Biography of Br. Francisco, in instalments

Brother François, first Superior General of the Marist Institute

Br. Francis

From March 24th, 2021, in Marist News, we set out on a journey to get to know Brother François (Gabriel Rivat) better. Brother François, the first Superior General, was trained by Saint Marcellin Champagnat and produced the first synthesis of Marist Spirituality. His cause for Beatification has been introduced in Rome and awaits a sign to move forward.
At the end of his work as Superior General, Brother François said: “I have had 20 years of preparation to be superior and 20 years to be one. Will I have another 20 years as reparation?” That is why the number 60 has been chosen, 60 small texts, like “capsules”, a biography in instalments to get to know Brother François.

1. Birth and Family


Gabriel Rivat (Br François) was born on Saturday 12 March 1808, in the hamlet of Maisonnettes, near La Valla-en-Gier (France). Maisonnettes is a hamlet of about 50 inhabitants. La Valla was an agricultural centre, surrounded by forests, producing some craftsmanship, mainly the manufacture of clogs (shoes).His father, Jean-Baptiste, was born on 12 June 1762 and died on 18 September 1827, at the age of 65. His mother, Françoise Boiron, was born on 5 September 1765 and died on 15 December 1844, aged 79. They married in 1789. They had seven children: Jeanne-Marie, born in 1790; Jean-Claude in 1791; Jean-Antoine in 1793; Antoinette in 1796; Jeanne in 1798; Jean-Marie in 1805 and Gabriel in 1808.
The small farm had a stable with perhaps half a dozen cows, and a few sheep, goats or pigs.  While not swimming in abundance, they never went hungry.
It was a Christian family, where the rosary was recited daily. Fasting and penance were observed. People who knocked on the door for food or water were looked after. Mass and catechism classes were attended weekly. Gabriel was baptised the day after his birth.

2. Napoleonic Wars

When Gabriel Rivat was born, Napoleon was holding Pope Pius VII captive and waging numerous wars throughout Europe. After the years of the Revolution, military conscription did not mobilise in the countryside more than one young man out of 15 called up, but from 1810 onwards, additional enlistments were rushed. In 1811, his brother Jean-Claude was mobilised and when, in December 1812, the disaster in Russia was announced, he could only resign himself to the departure of another of his brothers, Jean-Antoine, because the Emperor wanted to resist at all costs. At the age of 3, Gabriel had seen Jean-Claude leave amidst the tears of the whole family: “Why is my big brother leaving? Now, at the age of 5, the scene is repeated: “Where is my brother Jean-Antoine going?” And no doubt they answer him: “Pray a lot for your brothers. Your prayer will be the most heard by the Blessed Virgin”.

3. Consecration to Mary and devotion to his Mother

Brother François learned his devotion to Mary in his family. The rosary was  recited daily in his home.
When he was five years old, he accompanied his mother on a pilgrimage to Valfleury, at that time an important Marian centre. Her ancient image was saved from the iconoclastic revolutionaries. They probably walked the 20 km on foot.
The mother prayed that her sons would return from the war soon and in good health. To achieve this, she promised a picture for the parish church and consecrated her youngest son to the service of the Virgin. It was Saturday 14 August 1813.
A year later Napoleon was forced to abdicate and went into exile on the island of Elba. Gabriel’s brothers Jean-Claude and Jean-Antoine were able to return to their family. At this time, Jean-Antoine has made a decision: he would become a priest and leave for the seminary.
At the end of 1815, Mme Rivat was able to place the promised painting in the parish church. It is a picture of Our Lady of the Rosary, with St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena. She will also do all she can to make her son Gabriel a fervent apostle of the rosary.

4. New Vicar at La Valla

Following the custom, the boy Gabriel Rivat began to help with the work on the farm at the age of seven. He was entrusted with the care of the sheep and lambs. Life in the meadows soon developed in him a taste for botany, reflection and contemplation. In the summer of 1816, there was news in the parish. A young curate was expected to be ordained on 22 July. He was dynamic and arrived a few days before 15 August. His name was Champagnat. He comes from Marlhes. He surprised everyone by his height: 1’79 m, which at that time placed him among the exceptionally tall. He sings well. He preached with ease. Later on, some people would notice that his French was not very good, but in this peasant environment, who would notice?
If he came directly from Marlhes, he had to pass through Maisonnettes and, already on the first day, he could have met by chance the Rivat family. For the feast of 15 August, he will certainly be the one to give the sermon, as the parish priest, Mr Rebod, is a bit of a stammer and will be happy to give him his place. He knows the country customs. During the summer months there will be no parish activities, but in the beginning of autumn, there will be practical things to talk about, especially catechism and preparation for First Communion.
The new priest also has another project. With other seminarians from his class, they have decided to found a new religious family dedicated to Mary. He is in charge of one of its branches, that of the Brothers, under the name of Marists, to catechise and instruct the children of the countryside.

5. Champagnat’s Catechism

The young Vicar Champagnat was especially concerned with catechism; he saw in the young the hope of the Church. At All Saints 1816, he announces its beginning. Jean-Marie, the third of the Rivat children, was 11 years old. He would not miss this formation which must have been started by the previous curate. After a few weeks, Fr. Champagnat wanted to increase the number of children attending catechism classes: “If you bring me a neighbour or a cousin, I will give you a prayer-card”. Well,” says Jean-Marie, “I can bring you my little brother, but he is only 8 years old. “Bring him to me. We’ll see if he can make his First Communion before the others”. And for two years, Gabriel carefully followed this preparation.
According to Sulpician principles, learned in the seminary, Champagnat taught catechism in surplice, in front of two groups of listeners: boys on one side and girls on the other. Gabriel listened attentively and made an effort to memorise for the recitation. Since he could already read, he would soon know the catechism by heart, as was required at the time. This was probably Gabriel Rivat’s first encounter with Marcellin Champagnat.

