Our Founding Father - St. John Baptiste de La Salle (1651-1719)
John Baptiste de La Salle was born into an influential and wealthy family in Reims, France, on April 30, 1651. The eldest of seven children, from a young age he wanted to become a priest. He received the tonsure at age eleven, was named Canon of the Reims Cathedral at sixteen and was ordained to the priesthood in 1678 before receiving his doctorate in theology two years later. De La Salle’s parents died when he was 20 and he became responsible for the family estate and took care of his six younger brothers and sisters while completing his studies.
While serving as Canon, a chance encounter with a layman establishing schools for poor boys intrigued John Baptiste De La Salle and he soon became involved in the project, assuming leadership of a group of barely literate teachers possessing little preparation for their craft. His motivation came from the fact, that, at that time in France, few people lived in luxury, most were extremely poor: peasants in the country and slum dwellers in the towns and cities. Few families could afford to send their children to school, meaning they were destined to follow a life of poverty with little hope for the future. Such was his devotion to the project that he left his afluent family home, renounced his wealth and position as Canon and moved in with the teachers from the community that became known as he Brothers of the Christian Schools (De La Salle Christian Brothers).
De La Salle’s actions were met with some opposition: church authorities resisted this new form of lay religious life, and the educational establishment resented the Brothers’ innovative methods and their insistence on educating people regardless of their ability to pay. Undeterred however, over a period of 40 years, De La Salle and his Brothers succeeded in creating a network of schools throughout France that focused on the teaching of reading in French (rather than Latin) with students grouped according to ability, the integration of religious instruction with secular subjects, and well-prepared teachers with a sense of vocation and mission. De La Salle also pioneered programs for training lay teachers, Sunday classes for young working men, and one of the first institutions in France for delinquent youth. He established technical schools, and secondary schools for modern languages, arts, and sciences.
De La Salle died near Rouen on Good Friday, April 7, 1719 only a few weeks before his sixty-eight birthday. He was canonized a saint in 1900 and named the Patron Saint of Teachers in 1950. His charisma, educational spirituality and extensive writings inspired Catholic educators in his own time and continues to inspire educators from many traditions today. There are currently De La Salle schools in 80 different countries around the globe.