Over a million students around the world who attend Lasallian schools are today celebrating the feast of St John Baptist De La Salle, the patron saint of educators.
John Baptist, the first-born son of wealthy parents, was born in Rheims, France, on April 30, 1651. After receiving a tonsure when he was 11, he was named canon of Rheims Cathedral at the age of 16. Despite having to run his family’s affairs after his parents died, he completed his theological studies and was ordained a priest on April 9, 1678.
Two years later he received a doctorate in theology. Meanwhile, he became involved with a group of rough and barely literate young men to establish schools for poor boys. At that time, few people lived in luxury, and most were extremely poor: peasants in the country and slum dwellers in the towns. Only a few could afford to send their children to school, wealthy families preferred to have their children educated at home by a tutor or governess, and 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, De La Salle was determined to put his own talents and advanced education at the service of the children “often left to themselves and badly brought up”. To be more effective, he abandoned his family home, renounced his wealth and his position as canon, and moved in with the teachers, and so formed the community that became known as the Brothers of the Christian Schools. The initials FSC come from the Latin Fratres Scholarum Cristianarum.
From the early days of its foundation, De La Salle had intended that the new congregation be a lay one organised and managed by lay religious. He wanted his Brothers to devote themselves totally to education and the upbringing of children and adolescents – a full-time task. This was a revolutionary idea for his time.
His enterprise met with opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities who resisted the creation of a new form of religious life, a community of consecrated laymen to conduct non-paying schools “together and by association”. Moreover, 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 schools throughout France that featured groundbreaking notions such as 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 addition, De La Salle pioneered programmes for the training of lay teachers, Sunday courses for young working men, and one of the first institutions in France for the care of delinquents.
Worn out by austerity and exhausting labours, he died at Saint Yon near Rouen early on Good Friday, April 7, 1719, only weeks before his 68th birthday.
De La Salle was a pioneer in founding training colleges for teachers, reform schools for delinquents, technical schools and secondary schools for modern languages, arts and sciences. His work quickly spread throughout France and, after his death, continued to spread across the globe.
On May 24, 1900, De La Salle was declared a saint. On May 15, 1950, because of his life and inspirational writings, he was made the patron saint of all those who work in the field of education. De La Salle inspired others in the teaching and caring for young people, how to meet failure and frailty with compassion, as well as how to affirm, strengthen and heal.
Today St La Salle is still a source of inspiration for many educators around the world, providing them with insight in the way education should be provided to youths and to children with special needs. Lasallian schools are still found in 80 countries around the world.
The story of the De La Salle Brothers or the Frères in Malta is a relatively long and interesting one. It is inextricably linked with their coming to the shores of the Maltese islands in 1903. However, their experience in Malta begins in a somewhat bizarre way… with the death of one of their superiors at the Civil Hospital in Floriana.
On the verge of a very disappointing return to Tunis, the Brothers met, by chance, Canon Carmelo Bugelli of Cospicua. Seeing their great disillusionment, he offered them the possibility of renting premises at Strada Buongiorno in Cospicua
On July 27, 1849, Bro. Joseph Stanislas Barthès, provincial of the Brothers for the Near East, was travelling from Alexandria to Paris. The ship stopped in Malta. The next day, he went to hear Mass at St John’s Co-Cathedral. There he may have seen the gravestones – indeed he may have even knelt on one – of the Knights Henry (1637), Louis (1680) and William (1739) De La Salle, who, together with the founder, must have had a common ancestor.
Henry was commandant and member of the 16 electors who chose Dom Raphael Cotoner as Grand Master, and William was commandant and bailiff of the Langue of France. They lived and died in the palace, situated at the corner of Republic Street and St Nicholas Street in Valletta, which till today carries their name – Palazzo De La Salle.
During Mass, Bro. Barthès suffered a fatal stroke. He was 65 years old. His funeral was held at the Basilica of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, Valletta. Through this unfortunate coincidence, the superiors of the Brothers came to know more about Malta.
