How St. John Baptist de La Salle brought education to millions of poor kids like me
I am sitting in a small classroom in one of those World War II Quonset huts that line the hill along the rim of Manhattan College in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. It is the spring of 1962—the semester I will graduate—and this is Brother Luke Salm’s religion class. We are blue-booking one of his quizzes, and he is off to one side, reading what looks like endless reams of galleys while the students in the class chew their pencil erasers or scratch their heads before plunging back into the abstruse questions on church doctrine glaring up at them from the page.
For a moment my attention is focused on Brother Luke’s absorption in those galleys of small print, and I am thinking: Yes, this is what I want to do someday. Forget myself and the humdrum world around me and, like some student of the Torah, study the world of words and someday—God willing—my own galleys. Ah, to become lost like him in the cosmic dance of literature, art, music, philosophy and religion, to watch as words form the mica chips of the infinite Word.
Then it is back again to the quiz in front of me whose questions long ago evaporated into the ether of history. In the late afternoon, I will walk through the tree-lined quad, past the chapel and the brick arcade, and head for my friend John Monahan’s ’57 hearse-gray Ford to make the trip back over the Throgs Neck Bridge and Northern Boulevard to Mineola, grab a bite to eat, then head down to the Garden City A&P, where I will stack shelves from 6 to 11, then head home to get my homework done before grabbing five hours of sleep. And then it will be up again and back to Manhattan College.
What a blessing those Christian Brothers in their black soutanes and my other teachers were as they taught so many young men like myself.
What a blessing those Christian Brothers in their black soutanes and my other teachers were as they taught so many young men like myself. Mostly we hailed from Irish-American working-class or lower-income middle-class families. There were Italian-Americans, too, and Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans. We studied engineering, pre-med or pre-law, or took classes in the Great Books, beginning with the Egyptians and Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages, then on to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and through the Romantics and Victorians and the Modernists. How often the brothers were there for me, though I feared some of them a bit, especially after I joined a frat that made “Animal House” look tame. Most of them were gentle or funny and gave me sound advice by their example. There was Brother Anthony, for one, who volunteered to teach a group of us basic Greek to supplement our Latin. Once he heard me swearing as I ascended the steps of the library and suggested I refrain from what he called that “sub-Chaucerian” lingo.
In time, I graduated and got married and had three sons and earned a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature downtown at Hunter College, all of it possible because of what I learned at Manhattan. Years later, Brother Luke would invite me back to Manhattan to address the student body, now made up of women as well as men, and receive an honorary degree—the same brother who wrote a life of St. John Baptist de La Salle, the founder of those same Christian Brothers, called The Work Is Yours. Reading it now, years after Brother Luke went to his reward, I better understand what de La Salle achieved in educating so many of the marginalized, myself among them.
I am the first in my family fortunate enough to go to college. Because of the Great Depression, neither of my parents went beyond the second year of high school. My father’s parents came from northern Italy and settled in the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge, had 11 children, six of whom survived. School was something you endured until you were 16; then you went to work. For my father, the youngest of the lot, that meant driving a grocery truck or working at gas stations. Then came the war, when he learned to fire an M-1 and drive half-ton trucks and Shermans.
It seemed almost too good to be true: a chance to study Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas and Dante and Shakespeare and Cervantes and Milton and Dostoyevsky.
After the war, my family moved to Long Island—Levittown, then Mineola—where I worked at my father’s Sinclair gas station. When I turned 16, my father thought it was time for me, too, to drop out of school and work full time. “Over my dead body,” my mother told him, and she meant it. In high school, I took classes in pre-engineering because my father insisted it would lead to a good job, though my heart was not in it. Manhattan College had a strong reputation as an engineering school, so I applied there.
But when I arrived for my interview, one of the brothers told us about a four-year curriculum in the humanities based on the Great Books, and my heart melted. It seemed almost too good to be true: a chance to study Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas and Dante and Shakespeare and Cervantes and Milton and Dostoyevsky and on and on. I had $100 in the bank, and there were still six younger siblings at home to feed and clothe. But here was my chance, and with the help of God, I had to believe it would all work out.
Which is what de La Salle himself, it turns out, had believed. And so, despite sickness and exhaustion and the difficulties of getting to and from college, it did in fact work out. And not just for me but for so many young men.
Teacher of Teachers
Who was this brilliant, saintly priest who founded the Christian Brothers? Perhaps now, on the 300th anniversary of his death, it is time for those of us who have benefited so richly from our educations to remember who he was.
John Baptiste de La Salle was born to a wealthy family in Reims, France, on April 30, 1651. Like his namesake, he heralded the coming of a new order by reaching out to the marginalized, founding the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Educated first at the College des Bons Enfants, he went on to Paris to study the classics and theology at the Sorbonne. Then, at 20, he lost both his parents and had to return home to oversee the education of his younger siblings. Finally, in the spring of 1678, he was ordained and went on to earn his doctorate in theology.
