Marcellin Joseph Benoît Champagnat (1789-1840)
Among his companions in the major seminary in Lyons were Jean-Marie Vianney, the future Cure of Ars, and Jean-Claude Colin who was to become the founder of the Marist Fathers. He joined a group of seminarians whose goal was to found a congregation bearing Mary's name and including priests, sisters and a lay third order the "Society of Mary" for the re-Christianisation of society. Deeply aware of the cultural and spiritual poverty of the children of the countryside, Marcellin felt a strong urge to include a branch of brothers for the Christian education of young people. "I cannot see a child without wanting to tell him how much Jesus loves him." The day after their ordination on 22nd July 1816, these young priests went to consecrate themselves to Mary and to place their project under her protection at the shrine of Our Lady of Fourviere.
Marcellin was sent as curate to the parish of La Valla. His ministry there included visiting the sick, catechizing the children, helping the poor, and helping families to live the Christian life. His simple, direct style of preaching, his deep devotion to Mary, and his apostolic zeal, made a profound impression on his parishioners. His encounter with a dying 17-year-old boy who had absolutely no religious instruction, shook him to his depths, and moved him not to delay any longer in putting his plans into action.
On 2nd January 1817, only six months after his arrival in La Valla, Marcellin, a 27-year-old curate, brought together his first two disciples; the congregation of the Little Brothers of Mary, or Marist Brothers, was born in poverty, humility, and total trust in God under Mary's protection. While still carrying on his parish ministry, he went to live with his brothers, whom he trained and prepared for their mission as Christian teachers, catechists, and educators of young people. Passionately devoted to the Kingdom of God, conscious of the tremendous needs of young people, and an instinctive educator, Marcellin turned these uncultured young country lads into generous apostles. He lost no time in opening schools. Vocations arrived and the first little house, even though enlarged by Marcellin himself, was soon too small. There were many difficulties. The clergy in general did not understand what this inexperienced young priest with no material resources was trying to accomplish. However, the nearby villages continually requested brothers to see to the Christian education of their children.
Marcellin and his brothers shared in the construction of their new house, which could hold more than 100 persons and which would bear the name of "Our Lady of the Hermitage". Freed from his parish duties in 1825, he thenceforth devoted himself totally to his congregation: the spiritual, pedagogical and apostolic formation and accompaniment of his brothers, visits to the schools, and the opening of new ones.
Marcellin, a man of deep faith, never ceased to seek the will of God through prayer and dialogue with the religious authorities and with his brothers. Very conscious of his own limitations, he counted only on God and on the protection of Mary, his "Good Mother", "Ordinary Resource" and "First Superior". His deep humility, and his acute awareness of the presence of God, helped him to live through many severe trials with great inner peace. He often prayed psalm 126: "If the Lord does not build the house", convinced that this congregation of brothers was the work of God and Mary. His motto was, "All to Jesus through Mary, and all to Mary for Jesus".
"To make Jesus Christ known and loved" is the brothers' mission. The school is the privileged setting for this mission of evangelisation. Marcellin taught his disciples to love and respect children, and to give special attention to the poor, the most ungrateful and the most neglected, especially orphans. Spending a great deal of time with young people, with simplicity, family spirit and love of work, and all of this carried out as Mary would have, were the essential points of his vision of education.
In 1836, the Church recognized the Society of Mary and entrusted to it the missions of Oceania. Marcellin took his vows as a member of the Society of Mary, and sent three brothers with the first missionary Marist Fathers to the islands of the Pacific. "Every diocese of the world figures in our plans", he had written.
Steps for obtaining legal recognition of his congregation made great demands on his time, energy and spirit of faith. He never stopped repeating, "When God is on your side, and you rely only on him, nothing is impossible!"
A lengthy illness gradually wore down his robust constitution. Worn out by his labors, he died at the age of 51 on 6th June 1840, leaving this message with his brothers: "May you be of one heart and one mind. May it be said of the Little Brothers of Mary as of the first Christians: see how they love one another!"