Francis de Sales was born into a noble family in 1567 in the Savoy region of what is now France. As the first son of an aristocratic family, he was educated in Paris and Padua, two centers of learning that were instrumental in the development of the French and Italian enlightenment. The European intellectual life of the time was vibrant, and Galileo, Kepler, Shakespeare, Donne, Machiavelli, Cervantes, Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, Rubens, and Monteverdi were all contemporaries of Francis de Sales.
Francis encountered turbulent times for Christianity. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. In 1519, Ulrich Zwingli began the Swiss reformation. In 1522, Martin Luther published his German version of the Holy Bible. In 1524, Zwingli abolished the Catholic mass in Zurich. In 1532, John Calvin began the reformation in France. In 1535, St. Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuit Order. In 1536, an act of parliament declared the authority of the pope void in England. In 1544, Pope Paul III called a general council at Trent. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola were published in 1548, and the Council of Trent ended in 1563.
Francis entered the clergy and became a leader in the Catholic counter-reformation. With a powerful collaboration with St. Jane de Chantal, he fashioned a spirituality that responded to the excitement of the renaissance and the conflict of religious belief. This spirituality became a model of Christian living for centuries. His Christian humanism combined respect for the dignity of each person as a child of God, love for dialogue and persuasion rather than force, commitment to truth as revealed by God and as discovered by reason, optimism in spite of human weakness, and total confidence in the providential care of a loving God.
While Francis never reached his episcopal see of Geneva because of its Calvinist rulers, he did restore the Chablais of Savoy into a region of Catholic force. Annecy, France, is forever known as the home of Francis and Jane. It is there that they founded a religious order for women, the Visitation of Holy Mary, in 1610. Francis died in 1622, and by the time Jane died in 1641, there were more than 80 foundations of the Visitation sisters in existence. Today, the Visitation of Holy Mary is a worldwide religious order.
The French revolution and its aftermath wrecked havoc in Europe. Catholicism was abolished or severely curtailed in many nations. It was only in 1822 that the diocese of Annecy was re-established.
In 1838, with the promptings and approval of Pierre Joseph Rey, Bishop of Annecy, Fr. Pierre-Marie Mermier and 5 other diocesan priests formed a community under a rule permeated with the Salesian spirit, and the Missionaries of Saint Francis de Sales was born. They began their work to re-evangelize the people in the lands of Francis and Jane. In 1845, however, the Holy See asked them to accept a mission to India, and the spirit of Christian humanism ventured for a rich encounter with a very different culture.
At this same time, a religious revival was also underway in Italy. At Turin, Fr. Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860) conducted a seminary that presented Saint Francis de Sales as a model for the young clergy. John Bosco (1815-1888) was a student at this seminary. Coming from peasant stock, John became very interested in serving working boys who had dim futures. He founded an oratory to give these young men a chance in life. Gradually, a group of young men joined John, and one of these men, Michael Rua, eventually founded the Salesians of Don Bosco to carry on this important work. The Salesians would go on to become the second largest order of male religious in the church, with more than 2,000 priests in India.
Meanwhile, in Troyes, France, the religious superior of the Visitation convent, Sr. Marie de Sales Chappuis (1793-1875), working with her chaplain, diocese priest Fr. Louis Brisson (1817-1908), was inspired to found a female religious group under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal to work with poor women who were entering the factories of the industrial revolution. They selected a recent graduate of the Visitation School, St. Leonie Aviat (1844-1914) to lead this new foundation. This group became known as the Oblate Sisters of Saint Francis de Sales. Shortly after that time, Sr. Marie and Fr. Louis also founded a male religious group, the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales.
In the early 19th century, two groups of Catholic nuns came to the United States through the work of John Carroll, the first bishop of America. They were the Carmelites from Antwerp, who established themselves in Port Tobacco, Md., and the Poor Clares from France, who initially settled in Baltimore, Md. The Poor Clares opened an academy for young ladies in Georgetown next to the college for men, but they were not effective teachers and eventually returned to France. This academy, which still exists today, became the first foundation of the Visitation of Holy Mary in America. The Oblate Fathers and the Oblate Sisters came toward the end of the 19th century.
