John Baptist De La Salle was born in Rheims, France in 1651, the eldest of 11 children, 4 of whom died in infancy. His father, Louis, was a magistrate thus ensuring a comfortable lifestyle for his family. De La Salle was educated at home, then at school and later at the University of Rheims and at the Sorbornne in Paris, where he began studies for the priesthood. His studies were interrupted when both his parents died within nine months of each other, and he assumed responsibilities for his younger brothers and sisters. He was later ordained in 1678.
Education in 17th Century France was confined to wealthy families. He not only saw the educational plight of the poor, but also responded to it. A chance meeting with Adrien Nyel, an enthusiastic layman from Rouen, who was interested in providing education for poor girls and later poor boys in Rouen, provided De La Salle with a new direction in life.
De La Salle started his first school for poor boys in the parish of St. Maurice in Rheims in 1679. His first teachers were men of goodwill but with little education themselves, and so had to be instructed and trained by De La Salle himself. It was from this nucleus of followers that the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the De La Salle Brothers, were developed to a stage where today, they and their partners work in 84 countries.
De La Salle experienced great suffering in his life, including betrayal of his early disciples, misunderstanding and interference from the clergy and bishops, hostility from the “writing master”, illness, near starvation during the great famine of 1684. He gave away his patrimony to the poor so that he could readily identify with the experiences and insecurity of many of his early brothers.
De La Salle bequeathed to the brothers a two-fold spirit: a Spirit of Faith, to accept the hand of God in all events, both good and difficult, in their daily lives; and a Spirit of Zeal, an enthusiastic endeavour that they bring to the work of Christian education, especially the education of the poor.
De La Salle died on Good Friday, 1719. His Institute of Brothers was to receive Papal approval six years later in 1725. He was canonised a saint in 1900 and in 1950 declared “Patron of Teachers” by Pope Pius XII.
There are 19 communities of Brothers in the District of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Pakistan. In Victoria the two Lasallian Communities are at St. Bede’s College, Mentone, and De La Salle College, Malvern. St James is unique in that, while it has strong Lasallian links with these communities, it is essentially a Catholic Regional College. However, as a College, it continues to develop its Lasallian identity, based strongly on the teachings of St. John Baptist De La Salle, to provides us with the basis in which to grow, develop and foster our ideal of providing a Christian education for all.