6. First Communion

The young Gabriel made rapid progress in the study of catechism. Vicar Champagnat did not hesitate to admit him to his first communion, which was celebrated on 19th April 1818, the fourth Sunday after Easter. Gabriel had just turned ten years old. He will keep the memory of this feast, thanks to a prayer-card which he called his “great treasure”. It is a classic image, representing a chalice and a host adored by the angels. Below the table holding the chalice, the lamb is seen lying on the cross.
This act, in the cultural context of 19th century rural France, not only has a religious significance, but publicly marked the end of childhood. Brother François continued to grow in his love of the Eucharist, and at the end of his life it is said that when Brother François returned from communion, he wore an extraordinary smile on his face.
Later he would say: “He who has known Jesus Christ… can no longer pay attention to what he likes or dislikes… he thinks only of remaining united to Him”.

7. Admission to the Community of La Valla, Latin classes

The young Vicar Champagnat had rented a house where he gathered several young men to make them “brothers”. The society of La Valla wondered what “brothers” meant, since at that time they could be sacristans, cantors, church helpers or catechists. Although the vicar also spoke of catechist-educators. From 2 January 1817 Jean-Marie Granjon and Jean-Baptiste Audras lived in the rented house.

Around March 1818, Gabriel began to frequent the house of the “brothers” to receive some Latin lessons from Father Champagnat.

In May 1818, he went to live with the brothers as a boarder. Later he wrote: “Given by my mother to Mary at the foot of the altar of the chapel of the Rosary in the church of La Valla, I left the world on Wednesday 6th May 1818”, he wrote at the beginning of his diary. From then on, Gabriel was less the son of Françoise and more the son of the Virgin Mary.

Three months later, on 3 August 1818, Gabriel Rivat received the sacrament of confirmation in Saint-Chamond, in the church of Saint-Pierre, from Mgr Étienne-Martin Morel de Mons, bishop of Mende (Lozère) and administrator of Viviers (Ardèche). In addition to his studies, François will help as a teacher in the classes of the school of La Valla.

8. In the Vicar’s house

He was already living in Father Champagnat’s house, together with 5 young men who wanted to become brothers: Jean-Marie, Jean-Baptiste (future Brother Louis), Jean-Claude (future Brother Laurent), Antoine and Barthélémy.

Gabriel Rivat had to work hard. Being a pensioner and a student of Latin, he probably devoted more time to intellectual work than to manual work.  He proved to have intelligence and an excellent memory. Father Champagnat devoted some time each day to the formation of his Brothers: lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic and Latin.

Gabriel also devoted himself to the inevitable household chores: sweeping, cleaning, gardening, peeling, washing dishes, and quite possibly forging large carpenter’s nails. According to the testimony of a former pupil, Gabriel worked while singing a few verses of hymns, according to the custom of the workhouses of the time.

He also took part, each day at the Eucharist, in the community prayer and spiritual formation given by Father Champagnat.

We do not know what happened in Gabriel’s heart during that year, but at some point the project of studying Latin to become a priest changed and he began to dream of being a brother dedicated to the education of children.

9. Teacher Training at LaValla

Vicar Champagnat was very concerned about the formation of his Brothers. At first he himself taught his Brothers and the young Gabriel Rivat. For the school year 1818-1819, he obtained a teacher, a former Brother of the Christian Schools, to take charge of the parish school and the intellectual formation of the “Brothers”. His name was Claude Maisonneuve.

Maisonneuve was in charge of the instruction of the pupils and the Brothers and postulants helped him. At the same time, they were trained in the simultaneous or brothers’ method, an educational method which consisted of gathering pupils of all levels in the same room, divided into divisions according to the subject (reading, writing and arithmetic) and their level. If there were a large number of pupils, another similar room would be set up. The teacher, from an elevated position, successively taught the different sections of his classroom, with the help of monitors, and using a set of signals, many of them made with a sound device: the “chasca”.

In other words, throughout the winter of 1818-1819, the little house in La Valla functioned as a real normal school for teachers, with its annexed practice school.

10. The promise

Gabriel Rivat quickly learned the educational method of the Brothers. Little by little he moved away from the idea of training to be a priest and became attuned to the ideal which Father Champagnat passed on to his Brothers, to be Christian educators for poor children and young people.

On Wednesday, 8 September 1819, Gabriel Rivat put on the distinctive costume of the “Little Brothers of Mary”: black trousers, frock coat, collar and top hat, and knelt down in front of the community of the Brothers.

Kneeling before the assembled community, he signed a promise to consecrate himself to God for five years, to work unceasingly for the practice of all the virtues for his personal sanctification and for the Christian education of the children of the countryside. He committed himself to seek only the glory of God, the honour of Mary and the good of the Catholic Church, to teach freely the needy children presented by the parish priests, to obey his superiors without question, to maintain chastity and to share everything in common. From this date, Gabriel Rival became Brother Frances, taking his mother’s name, and he was only 11 years old. He will be the sixth Brother and by far the youngest of Champagnat’s disciples.

Soon the Brothers’ community evolved from catechetical and charitable functions to the running of parish or communal schools, adapting the pedagogical method of the Brothers of the Christian Schools to the rural environment. It is a charismatic community with a universal purpose and not solely parish work. It was during these years that Brother Frances established his status as a disciple and servant of a collective missionary project to which he would dedicate his life.

11. School Teacher

Brother François (Gabriel Rivat) began teaching at La Valla at the age of 12. Since he was too young to see all his pupils, he climbed on a rock and gave his lessons from there. At the same time, he cooked for the community and for the boarding pupils; in the afternoon, he taught reading, catechism and prayers to those who were lagging behind.

In 1821, Brother François left La Valla to go as cook to the school of Marlhes (Loire) and at the same time to continue teaching with a division of the afternoon class. The Marlhes classrooms were small, damp and poorly ventilated, which is why the school was closed two years later.

It was here that one afternoon he met Fr. Préher, the parish priest of Tarentaise (Loire), former teacher of Jean-Antoine Rivat (Gabriel’s brother), who was looking for candidates for the seminary.  Turning to Brother François, he invited him to resume his Latin studies and to leave his kitchen to embrace the ecclesiastical ministry. At the end of their discussions, he asked him the reason for his refusal: “Because” replied the Little Brother, “I do not follow my own will, but God’s will, which is made known to me by my superior.”

From the kitchen at Marlhes, Brother François went on to Vanosc (Ardèche), to take charge of the little children’s class. The school had just been inaugurated in 1823 with the support of the Count of Vogüé.

