Saint Peter Chanel Protomartyr of Oceania Born July 12, 1803
Montrevel-en-Bresse, Ain, France
Died April 28, 1841(aged 37)
Honored in Catholic Church Beatified 17 November 1889, Rome by Pope Leo XIII Canonized 12 June 1954, Rome by Pope Pius XII Major shrine Futuna Feast 28 April Attributes Gentle, Kind, Encouraging Patronage Oceania
After some schooling at Cras, his piety and intelligence attracted the attention of a local priest, Fr. Trompier, and he was put into Church-sponsored education. He followed this with seminary training in 1819, at the minor seminary at Meximieux and Belley in 1823, and then in 1824 at the major seminary at Brou.
He was ordained priest, along with 24 others, on 15 July 1827 by Bishop Devie, and spent a brief time as an assistant priest at Ambérieu. There he again met Claude Bret, who was to become his friend and also one of the first Marist Missionaries.
From an early age, Chanel had been thinking about going on the foreign missions, and his intention was strengthened by the letters that arrived at Ambérieu from a former curate, then a missionary in India.
The following year, Chanel applied to the bishop of Belley for permission to go to the missions. His application was not accepted and instead he was appointed for the next three years as parish priest of the run-down parish of Crozet, which he revitalized in that short time.
His zeal was widely respected, and his care, particularly of those in the parish that were sick, won the hearts of the locals, who began again to practice their faith. During this time, Chanel heard of a group of Diocesan Priests who were hopeful of starting a religious order to be dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Marist and missionary
In 1831, Chanel joined the forming Society of Mary (Marists), who would concentrate on local missions and foreign missionary work. Instead of selecting him as a missionary, however, the Marists used his talents as the spiritual director at the Seminary of Belley, where he stayed for five years. In 1833, he accompanied Fr. Jean-Claude Colin to Rome to seek approval of the nascent Society. In 1836, the Marists, finally formally approved by Pope Gregory XVI, were asked to send missionaries to the territory of the South West Pacific. Chanel, professed a Marist on 24 September 1836, was made the superior of a band of Marist missionaries that set out on 24 December from Le Havre. They were accompanied by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier who was to become the first Bishop of New Zealand.
Chanel traveled first to the Canary Islands (8 January 1837), where Fr. Claude Bret (Chanel's friend) caught a flu-like virus which led to his death at sea (20 March 1837). Next Chanel traveled to Valparaiso (28 June), where the French Picpus Fathers who had care of the Vicariate of Eastern Oceania had their base. His third and fourth stops were in Gambier (13 September) and in Tahiti (21 September), where the group transferred to the Raiatea. In that ship they set sail (23 October) to drop off two missionaries at Wallis, the main seat of the mission in Tonga. Pierre Chanel went to neighboring Futuna, accompanied by a French lay brother Marie-Nizier Delorme. They arrived on 8 November 1837 with an English Protestant layman named Thomas Boag who had been resident on the island and had joined them at Tonga seeking passage to Futuna.
The group was initially well received by the island's king, Niuliki. Once the missionaries learned the local language and began preaching directly to the people, the king grew restive. He believed that Christianity would take away his prerogatives as high priest and king. When the king's son, Meitala, sought to be baptized, the king sent a favoured warrior, his son-in-law, Musumusu, to "do whatever was necessary" to resolve the problem. Musumusu initially went to Meitala and the two fought. Musumusu, injured in the fracas, went to Chanel feigning need of medical attention. While Chanel tended him, a group of others ransacked his house. Musumusu took an axe and clubbed Chanel on the head. Chanel died that day, April 28, 1841.
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, Boag and others to Wallis (arriving 18 May 1841) and safety. In time, the news made it to Kororareka, New Zealand. There, Marie Nizier told Pompallier’s deputy, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Épalle, that Peter Chanel had been murdered.
