The National Catholic Review

“Recovering the founder’s charism”—this is how Lawrence Goyette, F.S.C., described the impulse that led to the opening of the first-ever San Miguel School—a middle school that began almost a decade ago in Providence, R.I. During a visit in June, Bro. Lawrence explained that the founder in question was St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719). A French priest of aristocratic origins, he gave away his fortune and then devoted his life to the education of impoverished youth. In France at that time, publicly supported education did not exist.

 

But Brother Lawrence, the school’s president, is himself a founder. He began this first of what are now nine San Miguel schools spread across the country, including one on a reservation of Native American Indians in Montana. The Providence school is located in the Olneyville section of the city, a low-income area that has traditionally been a neighborhood of immigrants. In earlier days, the immigrants were predominantly Irish and Italian. Now the new immigrants are mostly Latino, many of them single parents who may speak little English.

How, I asked, did the school come about? Bro. Lawrence explained that in the late 1980’s, he was living with other brothers in Olneyville in a house they had bought and named Miguel House. But neither he nor they actually worked in that impoverished area. All went out to jobs located elsewhere. He himself was teaching in a parish school in South Providence. But they became increasingly aware of the situation at their very doorstep. “We’d see a lot of kids roaming around at all hours, and we heard stories of how they were going nowhere in school. So we began saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could start something right here?’” Then, when the school at which he had been teaching closed, he approached his superior “to ask about taking a year off to get something started in Olneyville.”

Not long afterward, De La Salle Christian Brothers from around the world met in Rome for their general chapter. It was from this meeting that a directive went forth encouraging a return to the founder’s original vision of educating youth from poor families. “A lot of our ministries of educating poor immigrants started in the United States over 100 years ago,” Bro. Lawrence said. But with the passage of time, he went on to note, the offspring of these original immigrants moved up economically into the middle class and left the low-income areas of their cities for the suburbs. The result marked, in effect, a shift away from the charism’s basic thrust. The directive from the chapter in Rome, together with Bro. Lawrence’s conversation with his superior, therefore came together as a kind of catalyst for taking concrete steps to begin an inner-city middle school for at-risk boys.

Finding a building, however, proved far from easy. “A Baptist church and an Episcopalian church each said they could give us a room, but they also said we’d have to give up the space on weekends for their own use. You can’t run a school that way.” Finally, Bro. Lawrence heard of a small school operated by a Lutheran church. Because of dwindling enrollment and the area’s changing population, the school was being phased out after 35 years. “The school’s closing took place just as we were looking, and the church administrators were incredibly generous in setting the terms for our using it,” he said. The terms included no rent for the first two years. “But in fact,” he said, “after nine years they still charge us no rent—though we pay our share of the utilities, and we’ve made some improvements.”

With a building secured, and start-up financial help from Bro. Lawrence’s province, the school opened its doors to 14 fifth and sixth graders in 1993—“on a wing and a prayer,” as he put it. Besides himself, the only staff consisted of two young women who came as Lasallian Volunteers after graduating from Catholic colleges. Neither had any teaching experience. Lasallian Volunteers live with the brothers, and Bro. Lawrence described the combined arrangement as lifegiving. “If I were living in a community with 50-year-old men, it would be easy to become complacent,” he said, “and my energy would be less. Sharing our lives with the volunteers calls us to be better brothers.” Of the two current volunteers I met, one serves as the high school support person, staying in touch with graduates who have gone on to high school. The other was working as a teacher’s aide. I saw them again later in the day, when I joined the community for supper at Miguel House, a 10-minute drive from the school.

At dinner, as well as in our earlier conversation, Bro. Lawrence emphasized that the school’s mission is “not only to work with kids from low-income families, but also to take a chance every year in accepting some who come from challenging home situations, rather than ‘safe’ candidates.” I had met two of these on first arriving at the school that afternoon. Both were eighth graders who had just graduated the week before, but who of their own volition came back almost daily till the end of the school year—a sign of the degree to which they felt at home there.

