From Philadelphia to Rome, Christian Brothers Celebrate a Milestone

At the stroke of midnight in northwest Philadelphia Wednesday, hundreds of students from La Salle University – many dressed in the school colors of blue and gold – gathered at McCarthy Stadium. They cheered, waved flags and formed the number 150 for a group photo. Some students took to social media to share their university pride.

“What an awesome turnout for the #LaSalle150 picture,” tweeted junior Cameron Cabrera. “I’d say over 1,000 people showed up. Proud to be a part of this school!”

Though it might seem like an odd thing to do on a Wednesday morning, the day meant a lot to these students, their professors and the university.

Jean Baptiste de la Salle, the patron saint of teachers, created the Christian Brothers in France in 1680.

Jean Baptiste de la Salle, the patron saint of teachers, created the Christian Brothers in France in 1680. Stephen Jiwanmall / Religio.

Wednesday marked the 150th anniversary of La Salle’s founding by the Christian Brothers, an order established more than 300 years ago in France by Saint Jean Baptiste de la Salle, the patron saint of teachers. La Salle is one of 60 universities around the world that were founded by the Brothers, who have launched schools in 82 countries. About 100,000 teachers and aides – both male and female – educate just about a million children from the Mediterranean island nation of Malta to Mexico.

Based in Rome since 1937 at the Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools at Via Aurelia 476, the Christian Brothers is a lay religious order. In other words, there are no priests but rather teachers and Brothers, who take a vow of celibacy and promise to follow the three core traits of Saint de la Salle: poverty, chastity and obedience.

The number of Brothers has dropped significantly over the past 50 years decades, from 17,000 in the 1960s to 5,000 now, according to Brother Charles Kitson, one of six secretaries in the Brothers’ administration. Kitson, 64, joined the Brothers in 1967 at the age of 17. At the time, the Second Vatican Council – also known as Vatican II – had recently ended, and Kitson said it revolutionized how the Catholic Church operated, consequently changing the order as well.

“The Brothers were asked to go back to their roots – to gratuitous service to the poor,” he said. “We lost a lot of people. They didn’t like the changes. They now had freedom they never experienced.”

Still, the Brothers have maintained their presence around the world, and they credit the mission and legacy of Saint de la Salle.

A French priest who grew up in a wealthy family, de la Salle gave up his fortune and chose to reach out to those in poverty, Kitson said.

Brother Louis DeThomasis, who served as president of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota for 24 years, said de la Salle’s decision to teach in local vernaculars rather than in classical Greek and Latin was instrumental in giving opportunities for people who couldn’t afford to learn otherwise.

“He brought modern pedagogy to the world,” he said. “He brought education to the poor, who really needed it.”

De la Salle’s legacy can be found all around the Christian Brothers’ headquarters in Rome. A white statue featuring the saint helping two boys with a book stands just outside the front of the main building. Inside the main chapel, the skull of Saint de la Salle is locked and displayed in a gilded cage surrounded by two black angel statues.

“He’s not in there. He’s in here,” Kitson said, pointing to his heart. “We’re de la Salle.”

Kitson said he is hopeful that the Christian Brothers’ tradition will carry on for future generations. Growing up, he went to Christian Brothers Academy, a high school in Lincroft, N.J. He was inspired to join the order there and became a Brother while studying at the high school. (Now, though, the order waits to accept Brothers until after they graduate from college.) He said the decision to become a Brother wasn’t popular at the time and still isn’t today, though a few men are still joining the order. Last year, five Brothers made their first vows.

Back at La Salle University, the buzz around campus Wednesday was a mix of pride in the university’s historic birthday and anticipation for the men’s basketball team’s first college tournament game in more than 20 years. The Explorers beat the Boise State Broncos that night, 80-71, and later the Kansas State Wildcats on Friday, 63-61, to advance to the next round.

While students and alumni celebrated, Kitson and DeThomasis smiled when they heard another university founded by the Christian Brothers reached a milestone. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, where DeThomasis used to work, is celebrating its centennial, and Saint Mary’s College of California is turning 150 this year as well.

Stephen Jiwanmall is a 2012 graduate of La Salle in journalism and mass communication.

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