History of the Marist Brothers in the United States
The founder of the Institute of the Marist Brothers of the Schools was born
on May 20, 1789, at Le Rosey, a hamlet in the township of Marlhes in southeastern
France. On the following day he was baptized Marcellin Joseph Benedict Champagnat
at the parish church of Marlhes. His biographer, jean Baptistse relates a series of incidents which marked him as an child of destiny.
She (his mother) was fully confirmed in this presentiment (of future sanctity) by a sign which she looked upon as supernatural. Several times, as the child lay in the cradle, she saw a bright flame, hovering round his head, diffuse itself about the apartment . . . she felt that Heaven, in its mercy, had designs upon her child, to be made known in its own good time, and that it was her duty to correspond with its intentions to the best of her power, by bringing him up in more than ordinary virtue and piety.(1.)
The training which young Marcellin received at home instilled in him a noble sense of justice, of piety and of charity. His mother and his aunt, a nun in hiding, were his childhood teachers. They prepared him for his first communion, which he received at the age of eleven. The ceremony was performed in secrecy since the priest was in hiding from the French government.
His formal education began in 1804 at the age of fifteen. The revolution had disrupted the educational system of the times, so that it was only after Napoleon I became ruler of France that Mercellin Champagnat was able to make use of the educational opportunities that were then made available.(2.) In 1803 Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Fesch, was appointed archbishop of Lyons. This prelate directed his clergy to seek out young men for the priesthood, in order to fill the depleted ranks of the clergy. Young Mercellin Champagnat was one of these who was thus approached.
Father Courbon, a professor at the diocesan seminary, was the instrument God used to introduce this destined young man to the call of the ministry. On a visit to the Champagnat family at LeRosey he told Marcellin: "My child, you must study Latin and become a priest, . . . it is God's will." (3.) This significant mandate pleased the shy Marcellin, but his parents, with the best of intentions, tried to deter him because of his limited learning and of his disinclination to study. To their objections he replied: "My resolution is taken, I can now think of nothing but study." (4.) Secretly admiring his determination, they allowed him to follow the priest's suggestion.
This determination was a characteristic which spelled success in the life of Marcellin Champagnat. He traveled to nearby Saint Sauveur to study Latin under his brother-in-law, Mr. Arnaud, the schoolmaster there. Although he did not succeed too well, he nonetheless entered the minor seminary at Verrieres the following year. At first his deficiencies cause him great hardship. But with consistent effort he reached the standard demanded by the seminary authorities, and was even advanced to higher classes, where he distinguished himself in the Latin studies.(5.) Recognizing his qualities of leadership, his superiors appointed him prefect, a position which he filled with efficiency.
During this period of his life, young Marcellin strengthened his habits of piety and order, which later helped him to organize a congregation of men. A year before he was transferred to the mayor seminary at Lyons, he became acquainted with two new seminarians who were to become close associates in the ministry, and who helped him implement his future ideas. These were Jean Claude Colin, co-founder with Blessed Champagnat of the Society of Mary, and Jean Marie Vianney, the Cure D'Ars and Patron of Parish priests.(6.)
On November 1, 1813 these three seminarians entered the Grand Seminaire of Lyons, where they studied for three years. They were serious students, who during recreations often spoke of establishing a congregation of priests dedicated to their ideal, the Blessed Virgin. In 1816 Jean Colin, Marcellin Champagnat and others presented their views and future plans to their superior, Father Challeton. This holy priest approved their ideas, and brought them to the famed Marian shrine of Lyons, Notre Dame de Fourvieres, where they dedicated themselves to the purpose of founding the Society of Mary. Later this superior, who became Vicar General of Lyons, joined the Society of Mary.(7.)
One recommendation that Marcellin Champagnat often propounded to his fellow seminarians was the inclusion of teaching brothers in the Society of Mary. But they were adverse to this proposition. In fact one of them told him: "Eh bien, chargez vous des freres, c'est vous qui en avez eu l'idee." These words he kept in mind.
