Marcellin Champagnat

Saint Marcellin Joseph Benedict Champagnat (20 May 1789 – 6 June 1840) was born in Le Rosey, village of Marlhes, near St. Etienne (Loire), France. He was the founder of the Marist Brothers, a religious congregation of brothers in the Roman Catholic Church devoted to Mary and dedicated to education. His feast day is 6 June, his death anniversary.

Champagnat was ordained as a priest on 22 July 1816 and was part of a group led by Jean-Claude Colin, who founded the Society of Mary, a separate religious congregation to the Marist Brothers teaching order Marcellin founded later. Marcellin was born in the year of the storming of the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution. The religious, political, economic and social unrest of the times he lived influenced his priorities and life path. Marcellin was well known for being a great child in school.

Early life

The son of French peasants, Marcellin was born on 20 May 1789 in the village of Le Rosey near the city of Lyons. Marcellin was baptized within twenty-four hours of his birth, on the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, 1789.[1] He was the ninth child of ten children of Jean-Baptiste and Marie Thérèse Chirat Champagnat. His father held an important position in local politics and he introduced Marcellin to many practical skills.[2][3] His paternal aunt, Louise Champagnat was a sister to Jean-Baptiste, and a religious Sister of Saint Joseph. She was expelled from her convent by the new government and sought sanctuary with his family during the days of revolutionary excess.

He attended school for a very brief time. He failed to demonstrate much capacity for academic work; the brutal treatment that teachers meted out to students also worked against his settling in. His teachers told him not to continue on his vocation. By age eleven, he had decided that he preferred religious duties to the world of books.[4][5]

Marcellin was a typical illiterate French peasant when as a young boy a visiting priest suggested that he might like to train for the Catholic priesthood. When Marcellin decided to study for the priesthood, he set out to get an education, and enlisted the aid of his sister Marie-Anne’s husband, Benoît Arnaud. His brother-in-law, once a seminarian and now a teacher, was considered to be a well-educated, well-esteemed, and influential man. Marcellin moved to the town of St. Sauveur and lived with his sister and her family for some months during the years 1803, 1804, and 1805.[6] Marcellin found the early years of his studies towards the priesthood extremely difficult.[7]

Seminary and ordination

Life-size bronze statue of St Marcellin Champagnat outside Parramatta Marist High School by sculptor Linda Klarfeld

With money he earned from raising sheep, he went to the Minor Seminary at Verrières-en-Forez. He entered in October, 1805.[8] Older than many of his classmates, at the age of 17, he failed his first year and was sent home. He was readmitted, through the efforts of his mother, his parish priest, and the superior of the seminary. [9]

Marcellin, who by this time had developed from being timid and shy into a gregarious young man, was known to frequent the local pubs. As a consequence, he was eventually regarded as a member of a group known as the “Happy Gang,” made up of seminarians who were a familiar sight in the taverns of the town during their free time.[10][11]

At the beginning of his second year, Marcellin settled down to a more sober life style. He continued to apply himself to his studies throughout his second year at the seminary. Two events, occurring during the summer following the second year, also helped to moderate his exuberant behavior. The first was the sudden death on 2 September 1807 of his friend, Denis Duplay. The second was a serious conversation with Father Linossier, who supervised the seminary, about improving Marcellin's general conduct[11] Marcellin left Verrières for St. Irenaeus, the major seminary near Lyons.

He then attended the major seminary at Saint Irenaeus in Lyon for his spiritual and theological formation as a priest. Among his companions were Jean-Marie Vianney and Jean-Claude Colin.[12] He was no natural scholar but through hard work and the support of his mother and aunt he was finally ordained.[7]

It was here that the idea for the Society of Mary was conceived and promoted by a group of seminarians, including Marcellin. He was ordained on 22 July 1816, at the age of twenty-seven, and the next day, travelled to the shrine of Our Lady of Fourviéres above Lyons with others interested in establishing a Society of Mary. The group of young men together dedicated themselves to Mary as "The Society of Mary".[7] From the start, he announced the Society should include teaching Brothers to work with children deprived of Christian education in remote rural areas because others were not going to them.

