The idea of a new Marian body to fill the vacuum left by the suppression of the Society of Jesus had been widespread for some time and had arisen also in the post-revolutionary diocese of Lyons. In the diocesan seminaries there, one seminarian, Jean-Claude Courveille (1787–1866), had an initial inspiration regarding the foundation of a specific congregation to be called the "Society of Mary", but the leading role in bringing the plan to fruition was taken up by Father Jean-Claude Colin, who emerged as the real founder, even though he was the most retiring of the group. The context was in part the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty, which seemed to offer an opportunity for a revival of the Catholic Church and a return to evangelisation of the increasingly de-Christianized population.
Colin was assigned after ordination to Cerdon where he was assistant to the pastor, his elder brother Pierre. There Jean-Claude began drafting a tentative rule for the group of priests and with Jeanne-Marie Chavoin founded the Sisters of the Holy Name of Mary, later called Marist Sisters. Another member of the same group of former seminarians, the priest Saint Marcellin Champagnat, established at La Valla-en-Gier the Little Brothers of Mary. The reception from the ecclesiastical authorities in Lyon was decidedly cool since the diocese was afraid of losing priests from its control, given the dramatic local needs. For this reason, little progress could be made toward the foundation of the priests' branch as a religious congregation until Cerdon, Colin's parish, passed from the jurisdiction of Lyon Diocese to a revived diocese of Belley. In 1823, Bishop Devie of Belley authorised Colin and a few companions to resign their parish duties and form into a travelling missionary band for the rural districts. Their zeal and success in that difficult work moved the bishop to entrust them also with the conduct of his minor seminary, thus enlarging the scope of their work. However, little progress could be made toward the foundation of a true religious congregation, since like the Lyons authorities, Bishop Devie wanted at most a diocesan institute only, while Fr. Colin was averse to such a limitation. This came near placing the nascent institute in jeopardy.