The fathers of both had been murdered, and the mother of one of them had died from drug use. But now, after four years at San Miguel, they seemed poised and self-assured as they took me on a tour of the school, allowing me to look in on the classes of students in the lower grades that were still in session. One, an African-American named Joey—had spoken at the eighth-grade graduation exercises. The other was Sarraf (both names have been changed), whose family had come from Cambodia. His mother was raising six children by herself. The two have almost full financial aid enabling them to go on to Catholic high schools.

How does the school find candidates like these? Bro. Lawrence explained that he stays in touch with several dozen people in the city—social workers, workers in church and community centers—who recommend them. Part of the thrust has also been on keeping the school small. “There have never been more than 62 students for all the four grades, and that’s been a key to allowing everyone to know everybody else. It helps the kids to feel safe and loved; they understand that this place is different.”

The school is essentially free, although families are expected to pay an average of $50 a month. Most of the major funding comes from individuals, groups and foundations. Because some of these funding sources do not give to sectarian organizations, Bro. Lawrence said, the school is nonsectarian. “We were faced with the fact that if we taught religion as it’s done at a traditional Catholic school, we’d be cutting off a lot of the funding. It’s a delicate issue.” But, as he went on to point out, “We try to strike a balance by maintaining connections with local parishes, and consequently many of the students are receiving regular sacramental preparation.” The students themselves, by way of making a return to the community, engage in local volunteer work of various kinds, such as helping in nursing homes and day care centers. They have also twinned with a Lasallian mission school in Kenya, raising money each year as a Lenten project. “We try to instill in them the idea that if other people help us, we should do something to help others in turn, through service,” Bro. Lawrence said.

Now that the San Miguel School has been in existence close to a decade, its success has brought with it certain pitfalls. As the school’s achievements began to become recognized (The Providence Journal ran a laudatory editorial last year), Bro. Lawrence observed: “When you become better known, you could fall into the trap of wanting to impress national funders, telling them about the high percentage of kids going to good high schools and colleges. But I hope we stay true to our mission of accepting those who present risks, who have special needs and even behavioral problems.”

Two years after the San Miguel School began in Providence, a second one was begun in Chicago by a brother who had recently returned from Guatemala and who visited Bro. Lawrence in Providence. In Chicago too, although the students are of mixed backgrounds, Latinos predominate. The Hispanic name, San Miguel, is therefore appropriate. But it was chosen primarily because of the Lasallian Brother who bore it—Miguel Febres Cordero—a renowned educator in Ecuador, who was canonized in the 1980’s. “In Ecuador,” Bro. Lawrence said, “he’s regarded almost as a national hero.”

Now that a total of nine schools are up and running, with more on the way, the Lasallian Association of Miguel Schools (L.A.M.S.) has come into being. They also have a Web site (www.miguelschools.org). Through the association, Bro. Lawrence noted, “We’re able to advise other brothers and Lasallians who may be thinking of starting one, sharing with them some of the dos and don’ts we had to learn by trial and error.” One new school, in fact, is scheduled to open soon on Long Island, in Freeport—a city that is heavily Latino. In what might be considered something of an anomaly, the number of new San Miguel schools continues to increase, although vocations to the brothers are down—as they are for most other religious orders. Last year alone two opened in Memphis. “There’s a definite push in this direction,” he said. That such rapid growth is possible is due in no small part to the existence of the Lasallian Volunteers and other members of the Lasallian family.

Looking back on the early beginnings of his own school—the first and the one that has served as an initial model for the others—Bro. Lawrence made it clear that his efforts as founder have not been burden free. At the start, his life was downright chaotic. “It was blood, sweat and tears all the way,” he said. “Besides being chief administrator, I was teaching two classes, installing phones, answering the door, working with two young women just out of college and fund-raising.” It was a matter of learning day by day, but “one step led to another and God gave me the grace to handle each new step as it came up,” he concluded.

The struggles of the new school about to open in Freeport, he said, promise to be less arduous. Already, “besides the brother who’ll be the executive director there, they’ll have a principal and a master teacher”—all this by way of preparation for the 15 students who will be starting the fifth grade. In a sense, it was Bro. Lawrence who paved the way for those intent on beginning new San Miguel schools. As a kind of summing up of his experience of the past decade, he said: “It’s the ministry I believe I was called to. I can’t imagine now not working in a San Miguel School, whether here or in Minnesota or in some other part of the country.”

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.