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History and Heritage
Father Nicholas Barre
Born in France at Amiens
in the fall of 1621.
When he was about ten years old, an event occurred which profoundly moved him. A sister of his, to whom he was particularly attached, took ill. The doctors despaired of her recovery, and one afternoon when her brother returned from school, he found her at death’s door. Panic-stricken, he ran to his own room, threw himself down before the altar there, and with an earnestness compounded of grief and hope, begged God to spare his sister. When he came out, he ran straight to his mother and looking at her with a radiant smile said – “Mother, do not worry. Marie is not going to die: she is going to get better.” And recover she did.
Almost immediately after that incident, at the age of ten, Nicholas took a vow of service to God for the rest of his life. He went to Jesuit College in his home town. Learning was no trouble for him. He took to it as a duck to water. Naturally reflective and clear-thinking, endowed with a prodigious memory, and capable of enduring his own company indefinitely, he reached admirably to the highly systematized education of the Jesuits.
Having finished his education, this young man faced a rosy future in the form of a brilliant career in the law courts. However, he turned it down for quite another manner of life. In October 1640, he got himself admitted to the Couvent des Minimes of Amiens. That order was one of the strictest in the Church, laying stress on silence and mortification as a means to deep humble love of God and others. A biographer writes of him at this time that he was a young man “of deep silence… and humbles in everything he did”, that he never spoke of himself and discouraged others from doing so. He shield away from all limelight.
As a result of these unusual qualities of nature and of grace, Nicholas was, while still only a deacon, appointed Professor of Theology, and sent to Paris to teach the young candidates for the priesthood in the Place Royale. This procedure on the part of his superiors was a mark of confidence and respect, quite out of the ordinary.
After fifteen years of self-giving in this capacity, he fell ill and became depressed. Uncertainty possessed his mind. This mental trail brought him back to Amiens where he was given the charge of sacristan. Here his native air and the calming influence of his charge soon restored him to complete health. Nicholas was now ready for his real life’s work. In 1659, he was sent to the city of Rouen .
Fond of retirement and fostering with loving care the fragile virtue of humility, here in this great center of Normandy , the quiet man became famous.
People began to speak about his preaching. It was said that he made sermons as interesting as plays. He was described as having “an eloquence quite unusual, and a homely wit that is altogether refreshing.” He once said,” When you are assailed by a barrage of insults, run to shelter, keep quiet, the storm will pass and you can continue your journey or resume your work afterwards, as if nothing at all had happened.”
By the time he reached his fortieth year, Father Barre had uppermost in his mind the idea of teaching the poor, adult sinners and ignorant children.
One of his first helpers was a lady of fashion who was well known for being a hard and selfish woman. Following her conversation, she put herself at the disposal of Father Barre. Spending most of her time among the poor, living like them, seeing life from their viewpoint, understanding their ways and becoming their friend, she became interested in the priest’s ambition to raise by means of Christian education the moral standards of the despised people in Rouen . Under his guidance, she started classes herself at Darnetal, a suburb of Rouen, and when Father Barre opened his first schools, it was her he turned to for support.
In the meantime, other powerful friends had appeared, men of prestige in the city who were in position to estimate the importance of the new educational endeavour. Two of them were parish priests; four were lay gentlemen. Then, there were the teachers, or the “maitresses” as they were called. So, at Sotteville-les- Rouen, the first “ Charitable School ” was opened by the “Charitable Mistresses” in 1662. Those teachers went out each morning form Rouen to Sotteville, about a mile’s journey, and there they spent the day teaching the poor children, going, where necessary, from house to house to find them.
The venture was a great experiment. It was eminently successful. Encouraged by his success, Father Barre opened classes in the heart of Rouen itself, in a house given by a benefactress. Another school was started near the Carmelite Convent, and after a little while, three more in the streets.
Many conversations to the faith took place among the people they reached this way. The teachers also taught catechism to the people. However, success in the Lord’s service is usually troubled by difficulty and it provoked the jealousy of existing teachers known as “writing-masters”. The opposition of these men and their partisans who denounced the timely schools as “importance novelties” caused Father Barre to suffer a great deal. His energy was drained, and his health ruined.
Nevertheless, he had very definite ideas about his work. The social need calling for most urgent attention was education – not any kind of education, but the type that would reach out to every individual child, bring it to school and arrange for it there a syllabus of studies within the scope of its limited ability. He had attempted, with little or no success, to put these principles into action for boys; he failed to obtain from the men teachers at the absolute detachment from material things and the complete dependence on Providence which were needed for the task and which were so whole-heartedly given by the women. Girls are the future mothers of families and on them depend the habits and morals of the home. The schools were to be free: the studies, the three R’s, and a thorough grounding in the doctrines and duties of Christianity. Special programmes should be drawn up for Sundays, conferences, games, etc. particular attention given to young girls to preserve their morals and to help them in times of trouble. To comply with these needs, he maintained that the teachers (sisters) should not be cloistered.
What were the new schools called? Father Barre himself was always in favour of: ”Charitable Christian Schools of the Holy Infant Jesus”, but when many of the schools were opened, the founder had not yet revealed his complete plan, so different localities gave different names to their schools. When he founded his schools in Paris, he gave them the name of his hearts’ desire – the schools of the Holy Infant Jesus.
In 1675, for some unknown reason, Nicholas Barre was recalled from his apostolic work in Rouen to resume in the Convent de la Place Royale in Paris , his philosophy and theology classes to young seminarians. A princess of royal blood, Marie of Lorraine, one day, asked him to go and see her about a project she had in mind – to open a school for poor girls in Paris . She earnestly asked him for a few of his Charitable Mistresses to run the school.
At this juncture, a new protector appeared on the scene, none other than Louis XLV himself. Father Barre was approached on the matter of popular education, and was assigned the task of educating daughters of nobility instead.
But before that work could be finished, Father Barre’s health began to decline visibly. On May 24, 1686 , as he descended the altar steps after celebrating his mass, he was overcome by a violent attack of convulsions and collapsed. He never recovered.
Father Barre died at the age of 64.
-Extract from the book on the life of Father Barre-
The CHIJ Story
This page was last updated on: Wed,29102014