At first, he oversaw the establishment of an order of nuns who had dedicated themselves to the education of the poor. Then he worked with young men, teaching them how to teach. And thus began his life’s work. The idea never occurred to him, he admitted years later, “that what I did out of pure charity for the poor school teachers would make it incumbent upon me to live with them.” Had he realized the many sacrifices he would have to undergo, he would have given up the idea at once.
Like his namesake, John Baptiste de La Salle heralded the coming of a new order by reaching out to the marginalized.
Fortunately for hundreds of thousands of us, he stuck to his vocation to educate the underprivileged as, step by step, the way opened before him. And yet, try as he might, he kept failing for lack of money or because of the infighting among the educational guilds who insisted on being paid handsomely for teaching. Then, too, there were those bishops and prelates who insisted on maintaining rigid control over their schools. Still, he worked tirelessly alongside his brothers, looking for the best means of educating the poor to prepare them for the world, both practically and spiritually. And when the teachers themselves became discouraged because they lacked the necessary education and teaching skills, he supported them, going so far as to find them rooms in his own home, feeding them, teaching them how to teach and often stepping in to teach when teachers became ill or simply abandoned the project.
As his mission became ever clearer to him, he resigned his priestly canonry and then, at 34, sold his home and possessions and distributed the money to the poor. When his friends advised him that this time he had gone too far, he told them that this was the work God had given him to do and that, if worse came to worst, he would beg for alms.
In time, the Christian Brothers took the shape by which they would come to be recognized. He trained one young brother, Henri L’Heureux, in the hopes that he would succeed him, sending him to the Sorbonne to study for the priesthood with a specialty in theology, only to see L’Heureux die shortly before his ordination. After much prayer and discernment, de La Salle came to see that the priesthood was not essential for the Christian Brothers. Educating the young, he insisted, was the work the brothers had been given and to which they must devote their lives. As expected, many among the church authorities did not agree with his decision. In 1702, de La Salle was deposed by a cardinal and his leadership role was transferred to another priest. He bit his lip, endured it and moved on.
A classical and practical education, along with the cultivation of a spirit of faith, piety, self-discipline and obedience, came to characterize the Christian Brothers.
For 10 years he struggled to preserve the institution even as he continued to be vilified and brought up on trumped-up charges. At one point, he was left with only two brothers he could rely on. Still, he soldiered on, visiting the schools he had established from Rouen to Marseilles, spending more and more time in prayer as he grew older. Approaching 60 and worn down by the incessant work of maintaining his schools, he convoked a chapter to elect one of the brothers as superior general to carry on the work of the institute after he was gone. Brother Barthélemy, a solid choice, was elected, and de La Salle continued to work alongside him.
And the work went on. Finally, bedridden and nearly blind from his incessant labors, de La Salle, after receiving the sacraments, died at St. Yon on the outskirts of Rouen on the morning of Good Friday, April 7, 1719, just short of his 68th birthday. It would take six more years before the Vatican approved the Christian Brothers as a teaching order and another 175 years before de La Salle was recognized as the saint he was. Finally, in 1950, Pius XII declared him the Special Patron of All Teachers of Youth in the Catholic Church.
A Practical Education
A classical and practical education, along with the cultivation of a spirit of faith, piety, self-discipline and obedience, came to characterize the Christian Brothers. The lower classes, de La Salle understood, were every bit as entitled to be taught as the wealthy. This meant free schools led by well-educated teachers. Rather than teach Latin, he insisted, classes must be taught in the native language as the best way for the student’s advancement. And reading in the vernacular was the best way to speedily acquire new knowledge—that and the ability to write clearly. Those skills achieved, students could then turn to the study of Latin and thus enter law, politics, engineering and church affairs more quickly.
But how to educate so many—French in his time, Irish, Italian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian in ours? In Europe’s universities, lectures were given in Latin, followed by disputations on the subject (again, in Latin). But de La Salle insisted on the “simultaneous method,” which allowed large groups of students to study the same books, thanks to printing. The teacher learned to adapt his language and explanations as necessary, moving from the simple to more complex ideas and concepts, all in the common vernacular.
Let the method’s record speak for itself. In 1719, the year de La Salle died, the number of brothers teaching all over France had risen to 274. By the French Reign of Terror, even after the institute had been dissolved by the French National Assembly, the number stood at 900. Eighty years later, there were over 10,000 brothers. By 1900 there were over 14,000 teaching in schools and colleges and universities worldwide.
Today, there are 560 high schools and colleges run by the brothers around the world. And though the number of brothers teaching has dwindled to 4,000, they are aided by some 73,000 lay colleagues who teach nearly a million students in over 80 countries, from impoverished nations like Nigeria to colleges like Bethlehem University in the Holy Land, La Salle University in Philadelphia, St. Mary’s University in Minnesota and Manhattan College in the Bronx, whose green quadrangle so many of us walked each day and where we learned to love the classics. Some of us, in turn, went on to teach and write, freely giving of ourselves to whomever we were fortunate enough to reach.