12. School Director

He soon became the director of the school. During the summer of 1824, he returned to La Valla to help in the construction of a large house, the Hermitage. An improvised mason’s helper, his time was spent moving stones and helping to mix the mortar while listening to some pious reading or reciting the rosary. At the end of the summer, he would no longer return to Vanosc, but would accompany Brother Hilarion to the village of Beulieu-les-Annonay, in charge of the senior class and therefore responsible for the school.

In 1825, a great deal of news arrives in Boulieu: two of the priests who, together with Fr. Champagnat, undertook to found the “Society of Mary”, Fr. Courveille and Fr. Terraillon move to the new house at the Hermitage; the approval of the Brothers’ Project by the Archbishop’ s Office, which will give them their name, they will be known as “Little Brothers of Mary”; and also the foundation of more teaching congregations such as the Brothers of Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux.

13. Crisis of 1826

These were difficult times for his friend Fr. Champagnat and the little work in which Br. François was involved, as he had to overcome opposition to the new congregations of Brothers from both the government and the archdiocese. In addition, Champagnat had difficulties with Fr. J.C. Courveille, who considered himself the founder and superior of all the “Marists”, Fathers, Sisters and Brothers. In January 1826, François received a letter from Fr. Courveille asking for prayers because Champagnat was ill, construction difficulties, debts and the hardships of travel had undermined his health: “Our very dear children in Jesus and Mary, with sorrow and great regret, we write to request that you pray earnestly to the Father of mercies and to our august Mother, the divine Mary, for our very dear and beloved son Fr. Champagnat, your dear and venerable Father Director, who is gravely ill. I beg you, my very dear children, to accompany us in prayer to ask insistently the divine Jesus and the divine Mary, our Mother, to keep for us a son who is so dear to us; and for you a father, who should be no less dear to you. Ask the priests to be so kind as to pray for him and to recommend these intentions to the faithful. Be assured of the paternal tenderness with which I have the honour of being your devoted Father and that I am all yours in Christ-Jesus and in Mary.”

14. Perpetual Vows

During the retreat in the summer of 1826, François learned all the news from the Hermitage which they did not dare to send in writing: the recovery of Father Champagnat, the quarrels between Father Terraillon and Father Courveille, the steps taken by Brother Stanislas to pay Champagnat’s debts. He also learned of the unfortunate scandal caused by Father Courveille among the students, his expulsion from the house and his entry into “La Trappe” and the appointment of Father Terraillon as Missionary.

During the retreat, he made the decision to reaffirm his consecration to God, after having prayed and consulted, he decided to become a Marist Brother for life. He wrote in his diary: “To be lukewarm would be for me the most bitter of reproaches”. François was part of the first group of professed Brothers of the Institute.

On Wednesday, October 11, 1826, at the age of 18 ½ years, Brother François took his perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience after receiving holy communion.

After the ceremony, Father Champagnat could not help saying to him, as he embraced him, “My son, I envy your happiness! “.

His teaching career ended at this point. Marcellin will ask him to stay there to help him, he became his secretary, house nurse, and teacher, among other occupations.

Almost all the rest of his life will be spent at the Hermitage at the direct service of the Founder, serving as master of novices, secretary, nurse: a role for which he prepared himself by studying medicine. It is certainly during this time that he acquires a great self-taught culture, religious and secular, of which are evident in his numerous notebooks.

15. Novice Master and Secretary

Although he was only nineteen years old, he was in charge of the novitiate classes at the Hermitage, starting in 1826.  He gave lessons twice a day: one and a half hours in the morning and one and a half hours in the afternoon.

At the same time he became Father Champagnat’s confidant. He replaced Fr Champagnat in leading the growing Institute during his visits to the communities and, in 1836, when he went to Paris to seek legal recognition of the Institute, a recognition he did not obtain.

Another example of the confidence Father Champagnat had in him was when it became necessary to put the rules and customs of the community into writing. He asked Brother François to do this. When it was finished, François presented it to the Founder for his approval. The Founder, after examining it carefully, thought that it would be better to divide it into two separate parts: one with all the articles of the Rule; the other indicating how to observe them with a supernatural motivation or the spirit of the Rule. Humbly, Brother François set about reworking the text.

16. Studies and Care of the Sick

Brother François took advantage of his time for self-education. He perfected his handwriting, grammar, arithmetic and even pharmacology. He left us many notebooks with his notes on each of these subjects as well as on religion and spirituality.

In 1831, he followed with the best results the mathematics and geometry course that Brother Louis-Marie, his future successor at the head of the Institute, had just opened.

Brother François had a real aptitude for the care of the sick and the manufacture of medicines made from plants that he himself grew and collected. He took the time to talk to each sick person, advised him, prayed with each one and prepared a good remedy for him, often obtaining unexpected cures. Some of the remedies would give rise to a famous liqueur called Arquebuse.

Among the notes and summaries are fragments and lives of saints named after him: St Francis of Assisi, St Francis de Sales, St Francis Xavier and St Francis Regis, whom he admired, the first for his humility, the second for his joy, the third for his zeal for the salvation of souls and the fourth for his love of God.

17. Society of Mary and the missions

In 1835, steps were taken to obtain authorisation for the “Society of Mary” from the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome. Francis thought that the Marist Fathers and Brothers were part of the same society. Rome approved only the branch of the Fathers and entrusted them with the missions of Oceania, a territory unknown until a few years before.

Their friend and guide, Father Champagnat, took vows on 24 September 1836, in the first group of professed Marist Fathers. The fathers elected Father Jean-Claude Colin as Superior General.

In October 1836, Bishop Pompallier, newly consecrated bishop, blessed the new chapel at the Hermitage. In December of the same year, Bishop Pompallier, Fathers Chanel, Batallion, Bret and Servant, together with Brothers Marie-Nizier (Delorme), Michel (Colombon) and Joseph-Xavier (Luzy) left for Polynesia.

18. Election as “Director General

After his stay in Paris, Marcellin Champagnat’s forces falter. Today’s doctors, when they see the symptoms, think of stomach cancer, but that was not the case in 1839. Marcellin Champagnat’s health declined to the point where he began to think about his succession.

Father Colin as superior of the Society of Mary proposed the election which took place on Saturday 12th October, during the retreat of 1839. The 92 perpetually professed Brothers who were present at the time were elected.

