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Chapter one: How it all began

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The Opening Move

It all began on 4 July 1835, not quite a year after the first Picpus missionaries had sailed from Valparaiso, Chile, for the Gambier Islands in the South-East Pacific. Cardinal Fransoni, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, usually referred to as Propaganda, wrote to Jean-Louis Pastre, a titular canon of St.-John’s cathedral in Lyon, inviting him to consider an appointment as head of a new mission to be started in the South-West Pacific. Pastre was known to Propaganda as the former prefect apostolic of the island of Réunion (at the time: Île Bourbon) in the Indian Ocean. Rome had reasons to think that he had not given up the idea of working as a missionary. Also, asked Fransoni, would you think it possible, in case you accept, to find, especially in the archdiocese of Lyon, good priests to join you in the venture?[1] Although Fransoni had been a member of the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and Regulars in 1833/1834 when it dealt with (and turned down) the application of Jean-Claude Colin for approbation of the Society of Mary, and although he even may have met Colin at that time, nothing in the letter suggests that he now had the Marists specifically in mind.[2] Lyon was known for its numerous vocations and for a widespread interest in the foreign missions.

Archbishop Jean-Paul Gaston de Pins
Pastre spoke with the Apostolic Administrator of Lyon, Archbishop Gaston de Pins,[3] and regretfully answered the cardinal he would have loved nothing more than to accept the offer, but that, given his age and his health, he was quite unable to take on so awesome a task: ‘It would take another Francis Xavier!’ He felt sure he would have got the support of several bishops, especially that of the administrator of Lyon, ‘but at my age…’. The archbishop forwarded the answer to Fransoni and in his covering letter he confirmed that Pastre would gladly have accepted, but that, given his age and his health, he was indeed unable to take on so arduous a responsibility. He also confirmed that he would have done his best to support Pastre, de tout mon pouvoir. [4] And he left it at that.

Twelve years later, Gabriel-Claude Mayet, the faithful chronicler of things Marist,[5] recorded what happened next. Two days after writing to Fransoni, Pastre, distressed by his inability to accept the offer of Propaganda, ran into one of the vicars general of Lyon, Jean Cholleton,[6] at the cathedral after Mass. He told Cholleton about Fransoni's request and about the negative answer he unfortunately had been forced to give. Would the vicar general not know a priest whom Pastre could propose to Propaganda? Yes, Cholleton is said to have answered, I know a zealous priest who wants to devote his life to the missions: Monsieur Pompallier, and he belongs to a new Society. This is what Mayet wrote in 1847 as something he had heard from Cholleton himself. [7] However, that cannot be the whole story.

But first, who was this Monsieur Pompallier”?
Jean-Baptiste François Pompallier

Jean-Baptiste François Pompallier was born on the 1st of December, 1801, in an upper middle class family in Lyon. His father died 30 August 1802, his mother remarried with Jean-Marie Solichon. He attended a good school and tried the novitiate of the Jesuits, but returned to the diocese and entered the major seminary of Lyon in 1826, where he was ordained a priest in June 1829. About six feet tall, handsome, gifted and charming, he moved with grace and self-assurance in the higher classes of society. At that stage he already had expressed a desire to join the Marists and one of them, Étienne Séon, even took his place as a curate in the village where he was appointed, so as to allow him to join the community of Marcellin Champagnat and his Brother-candidates at the Hermitage, which he did in September 1829. He was with the Marist priests when they elected Jean-Claude Colin to be their central superior in September 1830. With Colin’s approval he moved in 1832 to Valbenoîte, today a suburb of Saint Étienne, and in 1833 to Lyon, where he was director of the so-called Frères Tertiaires and became the rector of a boys’ school at la Favorite. He moved with ease in and out of the archdiocesan offices and was particularly close to the vicar general, Jean Cholleton, to whom he had confided that he was interested in the foreign missions. [8]


  1. OM I, doc. 337. Wiltgen, The Founding of the Roman Catholic Church in Oceania, 1825 – 1850, p. 54f.
  2. If that had been the case, Fransoni would probably have approached Colin directly (or his bishop) as he had done in 1833 with Marin Ducrey, whom Fransoni knew to have even fewer possibilities than Colin. Cf. Kerr, op. cit. pp. 283, n. 15 & 16, and below, p. 10.
  3. OM IV, pp. 333 ff.
  4. OM I, docs 338 & 339.
  5. On Mayet, cf. OM II, pp. 15 – 37.
  6. OM II, p. 489, n. 1. On Cholleton cf. OM IV, pp. 230 – 233. In 1824 Fr. Terraillon called him notre homme de confiance, the man to whom we entrust confidential matters, OM I, doc. 115 [3]. Cf. also OM I, p. 826, n. 1.
  7. OM II, 657.
  8. There is some doubt as to the year Pompallier was born, 1801 or 1802, cf. OM IV, pp. 337 – 339. L. Keys, The Life and Times of Bishop Pompallier, pp. 22f. E. Simmons, Pompallier, Prince of Bishops, pp. 23 & 29. On Pompallier and the Frères Tertiaires, cf. C. Girard (ed.), Maristes laïcs (ML), doc. 4.
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