Jean-Marie Robert was born to Pierre-Louis and Lorin Robert on September 8, 1780. Lorin was a lady of great piety, but unfortunately she died when Jean-Marie was only nine years old. In spite of his mother’s early death, it seems Jean-Marie remembered and observed her piety and religious teaching all his life.
Jean-Marie grew up in the evil days of the reign of terror after the French Revolution of 1789. As a young boy, Jean-Marie showed signs of courage as an admirer of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the church, and the ministers of the church. At an early age, he told Father de Pressigny of his desire to become a priest. When he was old enough, Jean-Marie went to the Seminary for Foreign Missions in Paris. On December 21, 1801, he received the Minor Orders and was made a sub-deacon in the chapel of the Ursulines.
Jean-Marie was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church on February 25, 1804 after theological studies that he pursued both on his own and under the direction of Abbé Vielle. After his ordination, Jean-Marie was appointed curate at St. Malo where he also taught at the nearby junior seminary. Due to his daily testimonies, his devotion, and faithfulness, Jean-Marie soon won the esteem and the respect of the Christians in St. Malo. He was soon transferred to the diocese of St. Brieuc, where he became Bishop Caffarelli’s private secretary.
On January 11, 1815, Bishop Caffarelli died and Jean-Marie, at age thirty-five, was elected with two older priests to administer the diocese as vicar capitular. In spite of all the administrative worries, Jean-Marie was also actively involved in leading mission projects and retreats. His witness and faithfulness were so effective that many of his hearers were converted to better life in Jesus Christ.
In the diocese of St. Brieuc, Jean-Marie saw the sad plight of the youth running wild and reeking havoc in the streets of France with no one to look after them. Jean-Marie concluded that these youth could easily fall prey to dangers of all kinds and he decided to devote himself to the salvation of these young men and women. On September 29, 1817, Jean-Marie received into his own house in St. Brieuc three young Breton peasants, sent by the parish priest of La Roache-Dorrien. He also took in other young peasants from the countryside. Since there were no teachers available anywhere, he decided to train them himself in the ways of piety and to give them a basic general education in the hope that other teachers would eventually take over the job. These aspirants became the nucleus of the congregation of the Brothers of Christian Instruction of Ploermel that he founded that same year.
In 1818 Jean-Marie founded the congregation of the Daughters of Providence of St. Brieuc. From 1818 Jean-Marie devoted his whole life to these two congregations, which sent men and women out into the countryside to teach young boys and girls in different schools. As a result of Jean-Marie’s devotion to these two congregations, France and eventually other countries like Uganda were endowed with numerous schools where the youth received academic and practical education.
In 1822 Jean-Marie’s disciples received the name of Brothers of Christian Instruction with the motto “God alone.” While instructing children in the ordinary school subjects, the Brothers also taught them to lead good Christian lives. By 1827, there were 160 Brothers teaching 6000 pupils in some fifty schools.
At Ploermel, Jean-Marie wanted his teachers to be not only as well informed and as competent as those trained in government-training colleges, but also capable of preparing boys to be good citizens. That is why he placed great emphasis on Christian training in his schools. It was and still is the duty of every Brother of Christian Instruction to explain the Christian’s moral responsibility to his students every morning.
All his life, Jean-Marie was a fearless defender of the hierarchy of the church and he wrote an excellent book in defense of the church entitled The Tradition of the Church Concerning the Institution of Bishops. From their founder Jean-Marie, the Brothers of Christian Instruction inherited their great devotion to church hierarchy, a zeal for the salvation of the youth, and a drive to study constantly in order to achieve and maintain a high level of competency in their teaching.
August 11, 1836 was a turning point in Jean-Marie’s life and mission. That day Minister in charge of the Navy Admiral Resamel asked the Brothers of Christian Instruction to come teach in the schools in the French Foreign Colonies. Jean-Marie was overjoyed at the invitation because the Brothers of Christian Instruction could thus begin their entry into the outside world. The following year, Jean-Marie sent five Brothers to Guadeloupe in the West Indies. In 1841, the Brothers went to Senegal in Africa. Everywhere the Brothers of Christian Instruction went the indigenous people loved them because of their good work among the boys.
Early in 1847 Jean-Marie asked Pope Pius IX to grant official approval to his congregation. He immediately received a positive answer from the Pope. The editor of a booklet on the 56th anniversary of the arrival of the Brothers of Christian Instruction in Uganda has preserved this letter, which reads:
Dear beloved son, greetings and apostolic benediction: Your remarkable charity towards poor children, and the zeal which so ardently inspires you towards their Christian education cannot but receive from us the most abundant praise. As a pledge of our paternal love for you, we send you and the whole of your Society, dear son, our Apostolic Benediction.