Brother François received 87 votes, Brother Louis-Marie 70 and Brother Jean-Baptiste 57.

That evening, the new Superior and his assistants served at the tables.

That evening, François wrote in his diary: “What shall I do, since I clearly recognise that I do not have the strength of body and health, still less that of spirit and virtue? God’s will has manifested itself; I resign myself to it with the gentle confidence that He who with one hand imposes this burden on me, with the other will know how to bear its weight? I shall have to temper, always, firmness with gentleness, severity with clemency. I shall have to encourage, to strengthen, to warn, to correct? Oh, how great are these duties! How difficult they are! “

A few days later he will complete:

“My God, grant me by your grace to become the Brother Superior after your heart, applied to all my duties, occupied only at my post, groaning under the weight of my task, bearing it with courage, having to give an account of it, looking only to you, seeking only you, hoping only in you, fearing only you. Give me zealous co-workers, send good labourers into your vineyard, into your harvest. Grant me the discernment to choose them, the piety to train them, the prudence to employ them, the vigilance and kindness to govern them. Bless them, fill them with your spirit, and may they always be diligent in their ministry.

19. Spiritual Testament

Very soon the Founder was no longer to be counted on, because at the beginning of 1840 he had to retire and could soon offer only his terrible sufferings.

The Founder, for his part, put the material affairs of the congregation in order by creating a civil Society, and then let Brothers François and Louis-Marie do their work.

On 11th May 1840, Father Champagnat received the last sacraments, made his recommendations to the Brothers and, the following week, arranged with Brother François and Brother Louis-Marie to finalise his spiritual testament. This was read on 18 May to the whole community, in it we read:

  • “I desire that total and perfect obedience always reign among the Brothers of Mary; that the subjects, seeing in the Superiors the person of Jesus Christ, obey them in heart and spirit, and always renounce, if necessary, their own will and judgement.”
  • “Let charity always reign among you. Love one another as Christ has loved you”.
  • Just as your will must coincide with that of the Fathers of the Society of Mary in obedience to a single Superior General, it is my wish that your hearts and feelings may always be united in Jesus and Mary”.
  • I also pray to the Lord and wish with all my soul that you may persevere faithfully in the holy exercise of the presence of God, the soul of prayer, of meditation and of all the virtues. May humility and simplicity always be the distinctive character of the Little Brothers of Mary. She is the first Superior of the whole Society”.
  • “I leave you all, confidently, in the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, until we have the joy of seeing each other together in eternal beatitude.”
20. Death of Champagnat

Marcellin Champagnat died in the early hours of June 6th 1840. It fell to Brother François to organise the funeral and to communicate the news to all the Brothers’ communities. In the circular, Brother François recalls that “death put an end to a penitent, industrious life, full of works of zeal and devotion, through the sufferings of a long and cruel illness”. But – he adds – “he will be more effective and powerful as our protector in heaven, with the divine Mary, to whom he gave us everything in his death…. It is now up to us to collect and carefully follow his last and touching instructions”.

He then indicated the suffrages for the repose of the soul of the deceased and announced that a painter had come to reproduce his portrait, promising a copy to each community.

He also gave two rules: to read the Spiritual Testament every month and to celebrate a solemn mass on June 6th of each year, to remember the life and teachings of the Founder.

Shortly afterwards, he would write in his notebooks: “It is necessary that each congregation preserve the spirit of its Founder for the good that God intended in inspiring it”.

Seven months later, on 20th February 1841, when the Hermitage received the portrait of Father Champagnat, he wrote in his diary: “Receipt of the portrait of Father Champagnat. To be his living image”.

21. Situation of the Institute at the beginning of Brother François’ direction

When Brother François took charge of the Institute, a period of great growth and expansion began.

Thus, in 1840, the Institute received by Brother François had: a mother house, The Hermitage; a novitiate, The Hermitage; a first set of Rules, drawn up in 1837. The Institute consisted of 280 Brothers and 48 schools, serving 7000 pupils. The congregation was present in the Lyon region and in the north of France; in addition, some brothers worked in the missions of Oceania. At that time, Marcellin had established communication with the Brothers of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, led by Father Mazelier, to support each other, for their congregation had legal recognition but few brothers, and the Marists had no legal recognition but many brothers.

When he handed over the institute several years later to his successor, the institute grew from 280 to more than 2000 brothers.

22. Devotion to Father Champagnat

Brother François was both faithful and creative. He knew himself to be the superior general of a growing congregation, but at the same time a disciple of Marcellin Champagnat. François faced many challenges, among them: the legal authorisation of the institute and ecclesial recognition, the separation of the Fathers’ branch from the Society of Mary, the union of several congregations.

He was a man of solid structures; under his command the Common Rules and Rules of Government will be drawn up. In his quest to heed the Spirit and the signs of the times, he will be a man of the Rule. On receiving the posthumous picture of the Founder, François decided to be “the living portrait of Marcellin”. Like Champagnat, he will know how to preserve what is essential and to renew, after much consultation and prayer, what is necessary. In this way he gained the esteem of the Brothers.

François was a great promoter of the devotion the Brothers had for the Founder: “Go to Father Champagnat. You will see how he arranges everything with his Ordinary Resource, the Blessed Virgin”, he told them.

The retreat of September 8th, 1840 was a long memorial for Marcellin; the Hermitage was converted into a Marist shrine, a reliquary of the Founder. A year later, in a circular dated 10 August 1841, Brother François asked the Brothers to send him testimonies, letters, and notes about the Founder to serve as background for his first biography.

23) The problem of legal authorisation.

A problem that arose from the time of Marcellin Champagnat was the legal and ecclesial authorisation of the Institute. At the time of Marcellin’s death, the Institute was recognised by the bishops of the dioceses where it was present and by the town councils. But it was not recognised by the French government or by the Roman Curia.

The lack of legal recognition created several problems: the difficulty in expanding, since it was limited to a certain region; the possibility of dispensing its members from military service; the need to take a public examination to become a teacher; and the higher cost of taxes and duties to be paid when a Brother died and had made a will in favour of the Institute.

The lack of ecclesial recognition represented a lack of identity, the fledgling congregation was either a third order linked to the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers) or an independent and autonomous religious congregation.