On July 22, 1816 Marcellin Champagnat was ordained by Bishop Dubourg, Bishop of New Orleans, Louisiana. The Bishop was the representative of Cardinal Fesch. The young priest returned to Notre Dame de Fourvieres, a few days later, to consecrate his life and ministry to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Father Champagnat was twenty-six when he was named curate in the parish of
LaYalle, a hamlet situated on the slope of Mont Pilat in the Loire, where he was
to serve as assistant to Father Rebaud. The pariah included two thousand souls, most of whom lacked any formal education and who were scattered in the
mountainous area. As the newly ordained priest studied the situation, he became determined to
do his utmost to teach these people the fundamentals of the Faith, and so to change their ways. His ingenuity in preaching soon effected results. The
children became well instructed in the catechism, and their parents guided back to
the Faith. In an unpublished dissertation on Blessed Champagnat, Brother Albert Hamel
Father Champagnat had been in the parish only a short time, when it was entirely reformed. Faith was revived; the sacraments were frequented; devotions were attended; family prayers were again recited; in fact, a complete transformation took place. The work started in the pulpit, and was completed in the confessional.(8.)
As part of his ministry, Father Champagnat often traveled the rocky mountain paths to administer the sacraments to the sick and the dying. It was on one of these trips to a twelve year old boy that he decided to found a congregation of teaching brothers. He found the dying boy ignorant of the most elementary truths of religion. For two hours Father Champagnat prepared him for death. He left the boy with the consolation that a soul had been saved. This incident affected him so deeply that he decided to confide to a young parishioner, Jean Marie Granjon, his desire to organize a teaching brotherhood that would educate young men in the fundamentals of the "Faith".
Six months after his arrival at LaValla, Father Champagnat rounded the Marist Brothers. Two young men, Jean Marie Granjon and Jean Baptiste Audras, were received as its first members on January 2, 1817. They were lodged clear the rectory in a house which had been rented by Father Champagnat for their novitiate. He visited them daily to teach them the principles of religious and community life. He drew up a temporary set of rules to mold these two young country boys into cultured religious gentlemen. The following March in order to distinguish them from the laity he gave them names in religion and a distinctive attire in blue.
To inspire them he motivated their thinking by reminding them often of the importance of the religious life, and of the need for religious instruction in a France that had been spiritually ravaged by the Revolution of 17$-9. He established goals which have became the first two articles of the present Constitutions of the Marist Brothers: to labor for the greater glory of God, for the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary and for their own sanctification; and (as a secondary end) to procure the salvation of souls by the Christian instruction and education of children, chiefly those of the rural districts.
In 1820 other young men who had entered the novitiate became teaching brothers in schools at Saint Sauveur and Tarentaise.(9.) Two brothers were usually sent to staff each school, and a third brother to do the cooking, and a little practice teaching.
The last fifteen years of the life of Venerable Champagnat were closely associated with everything pertaining to education. Not satisfied with familiarizing his disciples with pedagogic theory, he frequently visited the schools to see how the Brothers put it into actual practice. He questioned the pupils less to test their knowledge than to discover if the lessons had been understood and taking the teacher's place he gave the latter a practical demonstration of what he considered an ideal lesson.(15.)
While Father Champagnat was pre-occupied with the training of the brothers, he was also concerned with the possibility of losing brothers because of the French laws on conscription. Previous to 1828 primary instruction in France was under the control of the Bishops, who easily obtained dispensations from military service for the brothers. But after, 1828 a decree was required from the Royal Council of Public Instruction to release religious from this service. Before the Archbishop of Lyons was able to obtain this decree for Father Champagnat's congregation, the revolution of 1830 halted the proceedings, and anti-clerical laws obstructed the negotiations leading to this decree. For ten years through frequent trips to Paris and incessant negotiations the founder wore himself out in an effort to obtain recognition. The problem was resolved only after his death, when the Congregation of the Brothers of St. Paul Trois Chateaux merged with the Marist Brothers in 1842. As a result of this merger, the Marist Brothers could make use of a decree which those brothers had obtained to avoid conscription. Finally in 1851 during the reign of Napoleon III the Institute was legalized in France, and the dispensation from military service was granted to the Marist Brothers(16.).
