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Marist Father, first martyr of Oceania

27/04/2015: General House

On April 28, we commemorate the martyrdom of St Peter Chanel, a Marist Father. After being sent on mission in Oceania with Bishop Pompallier, he went to the island of Futuna, along with Brother Marie Nizier, where he was martyred in 1841.

Below is a biography of St Peter Chanel made by Br Manuel Herrero.


Childhood and youth

Peter Mary Chanel was born at Cuet, in Bresse, on the 12th July 1803, in a simple family that included eight children.
Very young, he helped in the work around the house, giving the barley and the oats to the chickens and taking care of their three cows, four lambs and two goats. He always had his faithful dog with him, a solid stick in his hand and a frugal meal in his bag.

During his adolescence, he started to study Latin to prepare himself for priesthood to which he felt attracted. Even though he was very young, he edified everyone by his piety and his modesty.

After five years in the minor seminary and three years in the major seminary, he was ordained a priest on the 15th July 1827. He was united to a group of priest friends who were consecrated to the Virgin of Fourvière, Lyons, and which later would form the Society of Mary, also called the Marist Fathers.

They obtained the approval of their Society from the Holy See after Father Colin, Superior General, had accepted that they take charge of the missions of Oceania.

To realise this request from the Pope, the first Marist group left France on the 24th December 1836. It included Bishop Pompallier, bishop and apostolic vicar of Western Oceania, as well as four priests and three brothers, all courageous adventurers of the Gospel who were destined to eleven months of travel. Bishop Pompallier led the mission and appointed his companions in New Zealand and other islands of the Pacific.

Thus it was that Father Chanel and Brother Marie-Nizier were destined to the island of Futuna to evangelise and convert the autochthones, a mission that Father Chanel would accomplish for nearly four years.

It is opportune to explain briefly the preparations and the hazardous and difficult voyage of these first Marist missionaries in Polynesia, a western sector of Oceania.


The Marist adventure

The approval of the Society of Mary, greatly hoped for and obtained at the price of multiple difficulties and processes, aroused an enthusiasm easy to understand. The preparations for the sending of missionaries monopolised the leaders of the Society in order to answer well the confidence of the Roman authority.

It was necessary to choose a group of priests and of missionary brothers, see to their personal property, financial resources, etc. without forgetting the numerous administrative processes.

The first group included Bishop Pompallier, Fathers Chanel, Bataillon, Servant and Bret, as well as Brothers Marie-Nizier, Michel and Joseph-Xavier.

At the Hermitage, Father Champagnat showed a great deal of joy but also a certain regret that he could not himself depart for Oceania. He had, however, the satisfaction of having prepared two of his sons for the mission: Brothers Marie-Nizier and Michel. They would be accompanied by Brother Joseph-Xavier Luzy who came from Belley where he served the Marist Fathers. During this time, this brother prepared himself also at the Hermitage to complete the missionary delegation.


Missionary of the soul

Father Chanel arrived in Lyons on the 5th October 1836 to organise the departure of the missionary group.

He made a visit to the Hermitage and addressed the brothers during the retreat. He then left for Lyons with the two young Marists who accompanied him: Brothers Marie-Nizier and Michel. They stayed at the Providence du chemin nouveau, a religious house.

After having taken leave of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the missionaries left for Paris by stagecoach in second class. There, they met the group of Bishop Pompallier who had arrived the day before. All stayed at the seminary of the Foreign Missions, profiting from their generous hospitality.

They made their way from Paris to Havre, their port of embarkation where they had to wait for nearly two months.

Father Chanel wrote in his journal: “We arrived at Havre on the 27th October, we stayed at the house of Mrs Dodard in Ingouville. We were well looked after, with heating and well fed without having to pay a cent.” Outside it was raining and snowing.

“She was a very good lady who considered the welcome of missionaries as an honour,” wrote Brother Marie-Nizier. “She had done so for sixteen years.”

