William John Battersby (Brother Clair Stanislaus, F.S.C.)
THE CHIEF THING ABOUT ME IS THAT I BELONG TO a religious Order,
the Brothers of the Christian Schools, more familiarly known
as the La Salle Brothers or the Christian Brothers, who have
schools all over the world.
This is the chief thing about me, whatever else my friends
may say, because this has conditioned all my training and conditions
also all my life. It means, for instance, that I do not have
to write books; that I don't depend on this for my livelihood.
In fact, any money I may receive by way of royalties goes not
to me, but to my Order. So the financial aspect of the situation,
which may be important for other authors, is very secondary as
far as I am concerned. So I write only what I feel the urge to
write, and that is a very different matter.
But teaching is my main work, not writing books. I have, in
fact, written eleven books to date, and numerous articles for
magazines of all kinds; learned and otherwise. But I have done
all this work in my free time. Only in the case of one book was
I given time for writing. That was my full-length biography of
St. John Baptist de La Salle, which was published in 1957, and
for which I was allowed one year off teaching. People told me
afterwards that it was the best thing I had written up to then,
and I was not surprised. In fact, I think they must have been
right, for the book went into a second edition almost at once.
But since writing books is only my free-time occupation, I
cannot compete with those authors who produce three or even four
books a year, and still less with those writers who, with the
help of ghosts, produce a dozen or so a year. My average has
been a steady one book a year over the past eleven years, for
my first volume came out in 1949.
At that time I was forty-five. Rather late, perhaps, to start
a literary career. But then I have never aimed at a literary
career. All I have ever wanted to be was a De La Salle Brother;
that is my career, or more correctly, my vocation. I decided
on it quite young, when only thirteen, in fact, and I have never
had any doubts about my choice since. It was the example of my
teachers, I suppose, that gave me the idea, for I went to the
Brothers' college (high school) in my native town of Portsmouth,
and I had not been there many months before I made my mind up.
I am very proud of my native town, for Portsmouth is the largest
naval base in the British Isles, and all my boyhood was spent
there. That explains why I have always loved the sea and ships,
swimming, and boating. My father was in the Royal Navy, and I
would have undoubtedly have followed the same life if I had not
chosen to become a Brother.
So at thirteen I began my training in view of the religious
life, and went through what we call the Junior Novitiate, the
Novitiate and the Scholasticate. I was privileged to be trained
in the Junior Novitiate by Brother Athanase Emile, who subsequently
became Superior General. Eventually I was sent to London to complete
my studies at the University and began teaching. The two things
went hand in hand in those days. I taught and studied at the
same time. It was hard work, but I was spared that agonizing
period of full-time study which takes a man from his eighteenth
year to his twenty-fifth, or maybe more, before he can begin
what he really wants to do. Thus, while teaching small boys I
studied for my degrees; first an Honours degree in English, then
a degree in Economics and subsequently an Honours degree in History.
It is unusual for people to take degrees in several subjects
like that, but I am glad now that I did, for although it required
many years of study, it saved me from narrow specialization.
It was that first volume which I wrote at the age of forty-five,
which really started me on the series I have written since. It
was entitled De La Salle: Pioneer of Modern Education, and was
based on the doctorate thesis which I was fortunate in getting
accepted by London University. The circumstances attending this
may perhaps be worth recording, if only to encourage other young
men who find themselves up against difficulties.
Anyone who has ever thought of writing an academic thesis
knows that the most puzzling thing is to get started; to hit
upon a suitable subject; a subject you can do, a subject no one
else has done (this is important), and a subject you will like
doing. I say a subject you will like doing, for it is heartbreaking
to embark upon a fouryear's task which goes against the grain.
And my doctorate thesis was a four-year task.
Now it had occurred to me that I would like to write about
the Founder of my Order, for whom I had, and still have an immense
admiration; who performed a very important work in the field
of education, and whose work, it seemed to me, was very little
known or appreciated. So I applied for permission to write a
thesis on St. John Baptist de La Salle, and I went along to the
University to put the proposition to a professor and ask him
to guide me. I shall never forget that interview. It was a Sunday
afternoon during the war, and there were courses being given
on Sunday afternoon for that reason. So I waited for the professor
in the vestibule of the University hoping to catch him as he
went in to give his lecture. It was perhaps an unwise thing to
do; inopportune, shall we say. Anyway I waited there until he
eventually arrived, rather late, by taxi, and of course in bad
humour. But I intercepted him bravely and put my question to
him. I said: "Would you please accept to coach me for a
thesis on St. John Baptist de La Salle?" If I had known
then all that was to depend on the answer to that simple question,
I am sure I should have felt very nervous indeed. But of course
I didn't know. He scowled at me and said: "Saint who? I've
never heard of him." I replied that I had all the revelant
material, and all he would have to do would be to direct my efforts.
