St Peter Chanel SM- 200 Years On

Conversion of Futuna

by M O'Meeghan SM

Peter Chanel, Marist missionary priest, was canonised by Pope Pius XII on 12 June 1954. Soon after the Second Vatican Council his feast day was included in the revised and updated Calendar of the Saints for the worldwide Church, and the NZ bishops decided that his anniversary of martyrdom would be observed as a feast day of the Church in New Zealand. The occasion of the bi-centennial of his birth, 12 July 1803, offers an opportunity to review his connections with our country. For at first thought he may seem very remote from New Zealand concerns. He died for his faith in 1841 on the tiny isolated Pacific Island of Futuna. This is still a French Overseas Territory with little impact on New Zealand's current interests and relationships in the Pacific region.

At the time of Chanel's death Futuna was part of a mission territory with its base at Kororareka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, under the direction of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier. This was the result of Pope Gregory XVI in January 1836 proclaiming Western Oceania as a new mission field for the Church. To develop it, a few months later he commissioned the newly-approved French Society of Mary whose members were known as Marists. By December that year the first group of their missionaries sailed with Pompallier from Le Havre, four priests and three catechist-brothers: Frs Pierre Chanel, Pierre Bataillon, Catherin Servant, Pierre Bret; Brs Marie-Nizier Delorme, Joseph-Xavier Luzy and Michel Colombon.

They left France with no fixed destination in mind. The Bishop's mandate was just to find the best location to establish a Catholic beachhead in the vast area entrusted to them. With the English development of colonies in Australia having begun in 1788, by that time there was a well-tried sailing route from Europe into the western Pacific via the Cape of Good Hope. Catholic bishops had already been appointed in Tasmania and Sydney. However, Pompallier chose instead to travel around Cape Horn to make contact with Valparaiso in Chile. A few years previously the base for a mission to Eastern Oceania had been established there, staffed by French Picpus Fathers. The bishop was anxious to profit from their practical knowledge and experience.

Pompallier had the benefit of sharing Picpus transport for his group from Valparaiso to Tahiti. There he leased the schooner Raiatea to take him further west, over the line on the map that marked the beginning of his territory. By then he was becoming convinced that New Zealand would be the best location for his base, though he still thought of New Guinea as an alternative. After three week's sailing the 2,300km from Tahiti, the Raiatea reached Tonga. Here Wesleyan missionaries were already well entrenched, and they persuaded the king not to allow any of the Catholic party to settle there. So the Raiatea went north to Wallis where Pompallier was permitted to leave Fr Bataillon and Br Joseph-Xavier.

They then sailed 170 km south-west to the similar but smaller island of Futuna where the king allowed Pompallier to leave Fr Peter Chanel and Br Marie-Nizier Delorme, on 12 November 1837. Futuna was roughly 13km long. 8km at it widest point, with a coastline of 40km, at the outer limits of Polynesia. Its only contact with the outside world came via occasional passing trading ships. The two religious had no special preparation for their mission.

For three and a half years they laboured faithfully and perseveringly, gradually absorbing the language and customs, never really winning complete independence from the king for food and shelter. They often found themselves caught in the middle by tensions between the two rival factions on the island, which from time to time erupted into open warfare. At first the king was quite welcoming, though his moods and attitudes were rather erratic. His tolerance gradually wore thin and changed into outright opposition when he learned of the impending baptism of his son. He tacitly ordered Chanel's death, and Peter was clubbed to death on 28 April 1841 while Marie-Nizier was absent on the other side of the island.

