The Remarkable Legacy of Jean Baptiste de La salle

Published in the Delaware County Daily Times

Delaware County’s Daily Newspaper     Thursday, March 5, 2020

By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist

In the 1600’s in France, education was something for the rich alone.  For those born into poverty or from working class backgrounds, it was a certainty that these children would never receive an education.

But in the late 17th century, a Catholic priest, Jean Baptiste de La Salle, began doing the unthinkable.  Moved by the plight of the needy, La Salle started to reach out to these neglected young people. He began working with the Sisters of the Child Jesus, helping them in their efforts with care for the sick and the education of girls in poverty

Additionally, as a sign of his deep commitment to humanitarian purposes, La Salle gave up his family home and used that inherited wealth to feed the poor during a famine.

Jean Baptiste de La Salle’s ideas were considered radical and outrageous by French aristocrats. His beliefs and actions created a scandal in the view of the upper classes of France, but La Salle was undeterred.  Aside from his obvious deep faith in God, La Salle’s key principles included: advocacy of quality education for all; concern for the poor and advocacy of social justice; and, respect for all persons.

Jean Baptiste de La Salle soon formed the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Christian Brothers), devoted to schools for all with high quality teaching and learning —something unheard of in his time.  And he soon opened a free school for impoverished and marginalized boys which eventually led to a network of Lasallian schools throughout France.

In 1685, La Salle also founded one of the world’s first normal schools, an institution devoted strictly to the training of teachers.  From the beginning, these Christian Brothers have been all about touching the hearts and minds of students, encouraging and inspiring and offering opportunity no matter what the circumstances or backgrounds of students. 

By the time of the death of Jean Baptiste de La Salle in 1719, there were 100 Christian Brothers.  But La Salle’s educational innovation was only just beginning and would continue into the future.

Today, there are 3500 Christian Brothers and 90,000 other La Salle educators who educate one million students in more than 1000 Lasallian schools and universities worldwide, including many here in the USA.

Small wonder that Jean Baptiste de La Salle was canonized by Pope Leo XIII and became a Catholic saint on May 24, 1900. Or, that in 1950, La Salle was defined at the Patron Saint of Teachers of Youth by the Catholic Church.

The legacy of La Salle’s Christian Brothers is thousands and thousands of educational success stories all around the world.  And one of La Salle’s success stories is me.  As a young man from a relatively poor Philadelphia working class family in which no one had ever pursued higher education, I desperately needed support and guidance.  The Christian Brothers at West Catholic High School and later at La Salle College (not yet a university) propped me up, believed in me, motivated me, and inspired me to set goals…Lasallian rule: Believe in yourself. Never underestimate what you are capable of. Challenge yourself and you will become much more than you think you can be.

I attribute what personal and career success I have had in life directly to the influence of the Christian Brothers who positively changed my life. And they have also done this for many thousands of other students over the years …and are still doing so.

One of the true gemstones in this legacy of Jean Baptiste de La Salle is Philadelphia’s La Salle University, soon to celebrate its 157th anniversary.  It now boasts 50,000+ graduates living in all 50 states and numerous countries around the world.  

Once a male-only college about 50 years ago, La Salle’s student population today is more than 50% female and its current president, and three deans are female as well. True to its founding mission, more than 30% of the current La Salle undergraduate students are the first to attend college in their families. And, in terms of following the humanitarian outreach of its founder, La Salle University students annually complete more than 60,000 hours of community service.

A wide array of La Salle University outcomes for its students have been cited for excellence, including Forbes Magazine (One of America’s Best Value Universities), The New York Times (Top 6% …median income levels of graduates), Money Magazine (Colleges that add value), and US News and World Report (Employment success of  MBA graduates).

Most recently, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recognized La Salle University as being in the top 4% nationally in 10-year earnings of university graduates.In summary, the egalitarian legacy of Jean Baptiste de La Salle is very much alive and well and continuing to significantly touch lives via quality education for students around the world.____________________________

Joseph Batory is a proud product of the Christian Brothers via West Catholic High School (1960) and La Salle College (Class of 1964).

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