Mrs Dodard, an octogenarian, fell sick while the Marists were staying with her and they looked after her in her final illness. Bishop Pompallier gave her the last sacraments and she died several days after the departure of the missionaries.

The embarkation was planned for the 15th November, but it had to be delayed due to bad weather and because all the merchandise had not arrived.

Finally, on the 24th December, Christmas Eve, they were able to embark on the Delphine which was not a very big ship, but which was “well ordered, clean and nice.”

How can one picture this boat? Was it well suited for such a long journey? In truth, our missionaries had to be valiant and decided. Only the glory of God and the salvation of souls motivated them. What heroes!

The voyage started with a few adventures from the departure from the quay. The embarkation did not move… Perhaps the boat had been damaged when they lifted the anchor? …

A few days later, they left, nervously and concerned. The troubles quickly appeared: the fear of colliding with a boat that had come too close, the manoeuvres to be realised, the fracas caused by the wind, the cries and the orders given, etc. Some made Father Chanel believe that a passenger had fallen into the sea and he hurried to give him absolution.

Later, after having released the moorings, the supports of the helm were broken. Only one solution remained: to navigate slowly in order to arrive at a port to carry out the repairs. They headed towards the island of Tenerife and on the 8th January they entered the harbour of Santa Cruz.


Forced stopover

The repairs to the helm took fifty days before it could function well enough.

As well, the effects of sailing made themselves felt… Father Servant and Brother Joseph-Xavier were seriously ill and Father Chanel had dysentery. For these reasons, they had to stay on land for one month and rent a house in the town to recuperate physically while the repairs were being carried out.


From Santa Cruz de Tenerife to Valparaíso

On the 28th February 1837, the boat set sail once more. The two patients recovered progressively, but Father Bret, compatriot and friend of Father Chanel, contracted a serious illness and died at sea one month later.

This long crossing of the Atlantic without a landing allowed Father Chanel to exercise his apostolate with the sailors and other passengers. Conversations with the brothers and the preparation for Easter communion were the work of the whole missionary team.

A long period at sea makes the voyagers remarkably resistant to waves, to storms and to strong jolts of the boat, especially during the rounding of Cape Horn which they cleared without suffering seasickness.

To everyone’s great joy, on the 28th June 1837, they entered the port of Valparaiso (Chile), exactly four months after the departure from Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Some Fathers of the Sacred Heart, a religious missionary Congregation, and also fellow travellers, arrived at their destination. Marists have stayed with the many religious communities of Valparaiso.

The Delphine had arrived at its destination port. They had to unload all the gear, their personal effects and the boxes of material destined to the mission and put them in a safe place until their departure for Oceania.

The Fathers of the Sacred Heart offered hospitality to the Marists during the whole time necessary to prepare the next step of the voyage, to gather information of other missionaries, travellers, merchants, specialists of this region of the world and to find a boat that would take the missionaries to their destination.


Towards Polynesia...

After having received different reports of other travellers having arrived from Oceania, the group was uncertain about the direction they should take. Finding no boat for New Zealand, they embarked on the Europa on route towards Tahiti.

They left Valparaiso on the 10th August 1837. After a month’s sailing, they arrived at the Gambier Islands to take on provisions and to find out about a possible place for their future mission.

They were very well received by the Apostolic Vicar, the missionaries and the new Christians of these islands that had been evangelised for some time.

Having arrived at Tahiti, they had to leave the boat and decide how to continue their voyage. They continued their crossing aboard a schooner, complicated by the on-going danger of hitting the reefs. The torrential rain and the darkness of the night complicated an already worrying situation.

They passed by the Tonga archipelago, where the king did not allow them to stay. That is why they headed for Wallis Island, where Father Bataillon and Brother Joseph-Xavier Luzy stayed to found the first Marist mission in Oceania.

