The Christian Brothers

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXVI (9) start of chapter

As the Brothers of the Christian Schools are amongst the most successful promoters of Catholic education in America, something may be said as to their progress. They were first established some thirty years since in Montreal, to which city they were invited by the Sulpitians; and last year, 1866, they had in Canada 19 houses, 170 Brothers, and 9,000 pupils. The first establishment of the Order in the United States was in 1845, the next in 1848; and in 1866 they were to be found in successful operation in the chief cities of the Union—in which there were, that year, 35 houses, 370 Brothers, and more than 20,000 pupils. This year, 1867, there is a considerable increase of houses, brothers, and pupils. The Brothers now exceed 400, and the pupils are fast rising to 30,000.

Besides parochial schools, which they teach with signal success, the Brothers conduct several colleges, including that at Manhattan, in New York; St. Louis, Missouri; Rock Hill, Maryland; and Rass, Mississippi. Of the 370 Brothers who constituted in 1866 the strength of the Order in the United States, 300 were either Irish, or of Irish parents. And of the English-speaking Brothers in Canada, the great majority are of the same race. Probably in 1868 the number of Brothers in the States may be at least 500; but were there 5,000, that number would not be too many for the work to be done. There is in America no lack of appreciation of the educational labours of the Christian Brothers. With bishops and clergy the cry is, 'Give us more Brothers'—'Oh, if we had more Brothers!' These men are the inheritors of one of the best educational systems in the world; and devoting themselves exclusively to their self-imposed task, their success is necessarily great. Their parochial schools vie with the Public Schools in the excellence of their teaching—that is, in mere secular knowledge; and their high schools, academies and colleges rival any corresponding institutions supported by the State. The proficiency of their pupils in the highest branches of polite learning is the theme of admiration in journals of the most marked Protestant character; and enlightened Americans of various denominations admit the services which these men render to society through the influence of their teaching on the rising youth of the country. The Brothers are eminently practical; they thoroughly comprehend the spirit and genius of the American mind; and they so teach their pupils, of whatever class, rich or poor, as to suit them to the position they are to occupy in life.

Perhaps the truest proof of the religious influence which they exercise over their pupils is this—that wherever they are any time established, the Bishop of the diocese has less difficulty in procuring candidates for the ministry. They themselves are examples of self-denial and devotedness. All men of intelligence, many full of energy and genius—all capable of pushing their way in some one walk of life or other—not a few certain to have risen to eminence in the higher departments, had they dedicated themselves to the world and its pursuits; living a life almost of privation, content with the barest pittance—what will, in fact, afford them the merest means of existence—the Brothers labour in their glorious vocation with a zeal and enthusiasm which religion can alone inspire or alone explain. To the mind of generous youth the ambition of rising in the world is natural and laudable, and in a new and vast country like America, and under a constitution which throws open the path of distinction to merit or to courage, the world offers too many tempting attractions to be resisted by the young and the ardent. Hence there is a constant complaint on the part of Bishops of the want of 'vocations' for the priesthood. Indeed the latest utterance on this subject, at once the gravest and most authoritative, proceeds from the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore. The Bishops say:—

We continue to feel the want of zealous priests, in sufficient number to supply the daily increasing necessities of our dioceses. While we are gratified to know that in some parts of our country the number of youths who offer themselves for the ecclesiastical state is rapidly increasing, we are obliged to remark that in other parts, notwithstanding all the efforts and sacrifices which have been made for this object, and the extraordinary encouragements which have been held out to youthful aspirants to the ministry in our Preparatory and Theological Seminaries, the number of such as have presented themselves and persevered in their vocations has hitherto been lamentably small. Whatever may be the cause of this unwillingness to enter the sacred ministry on the part of our youth, it cannot be attributed to any deficiency of ours in such efforts as circumstances have enabled us to make. We fear that the fault lies, in great part, with many parents, who, instead of fostering the desire, so natural to the youthful heart, of dedicating itself to the service of God's sanctuary, but too often impart to their children their own worldly-mindedness, and seek to influence their choice of a state of life by unduly exaggerating the difficulties and dangers of the priestly calling, and painting in too glowing colours the advantage of a secular life.

The 'some parts' referred to in the Pastoral Letter may signify those places in which the best provision has been made for religious teaching, including those in which the Christian Brothers have established their schools, and have had time to exercise their influence on the mind and heart of youth. It has been remarked that the influence of their teaching is not alone manifested in their own immediate pupils; but that many young men who have never frequented their schools have felt themselves impelled to a religious life by the example of a friend or companion educated by the Brothers. Here then are grand results of the successful labours of this Order: youth fitted to make its way in the world, and fortified by the best influences, if not wholly to resist, at least not to be a willing victim to its temptations; and young of higher and nobler purpose induced to sacrifice the glittering attractions of the world, for the self-denying and laborious life of the missionary priest.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America