Saint Joseph Calasanz (1557-1648)
Founder of The Piarist Fathers
Saint Joseph Calasanz (1557-1648) was a holy priest and the founder of both the world's first Christian public school and later the Order of the Pious Schools (known today as the Piarist Fathers,) and he devoted his life to the education of poor children.
He was born in Spain in 1557, in a little village in Aragon called Peralta de la Sal. He was the youngest of five children. He studied in Estadilla and was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1583, after receiving a doctorate in both canon law and theology from the University of Lereda. Calasanz was given high eccesiastical positions, and he did his work well. He served as Vicar-general of Trempe, Spain, but following a vision, he gave away much of his inheritance and renounced most of the rest. In 1592, just nine years after his ordination, he travelled to Rome, where it seemed he would have a promising carerr. He worked in the household of Cardinal Ascanio Colonna as a theological advisor for the cardinal and as a tutor to the cardinal's nephew. Yet, he felt that God was calling him to do something more. He was shocked by the ignorance and the poor morals of the common people, especially the youth he encountered in the Trastevere, one of the poorest suburbs of the city. He joined the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and his heart was filled with pity for all of the orphans and homeless children he saw everywhere. They were ignorant and neglected. He was convinced that the best way he could help the people was to make sure that ALL of the children had a good education. It seems that God wanted Calasanz to be a mediator, so that he could enrich the Church with a new charismatic gift.
Being unable to interest any of the city's religious orders and institutes in the education of poor children, he undertook this task himself. He began to gather them together to teach them both all the regular secular subjects, and especially their religion. Soon, other priests joined him, and in 1597, in the Church of St. Dorothy, he opened the first free public school in Europe. So overwhelming was the response of the people that Fr. Calasanz and his companions received, that there was a constant need for larger and larger facilities to house their free school. In 1602, they moved to larger quarters and reorganized the teaching priests into a community. In 1612, they moved to the Torres palace to have even more room. Soon thereafter, Pope Clement VIII gave support to the school, and this financial aid continued under Pope Paul V. Soon other schools were opened and more men attracted to their work joined them.
On March 25, 1617, he and his fourteen assistants formed the Poor Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools. They were the very first priests to have as their primary ministry teaching in elementary schools. Emphasizing love, not fear, St. Joseph wrote "if from the very earliest years, a child is instructed in both religion and letters, it can be reasonably hoped that his life will be happy."
While residing in Rome, Joseph endeavored to visit the seven principal churches of that city almost every evening, and also to honor the graves of the Roman martyrs. During one of the city's repeated plagues a holy rivalry existed between him and St. Camillus in aiding the sick and in personally carrying away for burial the bodies of those who had been stricken. On account of his heroic patience and fortitude in the midst of trouble and persecution, he was called a marvel of Christian courage, a second Job.
This is the context where his vocation originated. He heard the voice of God calling him: "Joseph, give yourself for the poor. Teach these children and take care of them." Soon Calasanz became the superior of the new religious order, but he never let his duties as founder and superior stop him from teaching his beloved children. He would even sweep the classrooms himself. He often led the little ones to their homes after school was over. In 1621, Fr. Joseph Calasanz's "Free Schools" received Papal recognition as a religious order under solemn canonical vows called "Le Sciole Pie" (Religious Schools), which in English became the Piarists.
However, Joseph encountered many difficulties, including his friendship with the controversial astronomer Galileo Galilei, and he was investigated by papal commissioners. He had much to suffer from people who wanted to take over his order, and he also suffered through the rebellion of one of his subordinates in the order. Once, he was even led through the streets like a criminal, and he was almost put in jail, although he had done nothing wrong. Also, there were those who felt that the poor shouldn't be educated, as this would only make them dissatisfied with their lot in life. At one point, St. Joseph was removed from office, and his order was suppressed in every country save Poland, but he, like the wise Old Testamant figure Job, remained humble and obedient. Despite this suffering, Joseph only said: "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away."
St. Joseph Calasanz died a calm and peaceful death on August 25, 1648, and soon after, his order was fully restored. He was proclaimed a saint by Pope Clement XIII in 1767. In 1948, Pope Pius XII declared him to be the "Heavenly Patron Saint of all Christian Public Schools." He shares his Feast Day on August 25 with St. Louis IX of France and St. Genesius, the patron of actors.