Of all these problems, the main and most urgent is to resolve the problem of the military service for the young Brothers. It should be remembered that in a country in constant war, military service lasted at least 6 years, and it meant a long separation from the Institute for any moderately confirmed vocation.

In a recognised congregation, its members were exempted from military service with an obedience from their Superior. The Superior indicated that the person concerned had been appointed to a school, and that was enough. As the Marist Brothers were not recognised, if one of the Brothers was called up, he had to present himself or a replacement, which at the time of Marcellin’s death meant paying someone about 6000 francs, i.e. 15 times the annual salary of a Brother.

Since the time of the founder, it had been noted that the solution of paying a replacement was ruinous, and he had contacted Fr Mazelier, superior of a congregation of teaching brothers with recognition but no members, to ask him to accept temporarily some of the brothers called up for military service. It was also known that the government did not want to recognise any of the new congregations.

24) Union of the Brothers of Saint-Paul and Viviers

Contact between the Marist Brothers and the Brothers of Christian Instruction of Valence, known as the Brothers of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, led by Mgr Mazelier, became closer. It should be remembered that this small Congregation had received, at a favourable time, legal recognition from the French government. This situation protected it from military service, which at that time was six, seven or eight years. The Marist Brothers had been able to take advantage of this privilege by going to teach in Bishop Mazelier’s schools when the time came for their military service. Now there was an opportunity to form a complete union between the two groups.

The Brothers of Saint-Paul numbered about forty, distributed in the communities. They founded the following establishments: Châteuneuf-d’lsère, Le Puy-Saint-Martin, Saint-André-de-Roquepertuis, Saint-Paul-les-Romans, Montelier, Rochegude, Barjac, Rivière, Séhon-Saint-Henri, Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, Eyragues, Courthézon, Tulette and Chaumont.

The agreement of union was signed in 1842, and included in the union the same Superior General, Father Colin, and Director General, Brother François; the creation of self-governing provinces, the preservation of the novitiate of Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux and that the new society would take the name of Brother of Mary of Christian Instruction.

In 1844, the Marist Brothers merged with the Brothers of Christian Instruction of Vivièrs on similar terms to the one concluded with the Brothers of Saint-Paul. From that time on, it could be said that the members of the new congregation would have a field of apostolate spread over the departments of the Drôme, Isère, Hautes-Alpes, Ardèche, Haute-Loire and the Loire and could more or less legally avoid the 6-8 years of military service.

25. First synthesis of Marist Spirituality (Circular on Faith)

In Brother François’ communication with the whole Institute, the Circulars stand out. They deal with a wide range of subjects, from family news, the dead, instructions, aspects of discipline and congratulations. One of the most important is the circular On the Spirit of Faith, written between 1848 and 1853, and delivered in four sections. It presents the first synthesis of the spirituality of the young congregation.

“It is to be a Christian and to live as a Christian, that is, to think, speak and act according to the Gospel and in accordance with the Gospel”.

Like Jesus, “let us love what he loved, let us value what he valued, let us despise what he despised and act as he acted.”

“As religious teachers in the first place, we are responsible for our state to teach the truths of the faith to our pupils, to make them know and love Jesus Christ, for we wish to make them good Christians.”

“The knowledge and teaching of religion will always be the aim and end of all our studies and of all our lessons, for we must learn and teach the profane sciences only in order to be able to spread with more authority and fruit the science of religion.”

“Let us add, the spirit of the Little Brothers of Mary, their distinctive character must be a spirit of humility and simplicity, which leads them, after the example of the Blessed Virgin, their mother and their model, to have a particular predilection for the hidden life, for humble work, for the poorest places and classes, which leads them to do good everywhere without noise and without glitter, which endears them to a modest and reduced, but solid and religious education.”

“There are four means: assiduous reading and meditation of the word of God, the spirit of prayer, frequent communion and the sacred exercise of the presence of God.”

26. Legal Authorisation of the Institute

The difficulties presented by the lack of legal recognition of the Institute have already been discussed. (See #23 and #24). Brother François took up this procedure, which Father Champagnat had not been able to achieve. Throughout his generalate, Brother François was concerned to obtain this approval. Charles Louis Bonaparte came to power in 1848. Brother François took steps to obtain legal recognition for the Institute.

Brother François went to Paris to make the arrangements. The negotiations were long and painful. Brother François had to stay several months in Paris to make contact with the people whose support was needed. Legal questions had to be settled, such as whether to approve a religious order or an association of public utility, and whether a law or a royal decree was needed for approval. Finally, the decree was signed by Prince-President Charles Louis Bonaparte on 20 June 1851. It was a brilliant victory for the Institute and for Brother François.

This decree is the great success of Brother François’ generalate, which succeeds where Father Champagnat had failed in spite of many attempts. The arrival of this decree “put an end to seventeen years of efforts, refusals and disappointments”. And it came in the best possible conditions, the decree recognised: the religious character of the association; its civil existence as an entity of public utility, and the authorisation to extend itself throughout France, with all civil rights.

27. Statue of Our Lady of Victories

To give thanks for the legal authorisation of the Institute, Brother François had two statues purchased and placed in the courtyard of the Hermitage. The first is a statue of Our Lady of Victories. In this way he invited the Institute to remember this grace and to renew its gratitude to the Good Mother. It does the same with a statue of St Joseph, to whom the Institute had prayed for authorisation. Today, the statue of Mary stands in the courtyard outside the Hermitage and that of St Joseph in the central courtyard of the House.

28. Chapter of 1852

Between 1852 and 1854, a General Chapter took place, a meeting of delegates from all parts of the Institute to make important decisions such as reflecting on God’s calls on the Institute and renewing the governing body. To be elected to this chapter, a fourth vote, called “stability”, was required.

The Chapter had three sessions: in the first, the Rule was reworked, in the second, the “Conduct of Schools” was drawn up and approved, and in the third, the Constitutions and Rules of Government, where three important persons visited the Chapter: Father Colin, Superior of the Society of Mary, Father Mazelier, former Superior of the Brothers of Saint-Paul, and the Countess of Grandville.Fr Mazelier asked that the commitments of the contract for the union with the Brothers of Saint-Paul be fulfilled, especially concerning the name and the division into provinces. The Countess of Grandville was a great benefactress who helped the foundation and development of various works.

