A Summary of Marist Beginnings
August 15, 1812: The Inspiration
Above the main altar in the Cathedral of Le Puy, France, a famous and widely venerated black cedar statue of Mary holding
Jesus had attracted pilgrims for centuries. At the height of the anti-religious fury of the French Revolution, on June 8, 1794, this
statue was publicly desecrated and burned. In 1801 the faithful restored the shrine and installed a replica of the original “Black
Virgin.” Among her many pilgrims was Jean-Claude Courveille, a young man contemplating a vocation to the priesthood. In
1809 he was cured of blindness while praying before the statue and touching his eyes with a little oil his fingers picked up from
rubbing the lamps that burned there. He attributed the cure to Mary’s intercession and returned periodically to the shrine to pray
to her. On the feast of the Assumption in 1812, the 25-year-old Courveille while again praying before the statue of Our Lady of
Le Puy had a spiritual experience of Mary speaking to him (“Here is what I want . . . “). This event marked the beginning of the
Marist project. Three years later, as a seminarian in Lyons with Jean-Claude Colin, Marcellin Champagnat and others, he told
them about the Le Puy inspiration. Besides Courveille, up to fifteen other seminarians and one priest faculty member showed
interest in the plan to establish the Society of Mary. They met regularly during the school year to exchange ideas and dreams
about fulfilling Mary’s wishes in the future.
July 23, 1816: The Pledge
Eight of the seminarians were ordained to the priesthood on July 22, 1816, in the chapel of St. Irenaeus, the major seminary of
Lyons. The ordaining bishop, the Sulpician, William Louis DuBourg, had recently been ordained in Rome to be the second
bishop of New Orleans, and he was making a tour through France to recruit personnel and funds for his mostly missionary
The next day, July 23, a dozen aspiring Marists went to the ancient shrine of Our Lady of Fourviere, which overlooks the city
from its prominent position on a bluff that rises above Lyons. They had signed a pledge dedicating themselves to work toward
founding the Society of Mary. Jean-Claude Courveille celebrated his first Mass and placed the pledge on the altar under the
corporal. The others attended the Mass and received Communion from Courveille. At the end of Mass the pledge was read
aloud. Those who had just been ordained soon moved on to various assignments scattered throughout the diocese.
1816-1825: Inspirations and Graces for Jean-Claude Colin
Jean-Claude Colin’s first assignment after ordination took him to Cerdon, a village in the remote hill country of southeastern
France not far from the Swiss border. The town had one church, St. John the Baptist, where Jean-Claude’s older brother
Pierre, also a diocesan priest, was pastor. During 1816-1825, Jean-Claude received numerous graces, including inspirations and
insights regarding the Society of Mary. He later described these experiences as tasting God, tangible consolation, trust,
assurance and confidence in God. But he also experienced trials and feelings of reluctance or unworthiness at presuming any
leadership in the Marist project. (It was, after all, Courveille who had the original inspiration to found the Society of Mary.) At
Cerdon, Colin wrote a first draft of constitutions (for the priests’ branch) and filled notebooks with other ideas and plans for the
Society, including thoughts regarding the lay branch. Historical records show that a group of about 30 men met occasionally in
the rectory with the two priests, possibly forming the prototype of a lay fraternity.
January 2, 1817: Foundation Day for the Marist Brothers
Marcellin Champagnat, among those who signed the Fourviere Pledge, was assigned to a parish in the town of La Valla
immediately after his ordination in 1816. He had already said to the other aspirants, “We must have brothers.” Champagnat lost
no time and founded the Little Brothers of Mary with two young candidates. On January 2, 1817, they took up residence in a
small house near the rectory that Champagnat himself had cleaned and repaired. He even made two bed frames and a dining
September 8, 1823: Foundation Day for the Marist Sisters.
Father Pierre Colin, brother of Jean-Claude, invited Jeanne-Marie Chavoin to Cerdon to assist in founding the Marist project.
She responded immediately and worked for four years as housekeeper for the Colin brothers. Witness to many of the earliest
discussions about the Marist project, Jeanne-Marie envisioned a congregation of women who would be active in the world. On
September 8, 1823, along with Marie Jotillon and Marie Gardet, Jeanne-Marie established a community in a small house in
Cerdon. They persevered and became the Marist Sisters.
