Search for books by:

 Bookshop | Contact Us | Home


Join Our E-Mail Announcement List!

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 for this.

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.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


Bookshop | Contact Us | Home

copyright 2005 Catholic Authors