De La Salle spent only 18 months in the seminary here, but it had a lasting effect upon him. He followed the courses in morals at the seminary, and the courses in theology at the Sorbonne. The site of the Seminary of St. Sulpice is along the road Rue Bonaparte leading from the Square of St. Sulpice up to Rue Vaugirard. The remnant of the seminary buildings is the wall which now forms part of a very small garden at the top left of that road just as it meets Rue de Vaugirard.
The Sorbonne was and is the center of higher learning in France. It was begun by Canon Robert de Sorbon, confessor to King Saint Louis, in the middle of the 13th century. Cardinal Richelieu conducted it for a while (1624), the French Revolution closed it, and Napoleon re-opened it. St. Sulpice was founded in the early Middle Ages for the peasants around St. Germain. St. Sulpice (Sulpitius the Pious) is the patron and was the martyred Bishop of Bourges. Jean-Jacques Olier (there is a plaque commemorating his work in the church of St. Sulpice) became parish priest and on August 15, 1642, Olier began a seminary for the diocese of Paris, started the present church, and founded the Company of Priests of St. Sulpice. An earlier attempt to found the seminary at Vaugirard had failed. Today, this society is in charge of 60 seminaries around the world. The dormitory wing of St. Sulpice where De La Salle lived was demolished in 1802. Today, the cleared area forms an attractive square in front of the church. There is a very beautiful fountain in this Place de Saint Sulpice. The statue of Fenelon on the fountain faces the church.
Death of Parents Bring Studies to a Halt
He had been only nine months at the seminary when his mother, Nicole Moët de Brouillet died, and nine months after that, April 9, 1672, his father, Louis De La Salle, also died. As a result of the death of both parents, he returned to Reims on April 19, 1672, to administer the patrimony of the De La Salle family and look after his siblings. He was then 21 years old.
Daily Seminary Schedule
De La Salle’s daily schedule at St. Sulpice was something like this:
- class all morning
- Particular Examen
- singing practice
- free time for study
- spiritual reading before supper
Lectures were given on Fr. Olier’s Method of Mental Prayer, on Cardinal de Berulle’s spirituality, and on detachment from the world. In their spare time, the seminarians were encouraged to teach catechism to the poor in the now glamorous area of Saint Germain Boulevard and Boulevard Saint Michel. It is still called the Latin Quarter (although no Latin is ever spoken here).
The Lady Chapel
The Lady Chapel (Blessed Sacrament Chapel), the crypt and the sanctuary had just been completed and were in use in De La Salle’s day. The wooden-paneled Chapel of the Assumption is easy to miss because it is not an integral part of St. Sulpice. It was known to De La Salle. It is through the door at the immediate right of the Lady Chapel / Blessed Sacrament Chapel. We can imagine De La Salle, bell in hand, walking such narrow streets as the Rue Princesse, located nearby, little thinking he would later be teaching there, summoning the boys to his Sunday catechism lessons.
In the Footsteps of Jacques Olier
On the wall next to the sacristy is a marble plaque dedicated to Jean Jacques Olier, who was curé of the parish, who had founded the seminary and who “gave such an honor and blessing to the parish and to the Church in France.” De La Salle didn’t know Olier personally, but his spirituality would certainly have been known to De La Salle and presumably he heard about Olier’s vow (with two others) to live by association and beg and live on bread alone if necessary to maintain their own society which was threatened, especially in view of the fact that he and two other Brothers took their similar “Heroic Vow” on the same date exactly 50 years after Olier and his companions had taken theirs.
De Paul & De Marillac
Vincent de Paul was present at the death of Olier in the seminary. Around the year 1630, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac established a society of women who would visit the sick poor of the parish.
The side-chapel, dedicated to De La Salle, is the third chapel from the back on the right. In the window is the De La Salle family crest and a small portrait of the saint. In the chapel is also to be found a statue of De La Salle. The plaque on the left of the altar tells of:
“St. John Baptist de La Salle, Founder of popular education in France, born in Reims in 1651 and ordained priest in 1678. On seeing the plight of the poor people he conceived the idea of forming Masters to raise the children of the poor in the practice of religion and to instruct them in the basics of Christian knowledge. Having experienced much opposition and having distributed his wealth to the poor, he founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He died a saintly death in Rouen in 1719 and was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1900.”
The Mother House in Rome has, outside the Main Chapel, the same text as the above plaque. On the other side of the altar we read:
“During his theological studies at the Sorbonne, JBDE LA SALLE lived at the seminary of St. Sulpice and here was a model of the young clerics. In 1688, at the request of M. de la Barmondiere, cure of St. Sulpice, he returned to take over the charity school of the parish in Rue Princesse. He opened another (Rue du Bac, 1689) and a third (Rue St. Placide, 1698). A thousand poor children of the parish were taught in these three schools – the first that the Brothers directed in Paris. It was again in this parish that the saint transferred the novitiate that had previously been established in Vaugirard.”
The Church of St. Sulpice (like many churches) was taken over during the French Revolution and became the Temple of Victory, later being used on one occasion for a banquet for Napoleon.
Panoramic view inside the chapel in church of Saint Sulpice
- Even though De La Salle was here for only 18 months, it had a profound effect on his outlook and his future. Why do you think that was the case?
- What aspects of life at Saint Sulpice would De La Salle have appreciated, and what aspects perhaps less so? Can you identify with this kind of experience?
- The friendships and acquaintances he made while at Saint Sulpice would show up again and again later in his life. What’s the relationship between a personal network and the ministry of education – in De La Salle’s life and in your life?