1825-1829: The Bugey Mountain Project—Evangelization
The boundary lines of the Lyons diocese had been redrawn, and the Colin brothers now belonged to the diocese of Belley, a
town of less than 5,000 people about 60 miles east of Lyons and 30 miles from Cerdon. In 1825 Bishop Alexandre-Raymond
Devie called the two brothers along with two other diocesan priests who aspired to be Marists to come to Belley and live at the
minor seminary. But the task Bishop Devie offered them was not in education—not yet. It was, instead, the first missionary
work the Society of Mary undertook. Devie asked the priests, as Marists, to go into the remote towns and villages of the Bugey
Mountains, an area still suffering the effects of the French Revolution. They accepted and for five years preached parish
renewals, taught catechism, invited people back to the Church and prepared them for the sacraments. In this difficult and
sometimes seemingly unsuccessful work, they experienced firsthand what the noble ideal of being “instruments of divine mercy”
means as they heard confessions, baptized, and revived the faith of so many people.
1816 onward: A Special Friend
John-Marie Vianney became acquainted with Jean-Claude Colin, Marcellin Champagnat and other aspiring Marists at the
seminary in Lyons. As the Marists worked in the Bugey, he was reviving the faith in the farming town of Ars, about 45 miles to
the west. The Cure of Ars knew about the Marist missionary efforts in the Bugey Mountains and commented with admiration,
“The Marists—that is a work after God’s heart because it has humility, simplicity, and trials.” Over the years, Vianney advised a
number of men and women to become Marists. Vianney was professed a member of the Third Order of Mary in 1846.
1829-1833: First Experiences in Education
Bishop Devie, obviously pleased with Jean-Claude Colin’s ministry in the diocese, named him an honorary canon and appointed
him superior of the Minor seminary/college of Belley. Marists were now engaged in what became another traditional work of the
Society—educating youth. Among those who became teachers at the seminary in Belley were the future saints Peter Chanel and
Peter Julian Eymard.
1830: Colin Becomes Central Superior
Several events and circumstances led to the election of Jean-Claude Colin as the Central Superior of the aspiring Marists in
1830. Several years earlier, Jean-Claude Courveille, through whom the original inspiration had come, had withdrawn from the
Marist project for personal reasons. (He eventually became a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Solesmes in northern France.)
Meanwhile, a redrawing of diocesan boundaries led to a separation of the priests—some found themselves in the diocese of
Belley and some in the diocese of Lyons. There are indications that the two bishops both considered the Marists their own
personal diocesan congregation. Since the Society of Mary did not yet have canonical recognition from Rome, each aspirant
was technically a diocesan priest and owed obedience to his bishop.
As superior of the seminary, Father Colin continued to develop organizational and leadership skills, and he continued guiding the
Marist project, leading and encouraging the men, writing and preparing the documents necessary for a religious order, and
seeking the bishops’ help for official recognition as a religious congregation. In the late autumn of 1830, about a dozen of the
Marist priests from both dioceses managed to meet in Belley. After a short retreat and much prayer, they unanimously elected
Colin as “Central Superior.” This action was unofficial and kept secret, but they had taken a major step in organization.
They placed their trust in Colin to realize the dream of getting Church approval to become the Society of Mary.
1833-1836. Beginnings of the Lay Branch
Several initiatives were taken to start the lay branch of the Marists. A group began about 1833 to meet in the chapel of the
Marist Sister’s house called Bon Repos in the city of Belley. Marist priests assisted with a retreat for ten women held there
during Lent of 1833.
Additionally, in Lyons a group of about 13 laymen, who called themselves the Tertiary Brothers of Mary, came into existence in
1832. Formerly in government service but desiring to dedicate themselves to God’s service, they asked the Marist priests for
spiritual direction. They established a boarding school to meet the needs of secondary-level students who desired a religious
education. They disbanded after other Catholic schools were opened in Lyons and several of them became Marist priests, while
others continued to serve the Church in many ways.
Father Pompallier, spiritual director for the Tertiary Brothers, also gathered a small group of women in Lyons sometime during
1836. They called themselves the Christian Maidens. This group persevered and apparently was the first group to write minutes
of their meetings. Eventually, Father Julian Eymard became their spiritual director in 1845. They were the seed of the Third
Order of Mary or Marist Laity that still exists today.
