Saint John Baptist de La Salle (1651-1719) opened his first school in Reims, his birthplace in northeastern France, in 1679. He was convinced that without Christian schools some poor children would be lost both to the Church and to civil society. His initial efforts led him to organize the teachers whose services he had secured into a religious community called the Brothers of the Christian Schools. De La Salle inspired these teachers with the following principle: “You should therefore have a great tenderness towards them and supply their spiritual needs to the best of your ability, looking upon these children as members of Jesus Christ and as his much loved ones” (Meditation for the feast of St. Nicholas). Over a period of thirty years, he opened schools in several French cities and towns and worked with numerous teachers and students from various socio-economic levels. By the time of his death he had founded different types of educational institutions: primary schools, teacher training centers, boarding schools, and homes for delinquents.
Alert to the needs of his time, he was an innovator in the development of teacher training programs and in curricular and pedagogical practices. Teachers ranked with servants in seventeenth century France. De La Salle, however, recognized that teachers stand in a providential and grace-filled relationship to children. Because of the special dignity of this calling, he provided teachers with extensive pedagogical preparation and on-going supervision. In consultation with his teachers, de La Salle designed a curriculum and wrote practical and effective textbooks infused with gospel values. De La Salle was one of the early Catholic proponents of universal education. Although de La Salle’s schools were primarily for the poor, they attracted children from families of differing economic backgrounds. However, he tolerated nothing of the social segregating which was the practice of the day. He prescribed uniform management procedures for the classroom instruction of students from different social and academic levels.
De La Salle regarded a school as a community of believers working cooperatively to achieve a shared vision. De La Salle envisioned teachers as ministers of grace who exercise their vocation daily by instructing youth in the principles of the gospel as well as in the various academic and vocational subjects. His teachers thus helped young people to commit themselves to the teachings of the gospel, to develop loyalty to the Catholic Church, and to prepare themselves for productive citizenship.
De La Salle was a prolific writer and his educational ideas are embodied in several major works: Rule of the Brothers of the Christian schools, Meditations for the Time of Retreat, and the Conduct of Schools, as well as in the textbooks he wrote for students. His contributions to Catholic education led Pope Pius XII in 1950 to proclaim him the Patron of Teachers.
Today, nearly 80,000 students in more than 80 countries throughout the world receive their education in Lasallian Schools which differ greatly in terms of clientele, curriculum and methodology as well as in social and cultural conditions. These schools are unified in the Lasallian heritage.
Lasallian spirituality is rooted in De La Salle’s “double contemplation” of our aspiration to be with God for eternity and the challenge faced by the poor and marginalized to achieve that end. Thus, Lasallian spirituality is:
• rooted in the school as an instrument of Divine Grace
• focused on the relationship between the teacher and the student
• inspired by the salvific potential of a human and Christian education
In harmony with Lasallian Spirituality, three essential characteristics form the core of the Lasallian School:
(1) Teaching viewed as a ministry of grace;
(2) Association, that is, the achievement of the school’s goals through the collaborative efforts of teachers sharing the same vision and values of the gospel;
(3) The effective management of the schools so as to achieve the intellectual, cultural, religious, and vocational formation of the students through a curriculum suited to their needs and based on Christian values.