In 1884, the Capuchin friar Antonio Maria Buhagiar, while in Tunis, was appointed auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Charles Allemand Lavigerie. The Frères of Rue De La Kasbah School went to his episcopal consecration at the Cathedral of Tunis.
On April 14, 1885, Buhagiar was appointed by the Vatican as apostolic administrator of the diocese of Malta. It was probably after Bishop Buhagiar’s request in 1886 that Frère Louis Renaux, the assistant to the superior general of the Brothers in Paris, came to Malta to discuss the possibility of the Christian Brothers founding a school in Malta. However, there was no positive outcome.
In 1888 a correspondence started between Enrico Naudi, an elected member of the Council of Government in Malta, and Frère Joseph, the superior general in Paris. Naudi’s main aim was to ask the Frères to administer La Scuola Normale, Valletta, and thereby tutor Maltese teachers for village schools. Alas, Naudi, was not re-elected in 1889, and upon his death in 1892, the project, which had almost been realised, came to an abrupt end.
During the last quarter of the 19th century, governments in France were passing very anti-clerical laws. French premier Waldeck Rousseau introduced, in July 1901, laws concerning religious congregations. Every religious order had to apply for legal authorisation and no member of an unauthorised order was allowed teach.
An anti-clerical coalition won the elections of 1902 and the new administration of Emil Combes applied the 1901 law ruthlessly and religious orders found it very difficult to gain legal authorisation. These were symptoms of the coming storm; in fact, 81 female and 54 male congregations were dissolved.
Thousands of religious, Brothers and others, had two options: either adopt a secularised life in France or leave the country. Some 4,000 Brothers chose the latter course, and heroically sacrificed family, friends and country to go to teach wherever their superiors would send them to maintain their apostolate and inherently preserve the essence of the religious life.
Bro. Periel Etienne, assistant to the superior general, had been working for a while on plans to open a grand college in Malta where exiled French Brothers could go to when they had to leave their home. Bro. Periel had already done quite a lot of homework through the support of old boys of Maltese origin in Tunis. His dream was to find a piece of land in the Sliema area.
It was at this time and in these circumstances that the Frères came to Malta. In May 1903, Bro. Periel asked Bro. Arbon François, director of a school in Tunis, to visit Malta to pave the way for his planned project for Malta. He was to look for a suitable building that could be used as a school to accommodate the children of sea fearers, tradesmen, and port workers. But his mission was unsuccessful and he soon returned home.
Two months later, in July of that same year, Bro. Arbon, along with Bro. Periel himself and Bro. Gainus, the brother provincial of Algeria and Tunis, revisited Malta to try once again to find a suitable house. The three Brothers stayed with Don Ferdinando Saliba, an ex-student of the Frères in Tunis and chaplain of the Piccole Suore of Ħamrun. In spite of the help he offered them, this second mission proved as fruitless as the first.
On the verge of a very disappointing return to Tunis, the Brothers met, by chance, Canon Carmelo Bugelli of Cospicua. Seeing their great disillusionment, he offered them the possibility of renting premises at Strada Buongiorno in Cospicua. It was a building which in the previous years served as a school for the Sisters of St Joseph, and afterwards, as a government school. The Brothers went to check the building and accepted the offer as a stopgap. The deed was signed by Bro. Arbon, who was also granted authorisation from Sir Charles Mansfield Clarke, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Malta, to open a Lasallian school in Malta.
August 27, 1903, must have been a typically hot summer’s day when the French liner Ville d’Alger sailed into Grand Harbour from nearby Tunis. On it were Malta’s three pioneer Brothers – Bro. Benoit Constant, a Frenchman, Bro. Simplide Augustin Mifsud, whose parents were Maltese immigrants in Tunis, and Brother Dunstan Lewis, an Irishman. Although there was no artist on the spot to sketch the three priests they must have been odd-looking in their long black habit with a white rabat attached to the collar, hanging under the chin, and their traditional three-cornered hat.