September 28, 1833: Colin Seeks Church Approval
Jean-Claude Colin began in earnest to seek pontifical authorization for the Society to become a religious congregation in the
Church. His request included a special petition for approval of the branch of faithful “who live in the world.” An audience in
Rome with Pope Gregory XVI was arranged. Father Colin traveled to Rome with Peter Chanel (representing the Belley group)
and Jean-Antoine Bourdin (representing the Lyons group) in late summer 1833.
On September 28, Pope Gregory received them warmly in the Quirinal Palace, the papal residence. Despite the cordiality of the
audience, the pope indicated that official approbation would take time and would require the recommendation of various cardinals
and other church officials as well as a thorough study of the documentation presented so far.
After reading Fr. Colin’s submission to the Holy See, one of the cardinals raised a major objection to the idea of three branches
of religious, namely priests, brothers, and sisters, as well as a confraternity of lay people, having only one superior and,
therefore, conceivably being thought of as one single religious order. Father Colin was asked to re-think the organizational
structure. While this objection was still pending, nevertheless, in August 1834 the pope issued three decrees granting
indulgences and other spiritual privileges to the lay fraternity in Belley, an event which could be interpreted as indirect approval of
the Marist lay branch.
1836. Approval, Profession and a Mission in Oceania
During the course of 1835 the section of the Church’s administration responsible for missionary outreach, referred to frequently
by its Latin name Propaganda Fide, became aware of a vast area in the South Pacific in need of evangelization. The Church
needed to be established there, and Propaganda was eager to find a religious order that would take on the pastoral care of the
entire region. Events began to unfold providentially in Rome and Belley to the mutual benefit of the universal Church and the
Society of Mary.
In the summer of 1835 Pope Gregory XVI established the missionary vicariate apostolic of Western Oceania, but without
naming a bishop.
Through a series of coincidences, Propaganda learned of Jean-Baptiste Pompallier, one of the aspiring Marists in Lyons and
chose him to be bishop of the new Oceania mission. Father Colin agreed to Pompallier’s nomination and informed Rome that the
Marists were willing to staff the mission. Consequently, the Holy See officially approved the priests’ branch, since it had to be a
canonically established congregation before the mission could be entrusted to it.
On January 10, 1836, Pope Gregory XVI ratified the decision to confide the mission area of Western Oceania to the Society of
On April 29, 1836, the pope published “Omnium Gentium” granting pontifical approval to the priests’ branch of the Society of
Mary. They now had authorization to elect a superior general, profess the customary religious vows, and become a religious
congregation in the Catholic Church.
Bishop Devie had given a building, once a friary of Capuchin Franciscans and known as La Capuciniere in the town of Belley, to
the Marists in 1832. It was here that 20 priests gathered on September 20, 1836, and began a retreat that preceded the official
birth of the Society of Mary. Of the 20, four of the participants were among the twelve who signed the Fourviere pledge.
On September 24, the feast of Our Lady of Ransom (sometimes called Our Lady of Mercy), the group began a long prayerful
preparation at 5:30 a.m. This started with an hour’s meditation, then divine office, Mass, various Marian prayers, and a half
hour of silent prayer, and culminated in the election of Jean-Claude Colin as superior general. He professed his own vows
directly to God and witnessed the vows of the other 19 in order of seniority, beginning with Marcellin Champagnat.
December 24, 1836: Oceania
The first group of missionaries, including Peter Chanel, set sail aboard the Delphine for Oceania. Soon after, many Marists—
priests, brothers, lay people—eagerly followed them.
November 15, 1845: The Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary
On this day, Marie Francoise Perroton set sail for Oceania. She was a true pioneer since going to a vast and unknown
missionary territory was unheard of for women of her time. She persevered in the islands for 12 years until more women of the
Third Order Regular arrived from France. As the years passed, women came from other countries also, and they eventually
were approved by the Church as the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary.
December 8, 1850. Approval for the Third Order of Mary
The Archbishop of Lyons, Cardinal Louis-Jacques-Maurice de Bonald, was authorized by the Holy See, in a document dated
September 8, 1850, to canonically establish the Third Order of Mary. The Cardinal published a decree that took effect
December 8, 1850. Thus the Third Order of Mary was instituted.
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Much of this short history of the early years of the Society of Mary also appears in the 24-page booklet, “The Work of Mary”.
Information in this article about the beginnings of the other branches—Sisters, Brothers, Missionary Sisters and the laity—comes
from numerous sources, particularly “Lay Marists: Anthology of Historical Sources,” by Charles Girard, S.M.