THE SOCIETY OF MARY
The Society of Mary, as we have stated was founded as a congregation of priests in 1816 at the seminary at Lyons. Initial steps to obtain canonical approbation from Rome was begun by Father Jean Colin in 1822. Fourteen years later in the Brief "Omnium gentium" Pope Gregory XVI sanctioned the Society and confided to their ministry the missionary territory of Polynesia. The Fathers had already grouped together at Notre Dame de 1'Hermitage with Father Champagnat and at Belley with Father Colin Gathered in the latter place, they elected Father Colin the Superior General of the Marist priests, Marist Brothers.(17.) With certainty was this an illustrious group of priests, including Venerable Jean Colin, Blessed Mercellin Champagnat and St Peter Chanel, who made their first profession following the election.(18.)
The brothers were an integral part of the Society. Father Champagnat had direct responsibility for them although he had always hoped that the Superior General of the Marist fathers would assume this duty. But Father Colin thought otherwise. In fact eight months before Father Champagnat died, the Superior General persuaded him to allow the brothers to rule themselves. This point of view was later endorsed by the Holy See;; which directed furthermore that the brothers elect their Superior General from among themselves. To this end Father Colin convoked a general chapter of professed brothers. He presided at this meeting, at which Brother Francois was elected superior with the title of Director General.(19.)
This election was providential, for Father Champagnat's health had declined rapidly. Shortly before he died on June 6, 1810 he entrusted his spiritual testament and apostolic mandate to educate (the youth of) the world, to the two hundred and eighty brothers in his little congregation.(20.) One hundred and eighty of these were teaching in forty-eight schools, with a total enrollment of seven thousand students. Forty-nine other brothershad preceded the holy founder in death. He was buried among them in the community cemetery at Notre Dame de l'Hermitage.
The heroic life of Marcellin Champagnat was recognized not only by the members of the two congregations he helped to found, and by the local clergy, but also b the Holy See. His cause of beatification was introduced in Rome in 1886.(21.) Ten years later Pope Leo XIII decreed him Venerable. In 1955 the late Pope Pius XII presided at the ceremony at St. Peter's Basilica which proclaimed the holy founder Blessed. His cause for canonization is under study at present. It is believed that this process will conclude in a few years, at which time the founder of the Marist Brothers will be declared a saint.
THE HISTORICAL GROWTH OF THE INSTITUTE
The historical growth of the Institute since the death of the Blessed Founder has been phenomenal despite the many persecutions which the Congregation has suffered in France, Spain, Mexico, China, the Balkan States and other countries. Similar congregations of brothers that were founded about the same time in the Loire district of France failed to prosper. In fact two of these, fearing extinction were united with the Marist Brothers in 1842 and 1844 respectively.
The addition of these congregations naturally helped the expansion of the Marist Institute. As a result of these mergers the brothers were grouped into provinces in order to secure better administration. Therefore, Father Mazelier of St. Paul Trois Chateaux united his forty brothers and twelve postulants to the Institute.(22.) All their schools were united with the Marist schools for the organization of the Province of St. Paul Trois Chateaux. Simultaneously another province, known as the Province of Beaucamps, was organized in the northern part of France. Two years later Bishop Guibert of Viviers united to the Marists the sixty Brothers of Christian Instruction founded by Father Vernet in 1803. The Marist schools of that area and the fourteen schools of the brothers from Viviers were organized into the Province of Aubenas, France.
Twenty years after the death of Blessed Champagnat, another province was organized in the St. Genis Laval area. This particular province later housed the Mother House, which was transferred from Notre Dame de l'Hermitage in 1856. From St. Genis Laval the administration of the Institute guided the growth of the Marist Brothers from 1856-1903 and from 1939-1961.
