GONNET, LOUIS, named Brother Réticius, member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, provincial visitor, and assistant to the superior general; b. 6 April 1837 in La Rochepot, France, son of Jean-Baptiste Gonnet, a viticulturist, and Jeanne Larue; d. 11 April 1916 in Lembecq-lez-Hal, Belgium.
Louis Gonnet lost his mother at an early age and was raised by his stepmother, who was said to have been “cruel.” He found his salvation in his parish priest, who watched over him and taught him rudimentary Latin. He none the less quit school right after his first communion, when he was 11, and helped his father cultivate the vineyard. Through the priest’s endeavours, he was able to attend the school run by the Christian Brothers in Nolay in 1854–55, and then in 1855–57 to prepare at Beaune for a teaching career; he graduated at the top of his class.
Instead of accepting the teaching post offered him, Gonnet entered the noviciate of the Christian Brothers in Neurey-lès-Lademie on 21 Oct. 1857. He took the habit and the name Réticius on 8 December. A dutiful novice, fervent and anxious to be of service, he became assistant to the director of the noviciate and an auxiliary teacher at the school in Dôle towards the end of his probationary period. At Dôle, as at Pontarlier, where he was appointed in October 1859, he proved a mediocre teacher but, eager for knowledge, he studied Thomas Gousset’s moral philosophy as enthusiastically as Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologica and the subjects entitling him to his higher certificate.
In October 1865 he was called to direct the Saint-Claude noviciate near Besançon, and, thanks to his talents as a lecturer and special gift for personal direction, he seems to have been successful in training novices. A tall, thin, tight-tipped man with an erect carriage, head held high, and piercing eyes, he did not find his stiff mien an impediment in this milieu, where he taught strict observance of the rule and denounced comfort, the easy life, and luxury, and he could also show a cordial side. From 1872 he made a name for himself throughout the district as chairman of a committee for the advancement of education: by the oral and written examinations, which he supervised, the brothers acquired a greater number of official diplomas.
On 8 March 1880 Brother Réticius was named provincial visitor for Canada. He took charge of the order’s houses in the district of Montreal, but the obedience over which he had jurisdiction extended to all the teaching houses in North America. He arrived at a moment when the district was just recovering from the crisis of authority and discipline that had marked the administration from 1868 to 1875 of Brother Hosea, the first Canadian to have charge. In 1875–78 the provincial visitor Brother Armin-Victor had undertaken a disciplinary and intellectual reform he had been unable to complete. Consequently Brother Réticius’s first report was harsh; he noted “colossal” debts, “few cultivated pupils,” “absolutely no” pedagogical science, “second-rate” classes, albeit “the best” in the province, and outdated textbooks; he denounced the mediocre religious life, in which abuses underlay “all the abandonments and all the disgraces” and led to a “state of collapse that . . . exhausts and . . . kills.” As a European who did not yet understand North American peculiarities, the new provincial visitor was exaggerating, but the series of reforms upon which he embarked was salutary. He intensified the inner life by reinstituting annual retreats, thirty-day religious exercises, and monthly reflection. In Montreal, as in the other districts, he improved the training of the future brothers by strongly encouraging education and by insisting upon observance of the rule of the order and “the spirit of sacrifice, that backbone of religious life.” To raise the intellectual level of his subordinates, he organized courses during the school year, and even the holidays, which were followed by the centralized marking of examinations, and he rounded up some brothers to review the textbooks, which were based on the ideas of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, and to “bring them abreast of progress in the current method.” With much difficulty and effort he finally obtained permission from Paris to have textbooks printed in Canada.
Brother Réticius caused great trouble within his community, but even more outside it. He was unyielding with local employers and did not hesitate to close houses in places where the religious or school authorities did not give in to his demands. Very early on, alerted by Armin-Victor and supported by the ultramontanes, he undertook to defend his order against “liberal” machinations. In the autumn of 1880 a fierce polemic pitted him against the principal of the École Normale Jacques-Cartier in Montreal, Abbé Hospice-Anthelme-Jean-Baptiste Verreau*, over a minor incident at the province of Quebec’s school display in the Dominion Exhibition at Montreal. In 1883 he sharply criticized certain witnesses (Peter Sarsfield Murphy, Jacques Grenier*, and Abbé Verreau) who questioned before a royal commission of inquiry in Montreal the Christian Brothers’ competence in the teaching of commercial subjects. Above all, he harassed the superintendent of public instruction, Gédéon Ouimet*, and the Catholic committee of the Council of Public Instruction with requests for approval of textbooks inspired by La Salle for drawing, the French language, and history. He seized every opportunity to show how “schools and teachers in this dear Canada, as yet so Christian, [are] subject in a certain circle to the same prejudices and the same vexations as in our unhappy mother country.”
