It is post-Revolution France. A handful of young seminarians share a dream -- to form a new religious family under the banner of Mary. They would be known as 'Marists'. On a weekend of priestly ordinations in 1816, like young apostles at Pentecost, twelve youthful priests and seminarians pledge to form the Society of Mary.
It is July 23 and the place is the ancient shrine of Our Lady at Fourviere, perched high on a hill overlooking the city of Lyons. This was a place where people came to place their dreams in Mary's hands. In the years that followed the dream was to become real -- and the family of Marists was born.
A way of life
Today Marists all over the world in various branches, live a family way of life in imitation of Mary, saying 'yes' to the challenges of personal growth and of living closely as members of a faith community. They respond to the call to evangelise contemporary living, moving on when a job has been done.
Marists bring Jesus to the world in Mary's way -- with enthusiasm and without fuss, walking with the people of today's world, enabling, nurturing, just 'being there'. They are members of a family -- the family of Marists.
The Marist Brothers
One of the twelve at Lyons was Marcellin Champagnat ordained priest on the weekend of the Fourviere promise. His work began at Lavalla, a tiny township clinging to a steep-sided valley in the Pilat mountains to the south-west of Lyons.
Ministering to a dying boy, Champagnat was deeply moved by the lad's ignorance of God and saw the urgency of establishing a group of brothers to cater for this educational need. By January 1817 he had rented a house near the presbytery, installed an ex-grenadier and a farmer's son and trained them a teachers.
Within six months of his ordination and now aged 27 Marcellin Champagnat had founded the Marist Brothers. A part of the original Marist dream was now in place and the brothers had begun their work of educating poor country children, so much neglected and lacking in both education and faith.
People came to know Champagnat as the man of 'strong mind and gentle heart', with a special love for the poor and underprivileged. His model and patron was Mary. Was his motto: 'All to Jesus through Mary'.
Before his death in 1840 many schools had been opened and the Marist Brothers established as a vital part of the Marist project. Three decades later, in 1872, the Marist Brothers brought their part of the dream to Australia.
The Marist Sisters
Meanwhile another of the newly-ordained Marist aspirants, Jean-Claude Colin, was sent in the opposite direction for his first priestly appointment -- to the wine-growing valley of Cerdon, 90 Km to the north-east of Lyons in the rugged Bugey mountains.
Within a short while he invited an outstanding young woman from the small town of Coutouvre to · set about establishing another branch of the family of Marists. Jeanne-Marie Chavoin was to become the foundress of this branch -- the Marist Sisters.
Colin's early idea was that the Sisters would become a kind of contemplative, prayer support for the outgoing ministries of the priests he was then gathering. This was not to be. Jeanne-Marie was a woman of action – and urgency to reach out to the needy and neglected of these poor parts of France. By 1823 the Marist Sisters joining her in Cerdon had become an apostolic and active part of the Marist dream.
Chavoin was also a woman of deep spirituality -- and encouraged her Sisters in great fidelity to prayer. There truly was a contemplative side to her spirit.
The Marist Sisters were soon to grow beyond the confines of their native France and spread to many parts of the globe, reaching Australia in 1908.
The Marist Fathers
In the presbytery at Cerdon the first community of Marist priests had begun -- with Jean-Claude Colin, assistant to his older brother Pierre. Shortly they were joined by two more priests.
The surrounding alpine hamlets had been much affected by the French Revolution with attacks on Catholic faith and life. Priests were forced from their parishes or had become disheartened by the rigours of the turbulent days.
Winter 1825 saw the newly-formed Marist Fathers preaching the first of many missions throughout Le Bugey and the faith of many being restored. Travel was by foot through the snow and mud of the mountains. Colin and his men brought a gentleness and fresh compassion to the confessional and a challenge to renewal from the pulpit.
Within a few years the Marist Fathers took on the care of the junior seminary of Belley. The priests has now become educators, their work marked by a characteristic understanding and gentleness.
In 1836 the branch of Marist Fathers [Priests and Brothers of the Society of Mary] was officially approved by Rome after undertaking to send missionaries to the then-unknown western Pacific. Leaving the Belley college as a much-loved mentor of the young, Fr Peter Chanel was to lead the tiny band and became Oceania's first martyr on April 28, I 841. It was at this time 1837 that Marist priests first came to Australia and so have been in this country longer continuously than any other religious order.
The Marist Missionary Sisters
Four years after the death of Peter Chanel on the island of Futuna, a French laywoman travelled to nearby Wallis in the Pacific. Her name was Francoise Perroton.
She was responding to a plea from the women of Oceania that missionary women might come and work with them in their newly-established local church. Living firstly as lay women and members of the Third Order of Mary, Francoise and her companions ministered especially to women since in the islands it was then unacceptable for the Fathers to do so.
Their communities are recognised as the founding group of the Missionary Sisters branch of the Marist Family, approved as a religious congregation in 1931. A new part of the dream had come to be. From these early beginnings in the Pacific the SMSM Sisters [ or Marist Missionary Sisters as they are popularly known ] spread their apostolic presence to many other countries across the globe, arriving in Australia in 1865.
The Marist Missionary Sisters commitment was -- as it is today -- to live in communities of both prayer and active involvement in ministry. Characteristically, the SMSM Sisters choice has been to work across the boundaries of culture, making the spirit of Mary present in the midst of a world of many peoples.
The Fourviere vision saw 'the whole world Marist' through the lives of countless lay people taking on the spirit of Mary and sending ripples of Gospel vigour throughout the workaday world of secular life.
Over the years the four professed branches of the Marist family have worked closely with the people of their day, sharing not only their Christian concern! and Catholic faith but the gentle, vital spirit of the Blessed Virgin.
Today a wide variety of Marist lay groups exist throughout the world. Some are formally set up in groups which meet regularly to ponder the Gospel as Mary did and allow her spirit to permeate not only their own lives but the world of life around them.
Many others are touched by the presence of the Marist Brothers, Sisters, Fathers and Missionary Sisters -- and become in their own way 'Marist'. They, too, are part of the dream.