John Baptist de La Salle (April 30, 1651 – April 7, 1719) was a French priest, educational reformer, and founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He is a saint of the Roman Catholic Church and the patron saint of teachers.
De La Salle dedicated much of his life to the education of poor children in France; in doing so, he started many lasting educational practices. He is considered the founder of the first Catholic schools.
De La Salle was born to a wealthy family in Reims, France on April 30, 1651. He was the eldest child of Louis de La Salle and Nicolle de Moet de Brouillet. La Salle received the tonsure at age eleven and was named canon of Rheims Cathedral when he was fifteen. He was sent to the College des Bons Enfants, where he pursued higher studies and, on July 10, 1669, he took the degree of Master of Arts. When De La Salle had completed his classical, literary, and philosophical courses, he was sent to Paris to enter the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice on October 18, 1670. His mother died on July 19, 1671, and on April 9, 1672, his father died. This circumstance obliged him to leave Saint-Sulpice on April 19, 1672. He was now twenty-one, the head of the family, and as such had the responsibility of educating his four brothers and two sisters. He completed his theological studies and was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 26 on April 9, 1678. Two years later he received a Doctorate in Theology.
De La Salle was a man of refined manners, a cultured mind, and great practical ability, in whom personal prosperity was balanced with kindness and affability. In physical appearance he was of commanding presence, somewhat above the medium height. He had large, penetrating blue eyes and a broad forehead.
De La Salle became involved in education little by little, without ever consciously setting out to do so. He lived in a time when society was characterized by great disparity between the rich and the poor. Jean Baptiste de la Salle believed that education gave hope and opportunity for people to lead better lives of dignity and freedom.
The Sisters of the Child Jesus were a new religious congregation whose work was the care of the sick and education of poor girls. The young priest had helped them in becoming established, and then served as their chaplain and confessor. It was through his work with the Sisters that in 1679, he met Adrian Nyel. What began as a charitable effort to help Adrian Nyel establish a school for the poor in De La Salle's home town gradually became his life's work. With De La Salle's help, a school was soon opened. Shortly thereafter, a wealthy woman in Rheims told Nyel that she also would endow a school, but only if La Salle would help.
At that time, most children had little hope for the future. Moved by the plight of the poor who seemed so "far from salvation" either in this world or the next, he determined to put his own talents and advanced education at the service of the children "often left to themselves and badly brought up".
De La Salle knew that the teachers in Reims were struggling, lacking leadership, purpose, and training, and he found himself taking increasingly deliberate steps to help this small group of men with their work. First, in 1680, he invited them to take their meals in his home, as much to teach them table manners as to inspire and instruct them in their work. This crossing of social boundaries was one that his relatives found difficult to bear. In 1681, De La Salle realized that he would have to take a further step – he brought the teachers into his own home to live with him. De La Salle's relatives were deeply disturbed, his social class was scandalized. When, a year later, his family home was lost at auction because of a family lawsuit, De La Salle rented a house into which he and the handful of teachers moved.
De La Salle thereby began a new religious institute, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, also known as the De La Salle Brothers (in the U.K., Ireland, Malta, Australasia, and Asia) or, most commonly in the United States, the Christian Brothers. (They are sometimes confused with a different congregation of the same name founded by Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice in Ireland, who are known in the U.S. as the Irish Christian Brothers.) The De La Salle Brothers were the first Roman Catholic teaching religious institute that did not include any priests.
De La Salle's enterprise met opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities who resisted the creation of a new form of religious life, a community of consecrated laymen to conduct free schools "together and by association". The educational establishment resented his innovative methods and his insistence on gratuity for all, regardless of whether they could afford to pay. Nevertheless, De La Salle and his Brothers succeeded in creating a network of quality schools throughout France that featured instruction in the vernacular, students grouped according to ability and achievement, integration of religious instruction with secular subjects, well-prepared teachers with a sense of vocation and mission, and the involvement of parents.
In 1685, De La Salle founded what is generally considered the first normal school — that is, a school whose purpose is to train teachers — in Rheims, France.
Worn out by austerities and exhausting labors, De La Salle died at Saint Yon, near Rouen, early in 1719 on Good Friday, only three weeks before his 68th birthday.
Pope Leo XIII canonized him on 24 May 1900 and Pope Pius X inserted his feast in the General Roman Calendar in 1904 for celebration on 15 May. Because of his life and inspirational writings, Pope Pius XII proclaimed him patron saint of teachers on 15 May 1950. In the 1969 revision of the Church calendar, Pope Paul VI moved his feast day to 7 April, the day of his death or birth to heaven, his dies natalis.
De La Salle was a pioneer in programs for training lay teachers. Of his writings on education, Matthew Arnold remarked: “Later works on the same subject have little improved the precepts, while they entirely lack the unction.” He was a pedagogical thinker of note and is among the founders of a distinctively modern pedagogy. His educational innovations include 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. De La Salle's work quickly spread through France and, after his death, continued to spread across the globe.
Currently, about 6,000 Brothers and 75,000 lay and religious colleagues worldwide serve as teachers, counselors, and guides to 900,000 students in over 1,000 educational institutions in 84 countries.
There are a number of streets named after La Salle, generally due to the location of a Christian Brothers School. These include: Soi Sukhumvit 105, Bangkok, Thailand; in Bacolod, Philippines (where the University of St. La Salle and St. Joseph School - La Salle are located); and La Salle Street in Mandaluyong City. There is also De La Salle Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri; La Salle Road in Hong Kong; and La Salle Road, Towson, Maryland.
Also, there are many educational institutions named after him, such as De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines; La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Seton-La Salle High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; La Salle College High School (Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania); La Salle High School in Pasadena, California; De La Salle High School in Concord, California; De La Salle College (Toronto), Canada, and De La Salle High School in Revesby, New South Wales, Australia. He is one of the six patron saints of Good Samaritan Catholic College. There is also St. La Salle School in Reedley, California. There is a technical school, Collège de la Salle, in Douala, Cameroon, and De La Salle College, Jersey. There is a De LaSalle Academy in Fort Myers, Florida, University De La Salle in Bogota Colombia.