More significant was the visit of Fr Colin, but we will devote the next issue to it. Note: The vow of stability can still be taken by the Brothers, but it is no longer required for some assignments.

29. Separation from the Marist Fathers

Marcellin died thinking and believing that the Marist Brothers were one of four branches of the Society of Mary. In 1936 the Marist Fathers were approved and entrusted with the missions in Oceania (Polynesia). But this approval said nothing about the Marist Sisters and Brothers.

A discussion arose as to whether the Fathers and the Brothers were one and the same society. At the same time, there was a debate as to whether the Marist Brothers were a part of the Marist Third Order or a separate religious congregation.

Between 1852 and 1854 a general chapter took place, bringing together 33 brothers representing all the provinces. At the last session Fr Colin, Superior General of the Fathers, came forward to report that Rome had refused to keep the two congregations united under one superior general.  Thus Brother François took the title of Superior General.

At this Chapter, under his direction and that of his two assistants, the Chapter drew up the principal legislative texts: Common Rules (1852), Conduct of Schools (1853) and Rules of Government (1854).

30. Marcellin’s Manual of Piety and Life

Reflection on a spirituality proper to the Institute will continue. Already discussed (see #25) is the circular on faith written by Brother François. With the legal approval for France and the separation of the Marist Fathers, we will reflect on those aspects of the Institute that do not give identity. Two texts were published in response to the identity and spirituality proper to the Marist Brother.

In 1855, the Manual of Piety was published, which was at the same time a catechism for the formation of novices and an anthology of common prayers, in which Brother François played a great part.

In 1856, The Life of Joseph Benedict Marcellin Champagnat was published, the text was written by Brother Louis-Marie, Assistant General at the time of Brother François. This text was motivated and revised by Brother François. This text has been the principal work of study of the Founder’s life for most of the Brothers. It has two parts, one emphasising the biography of the founder and the other emphasising his virtues.

31. The Hermitage becomes too small

Due to the arrival of many students in formation and of Brothers in charge of administrative functions, the former mother house of the Hermitage was becoming too small, and the Hermitage was located far from the main roads.

Little by little, the idea of changing the location of the General House began to emerge. The opportunity came when the mayor and the parish priest of Saint-Genis-Laval proposed founding a school in their commune, on the outskirts of Lyon. In the negotiations, a piece of land near the parish, which was used as a vineyard, was mentioned.

The property was purchased in 1853 and Brother Louis-Marie was put in charge of the construction. Brother François will miss the Hermitage. But there was no question of opposing a democratically made decision.

In order to pay the expenses, the estate of Grange-Payre, a property donated to Fr Champagnat and used as a boarding school and a house of formation, was sold.

While the new house was being completed and adapted, Brother François was responsible for obtaining ecclesial recognition of the congregation.

32. Proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, proclaimed on 8 December 1854 by Pope Pius IX, holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved immune from all stain of original guilt from the first moment of her conception, by the singular privilege and grace of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ-Jesus, Saviour of the human race.

Brother François was at the Hermitage at the time, and when he heard the news, he wrote a circular, supported by Brother Louis-Marie, to the whole institute.

On 2 February 1855, he said to the brothers:

“On December 8, 1854, the Church defined as dogma of Faith the truth of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God by the mouth of her supreme Head, Pope Pius IX, in the midst of the most numerous assembly of Bishops that this city of Rome has possibly known, and before a multitude of twenty-five thousand Christians, gathered in the basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican” (Circulars, T. 2, p. 203. Circular of February 2, 1855).

“Above all [he admires], at the moment of formulating the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by means of the sacramental words: we define, we decree, we confirm, his voice becomes tender, tears fill his eyes, weeping chokes his words, and the emotion of the Chief penetrates the whole assembly” (Circulars, T. 2, p. 204. Circular of February 2, 1855).

“Everywhere glass windows, images of Mary, inscriptions in her honour; everywhere the motto MARY CONCEIVED WITHOUT ORIGINAL SIN”.

33. New houses of formation

Brother François will be concerned with the formation of his Brothers. In addition to the novitiates at L’Hermitage and Vauban, created in the time of Father Champagnat, and those at St-Paul-Trois-Châteaux and Viviers, the fruit of the union with other congregations, he opened a novitiate at St-Pol-sur-Ternoise. After opening the novitiate at St-Pol-sur-Ternoise, he then moved the novitiate of Viviers to Bégude, and that of Vauban to Hautefort and the novitiate of L’Hermitage to Saint-Genis.

Already from the time of Father Champagnat, a structure of studies had been set up so that the brothers could obtain the Diploma which qualified them for teaching. During the holidays, classes and courses were held at the Hermitage for the young brothers to prepare for the examination and for a refresher course for all the teaching brothers. Little by little, these courses grew and formed what would later be called the scholasticate. In 1847, these courses were held at Grange-Payre, and when this house was sold, they returned to the Hermitage.

34. Oceania

In 1855, there were already five Provinces: Notre-Dame-de l’Hermitage, Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, La Bégude, Beaucamps and what was called the Province of Périgueux, with Hautefort. But we must not forget a 6th sector: Oceania.

On these distant islands, the Brothers formed a community of about 70 Marist Fathers. Moreover, although most of them were formed at the Hermitage, the separation with the Fathers left it uncertain whether they were part of the congregation of the Fathers or of the Brothers. Brother François would be of the opinion that they were still Marist Brothers. He continued to send Brothers to Oceania and would correspond with them. He will say to them:

“Go my dear Brothers, wherever obedience calls you; be good missionaries, very regular, love the Lord and the Blessed Virgin. I will be with you during this long voyage across the oceans. I bless you with all my heart”.

Surely he wondered if it would be feasible, starting from this third apostolate (helping the Fathers in the missions), to have the other two (rural schools and orphans) accepted as well, so that the Brothers, just as the Marist Fathers would have been recognised.

35. Foundations and extension to other countries

Brother François was not only determined to continue the missionary work of the Brothers in Oceania. He was also determined to make the Founder’s statement “All the dioceses of the world come into our view” a reality.

