Saint John Baptist de La Salle was born in Rheims, France, in 1651. Quite by happenstance at first, he developed a passion for the education of poor city children. He gradually focused his life on teaching and on developing structures that would carry on this important work. During the period between 1679 and 1685, he founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. As the Rule of the Brothers states, “The Institute is founded for the children of the working classes and the poor who do not have the knowledge or the time to teach their own children.” This principle and purpose and this Institute are alive and well today in Providence, RI.
The mid-1800s was a time of great upheaval for Catholics in Rhode Island. The entrenched population of the state was unwelcoming and hostile to the steadily rising tide of immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. The state legislature had even amended the Rhode Island State Constitution to limit the voting rights of these new arrivals and sought to deny them any say in the governance of their communities. On March 23, 1855, in the heart of downtown Providence, several thousand angry “Nativists” marched to the Mercy Sisters’ convent with the intention of burning it to the ground. Backed by several hundred Irish workers, Bishop Bernard O’Reilly and Mayor Edward Knowles confronted the mob and implored them to disperse, which they eventually did.
This was the hostile environment confronting the Catholic population of Rhode Island as the 1870s began. In general, these new Americans were a group of people struggling to find success in the New World. They were proud of their new country and convinced that their children needed an education that would help them thrive in a land full of more promise and potential than their native lands.
As a community, these immigrants were convinced that the path to success lay in an education that would allow their children to succeed in ways that they themselves could not. Many sought an education that was also rooted in the faith and values that they knew to be true and eternal. This dream was best summed up by United States Senator John Pastore, who would one day send his own son to La Salle Academy, when he said: “Let me put it this way. Most of our ancestors, and I refer to my own parents and grandparents, were people of the earth. They were poor. And they left their native lands because they thought there was great opportunity here for their children. When they came, their one aspiration and their one dream was to give their children an education and make them something better than they had been.”
That desire was the impetus for the Brothers of the Christian Schools to begin their long association with the Diocese of Providence, the poor and working class of Rhode Island, and the thousands of young men and women who have graduated from La Salle Academy over the last 143 years.