Statues of Marcellin
Many portraits and statues have been made of Marcellin Champagnat. But three statues are of particular significance, not only because they are in places of historical importance for the Brothers, Marlhes, La Valla, and the Hermitage, but also because they are carved from rock.
If any man deserved to be called a man of rock it was Marcellin Champagnat. The greatest monument to his life and spirit is possibly the Hermitage, the large five-story building which Marcellin built with his own hands and the labour of his Brothers in 1824. The buildingwas the Mother House of the Brothers, and was Marcellin’s home from 1825 till his death. To construct the building, Marcellin had literally to carve into the rock face of the hill.
Marist Brother historian Frederick McMahon writes: “The rock face which retreated before the onslaught of the crude tools used by Marcellin and his men tells us of the resolute determination of this man, his toughness, his perseverance, his endurance – his strong mind.”
The statue at La Valla (above) shows Champagnat with Gabriel Rivat, who as Br Franqois became the first Superior General of the Brothers. Champagnat looks back to the house at La Valla which has always been looked on as “the cradle of the Institute.” His hand is on the shoulder of Gabriel who looks down the valley to the world beyond and to the future.
Thus it seems that Marcellin Champagnat spent his youth in a remarkable family milieu that could be of immense formative value to him. By no means destitute, the hard-working Champagnat family was obviously very prominent in the district of Marlhes where Jean-Baptiste Champagnat had been for so many years the foremost revolutionary leader.
Then, particularly after his father’s retirement from political life in 1800, Marcellin would follow him to the fields, the mill and the work bench. Marcellin learned to bake bread, to work with wood, to build in stone and to roof a shed – in short, all the work required in the mill and on the farm, and all this was to prove most valuable to him in his future years. Furthermore, the father gave to each of his sons a sum of money and from it they had to produce more by trade so that each would have a fund with which to go out into life.
Stephen Farrell, fms
What did they think?
The opinions of a former mayor of La Valla, some contemporaries, and his biographer, are worth recording:
“…Father Champagnat was very well liked…. Even when he left us to go to the Hermitage…. many of his parishioners used to go to him in their needs; almost all of them contributed something to help him build the house there.”
“…His confreres roundly criticised him when he began to work. People wanted to stop him on the grounds that to lead such a harsh and excessively poor life was not befitting the character of a priest. He himself did all the masonry when he built the Hermitage ….”
“..My father was a frequent visitor of the Brothers at the Hermitage, and whenever he went there, he spent a few days working for them as a labourer. When he returned, we would always hear from him: ‘What a heavenly place that Hermitage is, where men work, pray, live and love, where there is peace…. Father Champagnat is always the first at whatever there is to be done; he is the most impressive of all the men there; he carries the others along with him because they all love him and venerate him so much’.”
“…As soon as he heard that anyone was ill, he went to visit them. Inclemency of weather, wind, rain, snow – nothing could stop him.”
If he could speak today
Marcellin Champagnat’s experience of the world of the Revolution was different from Jeanne- Marie Chavoin’s and from Jean-Claude Colin’s. If he could speak to us today, we might imagine him saying something like this:
“It’s a painful experience being a late starter at learning. When I entered the minor seminary at the age of 16, l was well ahead of my classmates in age and well behind them in learning. But I’m glad now for that experience, because it made me determined to help others to get the advantages that I was deprived of myself. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to free people from the things that hold them back: ignorance of God, sin, and lack of education. My experience made me convinced of the need for teachers who lived in a christian way like Mary. That’s what drew me to the plan of a Society of Mary, and there was nothing I wasn’t ready to sacrifice for that plan. My father taught me a lot of things, and I’m a practical man like he was. I’m used to working with tools, you see, and used to finding the right tool for the right job. You need that; and you need to be able to make do with the material you have at hand. And when I’m looking for people for a job, it’s the same thing. You have to try and find the right person for the right job; but you also have to use what you have at hand. If you can’t find someone with two eyes, put in someone with one eye…. But you know, it’s all the work of Our Lady, and in the end, she will see that it works out….This world is the place where you can create things for God, carve new things for God, get great things done in modest ways. For me, humility is admitting the truth about ourselves, and using the gifts we have. Whether we have one eye or two eyes, it doesn’t really matter. But it does matter to use the gifts we have and not hide them away.”