Pius IX, Pope.
Louis XVIII, King of France, also honored Jean-Marie by naming him canon of St. Denis. During the reign of Louis-Philip he was appointed Knight of the Legion of Honor.
On December 16, 1847 Jean-Marie had a mild stroke just as he began to celebrate Mass in the Brothers’ chapel at Guingamp. From that time on his health began to deteriorate and on November 30, 1860, another paralyzing stroke worsened his condition. He lingered on until December 26, 1860 when he peacefully passed away. He was eighty years old.
By the time Jean-Marie died in 1860, there were eight hundred Brothers of Christian Instruction scattered throughout the world. The great and rapid success of Jean-Marie’s ministry was chiefly due to his skillful and energetic administration. For forty-three years he was the one who attracted and trained the recruits, guided the young teachers, and opened and visited the schools where they taught.
Forty years later, on August 6, 1900, his body was exhumed and found intact. This was the first sign of glory for Jean-Marie who during his life had so faithfully practiced the virtue of humility. The diocesan process for the introduction of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization for Jean-Marie Robert was completed on August 29, 1901. On March 22, 1911, Pope Pius X gave him the title “venerable.” On December 15, 1966, Pope Paul VI signed the decree attesting the Heroicity of Virtues of this servant of God.
On August 4, 1926, four Brothers of Christian Instruction left Canada to found the Brothers’ Mission in Uganda, which now has a large number of Brothers, the great majority of whom are Ugandans working together with the few missionary Brothers. When the first Brothers arrived in 1926, they were given St. Mary’s College, Kisubi that had been founded by the White Fathers on May 12, 1924. Once again the editor of “Fifty-six Years in East Africa” quotes Father Bouniel on this occasion:
At the invitation of the White fathers, a small community of Brothers of Christian Instruction, whose reputation as educationists is worldwide, came out to Uganda in 1926, and were heartily welcomed by the government authorities. They immediately undertook the management of St. Mary’s College and have now taken over the Normal School and St. Henry’s High School. Seven skilled and experienced Brothers are engaged in teaching African students in these three schools; under their tuition, the pupils of St. Mary’s have already obtained many successes; in November, 1926, of twenty-nine candidates from the school, who sat for the government examination twenty-four won the diploma with distinctions.
One of the main reasons for the continuing success of the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda is the strong attraction of formal education. Knowing that education was indispensable as the main purpose of the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda, the Brothers of Christian Instruction reorganized several schools in Uganda as early as 1926. For them, the schools they founded were a “nursery” of the infant Roman Catholic Church in Uganda.
Unlike other Roman Catholic missionaries who had earlier introduced formal education in Uganda, the Brothers focused their efforts not only on primary education–the goal of which was to teach reading and writing–but also on secondary school education which would better prepare Ugandans for the challenges of modern society. Today, many Ugandans realize that secondary school education, spearheaded by the Brothers of Christian Instruction, is an important force to help them to advance individually and collectively in the social, political, and economic fields.
Uganda is one of the few countries in Africa to have benefited from the devoted labor of the sons of Jean-Marie as they continue his work in the world. Today the Brothers of Christian Instruction live out their commitment to providing a value-based education to all who seek it at the many schools they have opened in Uganda. Famous Roman Catholic founded secondary schools such as St. Mary’s College, Kisubi; St. Henry’s College, Kitovu; Ibanda Secondary School, and many more schools of high level education in Uganda today, are direct results of the efforts of the Brothers of Christian Instruction. Jean-Marie lives on in his followers’ work in Uganda. The two religious families that he founded steadfastly preserve his ideal: “Christian education of the youth for God alone.” They feel that, from his place in heaven, the venerable founder continues to watch over and to protect them.
Albert Baharagate, retired Roman Catholic Bishop of Hoima diocese, interviewed by author, December 2004.
“Fifty-six Years in East Africa,” a booklet on the 56th anniversary of the arrival of the Brothers of Christian Instruction in Uganda, published by St. Mary’s College, Kisubi, 1983.
“The History of Kisubi College,” in Alone for God Magazine, published by Brothers of Christian Instruction, Kisubi, 2002.
Tourigny, Yves.* So Abundant a Harvest: The Catholic Church in Uganda 1879-1979.* London: Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd., 1979.
“Minutes of St. Mary’s College, Kisubi Board of Governors,” 1964 to 1980, [compiled by] secretary.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Rev. Dr. Christopher Byaruhanga, 2005-2006 Project Luke fellow and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Uganda Christian University, a DACB Participating Institution. He is also the liaison coordinator at UCU.