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Our Founding Father

Joseph Calasanz (1557 – 1648)

 

The key to Calasanz’s thinking can be found in his letters – more than 10.000- and in his texts on the foundation, organization and operation of his schools and his congregation. These documents, all of them published, give us a clearer and more detailed appreciation of his accomplishments in the field of education.

Joseph Calasanz was born in 1557 in the Spanish town of Peralta de la Sal. He was the seventh and last child of a family belonging to the lower ranks of the Aragon nobility, and his father, who ran a foundry, was elected mayor of Peralta. After completing his primary studies in his home town, the 11-year-old Calasanz went to Estadilla to study Humanities. In 1571 he moved to the nearby city of Lerida, home of the most celebrated university of the ancient Kingdom of Aragon, drawing students from Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia, the three major communities of Aragon. As was customary in the medieval era, the students were divided into ‘nations’ and Calasanz was elected prior of the Aragonese. Such was his natural authority and moral stature.

At the university of Lerida, Calasanz studied philosophy and law. He went on to study theology at the University of Valencia and at the University of Alcala de Henares, and again in Lerida, finally obtaining his doctoral degree. He was ordained as a priest in 1583 and during his ecclesiastical career held various offices in his native region. During that period, Calasanz spent several years in La Seu d’Urgell, a dangerous town close to the border with France. In those days bandits were a serious problem in Spain, and conditions were most extreme in the frontier regions: bands of Gascons and Huguenots, involved in the turbulence in neighboring France, were constantly crossing the border into Spain where they created trouble, committing all kinds of outrages and crimes.

As secretary of the Cathedral Chapter, Calasanz had broad administrative responsibilities, as may be seen from the ten letters he sent to the Viceroy of Catalonia in which he urgently requested help to deal with the dire situation in the region, where murder, pillage and extortion were rampant.

In his early years in Spain, Calasanz had already shown his concern for the poor and disadvantaged by establishing in Claverol a foundation that distributed food to the destitute every year. The charity remained in existence for nearly two-and-a- half centuries, until 1883. In the revealing initiative taken in his youth, the great social concern that Calasanz would later demonstrate in his educational work was already clear for all to see.

In 1592, at the age of 35, the future educator moved to Rome in the hope of furthering his ecclesiastical career. He lived there for most of his remaining fifty-six years. He became, during this long period, a fully fledged Roman with strong ties to both Rome and Italy, but without ever losing touch with his Spanish roots.

Disturbed by the moral and physical degradation of the large number of Roman children, Calasanz established in 1597 at the Church of Santa Dorothy in the Trans Tiber section of Rome (Trastevere) the first Pious School, which was the first tuition-free public school in modern Europe.

In 1600, a Pious School opened in the center of Rome and soon there were many others opened in response to the growing demands for enrollment from students who flocked from all over. In 1610, Calasanz wrote the Document Princeps in which he set out the fundamental principles of his educational philosophy. The text was accompanied by regulations for teachers and for students. In 1612, the school moved to San Pantaleo which became the mother house of all the Pious Schools.

The first Pious School outside of Rome was established in Frascati in 1616. One year later, Pope Paul V approved the Congregation of the Pious Schools, the first dedicated essentially to teaching. During the following years, Pious Schools were established in various parts of Europe.

Near the end of his life, in 1642, as a result of an internal crisis in the congregation and outside intrigues and pressures, Calasanz was briefly held and interrogated by the Inquisition. The following year, the elderly educator, drawn into a power struggle fueled by political interests and personal ambitions, was discredited and removed from his post as General of the religious Order that he had founded, to be replaced by one of his detractors. In the following years, Calasanz continued to live in disgrace, his religious Order was demoted and the whole system built up over the years was in danger of collapse. In 1648, Calasanz died at the age of 91 and was buried in San Pantaleo. Eight years after his death, Pope Alexander VII cleared the name of the Pious Schools. Joseph Calasanz was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1748 and canonized nineteen years later. On August 13th, 1948, Pope Pious XII declared him Patron of all Christian Public Schools. Today, there are Pious Schools in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.