Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Brothers of the Christian Schools

photograph of an unidentified Brother of the Christian Schools from the book Monasteries and Religious Houses of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903, photographer unknownArticle

Active. Under Simple Vows. Founded 1684. Motto: Signum fidei.

This Congregation was founded by Saint John Baptist de la Salle at Rheims in 1684, and is the largest lay-Congregation of men in the Church; the members are known sometimes as the Christian Brothers – in Germany they are called the School-brothers – but their correct title is Brothers of the Christian Schools. Their Congregation is the model on which several other Congregations of School-brothers have been founded.

The holy founder was born in Rheims in 1651, and after his ordination was nominated to a canonry in that city, and also became the director of the Congregation of School-sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, founded by his Confessor the Abbé Roland, who, on his death-bed, commended them to his care. In 1679 he made the acquaintance of Adrian Nyel, who was much interested in poor-schools, and had already founded in Rouen a union of young clerics to labour for the improvement of the education of the poor, and now desired to start a free school in Rheims, which, with de la Salle’s help, he was enabled to do. John de la Salle hired a house near his own for the teachers, and two free schools were opened in Rheims. He began by encouraging the teachers to live by rule in community, and after two years, when convinced of their willingness to obey him, and of their zeal, he took them into his own house in 1681; he lived with them and endeavoured to give a conventual form to their mode of life. This plan succeeded so well that in 1682 he was able to open free schools in three other French towns under his teachers, and the following year he gave up his canonry in order to devote himself entirely to this excellent and much-needed work. He gave up all his property to the poor, who were suffering that year (1684) from famine, and trusted to Providence to support his schools. With twelve of his teachers, he took the vow of obedience; he gave them a habit of black cloth and the name of Brothers of the Christian Schools in this same year 1684, from which the Congregation dates its foundation.

He now received applications from many parish priests to send a Brother to teach in their schools, but this was not according to de la Salle’s wish, as community life was part, and a most important part, of his scheme; so to meet the needs of the parish priests, and to avoid sending single Brothers to other schools, he opened at Rheims a school teachers’ seminary, or, as we should now say, a training-college for secular teachers, and to this he added a preparatory novitiate for clever boys of fourteen to sixteen who showed a desire to become eventually members of his Congregation. The schools which were already opened under his School-brothers served as classes in which the novices and the Seminarists could practise teaching.

We have not space to do more than record the bare facts of the beginning of this great work, but as it is generally believed in this country that Sunday-schools were originally a Protestant institution, it may be as well to mention that de la Salle started Catholic Sunday-schools in France nearly a century before Protestant Sunday-schools were opened in this country; but de la Salle’s were technical schools, in which, however, religion was taught as well as secular subjects.

The day-schools opened by the holy founder were free, but he also opened boarding-schools and schools for day-boarders, and as early as 1698 James II. of England confided to him over fifty Irish boys, sons of gentlemen, to educate. This Irish boarding-school was the first founded by the Christian Brothers.

In 1700 two of the Brothers were sent to Rome to open a school and to obtain the Papal confirmation of the Institute; this was given in 1725, after the death of the founder.

The Congregation numbered in 1900 no less than 1,530 houses, with 5,060 Brothers, 4,400 novices and postulants, and 322,376 scholars.

It has houses also in Belgium, Italy, Spain, Austria, European and Asiatic Turkey, India, Further India, North Africa, North and South America, Madagascar, and the Mauritius. The Congregation was driven out of Germany during the Culturkampf.

The mother-house, with the novitiate, is at Rue Oudinot, Paris. The Associations Law has so far had no effect upon existing schools, but nine schools opened since it was passed were closed last June.

The interior aim of the Congregation is to strive after Christian perfection, to which end serve various religious exercises, particularly morning and evening meditation, general and particular examination of conscience, an annual retreat of eight days and a retreat of twenty-one or thirty days prior to taking the final vows, which are simple but perpetual.

The exterior aim is to spread the kingdom of Christ upon earth through the Christian education of children; the rule points out that the best means to attain this object are prayer, instruction, watchfulness, and good example. The Christian Brothers seek to combine the active life with the contemplative; they give half an hour’s religious instruction daily in all their schools. Besides elementary schools, the Brothers direct middle class, technical, Sunday, agricultural, training, trade, and normal schools; they also take charge of orphanages, industrial, and reformatory schools, deaf and dumb schools, and direct all the Catholic guilds and confraternities for the young.

The Congregation has published numerous excellent school books and educational works, besides many books of meditation, which have been translated into different languages, including the beautiful Meditations of Saint de la Salle. Theology is not part of the course the Brothers go through, and their rule forbids them to teach Latin in their schools for the poor, which until his time was obligatory in all schools; for this reason it is sometimes said that he was the founder of primary schools.

It is part of the rule that the Christian Brothers never undertake a school alone; two at least must work together. They live in community, take their meals in the refectory together, sleep in a dormitory or in cells that are in the same landing; all their recreations and religious exercises are taken together, and in no other lay Congregation is the community life so much insisted upon.

The habit is of black cloth and over it they wear a cloak of the same material; a white collar with two linen bands hanging in front is also worn.

There are teaching Brothers and serving Brothers; the Superior of each house is called the Director, and under him is an assistant director. The Brother Director is also the school inspector; he is appointed for three years by the General Superior, but his term of office can be lengthened or curtailed by the General. The General Superior is elected for life; his Assistants, who with him form the General Chapter, are chosen by him for ten years, and he has the power of appointing Provincial Visitors if he thinks it advisable; there is also a General Procurator and a General Secretary for the Congregation.

The novitiate lasts two years; simple vows are then taken first for one year, then for three years, and then for life, and they can only be dispensed by the Pope, though they are only simple vows.

The Congregation has four houses in England: Saint Joseph’s College, Denmark Hill, S.E.; Saint Joseph’s Industrial Schools, Longsight, Man- chester; Saint Joseph’s Academy, Kennington, S.E. and Saint Mary’s School, Bradford.

MLA Citation

  • Francesca M Steele. “Brothers of the Christian Schools”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 November 2018. Web. 19 April 2021. <>