St Marcellin Champagnat

St Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist Brothers, is the life-giving root of Marist education.

Three years before Father John Therry and George Morley opened a school in Parramatta in 1820, Marcellin Champagnat, a newly ordained priest in rural France, had gathered a small group of volunteers to live in a community dedicated to Mary and to the education of young people. This small group became the Marist Brothers. After arriving in Sydney in 1872, the Brothers accepted responsibility for the Catholic School at Parramatta in 1875 Parramatta Marist was founded in the tradition of Marcellin Champagnat.

The life of St Marcellin Champagnat 1789–1840

Marcellin Champagnat was born on 20th May 1789 in the hamlet of Le Rosey, near Marhles, a small town in the Lyons area of Southern France. He was the ninth of ten children born to Jean-Baptiste and Marie-Therese Champagnat. Jean-Baptiste was a respected farmer in the area, a ‘moderate’ revolutionary and major of Marhles. Young Marcellin worked with his father, who taught him to farm, to build in stone and to work with wood. Jean-Baptiste died when Marcellin was fourteen.

Two women influenced young Marcellin – his mother, Marie-Therese, who took care of the family’s education and spiritual formation, and his aunt, Louise, a Sister of St Joseph who had been driven from her convent during the revolution.

Marcellin had no intention of becoming a priest. Just before his father died a young priest looking for candidates for the seminary visited the Champagnat home at the suggestion of the parish priest. The idea appealed to Marcellin and he decided to go to the seminary. Marcellin was described at this time a raw-boned country lad, not overly literate but well skilled as a handyman and well-schooled in religious practice

He commenced his seminary formation at Verrieres in November 1805. Coming from rural France he spoke a local dialect and, with very little formal education, he found classes difficult. At the end of his first year, with poor academic results and a reputation for breaking the seminary rules, Marcellin was asked not to return to the seminary.

With his mother Marcellin made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Francis Regis to ask for help with his studies for the priesthood. When he returned to the seminary for his second year, Marcellin put more effort into his studies and his academic results improved and there was a slight improvement in his behaviour. This improvement continued, especially after the death of his friend, Denys Duplay, in 1807, and the direction given to him by his mentor, Father Linossier.

1810 was another important year for Marcellin. His mother died and he met Jean-Claude Courville. The death of his mother encouraged his studies. Courville was the initial inspiration behind the society of Mary, or Marist, that Marcellin was later to join.

On 22 July 1816 Marcellin was ordained to the priesthood. The next morning, 23 July, the aspiring Marists – eight newly ordained priests and four seminarians – made a pilgrimage to the church of Our Lady of Fourviere. Here they renewed their pledge to establish the Society of Mary and to dedicate their lives to Mary. The Marist family traces its origins to this event, to what is now known as the Fourviere Pledge.

The young priests, full of enthusiasm, were sent to distant parishes. Father Marcellin Champagnat was sent to the parish of LaValla as the assistant priest. Marcellin travelled the parish on foot, visiting the numerous hamlets, meeting and ministering to the people. One day in late October 1816, Marcellin was called to a distant village to attend a dying youth, Jean-Baptiste Montagne. Marcellin was surprised to find the seventeen year-old knew nothing about God and his faith. Recognising that Montagne was a reflection of thousands of other youngsters who were also victims of tragic human and spiritual poverty, this was the spark that set Marcellin on the path of establishing his part of the Marist project – the Marist Brothers.

The Marist Brothers were established as a religious order dedicated to "making Jesus Christ known and loved".

Whilst not an educational theoretician, St Marcellin did understand young people and their needs and showed himself to be a first-class educator of young people. The secret of his success lay in the great simplicity with which he related to his young followers and in his great confidence in them.

Initially establishing a network of schools in small towns, these schools reflected many of the qualities of St Marcellin himself. They were places where:

  • hard work and excellent achievement were valued
  • the individual was genuinely loved and prized
  • a strong family spirit was evident
  • there was simplicity and calm determination.