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The saint who showed a revolutionary fervour for educating the poor

Relics of St Jean-Baptiste de La Salle in the chapel of the Generalate of his order in Rome

Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) is one of the most important figures in the history of education. As the founder of the Institute for the Brothers of the Christian Schools – not to be confused with the Irish Christian Brothers – he showed a revolutionary fervour for the education of the poor.

In teaching techniques, too, he was an innovator, insisting on grouping pupils together by ability rather than by age. Against the traditional emphasis on Latin, he stressed that reading and writing in the vernacular should be the basis of all learning.

Equally, Catholic dogma should lie at the root of all ethics. Yet de la Salle also introduced modern languages, arts, science and technology into the curriculum. Of his writings on education, Matthew Arnold remarked: “Later works on the same subject have little improved the precepts, while they entirely lack the unction.”

Born into a well-off family in Reims, and brought up by a devout mother, Jean-Baptiste at first seemed destined for a conventionally successful career in the Church. When he was 16 a cousin resigned a lucrative canonry in his favour. Subsequently he pursued his studies at St Sulpice in Paris before being ordained in 1678.

The next year, however, he met Adrien Nyel, who wanted to start a school for the poor in Reims. Jean-Baptiste at first encouraged, then helped, and eventually found himself entirely devoted to the project. Determined that the work should grow from its own strength, rather than from his private income, he gave up his canonry.

Four schools were soon opened, and it was in order to staff them that de la Salle gradually built up the Institute for the Brothers of Christian Schools. Soon parish priests were sending young men from far beyond Reims to be trained as teachers. De la Salle founded colleges for them at Reims (1687), Paris (1699) and Saint-Denis (1709).

In 1688 he took on a school at St Sulpice, and soon opened another in the same parish. The sudden death of his chief assistant, who was about to be ordained, helped to convince de la Salle that no member of his order should be a priest, and vice-versa. The rule holds to this day.

Despite many difficulties, the Institute developed apace, setting up schools not merely in Avignon, Calais, Languedoc, Provence and Dijon, but also in Rome. In 1705 the Brothers’ headquarters was transferred to St Yon in Rouen, where Jean-Baptiste died in 1719.

The first school of the de la Salle Brothers in England opened at Clapham in 1855. Today the Institute teaches more than 800,000 children in 80 countries. The founder was canonised in 1900. “To touch the hearts of your students,” he believed, “is the greatest miracle you can perform.”