Our Founder, Marcellin Champagnat (1789-1840) was born in a rural area near Lyon in southern France and grew up in the difficult years of the French Revolution. Saddened by both the inadequate educational opportunities that children and young people had, together with a lack of Christian faith, Marcellin had a growing conviction that he should give his life to doing something about it. He wanted to share with young people the joy and hope that came from his own faith and experience of being loved by God.
While training to be a priest, Marcellin came across a group of like-minded seminarians who wanted to form a society with a Marian spirit and purpose. Like Mary, they saw themselves open to God, sharing in Mary's work of bringing Christ alive. They desired to build community in a family-like way, and called themselves Marists.
Just months after his ordination in 1816, Marcellin invited two young men to become the first Marist Brothers, so as to provide young people with the Christian education he had long desired. These first Brothers were captured by Marcellin’s distinctive spirituality and his way of living the Gospel: a way that was simple and unpretentious, warm and community-based, close to young people and with a heart touched by Jesus. Gathered around Marcellin, the early Brothers learnt to become men with strong minds and gentle hearts.
In a letter to King Louis-Philippe the 24th January, 1834 Marcellin explained the reason of the name given to his Institute. In his own words:
“I gave them the name of Little Brothers of Mary, quite convinced that this name alone would attract a big number of subjects. A speedy success, in a matter of a few years, has proved my intuition right, beyond my wildest hopes”.
This title expresses well three key elements of the spirit that Marcellin wished for his new Community of Brothers: (i) gathered around Mary; (ii) being brother to all those with whom they worked; (iii) living a life of humility and simplicity.
The numbers of Brothers grew rapidly in the first two decades so that by the time of his death in 1840, Marcellin had attracted 280 men to be Marist Brothers and 48 schools were in operation. The Marist congregation soon spread all over France, then to other parts of the world. In 1872, at the invitation of Bede Polding OSB, the Archbishop of Sydney, the first Marist Brothers arrived in Australia and immediately began a school ministry among poor children at the Rocks in Sydney.
Marcellin was beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1955 and declared a saint of the Catholic Church by Blessed Pope John Paul II on 18 April, 1999 in St Peter's Square in Rome.