Peter Romancon was born in a village of southeast France in 1805. The bright son of respected parents, he impressed his school teachers from the start as a child of promise.
One day, when he was only six, Peter’s father took him on a trip to Clermont, the nearest large city. There his eyes happened to fall on some men wearing black cassocks with white collar-tabs, and big black cloaks. “Who are they?” he asked his dad.
“They are Brothers of the Christian Schools,” Mr. Romancon told him. Today, in the United States, we call these men “Christian Brothers.” They are a religious community who take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but do not become priests. St. John Baptist de la Salle founded them in 1684 to conduct schools for boys, especially the children of poor parents.
Peter was fascinated by this information. He told his father and mother that he wanted to become a Christian Brother himself. The older he got, the more he insisted on this desire, especially after he himself began to attend a school run by the Brothers. When he was fourteen, he asked to be admitted to the order. No, they told him; he was too young. Two years later he made another try. To test his mettle, Mr. Romancon told Peter that if he left home now he would cut him off without a cent in his will. Peter replied that he wouldn’t mind. In that case he would “only be exchanging earthly goods for heavenly goods.”
Actually, his parents gave him their blessings in 1820 when he set off for the Brothers’ novitiate. The Brothers soon realized what a treasure Peter was. His spiritual director did not hesitate to say, “This young brother will be one of the glories of our congregation one day.”
Brother “Benildus” (the name given him by the Order) prepared himself well for the teaching that was to be his life work. Only two years after he had taken his vows he was put in charge of a school in the town of Billom near Clermont. He was so successful that in 1840, when he was 36, he was sent to found a new school in the village of Saugues, near the city of LePuy. Here he spent the rest of his life.
School teachers do not often become famous, but they play a most important role in the formation of upcoming generations. Teachers who run Catholic schools are called upon not only to instruct the children but to form them in strong practicing Catholicism. Benildus was eminently qualified for both tasks. Later one of his pupils said of him, “Brother Benildus was as good as an angel and looked like a saint. He was fine teacher, a bit strict but always fair. He would encourage the backward ones, and made us work hard. His pupils were good, and knew their religion properly.” Even the government inspectors agreed. They were so pleased with his school at Saugues that they awarded Benildus a silver medal.
The Brother may have taught all subjects well, but he paid most attention to religious instruction – a difficult course. Benildus was so good at it that he riveted the attention of his pupils, and they were sorry when his classes came to an end. Well over twenty of his former students joined the Christian Brothers. The “secret” was doubtless his own holiness. As one priest who knew him said, “Brother Benildus did not worship God like an angel only when he was in church and saying his prayers, but always and everywhere – even among his cabbages in the garden.”
Benildus died on August 13, 1862, surrounded by his fellow brothers. From the hour of his burial, his tomb became a center of pilgrimage. In 1967, Pope Paul VI canonized him.
Saint Benildus was an ornament not only to his own community but to the other orders of teaching brothers like the Irish Christian Brothers and the Holy Cross Brothers.
For the rest of us, too, he set a fine example of constant prayer – not only when we are in church but even when we are tending our cabbages!
–Father Robert F. McNamara