This was the start of something entirely new for the men. This “Cradle of the Institute” in what was then known as the Rue Neuve (presently called Rue Gambetta) now has its entrance at number 20 Rue de Contrai.
De La Salle distributes his wealth to the poor of Reims, circa 1683
The present day school occupies the site of the original FSC school here on Rue Gambetta. This is the first de facto Mother House. De La Salle resided here for six years (1682-88) until his departure for Paris. Many important events in his life took place here. In August 1683, he renounced his position of Canon of Reims,dedicating himself fully to the work that he had begun with the schoolmasters. The community sang the Te Deum in thanksgiving. In the famine of 1683-1684, he distributed his rich inheritance (about $500,000 in today’s money) to the poor through the daily handing out of bread to everyone who needed it.
In view of the objections of his family and relatives to having the school teachers living in the De La Salle family home at Rue St. Marguerite, and the lawsuit that resulted in the family home being sold and its assets distributed among the heirs, De La Salle rented a building in the Rue Neuve and went to live there with the schoolmasters on June 21, 1682.
This was the anniversary of taking the masters into his own home. But the move was not made because it was his patron’s feast day (the Feast of John the Baptist is celebrated in the church on June 21 each year) but because that was the only day each year when contracts came due, new rents were signed, and people moved houses.
The property consisted of two houses with outer offices, yards and gardens and so was quite spacious. For close to 20 years after they moved in, the property was held on a lease. In 1700, De La Salle purchased the property outright. As the Institute as such did not have a legal corporate existence, the house had to be vested in trustees, so the Founder prevailed on his brother Louis, at the time a canon at Reims Cathedral, Claude Pepin, and a priest, Pierre Laval, to form a committee of trustees.
After the death of the Founder, his brother, Louis, and later his youngest brother Pierre, were careful to fill any vacancies in this committee and to ensure continued ownership of the property for the Brothers.
Most of the early teachers, when they realized they were being turned into some kind of religious group, cleared out and found jobs elsewhere. However, these were quickly replaced by generous young men who responded to the Founder’s ideals. Then in a “Chapter of 1684,” attended by Brothers from the schools in Reims as well as those from Guise, Laon, Rethel and Chateau-Porcien — all places where new schools had been established by the Brothers — the crucial decision was made that henceforth they would consider themselves “religious,” “Brothers of the Christian Schools,” and that they would wear a special habit and bind themselves to the service of God by vows.
On Trinity Sunday of that year (1684) twelve of the principal Brothers made a vow of obedience for one year. Afterwards, they walked through the night of that Sunday all the sixteen miles to the famous sanctuary of Our Lady of Liesse, where on the Monday morning De La Salle said Mass for them, after which they placed their new enterprise under the protection of the Mother of God. The Institute was launched!
As one would expect from a new and young religious community, great fervor reigned in the Rue Neuve. Conditions were simple and difficult; between 1683 and 1687 five young Brothers died. The Brothers’ house here was referred as La Petite Trappe because De La Salle and his Brothers were leading a life of great austerity according to their first Rules, an austerity comparable to that of the Trappist monks.
The primary purpose of the residence in the Rue Neuve was to be a home for the schoolmasters who taught in the three schools in Reims. It was also used as a house for young men who were sent by their parish priests to be trained as teachers for country parishes. Of these the Founder says in his “Memoir sur l’Habit”
“They live in a separate house that is called a ‘seminary.’ The young men remain only a few years, sufficient to train them thoroughly in piety and in the duties of their state. They wear no special costume, dressing like ordinary seculars, except that their clothes are black or dark brown, the only distinguishing feature being a rabat. They also wear their hair shorter than is customary. They are taught to sing and to read and write perfectly. No charge is made for their maintenance. When they are trained they are sent to some town or village to be schoolmasters and parish clerks. After that they have no further connection with the community except what arises from friendship and gratitude. They are welcomed back to make a retreat if they so wish”.
Although they lived as boarders, several of these country school masters were captivated by the same ideals as the Brothers and so many of them passed over from the training college to the Brother’s community.
When De La Salle left for Paris, he left Rue Neuve in the capable hands of Br. Henri l’Heureux who, when he himself called to Paris for theological studies, handed over his responsibilities to Brother Jean-Henri. Canon Blain, an early biographer of De La Salle and the early Brothers, tells us that 8 of the 16 Brothers who then constituted the young society left between 1688 and 1692. Only one recruit joined in that time.
There was also in the buildings a “juniorate”. Here boys who wished to become Brothers, but who were too young for the schools, were committed to the charge of one of the Brothers and were taught Christian doctrine, reading, writing and the other subjects they would later need and when they reached the age of sixteen they were incorporated in the community. There was no novitiate strictly speaking for new candidates, but young men who joined the community were given some months of training before they· were sent to teach. It was also here that the Brothers dressed for the first time in the black habit and rabat.
De La Salle lived in a miserable attic room at Rue Neuve and humbly submitted as “inferior” to Brother Superior, Henri L’Heureux (until Archbishop Le Tellier heard that a layman was in charge of the Order and told De La Salle to assume once more the direction of the young Institute).
Much later in our history, in 1791, the Director of the Community and his 21 Brothers unanimously rejected the law of separation of church and state and were expelled in 1792. The school was transformed into a military barracks and later into a cotton mill until the return of the Brothers in 1880. In that year, the Institute, under the cover of a group of lay well-wishers of the Institute, bought back the property and built on it a boarding school which has prospered up to our own day. The original buildings of the Rue Neuve had disappeared in the meantime but the ground on which they had stood was included in the purchase, so when the Superior General of the time, Brother Irlide, came there on a visit, the first thing he did was to kneel down and kiss the ground. The present school was rebuilt after the First World War.
De La Salle’s sister, Rose-Marie, (1656-1681) became a Canoness Regular of St. Augustine in their nearby community on the Rue Neuve. Several times John Baptist visited her. The accounts of De La Salle’s management of his deceased father’s estate make mention of his regard for his sister (e.g. in addition to the cost of her board – 200 livres annually – he provided “some thread, currants, two small jars to hold jam and sugar; Portuguese oranges; 10 sols for an inkstand; 4 livres for a pair of stockings and an iron candlesnuffer”).