Saint Peter Chanel
Missionary and Martyr
Born in 1803 in the diocese of Belley in France, Peter was the fifth child of his parents; with his older brothers and sisters he was consecrated to the Blessed Virgin at his birth. They were all pious children who prayed and tried to help one another to serve God ever more faithfully. In 1814 the parish priest, seeing Peter’s good dispositions, arranged for him to study in the town of Cras, and to reside there with his aunt. During the summer the young Christian returned to watch the sheep and continue reading his cherished books in the fields. He began to serve Mass and learned the elements of Latin, and accompanied the priest when he went to take the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and dying. At the age of fifteen Peter passed through a temptation to abandon his studies and return home; a prayer to the Blessed Virgin saved his future vocation. The following year he was sent to the diocesan seminary; three years there left with his fellow candidates unforgettable memories of the pious seminarian.
He was ordained in 1827 and named assistant in the parish of Amberieu; at the end of a year there his delicate health caused the bishop to send him as parish priest to a more favorable climate in the mountains of Switzerland, where he hoped the young priest would also reform the parish. Saint Peter manifested great solicitude for the poor and the small children, for their instruction making an appeal to his younger sister Mary Frances, then twenty years old. While at Crozet he heard of the newly founded missionary Society of Mary at Lyons. He had always wanted to be a missionary, and believed the call he felt to join this Society was from God. He left his parish, keeping his parishioners in his heart forever, as he said, and at 28 years of age went to Father Colin, Founder of the Marists, and asked permission to enter the Society. Many and varied duties followed for him; in 1834 he became director of the Seminary of Belley. Resigned to remaining in France if God so willed, he nonetheless cherished a hope he would be sent to Oceania, the special mission field entrusted to the Society of Mary by Gregory XVI when he approved the Society in 1836.
In September of that year he was among the first twenty Marists to depart for the Pacific Ocean by way of the Cape of South America, for the Panama Canal did not yet exist. The ship and passengers were severely tried by more than one violent tempest, and saved, it seemed, only by prayer to the Star of the Sea, Mary, refuge of sailors. Damage to their ship occasioned long delays.
When they reached the Wallis Islands several missionaries were received kindly at the first debarkation. Others, among them Peter Chanel, continued on to Futuna, a volcanic island. There Father Chanel and Brother Marie-Nizier remained, welcomed by the local king of the Polynesian race. The natives already believed in a future immortal life, and the king Niouliki had forbidden cannibalism, but many superstitions still reigned. The two missionaries soon gained the confidence of the natives, learned the language and undertook serious labors to catechize them. The king came to Mass one day, and others followed.
One day the king allowed his idols to be thrown into the fire, and the entire population seemed about to become Christian; however, this tribal chief was still under the empire of the father of lies. During a war with an enemy faction, he found a reason to claim that his gods had battled with him to win the victory. An undercover persecution was brewing for the missionaries, with the pretext they were hindering the influence of the king. One day his envoys arrived at the mission, and it was not long before they had slain the Saint with rude instruments. Brother Marie-Nizier escaped the fate of his superior, having been absent that day. Later it was said that the sky immediately grew dark and a luminous cross was seen amid the thunderclaps that followed. Saint Peter’s frightened enemies buried his body in haste.
The sacred remains of the martyr were later exhumed and taken to New Zealand, and from there sent in 1851 to Lyons, to the Marist mother house. The entire island of Futuna converted to the faith; Saint Peter Chanel was canonized in 1954 by Pope Pius XII.
Saint Pierre Chanel, premier martyr d’Océanie, by Marie-André (Ed. Eise: Lyons, 1957).