Saint Mary’s editor Erin Hallissy talked recently to Brother Dominic Berardelli about the Christian Brothers’ expanding presence throughout the world
Erin Hallissy: When did you first start working with the Brothers in an international capacity?
Brother Dominic: I was assigned to Manila in the Philippines as a young Brother in 1961. I started in the elementary school at De La Salle University, then at a new elementary/secondary school. After that I spent 11 years in Mindanao. In the mid-80s, after I came back to the United States, the Brother Superior General in Rome was looking for a representative in Burma, where the government had confiscated all our schools, and in Thailand, which had just a small community of Brothers who were struggling in a Buddhist country. He asked me to do it because of my experience in Asia. So that put my feet even deeper into Third World work. In 1986, when Brother John Johnston became Superior General, he asked me to come to Rome to work in the mission office, where I was in charge of Asia and the Pacific.
EH: In how many countries do the Brothers have schools?
BD: We’re in 90 countries today, on every continent.
EH: In all levels of schools?
BD: Yes. The Philippines has 14 universities, and they also have elementary schools, secondary schools and other kinds of outreach programs. Sri Lanka has no universities, but they have several elementary and secondary schools and a boys home. India has elementaries, secondaries and a boys village for young orphans and boys home for the teenage orphans. In each country, we adapt to where we see a need.
EH: Did the Brothers go as missionaries?
BD: Most of it was missionary, especially at the turn of the century, when France expelled a lot of their religious congregations when they nationalized and confiscated the schools. They went into Third World counties: Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, places like that, and established big schools there.
EH: What struck you when you were first sent to a foreign country?
BD: I remember being told “never say that ‘in the United States we do it this way’ because you’re not in the United States.” My first year, five young Filipino Brothers and I went to summer school at Saint Louis University in the mountains. We were talking one night and I said “when the Americans liberated Manila at the end of the war.” Well they jumped on me. They said “liberated Manila? You bombed it. You killed thousands of our people. We call that massacre.” It just astounded me because as an American you’re taught history one way, and when you’re in another country they see history with other eyes.
EH: How is the Brothers global mission different today?
BD: The biggest changes going on throughout the world is a stronger identification of the Brothers back to the roots of the Founder, Saint LaSalle, in the work with the disenfranchised and the poor.
EH: Is that why Christian Brothers are in so many Third World countries?
BD: Very much so. It’s fascinating to see how they reach out, not just to the poor there, but beyond their institutions to help others. In Mexico, every school in one district had fundraisers for poor people in other countries. They were extraordinarily generous in sending me money that helped students and Brothers in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. Most recently three Brothers volunteered to go into Sudan, which has been suffering such extreme hardship, to try to establish a system of education to train teachers because the biggest need besides humanitarian aid is to educate the people. They want to establish almost an Internet learning system where, if the rebels take one place, they’ll still have five or six other places operating to train future teachers.
EH: Did that start after the trouble began there?
BD: Yes. This came two years ago from the General Chapter (governing body of the Brothers worldwide every seven years). This was one of the highest interests not just of the Brothers but of the Vatican, which had appealed to us for getting help into Sudan.
EH: What other dangerous places do Brothers work in?
BD: I’m familiar with Sri Lanka, with the civil war in the north. The Brothers have several places in the north. To their credit and their courage, they have decided to stay at risk to their own lives to be of service to the people who are under tremendous stress from bombings and killings. In Burma, there is still the very delicate issue that they’ve lost all their schools. They’ve opened a small shop for computer education and English language. They teach not as Brothers but just as teachers. In Pakistan, most of the Brothers are Pakistanis, yet they’re living in a very volatile situation with a very small percentage of Christians. They run big schools and 99 percent of the students are Islamic. They’re able to live in a form of harmony, but it’s a sensitive situation.
EH: Is being a Brother seen differently in Third World countries than here, where the numbers have declined so much?
BD: Yes. Vocations are growing very heavily in parts of South America, Africa and parts of Asia. I ascribe it to places that retain a very strong family base as a supportive unit, and a strong religious base. In many of these countries, Thailand for example, teaching is looked upon as a very high position. And because so much of our work is with the poor, that attracts young men who want to give their life in service to people in need. The big success story for me is the Philippines. With 48 Filipino Brothers, they have 14 universities and they’re well respected. On Sundays, many communities of Brothers go into prisons to teach catechism. That led to the establishment of the first-ever House of Hope, which takes young offenders out of prisons to be educated and retrained. Now they’re opening a second one in Manila.
EH: What was the peak number of Brothers?
BD: In the ’50s when I joined, we were up to close to 20,000. Then the ’60s came with Vatican II and many changes, and many of the Brothers left. The numbers began to decrease rather rapidly in the late ’60s and through the mid-1970s, and then stabilized. Now there are 6,000 Brothers.
EH: Are the Christian Brothers going to die out?
BD: I think they won’t die out. The numbers will diminish to a point, but there will always be that kernel of Brothers who will carry the torch and the charism of the Founder, along with our lay partners. We’re now a Lasallian family, not just at Saint Mary’s, but throughout California, the United States and the rest of the world.
EH: So even if there are fewer Brothers, the mission will be carried on by more people than before?
BD: Yes. I believe the Brothers will always be the guarantors of “the legacy” of our Founder to pass this on to our lay partners. Even with fewer Brothers in this province, we’ve opened new places with the help of our lay colleagues. We have two schools in this province, La Salle in Pasadena and La Salle in Milwaukie, Oregon, that have no Brothers.
EH: How has the work done in Third World countries by the Brothers made a difference in the opportunities the students have had for better careers and better lives?
BD: We’re in the Southern part of India, which is the poorest part. We have boys town and boys village for very small children and we have schools. They’re all for the very poor with the idea that we could at least improve them to the point of education where they can read and write. Even if they return into their villages, there’s the hope that they can become the leaders and bring about some changes, and if they can, it will just ripple all the way out. Here at Saint Mary’s I believe that each student leaves here with an awareness that they can be agents of change for their brothers and sisters in their communities