Founding the Marist Brothers

Bust of Champagnat

After his ordination, Marcellin was appointed pastor in La Valla, on the slopes of Mont Pilat. Marcellin was struck by the isolation in which people lived and the lack of education in the rural area. At the end of October 1816, after attending Jean-Baptist Montagne, a dying sixteen-year-old completely ignorant of basic Catholic teaching, Marcellin acted upon his conviction of the need for religious Brothers.[10]

After witnessing the poor treatment of a student by a teacher, his thoughts on education were shaken. He realised that not enough was being done to help the poor and illiterate in his society. His quote "To raise children properly, we should love them and love them equally" became the cornerstone of Marist education since.

On 2 January 1817, Marcellin encouraged two young men Jean-Marie Granjon and Jean-Baptiste Audras, to join him in forming the nucleus of the Marist Brothers. Others soon followed. La Valla thus became the birthplace of the Marist Brothers.[12] Between 1817 and 1824 he started a primary school at La Valla which became a teacher training centre for his young Brothers. The first Brothers were young country men, most of whom were between 15 and 18 years old. They were more used to hard work in the fields than to prayer, intellectual work and working with children and the uneducated.

Marcellin motivated these teenagers with his enthusiasm for teaching and spreading the gospel. He lived among them, like one of them. He taught them how to pray and to live in religious community as Brothers, and how to be teachers and religious educators themselves. Soon, he sent them into the most remote villages to teach the children, and sometimes the adults as well, the basics of religious knowledge, and of reading and writing.

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). He set fees for the school 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.[7] Champagnat had a great devotion to the Guardian angels, and directed that a picture of a Guardian Angel be placed in every classroom.[13]

Encouraged by the success of the school in La Valla, others were founded at Marlhes in 1819, in Saint-Sauveur-Street 1820, and in Bourg-Argental in 1822. But this success endangered the small congregation, which had little more than novices. In March 1822, eight applicants came from Haute-Loire, giving a new impetus to the institution, and allows the creation of new houses in Vanosc 1823, Saint-Symphorien-le-Chateau 1823, and Chavanay Charlieu 1824.

Champagnat decided to build a novitiate on land purchased from the hermitage at St. Chamond. One sign of both his trust in God and the huge success the Brothers had become was the building being designed to accommodate 150 people. The chapel was blessed on 13 August 1825. In 1837, Champagnat printed a Rule for his Brothers. Exhausted by his travels and his incessant efforts to gain recognition for his work with the authorities in Paris, and having been sick for a long time, Champagnat began preparing for his succession, and Brother Francis was elected as Marcellin's replacement, on 12 October 1838.

Final years

Statue of Champagnat at Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

After a long and painful illness, Champagnat died of cancer on 6 June 1840,[10] aged 51, at Our Lady of the Hermitage in the Gier River valley about 30 kilometres from where he had commenced his work. He was buried on 8 June. He left this message in his Spiritual Testament of 18 May 1840: "Let there be among you just one heart and one mind. Let it always be said of the Little Brothers of Mary as it was of the early Christians: See how they love one another!"[14] By that time there were 278 Brothers and 48 Marist schools in France and Oceania (South Pacific), and by 1856 there were 300 houses and more than 1500 Brothers.

The nascent order called themselves Les Petits Frères de Marie or Little Brothers of Mary. The Marist Brothers Institute was formally approved in 1863 by Pope Pius IX and were given the name Fratres Maristae a Scolis. Members of the order are identified by the initials "FMS." The educational philosophy of Champagnat was simple: to teach children one must love them; secular subjects should be well taught as a means of children to the schools, and they would learn the basic elements of their faith as well. Champagnat saw God at the centre of life and the Virgin Mary as a sure means of attracting people to God.


Marcellin Champagnat was declared Venerable in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, beatified by Pope Pius XII on 29 May 1955, and canonised by Pope John Paul II on 18 April 1999. His feast day is observed in the Roman Catholic Church on 6 June.[2]


To raise children properly, we must love them and love them equally.

I cannot see a child without wanting to tell him how much God loves him.[12]

Let there be among you just one heart and one mind. Let it always be said of the Little Brothers of Mary as it was of the early Christians: See how they love one another!


See also



Further reading

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