Blessed William Joseph Chaminade was born in Périgueux, France, in 1761. He was the 14th child of a deeply Christian family: besides William Joseph, three of his brothers were priests. In 1771 he entered the minor seminary of Mussidan and four years later made private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He was ordained a priest in 1785.
In 1790 after the outbreak of the French Revolution, he moved to Bordeaux, where he spent most of his life. In 1791 he refused to take the oath of the so-called Civil Constitution of the Clergy and clandestinely exercised his priestly ministry, putting his life in constant danger. At this time he came to know the Venerable Marie-Thérèse Charlotte de Lamourous (1754-1836), who was one of his closest collaborators and whom he later helped to found the Miséricorde in Bordeaux to aid fallen women. In 1795 he was given the delicate task of receiving back into the Diocese priests who, having taken the constitutional oath, wanted to make their peace with the Church. He facilitated the reconciliation of some 50 priests.
In 1797, during the reign of the Directorate, he was forced to emigrate to Zaragoza, Spain, where he lived for three years. Near the Shrine of Our Lady of the Pillar, he forged his Marian-apostolic convictions and was inspired to found a family of religious and laity dedicated to Mary. In November 1800 he returned to Bordeaux and refounded the old Marian Sodality on a new basis.
He made every effort to give his sodalists solid religious formation and directed them towards precise apostolic objectives, encouraging them to offer to an indifferent and dechristianized society “the spectacle of a people of saints”. This sodality would be the basis of his untiring evangelizing activity, aimed at the rechristianization of France.
During these years he was named Apostolic Administrator for the reorganization of the Diocese of Bazas. In 1801 he received the title of Missionary Apostolic from the Holy See. It was the official confirmation of his insights into the Church in this new era.
Father Chaminade viewed his own ministry and that of the Marian Sodalities as a permanent mission directed towards formation in the faith, using new methods and working in close alliance with Mary.
The Sodality of Bordeaux spread to other cities of the region and throughout France through groups that asked for affiliation because they wished to follow Fr Chaminade’s inspiration and methods. He fostered some groups of young men and women who, desiring greater dedication, made private vows and dedicated themselves to the apostolate of the Sodality without leaving their secular work.
In 1816, together with the Venenerable Adèle de Batz de Trenquelléon (1789-1828), he founded at Agen the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, and the following year, at Bordeaux, the Society of Mary. His first members, who would later be called Marianists, were members of the Marian Sodalities, men and women who wished to respond to the Lord with a more radical commitment, an extension of their baptismal consecration and of their devotion to the Virgin Mary.
The two institutes developed rapidly in France and in 1839 received the decretum laudis from Pope Gregory XVI. Since teaching was a primary need at that time, both institutes of Marianists dedicated themselves to primary and secondary schools and to trade schools. They taught in order to educate and form their pupils in the faith. Fr Chaminade also conceived an ambitious project to establish a network of teachers’ schools for Christian education. Some of these schools were founded by sisters and brothers, but the 1830 Revolution made their continuation impossible.
During these years Father Chaminade gave priority to drafting the Constitutions and wrote important circulars on consecration-covenant with Mary and on Marianist religious life. The Society of Mary continued to grow in France, then in Switzerland (1839) and the United States of America (1849).
After 1836 the Daughters of Mary established a number of rural schools in south-western France for the education and advancement of women.
The last 10 years of his life were a time of severe trial: health problems, financial difficulties, the departure of some disciples, misunderstandings and distrust, obstacles to the exercise of his mission as founder. He faced these difficulties with great confidence in Mary, faithful to his conscience and to the Church, filled with faith and charity. He died peacefully in Bordeaux, surrounded by many of his sons, on 22 January 1850.