Marcellin Champagnat founded our worldwide community of Brothers with the fire of a simple Christian faith in his heart and the power of a holy purpose in his will.
The son of French peasants, Marcellin was born in the village of LeRosey near the city of Lyons in 1789. It was the year of the storming of the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. The religious, political, economic and social unrest of his time profoundly affected the direction his life took.
He was an unschooled youngster when a visiting priest suggested that he might like to train for the Catholic priesthood. As a seminarian one of Marcellin’s projects during his holidays was instructing the young people of the district in their faith. He wanted others to have the faith development and happiness of home life which he had experienced as a youngster and which he saw was not present in many families.
He found his studies extremely difficult but through prayer, courage and the constant support of his mother and aunt he was finally ordained a priest in 1816, a year after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
Marcellin and a group of other seminarians had discussed forming a religious order under the patronage of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Chapel of Fourviére above Lyons, the day after their ordination, they dedicated themselves to her as “The Society of Mary”, commonly called the Marist Fathers.
Call To Vocation
Marcellin’s first – and, as it turned out – only appointment as parish priest was to the remote rural community of La Valla, not far from his home, where he quickly gained the support and admiration of his parishioners.
France had been at war almost continuously for 26 years and public education in rural areas had collapsed. One day on his pastoral rounds he found a dying 15 year old boy, Jean-Baptiste Montagne, who had never learned the most basic elements of the Christian faith.
As a priest, Father Champagnat’s immediate concern was the lad’s ignorance of God, but this was linked to his lack of any education.
Marcellin decided he must do something about the situation. His whole life between 1817 and 1840 became a crusade of rescue for poor children. He would go to any lengths and make any efforts to try to improve their situation and so that they would be open to the unconditional love of God.
By January 1817 Marcellin had bought a simple house and had recruited a couple of young men to live in it whom he saw as potential teachers and catechists. Others joined them and in 1818 he opened the first Marist school – a humble beginning whose influence was to spread to every continent involving millions of students and their families.
To be effective, he had to take into account the economic realities of rural life. Accordingly he set tuition fees at less than the going rate, at a level he knew most rural families could afford, while for those who could still not afford to pay, tuition was free.
He knew that the children’s help at planting and harvesting time was vital to rural families and initially his schools were open only in the winter months when the children had time to attend.
When they were not teaching, Champagnat and his men compensated for their reduced (and insufficient) income by light manufacturing. Usually they forged nails which they sold to the French government. Through this and other economies they could offer education to the poorest of the poor without the schools becoming an economic burden on them.
From France To The World
Marcellin’s recruits continued to increase and they took the name of The Marist Brothers of the Schools (Frères Maristes Scolaires – FMS). To accommodate his growing congregation he began an extensive building programme for which he was the architect, contractor and foreman. Belief in a dream, dedication to an ideal, faith and sacrifice were the building stones of The Hermitage, the first motherhouse of the Marist Brothers, near the town of St Chamond.
Marcellin had wished to work in the mission fields of Oceania, but was asked to remain with his work of establishing his schools. Before his death in 1840, however, eighteen years after the founding of the Brothers, Marcellin saw the first of his recruits set out for the Pacific missions, thus establishing a long history of Marist involvement in missionary work in Oceania.
In 1872, at the request of the Archbishop of Sydney, the first Brothers arrived in Australia to be involved in establishing schools in the colony.
When Marcellin died on June 6 1840, the order had 48 establishments in France and 278 Brothers. Today there are 5,100 Brothers working in 80 countries.
He was canonised a Saint by Pope John Paul II on April 18 1999.