Le Rosey-Marlhes

Marcellin Champagnat was born in the hamlet of Le Rosey, a village of Marlhes on 20th May 1789. The population of Marlhes was 2700 in Marcellin’s time. The Brothers still have an elementary school there today.

Undoubtedly something of his ability as a leader and a man of action had come from his shopkeeper-miller father, who during the worst years of the Revolution was selected by the people of the area for the position of town clerk.

His mother had a strong and robust faith. She attended clandestine worship even while her husband’s office required that he preside at the secular rituals prescribed by the French Revolution. More than once she accompanied Marcelllin on foot to the shrine of St Francis Regis at La Louvesc, when adversity threatened Marcellin’s seminary course.

Marcellin enjoyed a wholesome family life as a child, quite contrary of Jean-Claude Colin’s.

The house where Marcellin was born still stands in Le Rosey, although the church of Marlhes were Marcellin was baptised has been replaced by the present one, built in 1889.

The windows of the chapel at Le Rosey were done by the famous Parisian artist Borghetto, and they portray the following incidents:

  • Marcellin’s baptism in the old church;
  • Marcellin offering a bouquet to Our Lady;
  • the shrine at Fourviere;
  • Marcellin in the apostolate at Marlhes and La Valla;
  • the “three first places” that Marcellin desired for his Brothers;
  • a “thank you” window from Marist pupils around the world;
  • Pius XII who consecrated the world to Mary and beatified Marcellin on 29 May 1955;
  • Our Lady of Lourdes.

Champagnat first studied under a brutal local schoolmaster and then, having decided upon the priesthood, at the minor seminary of Verrieres, which he entered in 1805.

In the seminary, Champagnat was a contemporary of Jean-Claude Colin and Jean-Marie Vianney. In 1813 he entered the seminary of Saint Irenaeus in Lyons where in his last year he took part in discussions about a future Society of Mary.

The project seemed to him to provide an opening of the creation of a congregation of teaching brothers to which he had already given thought – and such an idea upon his suggestion became part of the plan for the multi-branched society, responsibility for this branch being left with him.

On 22 July 1816 he was ordained priest along with other Marist aspirants including Colin, Courveille, Declas and Terraillon, and the following day took part in the Mass and ceremony of commitment to the project which took place in the marian shrine of Fourviere, and which is regarded as the formal origin of the Marist Family.

On 15th August he began his ministry as curate in the parish of La Valla. On 28th October that year he was called to minister to a dying adolescent whose abysmal knowledge of fundamental Christian belief prompted a resolve to initiate his work of foundation without delay.

Having made the acquaintance of Jean-Marie Granjon and Jean-Baptiste Audras he inaugurated common life with them in a rented house on 2nd January 1817. From then on he combined ministry as curate with supervision of the Brothers’ novitiate and the establishment of further schools in the neighbourhood.

The young founder’s activity met with opposition from the parish priest, and more notably from the vicar general, M. Bochard.

In the face of the latter’s tactics of friendly persuasion, thundering threats and ultimatums, he remained firm until the arrival of Archbishop de Pins as Administer brought a change of regime and a degree of official encouragement.

The situation remained nonetheless delicate, for he was plagued by the unpredictable and tragic interference of Jean-Claude Courveille who arrogated to himself the position of superior and staged a confirmatory election among the Brothers.

The Brothers however made their loyalty to their founder abundantly clear and Courveille withdrew, only to return once more during a serious illness of Marcellin at the end of 1825. This time he was rebuffed again, and in the face of clear opposition from priests and brothers and the disfavour of diocesan administration, Courveille settled his affairs finally in June 1826 and withdrew.

With varying degrees of support and assistance from other priest aspirants, for whom his novitiate foundation was a natural gathering point, Champagnat continued to direct his expanding congregation.

In 1830 the priest aspirants of Lyons elected him their provincial, a post he exercised for two years until the regrouping of the priests at Valbenoite called for other arrangements.

His active correspondence with Jean-Claude Colin whom he had helped to be elected central superior of the priests in 1380 continued unabated and he took an active role in the progress of the priests’ branch. In 1835 he made over his personal possessions by means of a corporate deed to the nascent Society.

With the offer of the Oceania Mission and consequent approbation of the priest’s branch in 1836, he hastened to express his readiness to  make profession in the new congregation and acceded without delay to the request for the Brothers to join the first bank of missionaries.

Joining the profession retreat at Belley that September, it was he who in the name of his confreres admonished the newly elected Superior General Colin on the duties and burdens of his office and who minutes later became the first member of the priests’ branch to make religious profession.

At the retreat of 1837 he tendered to Colin his resignation of the Brothers, in recognition of his new status as religious priest of a juridically autonomously congregation and was immediately formally reappointed.

In the same year he published his Rule, the first such printed text of the Marist Family.

On 12 October 1839, dogged by ill health, he resigned his post and witnessed the election of Brother Francoic as first Superior General.

Having dictated and signed a moving spiritual testament on 18 May 1840, he died that same year on 6th June at the age of 51. He was beatified by Pius XII in 1955 and canonised a saint in 1999.

Marcellin Champagnat was from beginning to end a practical man. His background formed him to be the sort of person who had a sense of what is a good tool and how to use it; what is a good stone and where best to put it.

Jean Coste writes:

We see this even in his spirituality. He is certainly of all the Marist Founders the most Christogical one, the one who spoke more of Christ as the foundation of spirituality, precisely because he was able to look at the good corner stone and see really what it has to be. he was direct, straightforward.

He was a humble man, but with a different type of humility from Fr Colin – a man who know exactly who he is and what he is and what he is not. Here I am, this tope of small stone, of this size, or this nature, and I have to be in this part of the building and not in another. That was the type of humility of Champagnat…

And then, if we ask ourselves, what was the word for this boy, we would say: the world is a place in which one operates and crates for the glory of God. With a great tenacity, in spirit of opposition from his parish priest, from his director, from the government, the university, the vicar general, from everybody – he will realise the foundation of one of the branches of the Marist Family, the strongest and the most numerous of the Marist Family.

If you ask me how it is that the Marist Brothers are almost 10,000 and we are only 2,000. I could give you a series of geographical, psychological, historical and sociological reasons; but none is better than that they have been founded by Champagnat and we have been founded by Colin! – Jean Coste – NZ Retreat 1972.