Founder of Piarist Fathers



Saint Joseph Calasanz (1557-1648) was a holy priest and the founder of both the world’s first Christian public school and later the Order of the Pious Schools (known today as the Piarist Fathers) and he devoted his life to the education of poor children.


He was born in Spain on September 11, 1557, in a little village in Aragon called Peralta de la Sal.  He was the youngest of five children born to Don Pedro Calasanz and Donna Maria Gastonia. His mother and brother died while he was still in school. He studied at Estadilla, Valencia, and Alcala de Henares.  His father wanted him to become a soldier, to marry, and to continue the family, but a near fatal illness in 1582 caused him to seriously examine his life, and he realized that he was called to the religious life. 


He was ordained as a diocesan priest on December 17, 1583, after receiving a doctorate in both canon law and theology from the University of Lereda.  Calasanz served as a parish priest at Albarracin and was given high ecclesiastical positions.  He did his work well, serving as both secretary and confessor to his bishop, synodal examiner, and procurator. He helped revive religious zeal among the laity and discipline among the clergy in his small section of the Pyrenees. He also served as Vicar-general of Trempe, Spain.  Both his father and his bishop died in 1587, and following a vision, he gave away much of his inheritance and renounced most of the rest.


In 1592, just nine years after his ordination, he travelled to Rome, where it seemed he would have a promising career.  He worked in the household of Cardinal Ascanio Colonna as a theological advisor for the cardinal and as a tutor to the cardinal’s nephew.  Yet, he felt that God was calling him to do something more. He was shocked by the ignorance and the poor morals of the common people, especially the youth he encountered in the Trastevere, one of the poorest suburbs of the city. 


He joined the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and his heart was filled with pity for all of the orphans and homeless children he saw everywhere.  They were ignorant and neglected. He was convinced that the best way he could help the people was to make sure that ALL of the children had a good education. It seems that God wanted Calasanz to be a mediator so that he could enrich the Church with a new charismatic gift.


Being unable to interest any of the city’s religious orders and institutes in the education of poor children, he undertook this task himself.  He began to gather them together to teach them both all the regular secular subjects, and especially their religion. Soon, other priests joined him, and in 1597, in the Church of St. Dorothy, he and two fellow priests opened the first free public school in Europe.


So overwhelming was the response of the people that Fr. Calasanz and his companions received, that there was a constant need for larger and larger facilities to house their free school. In 1602, they moved to larger quarters and reorganized the teaching priests into a community. In 1612, they moved to the Torres palace to have even more room. Soon thereafter, Pope Clement VIII gave support to the school, and this financial aid continued under Pope Paul V.  Soon other schools were opened and more men attracted to their work joined them.


On March 25, 1617, he and his fourteen assistants formed the Poor Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools.  They were the very first priests to have as their primary ministry teaching in elementary schools.  Emphasizing love, not fear, St. Joseph wrote, “if from the very earliest years, a child is instructed in both religion and letters, it can be reasonably hoped that his life will be happy.”


While residing in Rome, Joseph endeavoured to visit the seven principal churches of that city almost every evening, and also to honour the graves of the Roman martyrs. During one of the city’s repeated plagues, a holy rivalry existed between him and St. Camillus in aiding the sick and in personally carrying away for burial the bodies of those who had been stricken. On account of his heroic patience and fortitude in the midst of trouble and persecution, he was called a marvel of Christian courage, a second Job.


This is the context where his vocation originated. He heard the voice of God calling him: “Joseph, give yourself for the poor. Teach these children and take care of them.” Soon Calasanz became the superior of the new religious order, but he never let his duties as founder and superior stop him from teaching his beloved children.  He would even sweep the classrooms himself.  He often led the little ones to their homes after school was over. 


At the insistence of Calasanz, Jewish children were admitted to the Pious Schools, and he ensured that they were treated as equals.  Many textbooks were written in vernacular languages rather than Latin, and the study of mathematics and science was a priority. In 1621, Fr. Joseph Calasanz’s “Free Schools” received Papal recognition as a religious order under solemn canonical vows called “Le Sciole Pie” (Religious Schools), which in English became the Piarists.


However, Joseph encountered many difficulties, including his friendships with the controversial astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and the Italian Dominican friar and philosopher Tommaso Campanella (1558-1639), who sought to reconcile Renaissance humanism with Roman Catholic theology.  As a result, he was investigated by papal commissioners.  Some of the ruling class objected that to educate the poor would cause social unrest. Other   Orders that worked with the poor were afraid they would be absorbed by the Piarists. But the group continued to have papal support and to do good work. He also had much to suffer from people who wanted to take over his order, and he also suffered through the rebellion of one of his subordinates in the order. 


Once, he was even led through the streets like a criminal, and he was almost put in jail, although he had done nothing wrong. Also, there were still those who felt that the poor shouldn’t be educated, as this would only make them dissatisfied with their lot in life. A papal commission charged with examining the Order acquitted Joseph of all accusations, and in 1645, returned him to superior of the Order, but internal dissent continued, and the following year Pope Innocent X dissolved the   Order, placing the priests under control of their local bishops. St. Joseph was removed from office, and his order was suppressed in every country save Poland, but he, like the wise Old Testament figure Job, remained humble and obedient. Despite this suffering, Joseph only said: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.”


St. Joseph Calasanz died a calm and peaceful death on August 25, 1648, and soon after, his order was fully restored by Pope Clement IX.  He was proclaimed a saint by Pope Clement XIII in 1767.  In 1948, Pope Pius XII declared him to be the “Heavenly Patron Saint of all Christian Public Schools.”  He shares his Feast Day on August 25 with St. Louis IX of France and St. Genesius, the patron of actors.



No one knew better than Joseph the need for the work he was doing; no one knew better than he how baseless were the charges brought against him. Yet if he were to work within the Church, he realized that he must submit to its authority, that he must accept a setback if he was unable to convince authorized investigators. While the prejudice, the scheming and the ignorance of men often keep the truth from emerging for a long period of time, Joseph was convinced, even under suppression, that his institute would again be recognized and authorized. With this trust he joined exceptional patience and a genuine spirit of forgiveness.