John Baptist De La Salle was born into a fairly wealthy family in Rheims in Champagne, France, on the 30th April 1651. He was the eldest of seven children, five boys and two girls. De La Salle, his father, a magistrate to the presidial court of Rheims gave John Baptist an education in keeping with the dignity of the family. John Baptist De La Salle began his studies at the College des Bons Enfants in Rheims in 1661 and the following year, 1662, at the age of 12 he received the tonsure, a sign of his commitment to priestly training. In 1668 he is made a canon of Notre Dame Cathedral, Rheims, from which he receives an income for his duties to the cathedral. In 1669 John Baptist De La Salle received the Master of Arts from Rheims University and in 1670 De La Salle goes to the seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris.
In 1672 John Baptist De La Salle returns to Rheims to take responsibility for his brothers and sisters as both his mother then nine months later his father die. John Baptist De La Salle was only 21 years of age when he inherited the family estate and guardianship of his four brothers and two sisters.
John Baptist De La Salle completed his training for the priesthood at the University of Rheims and is ordained as priest on April 9th 1678. Shortly after his ordination Canon Roland, De La Salle’s friend and advisor dies and De La Salle inherits from Canon Roland both his canonry and the guardianship of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. It is this connection with the Sisters of the Infant Jesus that links De La Salle with the education of youth especially the poor.
In March 1679, De La Salle met Adrien Nyel at the convent of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. Adrien Nyel had established schools in nearby Rouen under the patronage of Madame Maillefer, a relative. Education, morality and religious piety were neglected due to continuous demands of war upon the Kingdom of King Louis XIV. Children, especially of the working class and the poor roamed the streets as families struggled to etch a living in difficult times. It was at this time noble wealthy men and women aware of the decline in society attempted to establish free schools for the poor. Madame Mailefer contacted Adrien Nyel to establish a free school for girls in Rheims.
Soon after that chance meeting with Adrien Nyel at the convent of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, John Baptist De La Salle iencouraged Adrien Nyel to open Christian Schools for boys in the parishes of St. Maurice and St. James in Rheims. These were not ‘Charity Schools’ for those that could pay did pay. The Christian Schools were open to ALL and the poor were especially welcome.
As guardian and guarantor of the Christian Schools De La Salle in 1680, not pleased with the quality of education in these schools took charge of Adrien Nyel’s teachers and has them move into his own home. 1680 marks the foundation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
Through 1680 to 1682 John Baptist De La Salle recruited better quality teachers, opened Christian Schools in Rethel, Chateau-Porcien, Guise and Laon. John Baptist De La Salle also took on the responsibility for the christian formation and training of the teachers. He insisted they live in his house and attend morning and evening prayer with him. In 1682 after conflict with his own brothers and sisters over having to live with teachers of a lower class, John Baptist De La Salle rents a house for his teachers and goes to live with them. The following year he resigns his canonry of Rheims Cathedral and in that winter distributes much of his wealth to the poor.
It is in 1684 that John Baptist De La Salle with twelve of the teachers makes a vow of obedience and it is these men that begin to use the name Brothers of the Christian Schools and begin to wear their distinctive habit.
Not without difficulty and many lawsuits latter from the formal teaching profession of School Masters, and from the Church authorities the Brothers of the Christian Schools continued to grow and spread throughout France. When John Baptist De La Salle died on April 7th, 1719 there were 274 Brothers, 27 communities and 9000 pupils.
De La Salle during his lifetime had reformed educational practice and had established the first Institute of lay Brothers in the Catholic Church. John Baptist De La Salle also wrote numerous texts on religious life and on education such as The Rule of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, The Conduct of Schools, The Rule of Good Behaviour, The Duties of a Christian and The Manual of Piety for Schools, all of which are used in teacher training or religious formation today.
John Baptist De La Salle’s legacy was the establishment of the Christian School open to all especially the poor. Lasallian education was to be relevant, structured, systematic and personal. De La Salle saw the schoolteacher as an ambassador for Christ and he drew heavily from the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament. De La Salle saw the duty of the teacher in terms of the mission of the Church, to bring young people to know Jesus and that this was to be done by ‘touching the hearts’ of the children especially the poor. Brothers were to be older brothers to their students with the firmness of a father and the gentleness of a mother
John Baptist De La Salle was canonised in 1900 and made Patron Saint of Teachers in 1950.
Brothers Julian Watson, Dunstan Bourke and Maurice Salmon arrived in New Zealand from Australia on January 15th1953 at the request of Archbishop McKeffrey to teach at St. Mary’s, Blenheim. That same year Brothers Peter Duffy, John Cleary and Edmond Young arrived in Auckland from Australia at the request of Bishop Liston to establish a Secondary School for boys in South Auckland (June 3rd 1953).