A few days later, Father Chanel and Brother Marie-Nizier arrived at Futuna Island where they established themselves after having obtained the authorisation of Niuliki, one of the kings of the island. The reception of the inhabitants of Futuna was favourable and certain ones rejoiced at the arrival of the missionaries. It was firstly curiosity, then the people surrounded the boat, they climbed aboard and accompanied the missionaries without the least hostility.

The authorisation to establish themselves on the island was given after a long discussion with Bishop Pompallier, since the Prime Minister, Maligi, influenced by some of the inhabitants contrary to religion, opposed it strongly. The intervention of a relative of the king, appreciated for his bravery and authority, was necessary and convincing: “let the whites live on the island,” he said to them, “they can bring us riches.” Calm thus returned and the missionaries were invited to eat with the king and his family that evening. Bishop Pompallier offered a series of gifts to the king who received them with pleasure and immediately distributed them to some others.

The following day, the 12th November 1837, had been chosen as the day of debarkation with their baggage, some boxes of meagre provisions and material for the mission.

Then there was the separation: Bishop Pompallier, Father Servant and Father Miguel embarked for New Zealand. Father Chanel stayed definitively on Futuna Island and would never see them again. His inseparable mission companion of the islands of Futuna and of Alofi was Brother Marie-Nizier.

At first a sort of dwelling was constructed; it was a hut with coconut leaves interlaced and some tree trunks. It was so precarious that after two months, the missionaries could neither protect themselves from the rain, nor protect their poor goods.

Father Chanel needed a more abundant and healthy source of food in order to be able to cope with the climate, the exhausting work and the lack of rest.

The first month, it had not been possible to celebrate Mass on the island. Having a special devotion to Mary, Father Chanel chose the 8th December, feast of the Immaculate Conception, to say the first Mass at Futuna.

Then there was the first contact with the people to learn their language and their customs, and to teach them in return how to work the land, plant trees, look after some domestic animals. Little by little, they evangelised them. Some were finally converted to Christianity.

The king Niuliki had supported them from the beginning. Later, under some foreign influences, he opposed them. Thus, at the start there were some remarkable conversions, then the difficulties started for Father Chanel and for Brother Marie-Nizier. Some rejected “these whites and their new religion”. But without becoming discouraged, the apostle of Futuna gave himself to preaching with more energy, which built up opposition. He travelled the island in every direction and without rest, confronting everything with a kindly patience and with great generosity.


Martyrdom of Father Peter Chanel

More than once, he saw the danger hover over his head, because his declared enemies followed him. On the 28th April 1841 they carried out their threats by killing him.

An indigenous chief who fiercely opposed his missionary work came with several accomplices to the house of Father Chanel to kill him. One of the men attacked him with two blows to the head with an axe. Another hit him several times with a club. The chief who roamed about the house like a ferocious beast around its prisoner jumped through a bedroom window and threw himself on Father Chanel, brandishing a machete with which he crushed the head of the martyr. Thus this is the way this man of great heart, as he was called at Futuna, died. However, Christianity continued to be propagated among the people of the island thanks to other missionaries.

His martyrdom has been recognised by the Church which canonised Saint Peter Chanel, in 1954, in Rome and fixed his feast day as the 28th April.

What is surprising is to note how Saint Peter Chanel became familiar to the people of Futuna. He is one of them. The Society of Mary, who had brought the remains of Saint Peter Chanel to Lyons in 1842, returned them to the islanders of Futuna in 1977 at their request. His remains rest today as precious relics at the place of his martyrdom, in a large basilica built in 1986.

“The figure of Saint Peter Chanel, as much a missionary, a martyr as a priest animated with a great Marial spirit has a lot to offer for all Christian communities.” (Message of John Paul II)

Brother Manuel Herrero, F.M.S.

Source: a synthesis inspired by the following books:
Frère Marie Nizier by Brother Joseph Ronzon, fms. Le sillon missionnaire, Quarterly periodical n. 251, published in 1991, and other Marist publications.

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