Born in France in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Marcellin Champagnat was to lead an extraordinary life, and leave an even more extraordinary legacy. Marcellin dedicated his life to founding the Marist Brothers and establishing a way of life for his followers. Marcellin’s early life was simple and unspectacular. The region in which he grew up was badly affected by the turmoil of the French Revolution. His local community was run-down, materially poor, and opportunities for education were sadly lacking. In 1813 Marcellin attended the major seminary in Lyon for his spiritual and theological formation as a priest. After his ordination as a priest on 2 July 1816, Marcellin was appointed curate to the parish of Lavalla-en-Gier.
Towards the end of 1816 Marcellin visited a young man – Jean Baptiste Montage – who was gravely ill. It distressed Marcellin that this desperate teenager was not only poor and uneducated, but also lacked any knowledge of religion and God. From this experience arose Marcellin’s fierce determination to act to redress the plight of the young people that Jean Baptiste represented. And thus the idea developed to found an order of teaching Brothers who could work to better the lives of children affected by disadvantage and lack of opportunity.
On 2 January 1817, Marcellin encouraged two young men, Jean-Marie Granjon and Jean Baptiste Audras, to join him in forming the nucleus of the Marist Brothers. Others soon followed, and La Valla thus became the birthplace of the Marist Brothers. Between 1817 and 1824 he started a primary school at La Valla which became a teacher training centre for his young Brothers. Many of these first Brothers were teenagers themselves who were attracted by the warmth, happiness and family spirit which Marcellin engendered in his communities.
Marcellin’s enthusiasm for teaching and spreading the gospel motivated his Brothers. He lived among them, teaching them how to live as a religious community, and how to care for and educate young people. His educational philosophy was a simple one: to teach children one must love them.
So from the start, Marist schools became happy places, with a friendly teaching atmosphere in which relationships among teachers and students were easy and open, and inclusiveness was the benchmark – everyone was welcomed and loved. This is what Marcellin referred to as “the family spirit” which, to this day, touches all who come under the influence of the Marist charism.
Marcellin continued his work of establishing Marist communities over the next 20 years. At the age of 51 he succumbed to the effects of continuing ill health. Marcellin died on 6 June 1840, at Our Lady of the Hermitage in the Gier River Valley, about 30 kilometres from where he had commenced his work. At the time of his death more than 320 young men had already chosen to follow his example and work. Within 20 years this number had grown to over 2000, and today Marist Brothers continue to follow Marcellin’s dream, caring for and teaching students throughout the world.
Marcellin was declared Venerable in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, beatified by Pope Pius XII on 29 May 1955, and canonised by Pope John Paul II on 18 April, 1999.
Marcellin Champagnat was a man of simplicity, compassion, open-mindedness and trust in God and Mary his Mother. His life is a witness to the truth that the actions of one man can make a difference. His legacy is the Marist charism which is the essence of the Marist school community – a family and an accepting place where all students, teachers, parents and helpers work together for the common good.
May Marcellin’s dream continue to inspire our Mt Maria family:
“Let me say once again: may it be said of the Marist Brothers and of all who work and learn in our schools: see how they love one another. That is my greatest wish for you in the last days of my life”