During the one hundred and twenty years since the death of the founder, the administration of the Institute has been entrusted to eight superior generals. These were elected by various General Chapters called for that purpose. The first superior general was elected for life. But in 1903 Canon Law ruled that the term of office be limited to a specific number of years. The Marist Constitutions, promulgated by the General Chapter of 1903, stated that the Superior General's term was to last for twelve years. In 1958 the Fifteenth General Chapter reduced the term to nine years.
Throughout its history the Institute has met with serious interference from various governments. Blessed Champagnat's trials with the Department of Public Instruction, and the persecutions of the brothers in various countries have already been mentioned. But the greatest hardship suffered by the congregation was the anti-clerical legislation passed by the French government at the turn of the century. In 1891 the education law of 1886 secularized eighty-three schools taught by tine brothers in France.(23.) Ten years later the infamous law of Associations of 1901 withdrew the legal status of all Roman Catholic teaching congregations in France. Two years later every school, private as well as public, was secularized and all religious teachers were expelled from the schools. Brother Albert Hamel in his dissertation states:
The French Sectarian haws of 1903 struck a heavy blow to the Marist family, as the major portion of the 700 and more schools that the congregation had in that country were forcibly closed. However, a number of brothers ardently devoted to the cause of religious instruction, remained in the country and strove to carry on the work of Christian education. These Brothers were forced to adopt the mode of life of the people among whom they labored. They had to abandon their religious costume and sacrificed most of the consolations of community life.(24.)Thousands of brothers left France for the mission territories while other returned to secular status.(25.) Government confiscations caused the transfer the Mother House and houses of studies to Grugliasco, Italy, and other, places outside of France.
What was a terrible blow to the teaching apostolate of the Institute in France proved to be very advantageous to the Marist schools outside that country. This exodus of teachers to foreign lands inspired numerous native vocations. Today, a few generations later, the Institute counts 9,153 brothers, half of whom come from the New World. Thirty-nine provinces are presently training 5,506 novice brothers, and other aspirants for the Marist teaching profession.
THE MISSIONARY APOSTOLATE, 1836-1961
Marist Missionary work has been quite successful. This apostolate had its beginnings in the mind of the Blessed Founder. In 1636 he assign four brothers to accompany Bishop Pompalier and four other Marist Fathers to Polynesia. One of these priests was Saint Peter Chanel, who was martyred on the Island of Futuna (in the Gilbert Islands) in 1841.(26.) One of the brothers, Brother Marie Nizier, would have suffered the same fate had he returned an hour earlier to the site of the martyrdom.(27.) Two other brothers met with similar fates on these islands.(28.)
Blessed Champagnat often mentioned to his superior, the Venerable Colin, his desire to work in the missions. Although he was never able to do so, he did send to Polynesia every mission-minded brother he could spare during the last four years of his life. One of his great regrets was not to be in a position to send brothers to other mission areas for which help had been requested. Thus he wrote to the Bishop of Grenoble, France:
Tous les dioceses du monde entrant dans non vues; quant a NN. SS. lea Eveques respectifs voudront nous y appeler, nous noun empresserons de voler a leur aide et de noun y regarder toujours comme leurs tres humbles and tres soumis serviteurs.(29.)The first request from North America came from Father Fontbonne of St. Louis, Missouri in 1837. Blessed Champagnat wrote a lengthy letter to this priest on the impossibility of sending brothers at that time:
. . . nous en enverrions avec plaisir en Amerique pour seconder le zele den bona missionaires, s'il nous etait possible: noun espeons que la divine Providence noun applinira les difficultes, et nous facilitera les moyens de parvenir jusqu'a tnous, lorsque le temps et les moments que le Pere a reserves a son souverain pouvoir seront arrives.(30.)The Superior Generals who succeeded the holy Founder had to refuse brothers for five American schools before finally sending a community to Lewiston, Maine, in 1886.(31.) One year previous the first mission band had left for North America and arrived in Iberville, Canada.(32.) Since that tune Marist work in North America has developed into seven thriving provinces. The missionary apostolate can be studied in the appendix.(33.) What follows is the history of the Marist work in the United States.
last updated on June 9, 2004