The Brothers in Rouen had been working in the General Hospice for some time, taking care of those living there seven days a week, and running off to teach in various schools each day. In the end, this became intolerable. And so De La Salle decided to do something about it. The following text, headlines aside, is from Brother Alfred Calcutt in his biography of De La Salle.
Poor Board Questions Brothers — Schools in Peril
Conditions in Rouen were such as to bring De La Salle to a decision. Since May 1705, the Brothers had worked in Rouen in impossible conditions imposed by a Poor Board that intended them to withdraw. De La Salle was torn between getting his Brothers out of this situation and holding on to these schools started by Nyel and that could have such an effect among the poor of Rouen.
Brothers Exhausted, Send Memoir to De La Salle
At the beginning of 1707, the Brothers of Rouen, exhausted and unable either to do justice to the work of teaching or attend in any fit state of mind to their religious exercises, drew up a memoir on the situation and presented it to their Founder. It was essential, they said, to pull out of the extra work at the General Hospice and to have their own community house somewhere in the town. But they also made the courageous suggestion that if their numbers were increased to cope with the number of children in the four schools, they would be satisfied with the present financial arrangements. “They feared less to suffer poverty than to fail in regularity.”
De La Salle Petitions Poor Board
The Founder pondered their memoir and discussed the offer with de Pontcarré, who advised him to make out a petition to the Board on those lines and promised to support him. Not that his support was needed to get the Brothers out of the Hospice General, as Blain remarks, since the Board wanted to see the end of the Brothers. De La Salle, however, was going to make the members of the Board a courageous offer that suited their meanness. “I do not find”, adds Blain, “that M. Colbert made any move for this matter, and I do not know why. Judging by appearances, either he was away or he did not appear to take interest in getting the Brothers out of a place where he had so much wished them to be”, though he always kept his keenness for their schools.
Brothers to Find New Home, Add Director
The offer De La Salle was making was to withdraw the Brothers from the Hospice, for the reasons they themselves had put to him, and to take full charge of the four schools, putting in each two Brothers without any increase in salaries. The Brothers would find a house in which to live as a community, and for that purpose he would add a director and a serving Brother at no further expense.
Board Submits Offer — Find New Home, Live Meagerly
The Board debated the offer at its meeting of 2 August 1707. It admitted that it was “impossible for four people to suffice for the instruction of the great number of poor” and that the excessive work (not admitted openly) was a hindrance to the “rules of the institution.” It then presented De La Salle’s offer as if it came from them: “A remedy could be found by increasing the number and allowing them to take a private house in some suitable place in the town. Under the good pleasure of Messieurs the administrators, he (De La Salle) will provide annually ten Brothers for the running of the said four schools, two in each district and two for the instruction of the poor boys in the said hospice.” The Board would retain full control over the schools, with the right to visit them when they pleased. They would be responsible for the furniture and school materials. The two Brothers teaching in the hospital would have to be there from eight to eleven in the morning and from two to five in the afternoon, “without the said hospice having to provide any food for them in it.” On Sundays they had to teach catechism to the poor old men and bigger boys. Not a word of thanks was said about the Brothers’ offer.
Next, in a rather off-hand manner, they concede, since it will cost them nothing, that “the said Brothers can withdraw to any house in the town they think fit to feed and maintain themselves, and live together in what way they may wish to do so”. Then comes the deliberate final stinginess: “because the said hospice will pay only the sum of six hundred livres per year, starting from the day they will begin their duties.”
This was sixty livres per Brother, a third of the minimum accepted at the time for the personal upkeep of a schoolmaster. In addition, the rent for a house had to come out of this. As soon as the Board made its decision, De La Salle installed the community in a house in St Nicholas’s parish, rented at 300 livres, half their total income. It meant they would live in extreme poverty.
De La Salle Assists Financially
The Founder was able to give them a little help from the profits from the boarding school at St. Yon and from occasional alms he received. He took the two Brothers out of the hospice the next year, for by 20 September the minutes of the Board’s deliberations refer to the former teachers doing the customary work. He never regretted taking over the four poor schools.
Deed for House on Rue Caron Signed July 14, 1707
In St. Nicholas’s parish we meet with the usual claiming of rights by the parish priest. He expected the Brothers to attend his church on Sundays and to provide and offer the blessed bread. Yet the Brothers were dreadfully poor and they had to be with their pupils at Mass in four other parishes. The parish priest complained to the Archbishop, who decided the Brothers would provide the bread but the parish priest would pay the baker! It still meant the Brothers were expected to attend his church to offer it. The Founder asked Brother Thomas to look round for a house in another parish, where the parish priest would be less unreasonable. He authorized him on 24 December to take out a lease on a property that had two main buildings, a large garden and stables, at the corner of the Rue des Minimes and the Rue Caron in the parish of St Nicaise. The deed was signed on 14 July. The rent was only 170 livres. We can have a thought of gratitude and admiration for the twelve Brothers who were prepared to live their vocation in such dire poverty.