutions in France and elsewhere. M. Drury, in his report upon technical education, states that France is indebted to de la Salle for the practical installation and popularization of that form of instruction.
Hence, from the origin of the institute, there was a constant adaptation of programs to the needs created by the social transformations which were taking place. This flexibility, which contrasted with the fixedness of the university programs, excited surprise and no little opposition among the representatives of academic authority in those days. The instruction given in the colleges founded by de la Salle and his successors was peculiarly adapted to the needs of a very interesting class of young men. The educational reforms thus planned and carried out by him give unmistakable evidence that Providence had raised him up to be the lawgiver of primary and elementary teaching, as well as the creator of a new system of intellectual training, combining the precision of the traditional method with the wider scope of the new one. It was but natural that de la Salle, who had assimilated the best that the seventeenth century could give, and who had become cognizant of the inefficiency of the old system to meet the requirements of the new conditions, should create schools which were then, and have been since, the admiration of educators. The boarding colleges founded by de la Salle for the modern secondary instruction are, therefore, a distinct creation. The date of the Saint-Yon College is 1705. He later added a technical school to develop the mechanical skill of the students, and also a special garden for botany.
There were Sunday schools prior to the seventeenth century. But the Christian Academy, founded by de la Salle for adults in the parish of Saint-Sulpice, in 1699, was of a different character, the first of its kind in the history of education. The program of this academy, or Sunday school, included not only the ordinary branches taught in the other Sunday schools, but it added geometry, architecture, and drawing.
Alain claims that the first normal schools were the novitiates of the teaching orders. But there were no normal schools for lay teachers. De la Salle had been frequently asked by clergy to send a Brother to take charge of their school. This request was refused, for he had established the rule that not less than two Brothers teach in any school. Accordingly, he offered to open a seminary for teachers, an institution in which young men would be trained in the principles and practices of the new method of teaching. The normal school was opened at Reims in 1684. Indeed, thirteen years before Francke organized his teachers’ class at Halle, and fifty years before Hecker founded the Prussian normal college at Stettin, de la Salle had given a program which is even today deemed excellent. In the same year he established for youths who were destined to enter the brotherhood, a Christian academy, or preparatory novitiate, in which they were taught the sciences, literature, and the principles of scientific pedagogy.
De la Salle is entitled to be ranked among the advanced educators of the eighteenth century and among the greatest thinkers and educational reformers of all time. His system embraces the best in the modern educational methods. He gave an impetus to the higher educational progress which is the distinctive mark of modern times, and bequeathed to his own disciples, and to educators in general, a system of teaching which is adaptable to the wants of school-going youth in every country. But it was especially as a priest that John Baptist de la Salle loved his vocation as an educator. Like St. Ignatius Loyola, he taught letters that he might have the right to teach Christian doctrine. In claiming this privilege de la Salle was actuated by the highest and purest motives. There was nothing narrow in his educational plans. He was too wise not to realize the necessity that the truest and best children of the Church should be among the most skilled in human affairs. His view was from the summit, therefore, broad and comprehensive. Intellectual training was supplemented by a complete course of Christian morals. Man had a destiny, and the teacher was to inculcate this truth by cultivating and developing the theological virtues in the souls of the children.
This thought seemed to be uppermost in the mind and to haunt the soul of de la Salle, when he drew up those excellent programs for his schools, colleges, and technical institutions. His pedagogic principle was that nothing human should be foreign to the students, and the teaching of science and letters appeared to him to take nothing from the teacher in his ministry as an apostle. In September, 1713, Clement XI issued the Bull “Unigenitus”, condemning the errors of Quesnel, culled from his “Moral Reflections”. M. de Montmartin, Bishop of Grenoble, promulgated the Bull in a circular letter, in February, 1714. De la Salle was then making a retreat at Parmenie. When he left this place, he entered the arena to defend the Church against Jansenism. He assembled the Brothers of Grenoble and explained the meaning of the Bull, in order to safeguard the purity of their faith. Not satisfied with this manifestation of loyalty, he published several articles in defense of the true doctrine. This irritated the Jansenist, but their opposition only served to give greater lustre to the purity of his faith and zeal. He was a fearless and uncompromising champion, and he seemed to forget his habitual calm and reserve when there was question of the integrity and purity of the Faith. To show his inviolable attachment to the Church and to the Sovereign Pontiff, he always signed himself Roman Priest. “Hold fast to what is of faith”, he writes to the Brothers; “shun novelties; follow the traditions of the Church; receive only what she receives; condemn what she condemns; approve what she approves, either by her Councils or by the Sovereign Pontiffs. In all things render her prompt obedience”. He was even eager to go to Rome to cast himself at the feet of the pope and request his blessing for the institute. However, not being able to go himself, he sent Brother Gabriel Drolin to establish a school there in 1700. Even the consolation of seeing his rule approved by the Holy See was denied the saint, for he had been dead nearly six years when, on February 26, 1725, Benedict XIII, by his Bull, “In apostolicae dignitatis solio”, placed the seal of approbation upon the institute, empowering the members to teach and explain Christian doctrine, and constituting them a religious congregation.