He trained the brothers in other languages and cultures and in 1852 opened the first Marist school in England, then in 1858 opened the first school in Scotland and in the same year in Belgium.

The first three Brothers in London were Brother Gastan, Brother Procope (both French) and Brother Patrick (an Irishman from London). They took charge of the parish school in Spitalfields at the request of Father Quiblier, a Sulpician priest. The population of London was then 2,363,000, of whom 108,548 were born in Ireland.

Two years later, the first school was opened in Glasgow, where, years later, Brother Walfrid founded a football team, Celtic, to raise funds to support a free school and a soup kitchen for the poor.

36. Journey to Rome for ecclesial recognition

Brother François went to Rome in 1858, at a time when the Pope was in dispute with the French Risorgimento movement, to obtain ecclesiastical recognition. During his stay in Rome, Brother François suffered directly and violently from the adversity of contact with the situation in Rome.

Accompanied by Brother Louis Marie, he left Saint-Genis-Laval on 6 February. Father Nicolet, procurator of the Marist Fathers, warned him before his departure: “In Rome they are tired of so many new institutions” and they wish to carefully examine his rules and constitutions before approving them.

He thought he had put together a good dossier; he hoped to obtain provisional approval very quickly. But in Rome, the French were distrusted; they had not yet forgiven the imprisonment of the Pope by Napoleon; moreover, Brother François was a layman, who spoke mediocre Latin, not in keeping with ecclesiastical usage, and he presented himself as the superior of a congregation that had no priests among its members.

The Roman congregations think that the Marist Brothers are more like the Brothers of the Christian Schools than the Marist Fathers. At the same time, and even more serious: Rome received complaints from former brothers about the way the congregation was organised and the way it was treated.

The procedures and the timetable dragged on and Brother François returned to Saint-Genis in August without having obtained the authorisation he had sought.

37. The House of Saint-Genis

During the time Brother François was in Rome, the general house of the Institute moved from the Hermitage to Saint-Genis-Laval. This was in the year 1858. The entire government of the Institute, known as “the Regime “, was relocated along with the Novitiate and all the services of the house, including many of the ornaments of the Chapel, the school supplies of the library, the infirmary, the workshops and the shoe shop were transported to Saint-Genis. Unfortunately, during the move, several documents from the archive were lost.

Only a dozen Brothers remained at the Hermitage.

The house at Saint-Genis was built for the most part by means of savings and sacrifices made by the Brothers of the communities. Five years later the chapel was completed. The house received more than one hundred novices that year.

38. Chapter of 1860: Appointment of a Vicar General

Rome, in studying the Constitutions, asked for some changes to be made. To do this, Brother François convoked a General Chapter in 1860. In accordance with the norms, the capitulants were elected from among the Brothers with the vow of stability; there were thirty-three at that time and thirty were to be elected. No election was held because three of them had resigned as capitulants. The Chapter was held in the new house of Saint-Genis-Laval.

During the discussions, Brother François surprised everyone by presenting his resignation as Superior General. He gave reasons of health, continual headaches which prevented him from working. Four reasons influenced his decision: his poor health; his increasing responsibilities; the demands of his interior life; and the example of Father Colin, who had resigned in 1854 as Superior General of the Marist Fathers.

Brother François de Borja, Assistant General at the time of Brother Diogène (1920-1942), comments on his health:

“It is not surprising that the health of this modest worker of the Lord was broken and even very delicate at the age of fifty-two. Brother François had been suffering from headaches for a long time. Difficulties, occupations and worries, the solicitude for everyone did not allow him a moment’s rest. His headaches became chronic and became so serious that he asked to be relieved of the burden of governing the Institute…”.

After much discussion, the Chapter did not accept the resignation of Brother François, who remained Superior General, but who, for reasons of health, completely handed over his office to his Vicar, Brother Louis-Marie. Legally, Brother François remains at the head of the congregation. In practice, he has resigned. He will no longer intervene in the government.

In addition, the Chapter elects three new assistants. These nominations are a means of reducing a centralisation which Rome considers excessive.

39. Ecclesial Recognition

Brother Louis-Marie, Vicar General, continued his efforts to obtain ecclesial recognition of the Institute, and in 1862 he travelled to Rome. He was asked to reconvene a General Chapter to revise and approve new constitutions.

It was the General Chapter of 1862, which approved a draft of the constitutions and responded to the observations made by the Congregation for Bishops and Regulars.

In January 1863, the Institute was approved by His Holiness Pius IX, the decree specifying that it “approves and confirms the congregation of the Marist Brothers of the Schools”. This was, in fact, the name given by the Holy See to this congregation which the French government called the Little Brothers of Mary, the teaching congregation of the Brothers who were coadjutors of the Marist Fathers.

Here is the text:

“Our Most Holy Lord Pope Pius IX, in an audience granted to the Secretary, designated below, of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, on the 9th January 1863, has approved and confirmed, according to the present decree, as a congregation of simple vows, under the government of a Superior General, and subject to the jurisdiction of the Ordinaries, according to the prescriptions of the Sacred Canons and the Apostolic Constitutions, the aforesaid Institute of the Marist Brothers of the Schools (Fratres Maristae a scholis) whose mother house is in the Diocese of Lyons. He has also confirmed, on a trial basis and for five years, the Constitutions written below, as contained in this copy; nothing to the contrary having been recorded”.

40. Resignation as Superior General

The terms of the approval of the Constitutions by Rome will cause problems as some articles were in contradiction with the terms approved in the Statutes of the Government of 1851. A second session of the General Chapter will have to be convened to discuss and proceed with the election-ratification of the government of the Institute.

The second session of the General Chapter took place in July 1863. As the decree of approval had already been obtained, albeit provisional, there was no objection to accepting the resignation of Brother François as Superior General and proceeding to the election of his successor. The chosen one was Brother Louis-Marie.

For Brother François ended his term as superior of the congregation, he bequeathed to the institute:

  1. A legally recognised congregation (1851).
  2. Five novitiates.
  3. The first scholasticate, at La Grange-Payre.
  4. New Common Rules (1852).
  5. The Conduct of Schools (1853).
  6. The Constitutions and Rules of Government (1854).
  7. A new vow, that of stability (1855).
  8. The first biography of the Founder (Brother Jean-Baptiste Furet, 1856).
  9. A new General House: Saint-Genis-Laval (1853-1858).
  10. 1536 Brothers, more than five hundred novices and postulants, 394 schools, and about 50,000 students.
  11. The congregation is present in the whole of France, with works in Belgium, England, Scotland and 19 Brothers working in Oceania.
  12. Pontifical recognition was obtained.

