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The Life of St. John De La Salle

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Canon of the Cathedral of Reims and eldest son of a wealthy family in the days of Louis XIV, John was expected to rise to an eminent position in the Church.

 

But he turned his back on all that to work for the poor children of the slums of Reims, Paris, Rouen and many other town and cities of France.

 

In 1680, John was asked to step in and save a scheme to promote free schools for the poor of Reims, which had been started by Adrian Nyel, but which was in danger of collapsing because of the low morale of the teachers.

 

He reorganised and revitalised the whole project, placing great emphasis on the need to give the teachers in these schools a sense of self-esteem, a sense of the dignity of their vocation as Christian educators.

 

As the eldest son of a wealthy family, De La Salle had the world at his feet. Well educated by tutors at home and then in select schools, he could have become a prosperous lawyer like his father. Instead his sense of vocation led him to choose to be a priest, but even so he could have set his sights on a good career leading to wealth and dignities. But step by step he started to get involved with organising schools for the street kids of Reims, of Paris and then throughout France. His genius for getting things done made his work a success, but more important was his vision that, in the eyes of God, working-class children are just as important and have as much right to education as the children of the king. In 17th century France, people thought he was mad! He changed his whole life to respond to a crisis

 

THE VISION OF SAINT JOHN DE LA SALLE

 

De La Salle's most explicit statement of his vision of Christian education is found in the reflections he wrote for teachers, entitled Meditations for the Time of Retreat. The second meditation bears the heading: "What teachers must do to procure the sanctification of their students". In it he writes:-

 

"Consider that it is only too common for the working class and the poor to allow their children to live on their own, roaming all over as if they had no home, until they are able to be put to some work. These parents have no concern to send their children to school because they are too poor to pay teachers, or else they have to go out to look for work and leave their children to fend for themselves. The results of this condition are regrettable. These unfortunate children, accustomed to an idle life for many years, have great difficulty when it comes time for them to go to work. In addition, thorough association with bad companions, they learn to commit many sins which later on are very difficult to stop, the bad habits having been contracted over so long a period of time.

 

God has had the goodness to remedy so great a misfortune by the establishment of the Christian Schools, where teaching is offered free of charge and entirely for the glory of God and where children are kept all day and learn reading, writing and their religion. In these schools the children are always kept busy, so that when their parents want them to go to work, they are prepared for employment.

 

However, it is not enough that children be kept in school for most of the day and be kept busy. Those who are called to teach them must devote themselves especially to bringing them up in the Christian spirit. This spirit gives children the wisdom of God, which none of the princes of this world have known. It is completely opposed to the spirit and wisdom of the world."