St Marcellin Champagnat
MARCELLIN JOSEPH BENEDICT CHAMPAGNAT WAS BORN AT LE ROSEY, A HAMLET NEAR ST ETIENNE IN FRANCE
ON 20 MAY 1789, THE SAME YEAR AS THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.
HE GREW UP ON A SMALL FARM WITH HIS PARENTS, FOUR BROTHERS AND FOUR SISTERS.
DURING THE RELIGIOUS PERSECUTIONS OF THE REVOLUTION, MANY PRIESTS WERE KILLED AND AS A RESULT,
LEADERS WERE ANXIOUS TO FIND MORE VOCATIONS.
THE ARCHBISHOP OF LYON ISSUED SUCH A DIRECTIVE AND A PRIEST FROM A LOCAL SEMINARY WAS DISPATCHED
TO LE ROSEY TO SEE IF THERE WERE ANY WHO MIGHT TAKE UP RELIGIOUS LIFE.
CALLING ON THE CHAMPAGNAT FAMILY, HE INQUIRED IF ANY OF THE BOYS WERE INTERESTED IN THE PRIESTHOOD. MARCELLIN DECIDED TO ACCEPT.
Marcellin had not had very much schooling and when he entered the Seminary he found the other students were far more advanced than he. At the end of his first year, he was asked to go home and think about his future. After talking to his family and praying about his difficulty, he decided to return to the Seminary and make a fresh start. The priests who ran the Seminary were very impressed with his new enthusiasm and dedication to study.
Following his mother's example, Marcellin had a great devotion to Mary and he was delighted to find she had an honoured place in the Seminary. He found friends in the Seminary who shared similar ideals and goals in life. They believed that following the Revolution, the Church needed to be ‘born again’. They planned an institute in honour of Mary, and their hope was to include Priests, Religious and lay people; a radical idea for the time and in which the Marist Fathers, Marist Sisters, Marist Missionary Sisters and the Marist Brothers have their origins. Marcellin's particular contribution to the plan was his belief that there also needed to be Brothers to evangelise and teach the young.
He was ordained on 22 July 1816 at the age of 27 and his first appointment was to the parish of La Valla. He set out for his new home immediately. Having suddenly caught sight of the village clinging to the hillside, with its church spire pointing skywards, he knelt down on the bare ground and prayed that God would bless his future work.
Soon there was an eager group of children crowding to his catechism classes. Sometimes they even arrived before the church was opened. The grown-ups too flocked to the church every time he was to give a sermon. He was severe in denouncing scandalous conduct and his influence on the parishioners produced rapid improvement.
In spite of his many duties, Marcellin still believed in the idea of founding an Order of Brothers. Once, when he was called to the bedside of a sick boy, he found that he knew nothing about religion even though he was twelve years old. For two long hours Marcellin spoke to the boy about God and finished by hearing his confession. He was just in time as the boy died soon after. From then on he was more determined than ever to begin the Order of which he dreamed.
Having obtained two young men who volunteered to be the first Brothers, Marcellin bought a little house near his presbytery. It was in a poor condition but his carpentry and masonry skills enabled him to repair it. The two young men moved in on 2 January 1817. So the Marist Brothers' Order was born. In the small house, the two lived as a family. They prayed, studied and worked together. Their work consisted in making iron nails to earn themselves a living. In the Spring they received a third companion and then a fourth, and soon the little community had increased to five members. With the growth of the community, Father Champagnat thought it was time that it should have its own Superior. Brother John Granjon was duly elected by secret ballot. Champagnat then hired a school teacher who agreed to come and live with the Brothers and teach the children of La Valla. He also instructed the Brothers in the methods of teaching and soon they were able to give him a hand with the pupils. In a short time, the Brothers were able to go out and teach in the villages around La Valla. They were well received by the parents who were delighted to see that someone was interested in their children.
An episode is often told to highlight Fr Champagnat's deep compassion and confidence in Mary. In February, 1823, a Brother became seriously ill in an isolated village. Marcellin was keen to comfort him, however, the weather was bad and the snow was falling heavily. Despite the poor conditions, he and one of the Brothers set out on foot across the mountains. They found the Brother in great pain, but at least on the road to recovery. They had to return home and Marcellin thought they would save time by going back over Mt Pilat. The snow was still falling heavily as before and, after several hours of walking, they realised that they were lost. The Brother was soon exhausted and collapsed in the snow. It seemed that they would both perish. Marcellin comforted his companion and they both recited a prayer to Mary asking for help. They started walking again, and soon after saw a light coming from a nearby farmhouse. They were saved!
With the arrival of a new group of young men, the house at La Valla became too small. A larger house would have to be built and Father Champagnat knew of the ideal place in a valley between La Valla and St Chamond. As this project required a large amount of money, Champagnat was forced to borrow some, as well as rely on local supporters who believed in what he was doing. The Brothers did the building themselves with Champagnat working by their side. It was a difficult task as they had to quarry out a whole solid rock face to make their bricks. Also, confident that the Brothers would grow, Champagnat designed a large building. In all, this venture proved to be a very onerous, and at times, dangerous task. However, after a year of hard work the building, which became known as Our Lady of the Hermitage was completed and open for use. One remarkable thing is the fact that there was not a single accident during the whole time of construction. There were, however, several close calls.
Many people had looked upon Marcellin’s foundation of the Brothers with scepticism. These attitudes became worse during the building of the Hermitage. He was laughed at and ridiculed by many people. One of these was the local Bishop who told Champagnat that he was a "madman" and that he would not support him. The success of Marcellin’s venture, in spite of opposition, highlights his faith, tenacity and courage.
During the following winter, the Brothers' schools began to flourish in the district. However, in 1830, another Revolution broke out and everything came to a halt. Once more the country was shaken by disorder, riots and religious persecution. Troublemakers whispered that priests were hiding arms and ammunition. The rumours even said that a certain nobleman, and enemy of the state, was hiding at the Hermitage. One day a government official appeared on the scene to search the house. He was accompanied by a squad of soldiers. Father Champagnat calmly said he would show them over the house to see if guns were hidden there or not. The men quickly saw the rumours were false and prepared to leave. But the priest insisted that they must be thoroughly convinced and took them through the house from top to bottom. As one of the rooms was locked and Father could not find the key, he sent for an axe and broke down the door.
In 1836, Father Champagnat went to Paris to have the Brothers' Order officially recognised by the French Government, but received no co-operation. Although discouraged, he did not give up and in 1838 tried again; however, the results were the same. Soon after this, his health deteriorated and he decided that a leader would have to be elected from among the Brothers. On 12 October 1839, Brother Francois was elected the Brothers' first Superior General.
Marcellin's health grew worse during the following winter. He began to have violent pains in his back and his legs became very swollen. On 11 May 1840, feeling himself growing weaker, he asked to receive the last rites. On 18 May, Father spoke his last words to the Brothers and during the following days his life ebbed slowly away. On the morning of 6 June 1840, while the Brothers were singing the Salve Regina in the chapel, Marcellin died.
Marcellin Champagnat 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.
His feast day is observed on 6 June.