The Catholic congregation formally known as The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (also known as De La Salle Brothers or, in the United States, Christian Brothers) was founded in France in 1682 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle. De La Salle, who has since been canonized by the Church as the patron saint of educators, organized schools for poor boys who would not otherwise have received an education. The group of lay men (the Brothers are not ordained as priests) that he founded dedicate themselves to teaching and take vows that include association for the service of the poor through education, stability in the Institute, obedience, poverty, and chastity.
Changes brought about by the French Revolution that began in 1789 and its aftermath led the Brothers to found schools in many countries outside of France. In 1905, a group of Brothers was invited by the Church to go to Cuba to found schools shortly after the declaration of the first Cuban Republic. The Brothers’ schools in Cuba prospered in a social context where public education frequently suffered from underfunding, political corruption, and tensions related to larger social problems. These tensions ultimately contributed to an armed struggle to bring down the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. When the Batista regime fell and a revolutionary government under the leadership of Fidel Castro took power on January 1, 1959, the Brothers had fourteen schools and a newly opened university.
The La Salle schools in Cuba were a mix of tuition-based (although they offered scholarships to students who could not pay) and free (charity) schools. Nevertheless, the majority of their students tended to be urban and middle to upper-class. The De La Salle Brothers were also closely associated with an important religious movement, Catholic Action, that served to organize groups of lay people to play more active roles in society. (A De La Salle Brother, Victorino, had founded the first such lay groups and oversaw the expansion of Catholic Action.) Many Cuban Catholic Action members had supported the struggle against Batista and were in favor of social reform. However, Cuban society quickly became polarized over the increasing radicalization of the Revolution and the government’s moves towards socialism. This led to questions about whether private schools were legitimate and what would be the role of religion in a revolutionary society.
This debate took place even as the United States was becoming increasingly hostile to the Cuban Revolution under Castro. In a decision that was likely accelerated by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (mid-April, 1961, in which the US sponsored a covert attempt to start a counter-revolution by sending in armed Cuban exiles), Castro formally declared Cuba a socialist nation on May 1, 1961. In the same speech, he announced the nationalization of all schooling. Soon after, all of the La Salle schools (and other private schools) were intervened and expropriated. The De La Salle Brothers chose to leave the country. The majority of them left on May 25, 1961.
Cuba had been the heart of the Brothers’ District of the Antilles—there were just a handful of Brothers in the Dominican Republic. By the time the Brothers left Cuba, the majority were Cuban-born. While the oldest Brothers who were mostly French could be sent back to their countries of origin, it was not at clear at first what would become of the Cubans and others who were not near the age of retirement. In addition, a number of young Cubans who were studying to become Brothers had previously been sent to Panama due to the Revolution.
By 1962, the Brothers decided to regroup in the Dominican Republic and the majority of the Cubans, both Brothers and Novices, were called to that country with the intention of founding new institutions and a Novitiate. They arrived just as the DR entered an extended period of political crisis sparked by the assassination of long-time dictator Rafael Trujillo. Following the contested presidency of reformer Juan Bosch, a military-led coup in 1965 led to a civil uprising known as the April Revolution. This in turn provoked an intervention by the United States Marines under the orders of President Lyndon Johnson. The US feared that the DR would become a second Cuba. Ultimately, rightist Joaquín Balaguer would become President of the Dominican Republic and would remain the dominant political force in the country until his death in 2002.
The Brothers were deeply affected by these political events, both in Cuba and the DR. At the same time, the Catholic Church itself was undergoing dramatic changes. The Second Vatican Council that met from 1962 through 1965, liberalized many practices within the Church. For the Brothers, their General Chapter meeting of 1966-67 that reflected on the outcomes of Vatican II led them to re-commit to the original vision of De La Salle, particularly his dedication to the poor and marginalized.
The Brothers in the Dominican Republic had already begun opening schools and social institutions that intended to serve these groups even prior to the General Chapter meeting, but became more committed to doing so by the late 1960s. They also expanded their presence to Puerto Rico and by the 1970s, would begin a dialogue that would ultimately lead to a return to Cuba. The Cuban government allowed the first Brothers to enter Cuba in 1989. Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, they founded two centers and began multiple programs at the parish level that offer adult education. They also engage in pastoral outreach. They now once again have a presence throughout the island although the work that they do is radically different from the pre-Revolutionary period. Often, the new directions that the congregation took in the District of the Antilles were the product of extensive and often conflicted internal debates.
While these years were transformative, they were also difficult. To an extent, they are a microcosm of the changes that have affected the Brothers at large. In the 1950s, there were more than 17,000 De La Salle Brothers in the world. At present, there are approximately 4,000. Most La Salle institutions are now run primarily by lay people. This great decline in the number of Brothers has provoked much internal questioning.
The interviews conducted for this project asked people who lived through many of the above described events not only to narrate them but to explain them from a personal perspective. The participants did not always agree on their interpretations or their recollections of key events. If this is typical of memory work, it is also a reflection of the great diversity to how individuals respond to change.
Alpago, Bruno. The Institute in the Educational Service of the Poor. Translated by Allan Geppert. Rome: Brothers of the Christian Schools, 2000.
Betances, Emilio. The Catholic Church and Power Politics in Latin America: The Dominican Case in Comparative Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.
Brothers of the Christian Schools. The Brother of the Christian Schools in the World Today: A Declaration. Rome: Brothers of the Christian Schools, Thirty-Ninth General Chapter, Second Session, 1967.
Morales, Alfredo A. Itinerario de los Hermanos de La Salle en el Distrito de las Antillas. Santo Domingo: Amigos del Hogar, 1978.
Moreno, José Antonio. Barrios in Arms: Revolution in Santo Domingo. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
Rivera, Juan Antonio. “Ayer, hoy, y mañana de La Salle en Cuba.” Boletín ARLEP no. 255 (Nov-Dec 2011): 12-15.