John-the-Baptist de la Salle was born in Reims, France, the son of noble parents. His mother, who was especially devout, trained him in a piety that prompted him to seek the priesthood. At the seminary in Paris, he excelled in learning as well as spirituality; and after ordination in 1678 he never missed celebrating daily Mass except when ill.
La Salle would normally have become a prominent diocesan functionary; but in 1679 he lent a hand to a layman, Adrian Nyel, who had come to Reims to open a school for poor boys. Canon La Salle became interested in Nyel’s project, and especially concerned about the seven young laymen he had engaged as teachers. He saw that these men lacked training and motivation, so he took them into his own home, where he established a house rule and tutored them in spirituality as well as educational methodology. The seven responded poorly, and some even left Reims; but others more promising replaced them, and La Salle began to invite younger men to enter his group and thus grow up under his tutelage.
As a result, from 1682 on to 1717, Father La Salle was gradually forming, spiritually and pedagogically, the religious order ultimately called the Brothers of the Christian Schools. One rule he established was that while these teaching brothers took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, none of them should ever go on to the priesthood. Theirs, he intended, would be a humility that aspired to a total educational vocation, undistracted by priestly obligations. To them he gave a pioneering teaching plan wisely adapted to the varying talents of each pupil, but including thorough training in both secular and religious knowledge. At most schools for boys then, instruction was still given in Latin. St. John ordered that his teachers use only the vernacular.
Although LaSalle’s teaching brothers at first worked in elementary schools, they gradually expanded into secondary and college-level education. This was typical of the founder: all along he had followed the inspirations that God had given him, step by step. He had also accepted without murmur all sorts of trials and setbacks. He summarized this attitude in his last words, “In all things I adore the will of God in my regard.”
The schools of the La Salle brothers spread from France into many other countries, including the U.S.A. The brothers not only became schoolmasters to thousands of their own pupils, but also set an example to many other Catholic teachers. Furthermore, the concept of a religious community of teaching brothers caught on, and several similar orders were established. Eleven of these were founded in France, including the Viatorians, the Marists, and the Holy Cross Brothers. In Ireland, Br. Ignatius Rice launched in 1802 the Christian Brothers of Ireland. (Today they are called the Congregation of Christian Brothers). Religious orders of nuns were also influenced by the saint’s example.
St. John Baptist de la Salle had thus discovered a unique apostolate. No wonder Pope Pius XII in 1950, fifty years after his canonization, declared him heavenly patron of all schoolteachers.
–Father Robert F. McNamara