Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

08/18/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 08/18/2019 19:12

Bishop Deeley joins with Brothers of Christian Instruction for Bicentennial Celebration

The 200th anniversary of the founding of the Brothers of Christian Instruction was commemorated on Sunday, August 18, with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert Deeley at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel, located at the Notre Dame Spiritual Center in Alfred.

Dozens of people, including clergy, women religious, lay associates, and the Knights of Columbus, joined with the brothers to celebrate the community's many contributions throughout the years.

'Looking back, I think we can take pride in all the good we've done and celebrate some of the good we're still able to do with the support of the clergy and our lay friends and associates,' said Brother Jerome Lessard, FIC, the local superior who has overseen the Alfred community since 2009. 'As a teaching order, our mission remains the same as that of our founders...to make Jesus Christ better known and better loved through education and instruction.'

The Brothers of Christian Instruction owe their start to two men, Father Gabriel Deshayes and Father Jean-Marie de la Mennais, who, in the wake of the French Revolution, shared a vision for forming a religious community of men who would educate and serve youth in rural parts of the country.

'We gather today to give thanks for two Catholic priests of the 19th century in France,' Bishop Deeley said in his homily. 'Fathers Gabriel Deshayes and Jean-Marie de la Mennais were part of that great movement of faith following the French Revolution, a time of grave turmoil in France and in Europe. The life of faith was under siege. There was not only persecution and banishment or death for religious leaders, priests, bishops, and members of religious institutes; there was an active attempt to do away with the notion of religion in the name of reason and secularism.'

Father Deshayes, already in seminary at the time of the revolution, had to be ordained on a nearby island where his bishop was in exile but, then, secretly returned to France.

'During the worst years of the turmoil, he was an underground priest celebrating the Mass and the sacraments in hidden places for the benefit of the faithful. When the worst of the turmoil had ended, he sought to find ways to build up the faith, particularly by educating people regarding the teachings of the Church. To this end, he nurtured a number of religious communities, of men and women,' the bishop said.

Father de la Mennais was ordained after the revolution but at a time when the Church was still in disarray. He, too, devoted himself to rebuilding the Church, founding seminaries and schools, as well as associations of men and women.

Father Deshayes and Father de la Mennais met by chance and realized it would be advantageous for them to work together. The Brothers of Christian Instruction, founded in Brittany on June 6, 1819, was the result.

'Our founders were overwhelmed by the desolation and the neglect of the young people of their days. They gathered around them a community of simple, good, barely literate adults who were generous enough to dedicate their energies and talents to the children of the small isolated villages where others did not dare go. And these men created for young people settings of welcome, growth, education, and faith,' said Brother Mario Houle, FIC, the provincial of brothers in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, who traveled from Quebec to attend the celebration.

The brothers' ministry expanded beyond the borders of France to other parts of the world. They now serve in five continents. They came to Plattsburgh, New York, from Canada in 1903 and spread to several communities in the United States, including Biddeford and Waterville, Maine.

That is where Brother Daniel Caron, FIC, a brother for 58 years, first came to know them.

'I had them in grade school, seventh and eighth grade in Waterville, and I liked them. I admired them, and I thought I would like to be one of them,' he said.

Brother Daniel went through formation in Alfred, where the brothers have had a community since 1931. That is when they purchased the 350-acre Shaker Village, establishing high school and university programs for those entering the order.

Brother Daniel would go on to become a teacher and a principal, serving for a total of 47 years in Plattsburgh and in Fall River, Massachusetts.

'I've been very happy. I couldn't ask for better,' he said.

During their years in Alfred, the brothers operated a junior high boarding schools for boys and also ran a self-sustaining farm. In 1981, they opened the Notre Dame Spiritual Center on Shaker Hill to offer retreats. Although no longer run by the brothers, it continues to be used for that purpose today.

Although the number of brothers in North America has declined, Brother Mario said they still look to the future with optimism.

'We look to the past with pride. We look to the present to live it with passion, and we welcome the future with hope. This is from Pope Francis but this, for me, is what we have to do,' said Brother Mario. 'We've been through difficult times before. This time is different but not more difficult than others.'

The brothers also noted that in some parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, the order continues to thrive. During a reception that followed the Mass, the brothers held a raffle with the money going to support a school in South Sudan.

Along with the bread and wine, the presentation of gifts during the Mass included some special items carried by the brothers to the bishop. They included a portrait of the founders; a copy of the Treaty of Union, an agreement signed by the founders that established novitiates for the formation of teachers; the congregation's rule of life; a report on the 2018 general chapter; and a bicentennial album.