His manners and tone resulted in a great many complaints to the superior general in Paris. Through the intervention of the ultramontane bishops, among them Louis-François Laflèche*, Brother Réticius managed to avoid being recalled in 1882. In 1886, however, the authorities in Paris thought that the provincial visitor had been involved “in matters and discussions that are not within the scope and competence of a humble Brother of the Christian Schools” and that he had neglected “certain aspects of his work” as provincial. Consequently he was transferred to Baltimore, but he retained the powers as provincial visitor that he had enjoyed in Montreal. He moved from the Canadian metropolis at the end of 1886, leaving a district that had experienced renewal and was growing rapidly. He stayed only a year in Baltimore; in the autumn of 1887 he was recalled to Paris to direct the second noviciate, which had recently been created, and to visit the training houses in France as provincial during the period 1888–91.
Until the end of his life Brother Réticius remained director of the second noviciate, which provided advanced training for an élite of brothers chosen from districts throughout the world. On 16 Nov. 1891 he was named assistant to the brother superior for several French districts, including that of Besançon, and for Canada. He again became the principal hierarchical superior of the Canadian brothers and their intermediary with the central administration. He carried out his duties autocratically. Every year from 1893 to 1912 Brother Réticius spent several months in Canada, visiting all the houses, where he met with each of the brothers to receive a personal account, and presided over the annual and the thirty-day retreats. He himself examined closely the administration of the district and took care to put his own people in key positions. His methods, which some called dictatorial, created problems: the anglophone brothers blamed him for reining in the expansion of their communities, and the French Canadian brothers told the superior general that he unduly favoured his compatriots to direct houses and that he gave supervision of the novices and those in the juvénat (part of the teacher-training program) to directors and teachers who came from France in droves (221 between 1904 and 1909) fleeing the anticlerical policy of Émile Combes’s government.
Brother Réticius’s health deteriorated quite rapidly from 1912 and he had to resign as assistant at the 1913 general chapter, although he continued to direct the second noviciate for two more years. In February 1916 he entered the infirmary of the mother house and he died two months later.
Despite the difficulties, Brother Réticius had brought about great progress in the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Canada. Between 1880 and 1912 its communities increased in number from 18 to 54, even though some dozen had been closed; among the projects he piloted were a training house called Mont-de-la-Salle, the Collège du Mont-Saint-Louis in Montreal, and the juvénat in Limoilou. The brothers, of whom there had been 306 in Canada in 1880, numbered 735 in 1912, while the novices had gone from 26 to 48 and those in the juvénat from 15 to 140. He left the mark of his influence and authority on several generations of brothers in North America, but even more on the entire order through his work as director of the second noviciate. With good reason his contemporaries held him up as “the ideal Brother of the Christian Schools.”
Brother Réticius wrote much, but published little; his works include Réponse aux cinq lettres du R. M. Verreau (s.l., [1881?]) and Aux honorables membres du comité catholique du Conseil de l’instruction publique (Montréal, 1884).
Arch. des Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes, District de Montréal (Laval, Qué.), “Origine de l’établissement des Frères des écoles chrétiennes, dans la ville de Montréal au Canada, 1837–1904”; T 17 (l’Institut au Canada); T 27 (visiteurs, assistants, etc.); T 38 (manuels classiques); Maison Généralice (Rome), ED 230–35 (chapitres généraux); EG 430–2 et 3 (reg. des délibérations du conseil du régime, 1856–1929); NO 111 et 456 (districts du Canada); NO 141–311 (communautés du Canada) (these NO series contain most of Brother Réticius’s correspondence, as well as his numerous memoirs). Arch. Paroissiales, Nolay (Côte-d’Or, France), François Bissey, “Notices historiques sur la paroisse de Larochepot” (4v.). J.-C. Caisse, L’Institut des Frères des écoles chrétiennes: son origine, son but et ses œuvres (Montréal, 1883). Chapitres généraux de l’Institut des Frères des écoles chrétiennes; historique et décisions (Paris, 1902). François De Lagrave, “Frère Réticius, f.é.c.: le mandat tumultueux d’un visiteur provincial, 1880–86” (thèse de ma, univ. Laval, Québec, 1977); “Le mandat tumultueux d’un visiteur provincial: le frère Réticius (1880–1886),” in Les ultramontains canadiens-français, sous la direction de Nive Voisine et Jean Hamelin (Montréal, 1985), 241–53. “Notice sur le T.C.F. Réticius, assistant démissionnaire,” Institut des Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes, Notices nécrologiques trimestrielles (Paris), no.64 (2 févr. 1918). L’œuvre d’un siècle; centenaire des Frères des écoles chrétiennes au Canada, sous la direction du frère Meldas-Cyrille (Montréal, 1937). Règle du gouvernement de l’Institut des Frères des écoles chrétiennes . . . (Paris, 1901). Règles des Frères des écoles chrétiennes (Paris, 1901). Georges Rigault, Histoire générale de l’Institut des Frères des écoles chrétiennes (9v., Paris, 1937–53). Nive Voisine, Les Frères des écoles chrétiennes au Canada (2v. parus, Québec, 1987– ).