St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle founded the Christian Brothers, which grew to educate and teach the faith to millions of students across the world. Perhaps you have heard of or seen a “De La Salle” school somewhere. This work, which has endured for over three centuries, began unexpectedly and in slow increments. Here we offer a snippet of this founding story…
Jean Baptiste de la Salle, born into a wealthy family in Rheims, France in 1641, eventually became a Catholic priest at the age of 26. He held a favored position in the church as canon of the local cathedral and managed his family’s wealthy estate but nonetheless had a deep desire to serve the poor more. While visiting the Sisters of the Child Jesus in April of 1679, a man named Adrian Nyel, who had educated the poor for years in Rouen, asked de la Salle for assistance in starting a school for boys in Rheims. De la Salle’s elite network proved effective and they founded the school. Later, Nyel again approached de la Salle to help found and fund a different school. Fr. de la Salle again helped by supporting the teachers, going so far as renting them a house to live in. He began to see up close the vast needs of the poor students, the under-trained teachers, and parents who wrestled with poverty. Little by little, Fr. de la Salle was drawn into addressing these needs in educating the poor unfolding before him.
Eventually and to the dismay of his aristocratic family, he invited the teachers to live with him. In 1683, he decided to go all the way. He resigned his position as canon of the cathedral, gave away his personal wealth to the poor who were facing famine, and established a community of brothers to live a common Christian life and be devoted to teaching the poor. This work eventually became the Christian Brothers, who went on to establish over 1,000 educational ministries around the world and together with LaSallian Partners educate over one million students in 80 countries.1 De la Salle describes the development of this work:
“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 devotion … 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 in the beginning.”2
Through his own account, we see that de la Salle’s work emerged organically and almost imperceptibly as he incrementally addressed needs presented to him. He gradually said ‘yes’ to opportunities to serve the needs in front of him. He had no training in education and never really desired to educate others. Yet, education became his life’s work in response to what God placed before him. Like a tiny snowball gathering momentum, it was not all at once that he developed an educational powerhouse that would endure centuries, but rather incrementally and almost imperceptibly.
How can we address the needs of others around us in little ways? How are we invited to say yes to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit in the ordinary circumstances of our lives?
In the midst of such loneliness and hopelessness these days, consider when and how you will say, ‘Yes’.
1 “Where We Are,” The Lasallian Region of North America, https://lasallian.info/where-we-are/, accessed July 28, 2020.
2 Koch, Carl (1990). Praying with John Baptist de La Salle. Saint Mary’s Press. pp. 49–50