The news of Chanel's death took months to reach the outside world. It was almost a year before Marists in France learned of it; for those in New Zealand it took half that time. Two weeks after the killing the William Hamilton, a passing American trading ship, took Br Marie-Nizier to Wallis and safety. In time it came on to Kororareka still carrying two American beachcombers who had abandoned Futuna fearing its changed mood. There they told Pompallier's deputy, Fr Jean-Baptiste Épalle, that Peter Chanel had been murdered. At this time the bishop was visiting Akaroa, accompanied by Fr Philippe Viard who would later be Wellington's first bishop. On 19 November, a few days after he had received Épalle's message, he and Viard set sail for Wallis on the mission's schooner, Sancta Maria, escorted by the French corvette Allier which had just begun a tour of duty in the South Pacific

While Pompallier remained on Wallis to assist the burgeoning mission there, from 18–20 January 1842 the Sancta Maria and the Allier lay off Futuna. Viard went ashore with an unarmed party, and was able to have Peter Chanel's remains exhumed and to collect his few remaining possessions. The Allier returned to Akaroa, and the Sancta Maria (with Viard) returned to Kororareka. There the relics were reverently kept till 1849 when they were returned to France via Auckland and Sydney.

In mid-March 1842 the Sancta Maria left Kororareka again to return to Wallis. On board with Viard were Frs Catherin Servant and François Roulleaux-Dubignon. Servant had been the sole Marist priest left with Pompallier when he had arrived at Hokianga on 10 January 1838. A year and half later, with the arrival of the next group of Marists, the bishop transferred his headquarters to Kororareka, while Servant remained evangelising in the Hokianga. Dubignon was a later arrival again, still a theological student. Pompallier directed him to a brief apprenticeship under Servant at the Hokianga station, and ordained him there (open-air) in July 1841. It was New Zealand's first priestly ordination.

The two were destined for Ascension Island in response to an earlier appeal by a small French community settled there. But at Wallis Pompallier countermanded his previous arrangements, and instead asked them to fill the gap left by Chanel's death. As the Sancta Maria began its return trip to the Bay of Islands, on 9 June 1842 he left them at Futuna to restart the mission, along with Marie-Nizier who had courageously agreed to go back.

The same problems that had beset Peter Chanel continued to plague this second venture. The difficulties were aggravated by a group of about two hundred Wallisians, disaffected by the progress Bataillon had made on their island, crossing to Futuna to foment discord. But, in spite of this, the three missionaries did make slow progress, and came to realise the gradual conversion of the island was the result of grace won by Peter Chanel's martyrdom. Marists further afield, including New Zealand, blessed Chanel's sacrifice of his life in a similar way. Meanwhile Servant stayed on Futuna for most of the rest of his life and died there in 1860.

In the course of these years he prepared formal affidavits from eyewitnesses of the circumstances of Peter's killing, and these would later serve the process leading to Beatification. One clear fact was at the heart of these statements. The king held sway over his people through their fear of the evil spirits they worshipped. His son's conversion threatened an end to this control, so Peter had to be stopped. Hatred of the faith emerged clearly as the motive for having Chanel killed.

As the story of Peter's martyrdom spread through mission magazines, especially the French Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, he became newsworthy. The difficulty was in finding worthy news in a life that seemed unremarkable. The fifth of the eight children of a family with a smallholding in south-east France, as he grew up he took a share in the work of the farm. With France still recovering from the aftermath of the Revolution his early education was rather fragmented. Thanks to the concern of his parish priest who recognised his potential, Chanel began his secondary study at the age of 16.

In July 1827 he was ordained priest for the Belley diocese at 24, with nothing outstanding to mark him out among the 20 or more ordained with him, except perhaps his unfailingly cheerful disposition and his fervent devotion to Mary, mother of Jesus. He had formulated a motto for his priesthood: Aimer Marie et faire l'aimer – to love Mary and bring others to love her. For him the way to finding Jesus was through Mary. He would do God's work in her way. After a year as assistant in a large parish he was placed in charge of a small country parish that had been sadly neglected since the Revolution. With a characteristic low-key approach, plus tact, compassion and prayer, in three years he transformed it.

With his bishop's approval in 1831 he joined the small group of priests in Belley diocese who were hoping to establish a Society of Mary. He was very competent and well-liked in his first assignment as spiritual director in the first Marist college that also served as a minor seminary. He was less successful when appointed as acting-Rector where discipline was involved. At the end of April 1836 the priests' branch of the Society of Mary was approved for service in the world-wide Church and he was chosen as one of the seven Marists who left for Oceania with Pompallier on Christmas Eve 1836.

