Christian Brothers celebrate educational milestones

The vision of one man from France, St. John Baptist de La Salle, to educate poor and marginalized children resulted in the establishment of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1680.

Today, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools operates 1,000 educational centers educating 850,000 students (children, youth, adults) in 79 countries that adhere to the core principles of faith in the presence of God, concern for the poor and social justice, respect for all persons, quality education and inclusive community.

The De La Salle Christian Brothers will mark three milestones in their history with the year-long celebration in 2018-19, “Procuring God’s Glory from Generation to Generation.”

Opening Mass July 28 at cathedral

The 100th year of the brothers’ continuous presence in Louisiana will be celebrated with a Mass July 28 at 9 a.m.  at St. Louis Cathedral, followed by a reception at the Old Ursuline Convent, 1100 Chartres St. Archbishop Gregory Aymond will concelebrate the Mass with Mobile Archbishop Thomas Rodi, who is a graduate of De La Salle High School and will deliver the homily. About 45 

brothers from the San Francisco New Orleans District and Rome are expected to attend.

A second celebratory Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco – commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Christian Brothers’ arrival there – will be offered on March 16, 2019. There also are celebrations set in Rheims, France, Rome and at other Lasallian schools worldwide, culminating April 7, the 300th anniversary of St. John Baptist de La Salle’s death. 

Christian Brother James Joost, chairman of the planning committee and auxiliary visitor, said the celebrations, which have been planned since summer 2017, are meant to unite the diverse history of the San Francisco-New Orleans (SFNO) District.

The district encompasses more than 115 De La Salle Christian Brothers, 1,400-plus Lasallian partners (lay teachers committed to the Lasallian charism) and operates 21 middle, secondary and post-secondary schools in Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Tijuana, Mexico.

“We’ve survived that last 100 years in Louisiana, and our extended family of brothers and lay people have the opportunity to celebrate all things that have allowed us to be around (that long),” said Christian Brother David Sinitiere, the last provincial of the New Orleans-Santa Fe district, which merged in 2014 to become San Francisco-New Orleans district. Brother David is a former elected member of the Louisiana State Board of Education representing the Second Congressional District.

In Louisiana, about 20 Christian Brothers are affiliated with Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, Christian Brothers Schools (City Park and Canal Street campuses) and De La Salle High School in New Orleans and St. Paul’s School in Covington. 

Pioneer spirit of brothers

Brother David explained how the Christian Brothers’ expansion in the American southwest was its humble beginnings here. 

Santa Fe Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who came to the new U.S. territory of New Mexico from France to establish Catholic churches and schools, recognized the need to educate a native people who were largely illiterate and ignorant of the Catholic religion they practiced. 

On Aug. 17, 1859, four Christian Brothers – Hilarian, Gondulph, Germanius and Galmier Joseph – arrived in New York from France and traveled by coach and on foot for six weeks to their final destination of Santa Fe.

The brothers were sent to teach at St. Michael’s High School. They arrived early and slept on mattresses on a dirt floor in the building that would serve as the school building, which Brother Hilarian described as “an adobe hut with four walls.”

“According to the contract signed with Archbishop Lamy, the Brothers would be paid $800 a year, and would also be provided with “a breakfast of bread, meat and coffee; and dinner of bread, meat, vegetables, dessert and occasionally wine.”

The school opened on Dec. 22, 1859. It expanded after the 1870 arrival of Brother Peter Schneider, known as Brother Botulph, its director for 36 years. His impact, not only at St. Michael’s but in public schools, was as a teacher, inspector of schools, visitor for the west, master of novices, a superior, builder, procurator, member of the Governor’s Building Committee, superintendent of schools for the County of Santa Fe Office and territorial Board of Education member.

St. Michael’s educational excellence drew notice from U.S. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, who visited in 1880, and Teddy Roosevelt, who visited in 1903. When New Mexico held a constitutional convention in 1910 to establish statehood, 22 graduates of St. Michael’s High were among the 100 delegates. 

“It’s so important to understand the influence of the founding Christian Brothers and how they established the Santa Fe District,” Brother David said. “Throughout our history, we have been involved in running, not only our schools, but in helping public schools.”

Huge impact in New Orleans

The Christian Brothers, being French, looked to expand from New Mexico to other French-speaking states.

“That’s how we got into New Orleans,” Brother David said. 

  The brothers first taught in New Orleans from 1851-1900 at St. Joseph’s Commercial Academy on Tulane Avenue and helped the Dominican Sisters who were running a school at St. John the Baptist Parish (the gold-dome church on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard).

Following the devastating effect of yellow fever, they withdrew and didn’t return to the area until 1918 to take over St. Paul’s School from the Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Abbey (in 1911). They opened St. Peter’s College (a high school) in New Iberia in 1918.

“At its zenith, St. Paul’s had 300 boarders,” Brother David said. It now has 23 buildings including five apartments and two homes to house faculty and office space spread over 50 acres in Covington.

The opening of De La Salle High School in 1949 on St. Charles Avenue marked the Christian Brothers’ return to the city of New Orleans. In 1960, Christian Brothers School in City Park opened for middle-school boys.

“We wanted to get back into the city that was part of our history,” he said.

Christian Brothers School now educates 830 students on two campuses. Pre-K through fourth-grade boys and girls, as well as middle school girls, take classes at the Canal Street campus; while middle school boys attend the school’s original City Park campus. In keeping with its Lasallian mission, 12 percent of students share over $300,000 in financial aid. 

Brother David credited the longevity of the Christian Brothers to adapting to the evolving educational needs of its students in its 338-year history while remaining faithful to its original charism to help the disadvantaged.

“The life of an institute is a continued challenge to be creative while remaining faithful to its origin, Brother David said. “We have done that by assessing needs throughout our history, in order to continue responding, to the appeals of the Lord, the church and the world, in order to procure the glory of God!”

“It’s not about where we’ve been or how we are, but how we move forward,” Brother James said. “The spirit of the Brothers is alive. … The good works of the Brothers live on in the Brothers and lay partners who are leaders in our schools.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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