De La Salle’s work as an educational innovator began in 1679 after a chance encounter with a schoolmaster called Adrian Nyel. At the time, de La Salle was the executor and legal guardian of a community of sisters that had originally been founded by his mentor, Fr. Nicolas Roland, to provide an education to poor girls within the parish. Following their first meeting, de La Salle and Nyel were able to establish a free school for elementary-aged boys and quickly followed it up with two more schools.
However, it soon became clear that their teachers were untrained and in need of guidance, so de La Salle invited them into his home for shared meals where he could mindfully instruct them in their work. This is how the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools was born. Within a year, de La Salle crossed social boundaries even further by bringing the teachers into his home to live with him permanently.
During the year 1683, de La Salle realized that the Holy Spirit was leading him on a different path than the one he had imagined when he was younger. So, he resigned from his position as canon and, that winter, gave away all that he had to help feed the poor in Reims. The move not only helped those struggling as a result of the famine that was ravaging the city but also placed de La Salle on a more equal footing with the Brothers that he had been guiding.
Yet, it wasn’t until 1688 that de La Salle’s brand of education really took root. This was the time when de La Salle had to choose between remaining a diocesan group or branching out to serve other communities within France. He declined the Archbishop of Reims’ offer to establish new schools, as well as maintain the existing schools, in favor of opening several free schools in Paris.
In the years that followed, de La Salle went on to open novitiates to train young men in the Brother’s life, a boarding school, and a special Christian Academy for poor young men under the age of twenty. He also created commercial courses - an innovative departure from the classical curriculum - and the first reformatory school in France. By 1717, the Brothers constituted 23 houses and 34 educational establishments throughout France and there were 100 Brothers and 18 novices.
De La Salle died on Good Friday morning in Saint Yon, Rouen on April 7, 1719. Throughout Rouen and beyond, word spread that “the Saint is dead.” Pope Leo XIII canonized John Baptist de La Salle a Saint in 1900, and Pope Pius XII proclaimed him Principal Patron Saint of Teachers and Students in 1950.
Over three hundred years later, more than three thousand De La Salle Brothers and 90,000 educators continue the work of St. John Baptist de La Salle across 80 countries. These people "devote themselves wholeheartedly, to the human and Christian education of youth."