The last years of de la Salle were spent in close retirement at Saint-Yon. There he revised his rule before giving it to Brother Barthelemy, the first superior general. During the last days of his life he showed the same spirit of sacrifice which had marked his earlier years. In Holy Week of 1719, he gave unmistakable signs that the end was near. On Holy Thursday, at the request of Brother Barthelemy, he blessed the Brothers assembled at his bedside, and gave them his last words of counsel. His final words were: “In all things I adore the will of God in my regard.” On Good Friday morning, April 7, 1719, he breathed his soul into the hands of his Creator. He was canonized by Leo XIII, on May 24, 1900. His feast is celebrated on May 15.
The principal writings which he has bequeathed to his spiritual children are: “Conduite des ecoles” (1717), a treatise on pedagogic method, presenting fundamental principles in a scientific manner. It is remarkable that the methods herein given have not been considerably changed since the time of its author, and that the principles laid down are as applicable today as when they were written. “Les Regles de la bienseance et de la civilite chretiennes”, is a volume written in 1695, and used as a treatise on politeness and as a text in the reading of manuscripts. The style is simple and direct. It contains excellent rules for cultured manners. “Les devoirs du chretien” (1703), a simple and precise exposition of Christian doctrine, is remarkable for its accuracy, and for the practical lessons it inculcates. It was intended as a reader and a catechism. It still retains its place in many schools and colleges. “Recueil de differents petits traites a l’usage des Freres des Ecoles Chretiennes” (1711) is a noteworthy treatise, stating in remarkably simple terms the fundamental principles of the religious life. It abounds in Scriptural quotations and is a valuable guide for persons striving after perfection. “Explication de la methode d’oraison” (Ist printed ed., 1739). In point of clearness and adaptation, this method of mental prayer is eminently suited to the needs of the Brothers. It appeals to every degree of capacity, for all can find therein the spiritual food necessary for their special condition and state of perfection. “Meditations pour le temps de la Retraite” (Ist printed ed., 1730), written for the exercises of the annual retreat, and, combining the principles of the spiritual life with pedagogics, tends to promote the Christian Apostolate in the school. These meditations contain some of the soundest principles of pedagogy ever enunciated. “Meditations pour tous les Dimanches de l’annee, avec les Evangiles de tons les Dimanches; Meditations pour les principales fetes de l’annee” (Rouen, 1710?), is an epitome of spiritual doctrine, based upon the Gospels of the year and applied to the needs of the teaching profession and the principles of the religious life. This treatise reveals the greatness of de la Salle and shows him to be a man of deep religious conviction. His language is always simple, direct, and vigorous.
The spirit of de la Salle has even permeated other religious families, either in giving them a special character or suggesting their rules. Thus, the Brothers of St. Gabriel, founded by Blessed Grignon de Montfort and M. Deshayes, in 1795 and 1821; The Brothers of Christian Instruction of Ploermel. founded by J.—M. de Lamennais, in 1816; The Brothers of Christian Doctrine of Nancy, founded by Father Frechard, in 1817; The Little Brothers of Mary (Marists), founded by Pere Champagnat, in 1817; The Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Paradis, founded by Father Coindre, in 1821; The Brothers of the Society of Mary, founded by Pere Chaminade, in 1817; The Brothers of the Holy Family, founded by Brother Gabriel Taborin, in 1821; The Brothers of the Cross of Jesus, founded by Pere Bochard, in 1824; The Clerics of St-Viateur, founded by Pere Guerbes, in 1829; The Congregation of the Holy Cross, founded by M. Moreau and M. Dujarris, in 1835; The Congregation of the Holy Ghost and the Sacred Heart of Mary, founded by Father Liebermann, in 1841; The Brothers of Mercy, founded by M. Delamare, in 1842; The Christian Brothers of Ireland, founded by Brother Ignatius Rice, in 1805; and the Institute of the Sisters of the Christian Schools of Mercy, founded by Ven. Julie Postel, in 1802—all exemplify in the character of their work and in the rules adopted, a striking similarity to the methods and aims proposed by Saint John Baptist de la Salle in founding the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.