By Godwin Ezeaka
“All to Jesus through Mary, and all to Mary for Jesus.” – St. Marcellin Champagnat
Saint Marcellin Champagnat, Priest and Founder of the Marist Brothers, was born on May 20, 1789, the year of the French Revolution, and died on June 6, 1840. He was a priest of the Society of Mary and the founder of the Little Brothers of Mary, a congregation of brothers devoted to the education of the young.
He was the ninth child of a very pious catholic family and developed a very deep devotion to Mary as a young boy, which he learned from an aunt who was a religious. He also had a great capacity for work, which he learned from his father.
Champagnat left school at the age of seven, and when, at the age of 14, he discovered through the help of a priest his own vocation to the priesthood, he had to begin to study again almost from scratch.
Aware of his limitations, and against the advice of those around him, he entered the minor seminary and struggled to learn the fundamentals of schooling. However, never losing sight of the will of God for him, he struggled through these difficult years with his eyes fixed on the horizon of God’s call.
In the major seminary he became friends with the future Curé of Ars, Jean-Marie Vianney. He was ordained with his companions on July 22, 1816, the feast of St. Mary Magdalen.
One of his desires was to found a congregation devoted to the name of Mary in order to re-evangelize French society in the wake of the French Revolution. He saw his main task as the Christian education of the young, and this inclination was quickened and solidified upon encountering a dying young boy who had nearly no knowledge of the faith.
He founded the Little Brothers of Mary on January 2, 1817, when two young men decided to join him in his mission. He set about at once, in addition to his parish ministry, to educate uncultured young boys and turn them into ardent apostles of Jesus Christ, all the while living in abject poverty and trusting totally in the will of God, and the solicitous protection of the Virgin Mary, to whom he gave all, for the sake of the Lord Jesus.
Marcellin Champagnat died at the age of 51, his health having been worn out by his immense workload and an illness.
At his canonization in 1999 by Pope John Paul II, the Holy Father said of him, “St Marcellin proclaimed the Gospel with a burning heart. He was sensitive to the spiritual and educational needs of his time, especially to religious ignorance and the situations of neglect experienced in a particular way by the young.”
The Memorare in the Snow
Saint Marcellin Champagnat, founder of the Marist Brothers, had great confidence in the Blessed Virgin whom he called “Our Ordinary Resource”. The following true story confirms his trust.
One night, Marcellin was returning from a visit to a sick person through a snowstorm that made all the paths disappear. The night was pitch black, and the poor priest, accompanied by a brother, had been walking for two hours. Their faces burnt by the north wind and their eyes filled with snow and having lost all sense of direction, he two travelers were constrained to wander aimlessly with no other guide than Providence.
After a short while, the brother became so exhausted that Father Champagnat was obliged to hold him up. The priest himself, stiffened by the cold and almost suffocating under the snow, felt so weak that he had to stop in his tracks. “My friend,” he said, “if the Blessed Virgin does not come to our assistance we are goners. Let us pray to her and surrender our lives in her hands.” While he spoke these sad words, the brother had let himself fall to the ground in an inert mass.
Then Father Champagnat knelt down close to the brother in snow, and recited the “Memorare”. Afterwards, he struggled to lift up his companion and, painfully, they managed to advance a few steps. All of a sudden a light appeared in the night a short distance away. They dragged themselves in the direction of that faint light, which was a promise of safety to them. They found a logger’s cabin and they were taken in for the night; they were saved.