VII Chapter – 1880, Saint-Genis-Laval

1880 – 47 Brothers participants

 Social and political context

« The fall of Napoleon III marked the beginning of the Third Republic, when the  forces of the left succeeded in  dominating the political scene.
In 1880 the Ferry Law was approved. It was the result of ideas forged in Masonic circles: attacking the teaching congregations, beginning with the Jesuits. Non-teaching congregations, such as the Marist Fathers, were expelled. The Falloux Law, which exempted religious and seminarians from military service, was revoked. Religious Sisters were replaced in the hospitals.
A law for education– compulsory, secular and free – was promulgated. It was envisaged, then, to replace 395,000 out of a total of  635,000  teachers then in France. But they could not be replaced overnight. The government did it little by little, by groups, and in 10 years attained its objective. Catholics responded by setting up independent schools in the face of the secular state schools1. »

Religious context

In a letter written to Pope Leo XIII by Brother Nestor to inform him of his election and ask for his benediction for himself,  all the works of the Institute, for his  3000 Brothers consecrated to teaching, and the  90,000 children in their care, the Superior General says: « In the midst of these trials, Very Holy Father, we have the  consolation of seeing almost all our communal schools suppressed by the civil administration carry on as independent schools, thanks to the devotion and generosity of the Episcopate, the clergy, and the Catholic population. Out of 50 schools suppressed, only 4 have been closed for the time being2. »

The Chapter was called to nominate the successor of Brother Louis-Marie, who had died suddenly on 9 December 1879. The circular of convocation ordering elections for the General Chapter, signed by Brother Theophane, first Assistant, bears the date of 14 January 18803, but the actual convocation of the Chapter was postponed to 7 March, to allow the delegates from Oceania time to arrive. The elections had been ordered in those distant countries by telegram, at the cost of 162 fr. 60 for 13 words. Although a little mangled en route, the telegram was sufficiently clear. A claim, however, was made for this error, and the administration reimbursed the sum a year later. Brother John, delegate for Oceania, arrived when the others were entering the chapter hall4.

The circular of 14 January 1880 gives the list of Brothers with Stability and the number of delegates to be elected in each  Province thus: 7 in that of  Saint-Genis, 6 in the Hermitage, 7 at Saint-Paul, 4 at Aubenas, 5 in the Nord, 4 in the Bourbonnais, 2 in the Province of the Isles and 1 in the Ouest.

The Chapter was, therefore, going to number 47 members, including Rev. Br. François, who was there by right, the 8 Assistants, the Br. Procurator and the Br. Secretary5. The chapter assembly was held at Saint-Genis-Laval, in the room located on the first floor of the north-east wing.

After the customary ceremonies and the regulation three day retreat, the capitulants proceeded to the election of the new Superior General. Brother Nestor, Assistant for the Province of Saint-Paul, was elected on the first ballot with a strong majority, and enthroned according to the Constitutions.
« As proof of the esteem he enjoyed among the capitulants, it is sufficient to say that he obtained four times more votes than Brother Theophane, who had been Assistant for 20 years, and who was to play such an important role later6. »

« After mature reflection – writes Br. Avit, speaking of himself, – and not wanting to keep the grave responsibility for a whole Province, with eyesight which has made written correspondence almost  impossible for us, we gave our resignation on the 12th (March 1880). Brother Gérald was elected to replace us. » In the chapter hall, the following notice was read out: « It is at the insistence of Br. Avit, for reasons of health known to all, that the General Chapter has felt obliged to provide a successor for this worthy Assistant, whose advice and counsel the Régime will always appreciate taking7. » Brother Avit remained attached to the General Secretariate and became Chronicler of the Institute until his death at Saint-Genis-Laval on 7 February 1892, at the age of 72, 54 of them in community. His chronicles are a veritable mine of precious information for the history of this period.

Br. Nicet, then Director of the boarding school of Neuville, was elected to succeed Rev. Br. Nestor in the Province of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux. He had a short term in office, God calling him to Himself on 23 July the same year.8

On 12 March 1880, then feast of the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the members of the General Chapter wrote to all the Brothers of the Institute to announce the election of Rev. Br . Nestor and two new Assistants.

This letter also contains a paragraph about Brother François: « We cannot end this letter, very dear confrères, without expressing the joy and consolation we felt at having in our midst, quite providentially, in reasonable health, our Very Reverend Brother François, first Superior General, elected even in the lifetime of Rev. Fr. Champagnat, our pious Founder. His presence, in such solemn circumstances, was a powerful encouragement for all; and it was a joy for each to be able to  contemplate in his venerable person, the virtues of humility, simplicity and modesty which mark the true Little Brother of Mary. May we be able to imitate his example, and so live up to the holiness of our beautiful vocation, according to his wishes9. »

1 F. Luis di Giusto, Historia del Instituto de los Hermanos Maristas, Province Mariste Cruz del Sur, Argentine 2004, p. 103-104

2 Circulaires T. 4, p. 227

3 Circulaires T. 6, p. 202-208.

4 F. Jules-Victorin, Bulletin de l’Institut T. 23, (1958-1959), p. 141.

5 For the three preceeding General Chapters, the number of capitulants eligible had been fixed at 33, in accord with the  Constitutions. This time they will be 36, 33 representing the Provinces of France and Belgium, 2 the Province of the  Isles and 1 the Province of the Ouest, section Nord (Cf. Circulaires, T. 5, p. 380 ; T. 6, p. 208 et Constitutions, art. 5).

6 H. Luis di Giusto Historia del Instituto de los Hermanos Maristas, Province Mariste Cruz del Sur, Argentine 2004, p. 105,

7 Fr. AVIT, Annales, cahier 7, p. 749-753.

8 Cf. Chronologie Mariste, Circulaires, T. 13, 172-173.

9 Circulaires, T. 6, 209-211.