The three Brothers, who were to make up this new community, entered no. 96, Strada Buongiorno (today 102, Matty Grima Street), Cospicua. They had barely three months to settle down and get accustomed to the new set-up before they welcomed their first students.
The pealing of the bells of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, celebrating De La Salle’s canonisation in 1900 was still fresh in the Frères’ minds. It was therefore appropriate that their first school in Malta be named after their founder, St John Baptist De La Salle College (later shortened to De La Salle College). The word ‘college’, which suggests spaciousness and magnificence, might have been very misleading in those days as this first school was no more than a small house consisting of a few rooms and a yard.
The first day of school was November 3, 1903, with Bro. Constant as director of the new community and founder of De La Salle College.
Since the initial Brothers were French, the Maltese referred to them by a corrupted version of their French name, Il-Frers. Frères, in French, means Brothers.
The start of the project was rather tough as several big difficulties developed. The splendid dream of a great college for children of port workers started to fade away. Children were not as plentiful as the optimistic Frères thought and wished.
Before he left Tunis, Bro. Constant, had also been given the responsibility of looking for suitable premises in the Sliema area for the Brothers to start a community and a school there. Through the help of a certain Alphonse Galea he cast his eyes on a house in Sliema.
On December 8, 1903, the Brothers clinched a deal regarding a house called Villa Schinas at 108, Rudolph Street, Sliema. A week later, on December 15, the Brothers signed the contract. They called their new school Stella Maris as it was situated in the Stella Maris parish. Immediately, they embarked on the necessary modifications to the building.
As soon as the Brothers arrived in Malta in 1903, the bishop had asked three Frères to offer help with discipline and teaching English at the Bishop’s Seminary. However, this task at San Calcedonio in Floriana lasted less than two years, as in July 1904, the three Brothers moved to Villa Schinas to spend their summer holidays getting the place cleaned and readied.
Under the directorship of Bro. Emmanuel Joseph, a Maltese immigrant from Egypt, lessons started on September 15, 1904. Here again, the beginning was difficult but very soon problems were overcome.
The Sliema families quickly realised the skill and dedication of these new religious teachers for Malta and entrusted their children into their care. Through the academic formation they received, students were able to enter the Civil Service, the Lyceum or the Seminary.
In 1905, just when the Brothers were about to open their new school in Sliema, Bro. Joseph was approached by Don Emanuele Vassallo, the director of the Boys’ diocesan orphanage in Ħamrun, known as Casa San Giuseppe, with a view to obtaining the Brothers’ help at the institution. Vassallo knew the Brothers from their service at the Seminary in Floriana and had witnessed their total devotion to duty. Despite all the difficulties, the Frères welcomed this gratifying calling with courage, considering it very close to the heart of the founder. Indeed, their faith had won over the obstacles.
Three Brothers, Bro. Dorotheus, Bro. Anthony and Bro. Ephrem-Leander, were appointed to work there as requested. They made their way to Casa San Giuseppe, known also as Istituto Bonnici, and visited the workshops. The boys they met there were neglected, covered with festering sores, dressed in tattered clothing, and barefoot. This left them in no doubt about the potential of their new apostolate.
The Frères, through wisdom and a willing heart, swiftly organised classes for academic learning, courses for trades such as printing, carpentry, shoemaking or tailoring, and set up a band that used to perform in certain external occasions. Two Frères joined in the band, playing instruments with the other young musicians. A young orphan nurtured by the Frères began conducting the band himself, later becoming Mro Antonio Muscat Azzopardi (1903-1979).
The Frères started with 35 children in deplorable conditions. The children’s misery and the state of neglect touched their hearts. Their direction of Casa San Giuseppe lasted 18 years. Throughout these years, they built new classrooms, a large refectory and the church.
By 1923, the number of children and adolescents at the home reached 103. With this increase, the work also grew but unfortunately, the number of the Frères dropped. Due to lack of vocations, the Frères had to put aside their mission at St Joseph’s Home after years of hard and fruitful work.
To be concluded.
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