Founding the the Little Brothers of Mary

When seeing children and young people without schooling and knowledge of their faith, Marcellin would say, “We need brothers!” On January 2, 1817 he set in motion his plan for the Congregation of “the little brothers of Mary” with two young recruits.

Why did he found the Institute?

Ordained a priest in 1816, I was assigned to a town in the district of St.-Chamond (Loire). What I saw with my own eyes in that new post, with reference to the education, reminded me of the difficulties I had experienced myself at their age, for lack of teachers.

Champagnat to Queen Marie-Amélie, Letters, 59

… A good education is the surest way to form good subjects for society. Unfortunately, most of the rural towns are deprived of that advantage: the insufficiency of local resources and the poverty of their inhabitants does not permit them to confide the education of their children to the Brothers of the Christian Schools, whose merits and ability are well known; hence the sad necessity of either letting their children grow up in disastrous ignorance, or (which is even more distressing), handing them over to teachers who are hardly capable of training them in the knowledge and virtues necessary for good citizens.

To eliminate these drawbacks, the undersigned, Marcellin Champagnat, a priest of the diocese of Lyons, seeing the zeal which the king and his government put into providing the great benefit of education for all levels of society, decided to create, near the city of St.-Chamond, an association of elementary teachers, under the name of LITTLE BROTHERS OF MARY, and drew up the following statutes in order to obtain an authorisation which would give the members of this society the means to carry out their important and demanding function in a legal and therefore more effective manner. . . (Champagnat to His Majesty, Louis -Philippe, King of France, Letters, 34)

Why Brothers?

Having been born in the township of Saint-Genest-Malifaux (Loire), I became aware, because of the extreme difficulty I encountered in learning to read and write, of the urgent necessity of creating a society which could, with less expense, provide for the rural areas the good education which the Brothers of the Christian Schools provide for the cities. (Champagnat to the Minister of Public Instruction, 1837, Letters, 159)

The Society of Mary

About this time (1812 – 1815) the foundation of the Society of Mary was laid. A few seminarians, led by (Courveille), John Claude Colin and Marcellin Champagnat, used to have frequent meetings to reinforce their piety and their practice of priestly virtues. Zeal for the salvation of souls and the best means to that end, were what they normally discussed.

Their exchange of feelings about this goal and plans for it, gave rise to the idea of founding a Society of Priests… Ths elite group had a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, a fact which prompted them to place the new society under the patronage of the Mother of God and gave it Mary’s name… In one such meeting, it was agreed to go together on pilgrimage to Fourvière and to lay their plans at the feet of Mary…

However, the plans of the new Association made no provision for Teaching Brothers. It was Marcellin Champagnat alone who conceived their institution and who alone put his idea into execution. He would often say to his companions: “We must have Brothers! We must have Brothers to teach catechism, to help the missionaries and to conduct schools.”
Life, III, pp. 27 – 28

The “Montagne” experience

(Father Champagnat) was summoned to a hamlet one day, in order to hear a sick boy’s confession. (His name was Jean-Baptiste Montagne, living in the hamlet of Les Palais, beyond Le Bessat. He was born on May 10th 1800 and died on October 28th 1816). As usual, he set out at once. Before proceeding with the confession, he put a few questions to make sure that he was sufficiently instructed to receive the sacraments. To his great surprise, the child knew nothing about the principal mysteries and, in fact, didn’t even know whether God existed. Greatly upset at finding a seventeen year-old in such ignorance, and fearing that he would die in such a state, he sat down beside him to teach him the mysteries and truths necessary for salvation. It took him two hours for the instruction and confession. It was extremely difficult to impart even the most fundamental truths, to a child who was so sick that he scarcely grasped what was being said.

Having heard his confession, and helped him make several acts of love of God and of contrition as a preparation for death, the priest left him, to minister to a sick person in an adjoining house. As he went out, he asked after the sick youth, to be told by his tearful parents that he had died a moment after the priest’s departure. He felt an upsurge of joy at having been there so opportunely…

He went home overwhelmed by those feelings and saying over and over to himself: “How many children are in the same predicament every day, exposed to the same dangers because they have no-one to teach them the truths of faith”

Then he became obsessed with overwhelming intensity, by the thought of founding a Society of Brothers to obviate such disasters through the Christian education of children.
Life, VI, pp. 58-59

Training the young Brothers at La Valla

(Marcellin) longed for the day when his Brothers would teach. Meanwhile, since they were not yet up to standard, he employed a lay teacher, and he did so to achieve two aims he believed necessary: to provide primary instruction for the children of the parish; to polish up the knowledge that the Brothers had already acquired and induct them into the method of teaching. . .

The teacher lived with the Brothers, set up his school in their house and the children soon filled it. The Brothers backed him up in his teaching, watched him in action, copied his style and adopted his method. In addition, out of school hours, he gave them their own lessons on the various aspects of teaching.
Life, VII, p. 71