Patron Saints of Our Schools
Feast day: 7 April (15 May at La Sallian institutions)
Schools in Singapore
St Jean-Baptiste de La Salle is known as the Father of Modern Education and a patron saint of teachers. Born to a wealthy noble family in Rheims, France, he was the eldest child of Louis de La Salle and Nicolle Moët de Brouillet. Jean-Baptiste received the tonsure at age eleven and became canon of Rheims Cathedral when he was sixteen. Midway through his seminary studies, his parents died, so the 21-year-old Jean-Baptiste left to support his four brothers and two sisters. After providing for their education, he returned to seminary and was ordained at the age of 26.
During his seminary days, La Salle’s spiritual director was Fr Nicolas Roland, who founded the Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus with the help of two teachers sent by Bl. Nicolas Barré. Roland imparted a spiritual detachment to La Salle which influenced his later work.
As a young priest, La Salle became the chaplain to a new religious congregation founded by Anne-Marie Martel, the Sisters of the Child Jesus, devoted to caring for the sick and educating poor girls. Through a relative, he met the educator Adrian Nyel, who was recruiting teachers for impoverished boys in Rouen with the help of Bl. Nicolas Barré. Nyel had a passion for founding schools; La Salle for ensuring they were maintained with well-trained teachers. Seeing the generational suffering of the poor, he decided to serve their children, “so far from salvation… often left to themselves and badly brought up”.
La Salle observed that the teachers of Rheims were struggling, lacking leadership and training. He invited them to his home for meals, to teach them etiquette and support them in their work. His snobbier relatives were upset at this disregard for social boundaries. The next year, he scandalised them further by having the teachers live in his ancestral home. Losing the home through a family lawsuit, he rented a place for his little community, which became the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, also known as the De La Salle Brothers, the first teaching order comprised of laymen instead of priests.
To devote his full attention to establishing schools and forming teachers, La Salle resigned his canonry. He still had a large inheritance which he could have spent on his new enterprise, but Bl. Nicolas Barré advised him to sell what he had and give it to the poor, relying on Divine Providence to support his community. La Salle spent $400,000 on bread for the poor of the province of Champagne, who were going through a famine. He kept only a small salary for himself so as not to burden his Brothers.
In 1685, La Salle founded the first training school for teachers. His educational innovations include dividing students into grades according to ability and achievement, the involvement of parents, integration of religious instruction with secular topics, Sunday courses for working young men, one of the first institutions in France for the care of delinquents, technical schools, and secondary schools for modern languages, arts, and sciences. Unfortunately, he faced intense opposition from secular schoolmasters who resented his modern methods and free education, as well as the ecclesiastical authorities perturbed by his new form of religious life.
Worn out by his austere lifestyle and great exertions, La Salle died early in 1719 on Good Friday, three weeks before his 68th birthday. His work spread throughout France and around the globe. In 1900, Jean-Baptiste de La Salle was proclaimed a saint of the universal Church.
Saint Jean-Baptiste, holy founder, friend and father of the young.
Patron of LaSallian teachers, we acknowledge you in song.
Thanking God, we proudly name you, Patron and protector strong!
You became a friend to children, to the needy kind and good.
You were sent to show compassion, making God’s word understood.
St Jean-Baptiste, may your family be like you in act and speech!