Patron Saints of Our Schools
Feast day: 6 June
Schools in Singapore
St Marcellin Champagnat was born the ninth of ten children in the village of Le Rosey. During his childhood, he witnessed the ravages of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which left his local community impoverished and ill-educated.
Marcellin’s character was formed by the example of his hard-working father and his devout mother, as well as an aunt who was a Sister of St Joseph. With money earned from rearing sheep, he attended a minor seminary from the ages of 16 to 22. Older than most of his classmates, he failed his first year and was sent home. He was readmitted with the help of his mother, his parish priest, and the superior of the seminary, Fr Linossier.
Marcellin had developed from a timid boy to a sociable young man, and was part of “the Happy Gang”, a group of seminarians who frequented the taverns in their free time. However, in his second year Fr Linossier had a serious chat with him about his conduct. He also sobered up when his friend Denis Duplay suddenly died on 2 September 1807. Though he continued to struggle with his studies, he applied himself with dedication and the support of his mother and aunt.
Upon moving to a major seminary in Lyon, he and fellow seminarians came up with the idea for the a new congregation including Teaching Brothers to serve rural children. After his ordination on 2 July 1816, Fr Champagnat was posted to an isolated village, La Valla-en-Gier, where ignorance was rife. Teachers received low pay and little respect, so the profession was filled with substandard teachers of bad character.
Fr Champagnat visited a dying 17-year-old, Jean Baptiste Montage. He was horrified to find him so malnourished that he seemed to be 12 years old, and completely ignorant of the basics of Catholicism. Knowing there were many others like Jean, he decided to act.
On 2 January 1817, Fr Champagnat invited Jean-Marie Granjon and Jean-Baptiste Audras to join him in forming the nucleus of Les Petits Frères de Marie: the Little Brothers of Mary. Others soon followed. The first Brothers were young country men, between fifteen to eighteen years old. They were more used to farming than prayer and teaching, but Fr Champagnat inspired them to spread the Gospel.
Fr Champagnat established a primary school and teacher training centre in La Valla, which spawned others in his home county and elsewhere. They were overstretched, but eight applicants arrived in 1822, allowing them to expand further. Fr Champagnat built a novitiate building with a capacity of 150 people, a sign of his deep trust in God that the Marists would continue to flourish. He had a devotion to the Guardian Angels, and had a picture of a Guardian Angel in every classroom.
Exhausted and sick from his incessant labours, Fr Champagnat prepared for his succession, with Br Francis being elected to replace him on 12 October 1838. Suffering from cancer, Fr Champagnat died on 6 June 1840, aged 51. He left this message in his spiritual Testament of 18 May 1840: “Let there be among you just one heart and one mind. Let it always be said of the Little Brothers of Mary as it was of the early Christians: See how they love one another!” By that time there were 280 Brothers and 48 Marist schools in France and Oceania. By 1856, there were 300 houses and more than 1,500 Brothers.
The Marist Brothers Institute was not formally approved until 1863 by Pope Pius IX, given the name Fratres Maristae a Scolis. Members of the order are identified by the initials “FMS”; they are part of a family of religious communities, including the Society of Mary or Marist priests (“SM”). The educational philosophy of Champagnat was simple: to teach children one must love them, and secular subjects should be well taught as a means of drawing children to the schools, where they would learn the basic elements of their faith. Champagnat said: “To raise children, we must love them and love them equally. I cannot see a child without wanting to tell them how much God loves them.”
Marcellin Champagnat was declared Venerable in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, beatified by Pope Pius XII on 29 May 1955, and canonised by Pope John Paul II on 18 April 1999. At their most numerous, the Marist Brothers numbered about 10,000. In 2005 there were around 5,000 brothers.