The founder of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales was a diocesan priest from Troyes, France, Fr. Louis Brisson (1817-1908). One of Brisson’s first ministries as a priest was as the chaplain to the Troyes Visitation monastery, a community of nuns founded by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. The superior of that community, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, urged Fr. Brisson to found the Oblates of St Francis de Sales, as well as the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales with St. Leonie Aviat.
The city of Troyes was an industrial town with much poverty. For Brisson, the care of the poor workers was one of his primary concerns as the leader of the new congregations of Oblates and Oblate Sisters. Brisson saw the devastating effects poverty had on the people of Troyes and sought creative ways to help poor workers lead meaningful lives. In particular, Brisson was concerned with the young female factory workers because they did not have opportunities to learn about their faith and recreate on their days off, and he understood the deleterious effects this neglect had on society. As his biographer states, “He saw the poverty that led to personal disintegration and immorality.”[i] As theologian Gustavo Gutierrez would say in the twentieth century, “Poverty means death.” The evil of poverty affects every aspect of a person’s lives and is in a real sense a type of death.
During the time Brisson worked with the poor of Troyes, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, which is viewed as the beginning of modern Catholic social teaching. This encyclical dealt with the same issue Brisson was facing, the rights of workers, which Rerum Novarum called “the question of the hour” (#44). Given the difference in the way information was shared in that time, Brisson’s biographer questions whether Brisson actually read the encyclical, “Only a small number of French bishops actually read the encyclical. And Father Brisson? We have no indication. We do know that Brisson was not the type of man who spent hours pondering and studying hefty documents and encyclicals. There are no doubts whatsoever, however, that he spent his entire life caring for workers and their rights, doing precisely what Rerum Novarum demanded.”[ii]
During his life, Brisson built many youth houses, schools, and shelters for young workers in addition to leading his two new congregations of priests and sisters. All of his enterprises were begun in order to help people live more fully human lives. Brisson was inspired by Salesian spirituality’s vision of God being passionately in love with every human being. He is a good example for all of us today that knowledge of Catholic social teaching and Salesian spirituality are great things, but it is by putting those beliefs into concrete practice that the world is transformed and people feel the healing touch of God.