This saint is the patron of teachers, his great achievement having been to provide a system of education for the common people at a time when the poor were grossly neglected; not mercy by founding charity schools, a cling which had been attempted countless times before only to end in repeated failure, but by creating a body of trained teachers, and thus setting them on the only possible basis which guaranteed success.
It was not by inclination, but solely by chance chat he was led to take up this work. Indeed his family background and early training seemed hardly to have prepared him for it. Born in Rheims on April 30th, 1651, the eldest son of an aristocratic family, he inherited the rank and fortune of his parents, which set a gulf between him and the teeming masses of the poor. At sixteen, while he was pursuing a course of classical studies at the College des Bons Enfants, he became a canon of Rheims, and seemed to be marked out for a successful career in the church. He subsequently studied at Saint Sulpice and the Sorbonne for the priesthood, and was ordained at the age of twenty-seven. Up to this point nothing denoted what his mission was to be, and he himself had no inkling of it. But it was shortly after this that he was asked to co-operate in establishing some charity schools in his native town, and this led him to take charge of the teachers, to bring them into his own home and to train them. Little by little he became further involved in the work until he began to realize that everything pointed to his being the chosen instrument of Providence for the creation of a system of Christian education for the poor, whose ignorance and depravity were the disgrace of this 'splendid century', so remarkable for its achievements in every other sphere.
As he had made the will of God the guiding principle of his life, he decided to give himself up completely to this task, resigning his canonry and giving away his fortune in order to be on the same footing as the teachers with whom he lived. In so doing he aroused the anger of his relatives and incurred the derision of his class-minded compatriots, but this in no way made him alter his resolution. In 1684 he transformed his group of schoolmasters into a religious community, under the name of Brothers of the Christian Schools, and this was the origin of the order which continues to this day and is spread all over the world. So chat his order might confine itself solely to the work of teaching, he laid down that no brother might become a priest and that no priest might join the order. This rule is still observed. The first years were marked by poverty and hardship, but these were cheerfully endured, thanks to the example of self-abnegation and extraordinary power of leadership shown by de la Salle, who vowed chat he would live on bread alone, if necessary, rather than abandon the work he had begun.
The religious and professional training of his brothers became his chief care, but he saw that he would never be able to satisfy all the requests he received for teachers unless he undertook the formation of secular schoolmasters as well, so he organized a training college for some forty youths in Rheims in 1687; the first instance of such an institution in the history of education.
After opening schools in a number of neighboring towns, in addition to chose in Rheims itself, he went to Paris in 1683 to take over a school in the parish of St. Sulpice, and there he established his headquarters. In the capital his work spread rapidly, and before long the brothers were teaching over 1,100 pupils. In Paris, too, he founded another training college, with a charity school attached, and organized a Sunday academy, or continuation school for youths already employed. When the exiled monarch, James II, entrusted fifty Irish youths to his care, he arranged for special courses to be given them to suit their needs.
The scope of his work was now such that it aroused the bitter antagonism of the writing masters and the teachers of the Little Schools, who saw their fee-paying pupils drifting into his free schools, and they brought law-suits against him. His schools were pillaged, and he found himself condemned and forbidden to open training colleges or charity schools anywhere in the Paris area. As a result he was excluded for a time from the capital, but by now his brothers were established in other localities, notably in Rouen, Avignon and Chartres, so that the decrees against him failed to ruin his work. Indeed from this time on, his communities multiplied all over France: in Marseilles, Calais, Boulogne, Mende, Grenoble, Troyes and other places. In Rouen he founded two important institutions: a fee-paying boarding school for the sons of bourgeois, who desired an education superior to that of the primary school but more practical than that of the 'classical' colleges; and a reformatory school for youthful delinquents and young men detained under <lettres de cachet.> Both proved very successful, and were significant forerunners of modern institutions of a similar kind.
In 1709 he established a third training college, at St. Den, but this lasted only a couple of years, after which it had to be closed as a result of an unfortunate law-suit.
De la Salle spent the last years of his life in Rouen, completing the organization of his institute, writing the Rule of the brothers in its definitive form, and composing <Meditations> and a <Method of Mental Prayer.> On Good Friday, April 9th, 1718, he died.
His brothers, already established in twenty-two towns of France and in Rome, now expanded their work rapidly. In 1725 they received a bull of approbation of their institute from the pope and letters patent from the king granting them legal recognition. The Revolution ruined their work in France, but they were by now established in Switzerland and Italy, so that they were able to survive this catastrophe and returned to France when more favorable conditions prevailed under Napoleon. Today they number over 15,000 and conduct educational institutions of every kind all over the world. In the United States alone there are some 2,000 brothers in five different Provinces.
De la Salle's pedagogical system is outlined in <The Conduct of Schools>, which he composed in 1695, and which is now considered an educational classic. It shows clearly his practical turn of mind and his essentially religious approach to the education of children. He wrote also several school manuals, notably <The Rules of Good Behaviour> and <The Duties of a Christian>, which proved very popular and went through over a hundred editions.