The Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) was established in 1822 as a religious congregation in southern France. The Basilian community was born in a time of state persecution and terrorism in revolutionary France, directly targeting the Church and its priests. The Congregation was bravely founded by the ten diocesan priests who came together based on their strong Catholic convictions and to respond to the chronic need for balanced Christian education. Their first schools became known for their range of teaching including humanities, rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics, physics and chemistry. The members of the new group devoted themselves to Christian education, preaching, and life in community. After several years of operation and a change in the French laws, the ten priests openly bound themselves into a religious community. They reasoned that the school, by then located in the nearby city of Annonay, would have a better chance of continuing if it were conducted by a Religious Congregation that could accept and train new members to continue its operation after the founding fathers’ retirement. On November 21, 1822, on the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple of Jerusalem, the ten founders chose Joseph Lapierre as the first Superior General and St. Basil, a fourth century bishop, doctor of the Church and renowned teacher as the patron for the order.
The ten founding priests were:
Joseph Lapierre was a priest who fled persecution during the Revolution and secretly celebrated Mass and provided clandestine Christian education. Lapierre became the first Superior General.
Pierre Tourvieille who received covert education during the French Revolution from his older brother, a priest. Tourvieille became the second Basilian Superior General in 1838.
Julien Tracol was a teacher, librarian, record keeper and first unofficial historian of the Congregation of St. Basil.
Jacques Duret was born in Annonay, the son of a physician. He studied in Paris and was a classmate of the revolutionary enemy of the Catholic Church, Maximilien Robespierre.
Augustin Payan attended the clandestine seminary college at St-Symphorien-de-Mahun, becoming a teacher and studying theology.
Jean-Baptiste Polly was mayor of Saint-Symphorien-de-Mahun (then called Mahun Libre by the revolutionaries) and hid priests to protect them. He attended the clandestine seminary college where he studied theology and was secretly ordained.
Andre Fayolle, nephew of Pierre Tourvieille, was a teacher before he was ordained.
Henri Martinesche was ordained in 1822 and was a teacher and chaplain.
Jean Antoine Vallon was ordained around 1800 and was a teacher at St-Symphorien-de-Mahun and later at Annonay.
Jean Francois Pagès studied philosophy and theology and was ordained in 1818. The following year, he began teaching in Annonay.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the French Basilians came to Canada at the invitation of Bishop Armand de Charbonnel of Toronto. The Bishop, member of the Society of St. Sulpice (Sulpicians) saw the need for Catholic schools for the young people of his parishes, especially at the high school level. In his plans to bring Catholic education to more of his people, the Bishop immediately thought of his own education in France where he had been educated at the Basilian Fathers Collège du Sacré-Coeur in Annonay. In September of 1852, the Basilians opened St. Michael’s College in Toronto, offering in the French style a combination of what we would call high school and university education.
St. Michael’s College quickly outgrew its original facilities in the basement of the Archbishop’s Residence on Church Street, and in 1856, it was moved to Clover Hill, a property donated to the Basilian Fathers by the Honourable John Elmsley. Clover Hill was outside the city at that time, in an area now bounded by Bay, St. Joseph, and St. Mary’s Streets. In 1881, St. Michael’s was affiliated with St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto for post-secondary education. The high school section expanded much more rapidly than the College section, so in 1902, a new wing was added to the original building and the high school remained in this building until 1950. A remarkable series of events followed as the Basilian order spread in North America.
The Basilians have made courageous choices throughout their history and as a result this small-but-persistent order now serves students and parishes in five countries on two continents. The Basilians serve the Church through their charism of education in the Church’s mission of Evangelization.