Life of Brother François (1808 – 1881)

“Take this child, and make of him whatever you wish. He belongs to the Blessed Virgin, to whom I’ve given and consecrated him many times.”

Thus did Madame Rivat confide her 10-year-old son to Fr. Marcellin Champagnat in 1818. Jean-Baptiste Rivat and Françoise Boiron were fervent Christians. Morning and evening prayers, the Rosary, grace before meals were recited in their home almost as regularly as in a monastery. They had seven children, four boys and three girls; Gabriel was the youngest, born in 1808.

Two older brothers, Jean-Baptiste and Jean-Antoine, were called to serve in Napoleon’s campaigns. Their mother took Gabriel with her to the Marian shrine at Valfleury. The two prayed for the children under arms, and the devout mother consecrated young Gabriel to Our Lady. “You see, before you belonged to me, you belonged to God. I made a blue suit for you, Our Lady’s color. Let’s ask the priest in the church to bless it, and you will wear it now and then to remind you that Our Lady has covered you with her love.” The two other boys did return safely from the wars.

In August 1816 a new curate, Marcellin Champagnat, had arrived in LaValla, and his lively catechism classes soon drew many village youngsters. Young Gabriel was so excited he approached his mother and asked if he could continue his education instead of working on the farm. “What for?” she asked. The 9-year-old answered, “To be a Brother. A Brother of Mary.” And on 6 May 1817 he became the sixth to join the group. Gabriel was much the youngest, and Champagnat paid particular attention to his education.

Gabriel proved so apt and devout that he made his First Communion at age 10, instead of the usual 12 or 13. Champagnat gave him a little book called “The Month of Mary,” readings for the May devotions which he had organized his first year in the parish. People also talked about the boys from the village which the young priest was training to be “Brothers” like the DeLaSalle Brothers in nearby St-Chamond, but Champagnat’s were for the country, not the city. The curate had them wear a sort of black coat to set them apart, and in 1818 they made promises to obey “without arguing,” to own everything in common, and to teach the needy free of charge.

On 8 September 1819 Rivat made his promises as a Little Brother. He was 11 years old. He took the name François in honor of his mother. After a year as cook for the community in Marlhes he began teaching there the next year. His older brother Jean-Antoine had followed through on his promise to be a priest if he survived the war. Fellow priests thought young Gabriel was wasting his talents being just a Brother. He responded, “I don’t do my own will, but the will of God which is revealed to me by my superior.” Such an answer from one so young startled and silenced his critics.

In 1825 Bro. Jean-Pierre died, the first Brother to join “the Marist province in heaven,” and 17-year-old François was appointed to replace him as Principal. On 11 October 1826 he was a member of the first group of Brothers to make Perpetual Profession. He was then assigned to the novitiate and became Champagnat’s right-hand man. He would stay at the Hermitage for the next 32 years. Most of the novices were illiterate and had to be prepared within two years to pass the State exams for their teaching certificate.

Bro. François himself studied everything: chemistry, literature, surveying, mathematics; but his favorite study was pharmacy. He learned to recognize medicinal plants and concoct remedies, which enabled him to be an infirmarian a good part of his life. He even wrote an 848-page book on diseases and how to treat them. It was he who first made a medicinal liqueur from nine herbs steeped in brandy which Brother Emmanuel later developed into Arquebuse, called Alpestre in Italy, a digestive cordial still sold today.

When stomach cancer started to sap Father Champagnat’s strength in 1839, he moved to elect a successor. On October 12 Bro. François received 87 of the 92 eligible votes and was designated Director General of the Brothers. Brothers Louis-Marie and Jean-Baptiste assisted him, and the three formed a very effective and steady troika.

Military exemption was essential to survival for the young congregation. Bro. François completed Champagnat’s dealings with the Brothers of Christian Instruction at Valence, exempt since 1823, and merged with them definitively in 1842. Two years later they also merged with the Brothers of Christian Instruction of Viviers, extending military exemption to that region as well. Previous to these two mergers, exemption was obtained by paying for substitutes; in 1841 that had cost 6000 francs, the annual salary of 15 Brothers.

The legal authorization of the Congregation was another huge headache. Country-bred François had to spend months in Paris talking with bigwigs and following the process from committee to committee. Old Bro. Laurence, though, had assured him that he would succeed. From his deathbed he had said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. When I’m up there with Fr. Champagnat, we’ll settle the whole thing between us. You’ll see.” Laurence died on 8 February 1851; the authorization was received four month later, on June 20.

As the immediate disciples of the Founder disappeared, Bro. François was deeply concerned about the loss of primitive fervor. Matters came to a head at the 1852 Chapter. Slackers complained to Fr. Colin, Superior General of the Society of Mary, that the Brothers were too strict and that more democracy was needed in decision-making. Fortunately, the Superiors won the confrontation, and the first printed Rules of the Institute were issued that same year, and the School Guide the following year. Colin also announced that he would follow Rome’s advice that “the ox and the ass should not plow together” and gave the Brothers’ branch of the Society of Mary full independence. Bro. François’ title was changed from Director General to Superior General in 1855, when Fr. Colin ended his term. Continued rapid growth obliged the Brothers to open a new Mother House near Lyons in St-Genis-Laval, a wrenching but necessary abandonment of Father Champagnat’s Hermitage.

In his brief circular of 2 February 1858 Bro. François recalled that the Founder always called Mary “Our Ordinary Resource” and urged novenas, May devotions, and the celebration of Mary’s feasts. His circular of 1859 on piety expressed his deep Franciscanism, a softening of the heart which leads to love of all, including Mother Earth and its creatures. François later convoked a special General Chapter in 1860, resigned for reasons of health, and handed Bro. Louis-Marie over 2000 Brothers to care for. After the Constitutions had been approved by Rome on 9 January 1863, an ordinary General Chapter met and officially elected Bro. Louis-Marie Superior General, and Bro. François, “Grandpa” as he was affectionately called, could retire.

He stayed on at the Hermitage and gave weekly conferences. One of Father Champagnat’s friends from seminary days, Fr. Pousset, who had founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, came every now and then to visit some of his Sisters who lived very near the Hermitage. He remarked one day to them, “I’ve just come from the Hermitage. Sisters, you can actually breathe in whole lungfuls of holiness there!”

On 27 June 1876 François set in place the cornerstone for a new chapel at the Hermitage; that night he suffered a stroke. He recovered partially, but spent the remaining five years as a model invalid. He was found dead on his knees at his bedside 22 January 1881. Hundreds of Brothers and lay people came to venerate his mortal remains in spite of the intense cold and deep snow. Bro. Nestor recalled especially his heroic obedience, which made him renew faithfully various permissions, particularly the permission to receive Holy Communion daily, very rare in those days. He was interred next to the Founder. When his cause for beatification was opened in 1934, his remains were transferred to the Hermitage chapel. Pope Paul VI declared him Venerable in 1968.

(Adapted from Michel/Voegtle)