Bishop Pompallier heard of the death of Chanel on 4 November 1841, while he was at Akaroa, and arranged for a French naval corvette L’Allier, commanded by the Comte du Bouzet, to accompany the Mission schooner Sancta Maria and sail on 19 November for Wallis and Futuna Islands, taking with him Fr. Philippe Viard. The two vessels arrived at ʻUvea (Wallis) on 30 December 1841. Fr. Bataillon, the missionary priest on ʻUvea, persuaded the Bishop to stay awhile on ʻUvea, where conversions were plentiful. The Bishop sent Viard to Futuna, where he landed on 18 January 1842. A chief named Maligi, who had not agreed to Chanel’s murder, agreed to disinter Fr. Chanel's body, and brought it to the L’Allier the next day, wrapped in several local mats.
The commander of the vessel asked the ship's doctor, M. Rault, to inspect the remains. After a prolonged examination he was able to certify the identity of the remains, bearing in mind the description of the manner of Chanel's death given previously by Brother Marie-Nizier. The doctor undertook to embalm the remains, so that they could be kept. They were wrapped in linen and placed in a cask, and taken to the Sancta Maria. The body was taken back to Kororareka, New Zealand, arriving on 3 May 1842.
Late in May 1842, a French vessel, the Jonas, arrived in the Bay of Islands. The ship's doctor visited the Marists there, and they mentioned to him their concern to have Chanel's remains more fittingly cared for. With the doctor's help, a little tin chest was made and well lined with linen; the remains were placed in it as decently as possible. This chest was wrapped in linen, and then placed in a "box made of good quality wood." After telling Fr. Colin, the founder and first Superior General of the Society of Mary in France about these arrangements for more appropriate care of the remains, Fr. Forest said that the box would be kept "in a fitting place".
The relics remained in the Bay of Islands until 1849, when they were accompanied by Fr. Petitjean to Auckland – most likely early in April 1849. They left New Zealand on 15 April 1849 by the ship Maukin, and arrived in Sydney, Australia on 4 May. Fr. Rocher S.M. received the container that held the bones and took it to the Procure Chapel at Gladesville in Sydney on 7 May. Fr. Rocher was very careful in making the decision as to when to send the container on to England and France. He looked for a trustworthy captain, and a reliable person in London to receive the consignment, attend to the Customs, and have it sent on to Lyon. Early in 1850, Fr. Bernin S.M., pro-vicar for Bishop Douarre, vicar-apostolic of New Caledonia, had to leave for France. He left Sydney for London on the Waterloo on 1 February 1850, taking Peter Chanel's remains with him. On June 1, 1850, the remains arrived at the Mother House of the Society of Mary in Lyon, to the great joy, in particular, of Father Colin, founder of the Marists.
Conversions in Futuna
Chanel's martyrdom accomplished his missionary work, however. Pompallier sent Frs. Catherin Servant, François Roulleaux-Dubignon and Br. Marie Nizier to return to the Island. They arrived on 9 June 1842. Eventually, most on the island converted to Catholicism. Musumusu himself converted and, as he lay dying, expressed the desire that he be buried outside the church at Poi, so that those who came to revere Peter Chanel in the Church would walk over his grave to get to it.
Fact and fiction
It is important that a biographer distinguish overly keen hagiography that might make it seem that the local people of Futuna converted overnight. The rigorous scrutiny demanded by Chanel's Beatification as a martyr in 1889, and even more by his canonization 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. It is equally regrettable that many of the errors made in earlier biographies abound and can be found on websites elsewhere. Mistakes in geography including statements that Chanel went to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) or that Futuna is part of that island group are also frequent. (In fact there is another island as part of the Vanuatu group called Futuna but the two islands should not be confused.)
Chanel was declared a martyr and beatified in 1889. He was canonized in 1954 by Pope Pius XII. His feast day in the Catholic Church is 28 April. The relics were returned to Futuna in 1977. The fractured skull was returned to Futuna in 1985.
- St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church, Hawaiian Gardens, California
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