In short, Brother François gave the congregation solid structures.

41. Appointed Superior of the Hermitage

From 1860, after his resignation as Superior General, he resided at the Hermitage as superior of the community. He strove to make the Hermitage a Marist sanctuary, the house that Marcellin had built with his own hands. Brother François was always, and for everyone, a model of prayer and the inner life. For example, when he returned from communion, his smile would light up with the joy of having received the Lord.

He left us few letters and retreat notes from these years, but in one of them he wrote: “There were three things that St. John of the Cross usually asked of God: the first, not to spend a day without suffering; the second, not to die superior; the third, to end his life in humiliation (24 November)”.

42. Formator

The house at the Hermitage, relieved of its administrative function with the transfer of the General House and the novitiate to Saint-Genis, became a retreat house for some time. Later, it welcomed the brothers who were preparing to take the diploma of educator, that is to say, it became what would later be called a scholasticate.

François wrote in a letter: “I have here more than 80 Brothers to direct and form and a great house to look after, like the precious reliquary of Father Champagnat, where each of its stones offers us its religious memory. So, I do not go out, I live as a hermit, and I make neither trips nor visits, for reasons of health and to better fulfil the duties of my office”. (24 January 1862)

In 1868, it was decided to create a juniorate at the Hermitage. This house of formation received boys of 11 or 12 years of age who wanted to become Brothers but were not old enough to enter the postulancy. It functioned as an upper primary boarding school. It was these children who began to call Brother François “grandfather”.

Every Sunday afternoon, the Very Reverend Brother François, “Grandpa” as he was called in the house, presided over the naming of the grades. He would take the opportunity to give a short lecture on religious formation.

One of these children would later say: “I remember that, during the first months of my novitiate, we were happy to see the sunset on Sunday. At about half past six, the whole community would gather, and Brother François would give his instruction. It was a source of immense joy for all to listen to his simple but functional words. He often quoted the examples and the teaching of the Venerable Father Champagnat. His instructions were therefore very much appreciated by the Brothers and the novices and produced excellent fruits of health in souls”.

43. The saintly director of the Hermitage

Brother François believed that the Superior should help the Brothers in their vocation to holiness. He invited his Brothers to be attentive to prayer and piety: “The Office will be recited, as far as it depends on me, with the greatest devotion”. With patience and kindness, but at the same time, with constancy and firmness, he made the Hermitage a house of regularity.

Personally, he led a very poor life. In the style of his patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, he proclaimed the beatitude of poverty: “What happiness to possess nothing to hold us back and to possess everything, being content with God alone”.

His library contained only a few books. When he spoke to those in formation, he would say to them, as St. Bernard had done: “He who begins to read does not seek to learn things about God, but to appreciate them”.

He knew how to be a demanding superior, who set himself the norm and at the same time was kind, as one of his Brothers recalled: “When Brother François had imposed a penance, he softened it afterwards with kind words or appropriate attitudes to make them forget it”.

44. An early environmentalist

Another trait he developed, in imitation of his patron saint St. Francis of Assisi, was his love of plants and animals.

Brother Francis tended a small garden where he grew medicinal plants, with which he prepared remedies for various ailments.

He also cared for the small animals that lived in the surrounding area. He cared for them and protected them. A person from those times recalled:

“Great was my astonishment when in the spring of 1858, when I was doing my novitiate at the Hermitage, to see that the little birds made their nests in the rose bushes or other small shrubs in the garden and in all the holes in the walls of our playgrounds. They made them within easy reach of anyone’s hand. But it was not long before I had an explanation for what had seemed so extraordinary to me, who, in my village, had a passion for running around looking for nests and not for protecting them. I was warned that Brother François was very severe on this point. He would not allow these little creatures of God to be hindered in the making of their nests or their coming and going to bring food to their little ones”.

45. Silence and interior life

François, as he was thought in his time, had the deep conviction that the Rule, perfectly observed, was the best way to live the Gospel, in other words, to be a saint. For him, silence was an essential part of the Rule, and he translated it into concrete acts such as close quietly a door, not speaking or at least lowering his voice when it was necessary to do so and showing prudence and discretion. To live in this way required a profound understanding of oneself.

His intention was clear: to create an atmosphere of silence, making it easier for everyone to live in the presence of God.

46. Saintly infirmarian

Br François became a companion to the sick, even, at one point, asking to accompany the Brothers in their agony, and he carried out this ministry for a very long time, from 1826 until his death, with the breaks imposed by his other duties.

“Father Champagnat had made him follow a short course in medicine and appointed him infirmarian of the Brothers. He prepared remedies with great skill; the sick preferred him to anyone else”.

One Brother related the following anecdote: In 1860, while I was at the Hermitage as a temporary nurse, the following happened to me: Br Ceferino, of the junior class, had his tonsils operated on. The left one, which had been cut too deeply, caused a considerable haemorrhage from 4 to 8 pm. Leaving the sick man in the care of another brother, I ran to call the Reverend Brother, who came at once. He asked me for the bottle of sulphuric acid and, having taken some cotton wool soaked in the acid, he applied it for a moment to the outside of the neck, on the left side, and at once the haemorrhage stopped. Was it the application of the acid that stopped the haemorrhage or the Superior’s prayer? Well, he prayed while applying the soaked cotton wool. I don’t know. What is certain is that the haemorrhage stopped instantly and the sick man, who had syncope, regained consciousness instantly.

To another Brother he wrote:

“My dear Brother. The illness of dear Brother Acaire gives me the opportunity to recommend to you strongly that you give abundantly to your collaborators what they need to endure the fatigues of teaching: preserving their health is the greatest economy you can make for the Society, always within the limits of the Rule, unless (I think I need not remind you of this) there is an extraordinary need which a paternal care often discovers, even before the religious has manifested it…”

One of his resolutions was very clear on this point:

“To see Jesus in the person of the sick; I will visit them and comfort them as much as I can”.