Christian Bros. schools in need

Matt Krupnick and Matt Krupnick

Drawing on 300 years of educational service, the Christian Brothers have built a proud tradition of high- quality colleges and high schools around the world.

But with the number of Christian Brothers declining in the United States, schools like St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., have increasingly turned to laypeople to fill administrative and teaching roles.

About 800 Christian Brothers live in the United States, less than half of the peak number in the 1960s. The order is thriving overseas, but only three U.S. men are in the first stage of becoming Brothers, down sharply from past years.

But the Catholic order’s leaders are not panicking about the possibility of Christian Brothers, who dedicate themselves to the Lasallian ideal of teaching the poor, disappearing from the schools.

“We’ve done an incredible amount of (preparation) for our teachers and staffs so they know what the Lasallian mission is about,” said Brother James Joost, co-director of vocation ministry for the Brothers’ West Coast region.

“It is important the Lasallian mission continue, whether the Brothers are involved in that or not.”

Brothers, who are not ordained clergy, take vows of chastity and poverty and usually work in one of the order’s schools or educational centers. They train for several years, living with other Brothers, praying and studying Catholicism and other subjects. The order once made wine at its Napa County retreat but has since sold those operations. At St. Mary’s, the college presidency was open only to Brothers until last year, when administrators concerned about the shrinking pool of candidates agreed to accept applications from laypeople if no qualified Brothers were found. The Brothers’ College of Santa Fe in New Mexico has had lay presidents since 1987.

La Salle High School, just outside Portland, Ore., has no Christian Brothers on its 610-student campus, but administrators have worked especially hard to maintain Lasallian values, said school president Denise Jones.

“For us, it’s the honoring and embracing of the (ideals) on a daily basis” that keeps the school connected to the Brothers, she said. “We are very overtly Lasallian.”

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of laypeople working with the order as its reach has expanded around the world. While relatively few non-Brothers worked with the order 30 years ago, 90,000 laypeople now help carry out the mission worldwide, scholars and Brothers said.

“We fully share our mission with the people who join,” said Brother Michael Meister, a St. Mary’s religious studies professor and former principal of De La Salle High in Concord, Calif. “You don’t work for the Christian Brothers, you work with the Christian Brothers.”

Those who have joined the order in recent years tend to be older men who have put years of thought into the decision.

A cornucopia of alternatives tends to prevent young men from choosing a life of chastity and poverty, said Brother Michael Sanderl, St. Mary’s assistant dean of student life for mission and leadership and one of the newest Brothers.

“I just think this generation struggles with making some kinds of commitments,” said Sanderl, 30, who took his final vows in July, eight years after graduating from St. Mary’s. “There are just so many options out there for young people.”