In an effort to make his life more attractive, more heroic-sounding, some early accounts of his life on Futuna tended to be somewhat fanciful to fill out a biography which inevitably had to be rather slim. The rigorous scrutiny demanded by his Beatification as a martyr in 1889, and even more by his canonisation in 1954, sifted out such exaggerations and embellished piety. Two of the three notebooks containing his Futuna diary survived, and these provide a solid reference point in assessing his character as a missionary.

In 1991 his diary was translated into English and published as Ever Your Poor Brother. The book included a selection of his surviving letters, with a just enough background to help put them in context. The idea was to let the saint speak for himself without interpretation. At first glance, it doesn't seem attractive reading. There is a simplicity and sameness and monotony about it. Chanel's whole world had been reduced to the petty details of a life circumscribed by the perimeter of the small island which God's Providence had placed in his spiritual charge

With a more thoughtful reading the maturing of a saint emerges from the humdrum detail. Prayer, always mental prayer at the start of the day, lest the constant interruptions by islanders made it impossible to find unbroken space for it later. The Masses offered when opportunity allowed were carefully numbered as days of special privilege. In the Eucharist he found the cheerful patient endurance to overcome discouragement when his results in adult baptisms were minimal compared with those on Wallis. Everything in his life was focussed on planting the Gospel in seemingly sterile soil. When this turned sour and there was no escape he accepted death with calm bravery.

The most significant boost to his morale came after he had been on Futuna for almost a year and a half. When the first follow-up group of Marists were ready to leave France it still had not heard of Pompallier's final decision about his base. So the three priests and three brothers followed his route via Cape Horn and Valparaiso, trusting they would discover their destination while they traveled. They stopped for a few days at Wallis and then, with Bataillon on board, dropped anchor at Futuna on 8 May 1839, the eve of Ascension Day. Letters later sent back to France by the visitors commented with admiration on the stark simplicity and poverty of Chanel's life.

In God's Providence, lack of a favourable wind to take the Reine de Paix safely beyond the reef to open sea, held the ship at Futuna for ten days till Pentecost Sunday. The nine Marists had the unplanned consolation of making together the Church's novena which linked the two feast days. In union with Mary and the apostles at the first Pentecost they could pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit on their fledgling mission. The Reine de Paix carried on to New Zealand, to deliver Pompallier his first reinforcements on 14 June. Peter Chanel and Marie Nizier were left in their isolation, renewed in spirit.

They had one last contact with New Zealand. The next group of Marists sailed via the Cape of Good Hope and Sydney, bypassing Futuna. They reached Kororareka on 10 December. Within a week of their arrival Pompallier had despatched two of them, Fr Joseph-André Chevron and Br Attale Grimaud on their way to Wallis-Futuna. By now the Sancta Maria had been sold – it had proved a ruinous expense the mission could not afford. Relying on the haphazard shipping available, it took the pair five months to get there via Fiji and Tonga. From May to November 1840 Peter and Marie-Nizier had this added help. Then, learning of Bataillon's sudden success on Wallis, they open-heartedly sent the newcomers to assist there in instructing unexpected numbers of catechumens, and accepted once again their loneliness and isolation.

By this time Peter had begun to gather a small number of young men around him. The success of the mission on Wallis led the king to fear a similar flood of conversions on Futuna. From then on his attitude changed from one of erratic tolerance to positive opposition and petty persecution, with obstacles placed in the way of islanders wanting to visit Peter. The situation worsened over the remaining six months till the king echoed the infamous line “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Following up on a recommendation that Servant had made before quitting Hokianga, Rome decided to begin making Pompallier's vast mission territory more manageable. A new mission Vicariate of Central Oceania was created with Bataillon nominated as its bishop, while Pompallier's responsibility was limited to New Zealand. This meant that by 1844 the administrative link between Futuna and Kororareka was severed. The spiritual values that link Peter Chanel to New Zealand endure.

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