He scowled at me again, and after a moment's hesitation he told
me to come and see him after the lecture. Then I was happy, for
I knew that my battle was won. It was rather unfortunate that
I had to do a lot of my work during the war, for that prevented
me from going to Rome to consult the archives of my Order, where
the important documents are. But at last the war came to an end,
and I was able to fly to Rome and check up on the material there
before I handed in my thesis. The British government kindly supplied
me with a free pass on a military plane to do this, for normal
communication had not yet been resumed. I was very grateful indeed
After writing a doctorate thesis of several hundred pages,
the fruit of prolonged and patient study, it is child's play
to summarize it into a readable book for the general public,
if the subject lends itself to it as mine did. So my first volume
cost me very little extra labour. But it was immediately acknowledged
as an authoritative work on an important and hitherto littleknown
topic, and for this reason had considerable success. I had greatly
looked forward to seeing my first book appear, hoping to admire
myself in the shop-windows in the thoroughfares of London. But
alas, when the book came out I was in Rome again, and I had to
rely on the correspondence of friends to know how the work had
been received, and what the reviewers thought of it.
I stayed in Rome six years, and as I then had access to all
the material on and around my subject, I decided to pursue this
study further and more fully. Since I was in ideal circumstances,
I thought I would make use of them.
In this way my work has taken a perfectly normal course, namely,
the development of a great theme in a scholarly way. I was very
fortunate in so far as I was dealing with a remarkable Saint,
who lived at a very exciting time, the seventeenth century, and
in the country which was at that time the leading power in Europe,
that is France, under Louis XIV. Thus the whole background was
more colourful and offered plenty of scope. The Saint's work,
moreover, was not only extremely remarkable in its own place
and period, but has proved of lasting importance through the
religious Order which he founded, and which continues to flourish
to this day.
While I was in Rome there occurred, in 1951, the third centenary
of the birth in Rheims of St. John Baptist de La Salle. This
was attended by many celebrations, and lent considerable interest
to my work. It was very gratifying, also, to hear Pope Pius XII
declare the Saint the universal Patron of all those engaged in
the work of Education.
I returned to England in 1954, just in time to take part in
the celebration of another centenary, namely that of the opening
of the first Brothers' school in this country. This original
foundation was a very small affair begun in 1855 at Clapham,
on the outskirts of London, but this modest beginning has developed
into a large school of 700 boys, where I now teach, and we now
have another dozen colleges (high schools) in England besides
as many schools for juvenile delinquents.
My principal subject is history, mainly modern European history,
and I prepare boys of 17 and 18 years of age to enter the university.
But I also teach English, and have before now taught other subjects,
notably geography and art. But teaching is becoming highly specialized,
and one must confine oneself to one subject as far as possible,
which I think is rather a pity.
I still continue writing, but now, after having given an exhaustive
account of my Founder and his work, I have embarked on the history
of the Order and have completed the first volume embracing the
eighteenth century. Here again the background is fascinating,
and the story of the development of the Order from the death
of De La Salle in 1719 to the French Revolution most interesting.
When the Saint died there were just 100 Brothers teaching in
22 towns in France. In 1789, when the Revolution broke out, there
were more than 1,000 Brothers and 116 communities. But this magnificent
expansion came to an abrupt halt and ended in an almost total
collapse when the Order was suppressed by the revolutionary authorities,
and reduced to a handful of members in three small communities
in Italy. That is the story of the eighteenth century. Fortunately,
the Brothers recovered from this staggering blow, and today they
number some 20,000, and constitute the largest teaching Order
of men in the Church.
During the Revolution many of our Brothers were imprisoned
and several were killed. One has since been declared a martyr,
and I have written his life, embodying all the details of that
exciting period of the guillotine, the prison-ships of Rochefort,
and the September Massacres. I have called this Work Brother
Solomon, Martyr of the French Revolution. As a change from teaching
and writing I give lectures, when asked to do so, and this pleasant
task has taken me to various parts of England and even to Malta
and Madrid, to speak to audiences usually (though not always)
of university students. I enjoy this sort of thing very much.
Lastly, I should like to mention the great honour which was
conferred on me in 1959 when I was elected President of the Association
of Catholic Teachers of the entire London area, who number some
1,700. In that capacity I took a small part in the discussions
which led up to the recent Act of Parliament which increased
the government grant for Catholic schools from 50% of the cost
to 75%. We are all very grateful for this achievement, and it
is no small satisfaction to me to think that I have been able
to do something to help, however little.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Brother's books Include De La Salle: Pioneer
of Modern Education (Longmans, 1949), Saint and Spiritual Writer
(Id., 1950), Letters and Documents (Id., 1952), and Meditations
(Id., 1953); St. John Baptist de La Salle (BOW and Macmillan,
1957); Brother Abban (Lasallian Press, 1950); Brother Potanzian,
Educator and Scientist (BOW, 1953), The De La Salle Brothers
in Great Britain (Id., 1954); St. Joseph's College, 1855-3955
(Id., 1955); Brother Solomon, Martyr of the French Revolution
(BOW and Macmillan, 1960); History of the Institute in the 18th
Century (Waldegrave, 1960); he also collaborated in English Catholics,
1850-1950 (BOW, 1950), and other symposia.
in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series,