In 1965, the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales responded to a request from Bishop Joseph McShea and opened Allentown College of Saint Francis de Sales, in Center Valley, Pa. In 2001, this institution of higher education changed its name to DeSales University. In 2004, as part of the University's globalization efforts, the president of DeSales University traveled to India, where he met with the Missionaries of Saint Francis de Sales, who have five provinces in India. He also met with the Salesians of Don Bosco. Both of these religious groups have been involved in Catholic education in India for more than a century, while the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales recently established a mission in India and soon will enter the field of education. While the Missionaries and the Salesians of Don Bosco have hundreds of priests in the country, the Oblates now have five. The Oblates, however, have more than 100 seminarians.
DeSales University envisions a wonderful birth of cooperation between these "cousins" of the spiritual patrons St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. During the 2005-2007 academic years, Fr. Baiju Paul, OSFS, an Oblate priest from India, came to study at DeSales University for a masters of education degree. He will use this knowledge to found an Oblate school in India. Two Missionaries of Saint Francis de Sales traveled to DeSales University during the summer of 2005 to explore various collaborative ventures. As a result of their initiative, DeSales University decided to offer a B.A. in Philosophy and a B.A. in Theology for the seminarians of the Missionaries in Bangalore, India. These degrees will be offered through two institutes that are currently conducted by the Missionaries: the DeSales Institute for Philosophy and Religion, and the Fransalian Institute of Mission-Oriented and Contextual Theology.
In return, the Missionaries of Saint Francis de Sales will provide a "visiting professor" from one of their five provinces in India to teach each semester on the Center Valley campus of DeSales University. Members of the DeSales faculty from the Department of Philosophy and Theology and a senior administrator will visit India each year for oversight of, and collaboration with, the DeSales programs. Courses in the Indian philosophical and theological traditions will be offered at DeSales University. It is the University's hope that this will be the initiation of many collaborative activities between the two religious congregations.
Since this was the first overseas degree-granting partnership for DeSales University, the institution was required to seek approval from the Middle States Association Commission on Higher Education. Dr. Jean Morse, executive director of the association, joined the president, provost, dean for undergraduate education, and chair of the philosophy and theology department of DeSales University at the formal signing ceremony in Bangalore on February 11, 2007. Dr. Morse visited the Board, faculty, senior staff, and students of the Institute of Philosophy and Religion and Fransalian Institute for Mission-Oriented and Contextual Theology. Prior to the formal ceremony, the provost of DeSales University successfully presented a Substantive Change proposal to the Commission on Higher Education.
DeSales University is proud that our first overseas degree-granting partnership is rooted in the common mission of two fine religious congregations. While many mutually beneficial associations may follow, this founding event was a moment of "re-union." The meanings and histories that are present in such an event generate tremendous levels of energy and joy.
DeSales University is also interested in formalizing our interest in graduate education in India. For several years, we have worked with professor Ashoke Dutta, executive director of the Indian Institute for Business Management and Social Welfare in Kolkota, India. Dutta, a devout Hindu, was educated in a school run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, and when he wished to send his son to an American university, he chose DeSales University. His son and a friend graduated from DeSales University in 2003, and Dutta and his wife visited the campus many times during their son's undergraduate education. Several years ago, Dutta was invited to join the Board of Trustees and DeSales University, and he is a guiding light for all of the University's initiatives in India.
Each month, DeSales University and the Indian Institute share professors and seminars from the University's MBA program by way of technology. We have every reason to believe that this will mature into cooperation on several graduate programs. The Indian Institute for Business Management and Social Welfare is the oldest of the "Institutes" in India. Its founding documents have the handwritten signature of Nehru. They are also the only institute that has a social welfare component to their mission. DeSales University considers this Institute a perfect partner for our graduate and professional associations in India.
It is certainly DeSales University's hope to create a real and a virtual Salesian community between the "cousins" of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. This is one of the great blessings of globalization, and spirituality tends to bring people together. With a record of more than 400 years of success, Salesian spirituality is one of the most effective vehicles for engaging people of different cultures and religions in profound dialogue. The Salesian Center for Faith and Culture at DeSales University will play a pivotal role in raising the awareness of peoples throughout the world about this optimistic, faithful, and profoundly human spirituality.
Please stay tuned! There will be a lot more to this story.
(Rev.) Bernard F. O'Connor, OSFS
President, DeSales University