Establishing the first of his schools in Paris was a major triumph in the Institute.
Establishing schools in Paris freed the Brothers from Reims alone
In 1688, he and two Brothers traveled to Paris, where in short order they revitalized a school for the poor in the parish of Saint Sulpice. This move was important because it established the group’s autonomy and freedom from the direct diocesan control of Reims, and it allowed the Brothers in Reims to begin to develop without leaning on De La Salle’s constant presence.
The pastor, M. de La Chétardye, is shown here visiting the school on Rue Princesse. This man of great qualities had very strained relations with De La Salle, whom he first supported and then opposed. He had a strong tendency to meddle in the internal affairs of the Institute.
As the work in Paris proceeded — first at one school and then at several more — a new challenge appeared. Schools for the poor such as the Brothers ran were meant to be restricted to the certified poor. Anyone who could pay a fee for education was supposed to go to the Little Schools or to the Writing Masters and their for-profit establishments. The Brothers didn’t distinguish in their admissions between poor and non-poor. All were welcome to their free schools, and many wanted to come, including those whose families were not on the parish’s Poor Register. The fee-taking teachers, through their guilds (“unions”), filed suits for infringement on their business and violation of the established regulations. This hostility — in suits, harassment, and even violence — would continue in Paris for at least the next 15 years.
Back in Reims, meanwhile, other difficulties appeared. The 16 Brothers there were cut in half because of defections. Others continued to oppose the work or tried to control it according to their own vision. Some devoted Brothers fell ill and died through overwork, and De La Salle himself underwent a long sickness that brought him near death. The prognosis for the new community and its work seemed suddenly bleak.
In response to this crisis, De La Salle purchased property outside of Paris, at a place called Vaugirard, and brought all the Brothers there for an extended retreat wherein he rekindled their fervor. In 1691, he also made a radical commitment to the work; he and two of his most trusted Brothers made a secret “heroic vow,” committing themselves to the establishment of this enterprise “…even should we remain the only three members of the said Society, and should be obliged to beg for alms and live on bread only.” This vow they took fifty years to the day after three of the founders of Saint Sulpice Seminary had taken a similar vow for the establishment of that worthy institution.
In 1694, the first assembly to be known as a General Chapter was held. At the end of the assembly, for the first time ever, perpetual vows of obedience, stability, and association for the educational service of the poor were taken by De La Salle and 12 chosen Brothers. Again De La Salle, despite his wish for a Brother to have the office, was elected Superior (twice, as he made them vote again). He finally accepted this as God’s will, but insisted that the Brothers declare, in writing, that their choice of their priest founder as Superior was not to be a precedent for the future and that “henceforth and for all time no priest or person in sacred orders is to be accepted into our Society or elected as Superior, and that we shall never admit as Superior anyone who has not associated himself with us by the same vow as we have pronounced.”
De La Salle and the Brothers began to fortify their Society, strengthening and expanding the already flourishing schools and communities, and providing for the young candidates asking to join. De La Salle spent time writing a variety of texts, both for use in the schools and for the Brothers and their life in community, which included everything from a student reading text on politeness and decorum to a detailed method for the Brothers’ interior prayer.
Between 1694 and 1709, many new schools opened, others closed, and different legal battles with opponents to this new means of providing education for the poor raged on. As lawsuits were decided against him — many of them having to do with the right to teach all who came to his doors, regardless of means or ability — he began to wonder if the welfare of the community and the prosperity of the work would benefit from his personal withdrawal from the scene. A new series of setbacks, culminating in a costly and embarrassing legal judgment, the Clément affair, convinced him that this was indeed the case.