St Marcellin Champagnat 1789–1840
St Marcellin Champagnat founded our worldwide community of Brothers. He followed his calling from God with the simple and ordinary Christian faith in his heart, together with hard work. His passion and love of God at once drove and comforted him throughout his life, while allowing him to live surrounded by those who loved him and all they had built together.
The son of French peasants, Marcellin was born in the village of Le Rosey near the city of Lyons in 1789. It was the year of the storming of the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution. The following decades were extremely difficult for the French. It was against this influential background of religious, political, economic and social unrest that Marcellin took the path to the foundation of a religious order and sainthood.
Marcellin was a typical illiterate French peasant who, when he was a young boy, a visiting priest suggested might like to train for the Catholic priesthood. The family had little means to send their son to the seminary but they were as determined as the young Marcellin and before long he set out on his path. Marcellin found the early years of his studies towards the priesthood extremely difficult. He was no natural scholar but through sheer will and hard work, combined with prayer and the unfailing support of his mother and aunt, he was finally ordained as a priest in 1816.
During his studies Marcellin and a group of other seminarians had discussed forming a religious order under the patronage of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This dream was realised in the church of Our Lady of Fourvière above Lyons, the day after their ordination. The group of young men together dedicated themselves to Mary as "The Society of Mary".
The beginnings of Marcellin’s dream
Marcellin's first and, as it turned out, only appointment as assistant priest was to the remote rural community of La Valla, not far from his home. Marcellin’s personal charisma and sincerity led him to become popular and respected by his parishioners.
France had been at war almost continuously for 26 years and public education in rural areas had collapsed. This background of no schools or education system led Marcellin into a life-changing event. One day, a young man of the parish called him to a 17-year-old boy, Jean-Baptiste Montagne, who was dying. What affected Marcellin so profoundly about this meeting was that Jean-Baptiste had never learned the most basic elements of the Christian faith. To Marcellin, the death of Jean-Baptiste at only 17 and in almost complete ignorance of the Christian faith was a tragedy. He decided he must act to ensure others did not suffer the same fate. This event, more than any other, set Marcellin on the path that would lead him to found the Brothers.
In January 1817 Marcellin bought a simple house in La Valla and recruited two young men, Jean-Marie Granjon and Jean-Baptiste Audras. Like him, these young men were from peasant stock, and together they formed the first community. The three were used to simple living and hard work; they carried this attitude into their new community, praying often, and from their example others came to join them.
In 1818 Marcellin opened the first Marist school whose timetable he designed in such a way to fit the farming needs of his parishioners (such as allowing children off school to help in the fields at planting and harvesting time). His fees for the school he set at a level he knew most rural families could meet. In fact, if he knew the family was unable to afford anything, the tuition was free.
Marcellin and his community helped to support themselves and their school by doing what came naturally to them: they worked hard. The community carried out light manufacturing together, such as forging nails, which they sold. These efforts and living simply helped to pay for providing schools to the poorest.
From France to the world
Over the next 20 years Marcellin's recruits continued to increase in number and they first took the name of Brothers of Mary, which eventually became Petits Frères de Marie or Little Brothers of Mary. (When they were officially approved by the Church they were given the name Fratres Maristae a Scolis, which is why Brothers take the post-nominal letters FMS.) To accommodate his growing congregation Marcellin began one of his greatest achievements: the building of a great stone house on a bare piece of land, which would become the Hermitage. This first motherhouse of the Marist Brothers was largely designed and built by Marcellin.
By the time Marcellin died on 6 June 1840, the order had 48 establishments in France and 278 Brothers. Today there are 5 100 Brothers working in over 80 countries. From small beginnings Marcellin’s dream grew and its influence spread to every continent in the world. It has reached millions of students and their families, who proudly proclaim themselves “Marists” or “Marist old boys”.