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Belley and Lyon

Nearly twenty years have passed now since the soul-stirring promise at Fourvière. Of the twelve or so who in 1816 had committed themselves to found a Society of Mary, only four were left: two in Belley, Jean-Claude Colin and Étienne Déclas, and two in Lyon, Marcellin Champagnat and Étienne Terraillon. Sixteen new ones had joined after 1816, all diocesan priests, nine from the diocese of Belley, seven from the archdiocese of Lyon. Both bishops were in favour of the Marist project, but both wanted the Society to remain a diocesan institute, under their personal sway, and for the benefit of their own dioceses. The request to obtain pontifical approval (and escape from diocesan control) had not been well received in Rome. In fact it had been turned down, but, without telling Colin (or anyone else), Trinchant, his agent in Rome, had cleverly withdrawn the application before the refusal could be formalized into an official, and thus a practically irreversible, decree. As a consequence, the Marists in France had never received an answer from the Holy See, and had been left wondering why.[1]

Some of them had reached the point of abandoning the dream of a pontifically approved religious congregation and were ready to settle for the diocesan bands of parish missioners that their bishops had in mind. Colin himself wondered if he should not buy a house in Belley and bring all the men together there. Colin’s preference may have reinforced the desire of a few men in Lyon to buy a house there. The Society of Mary was on the point of breaking up. Only Rome could solve the problem.

As he always did, Colin consulted Cholleton, who dissuaded him from throwing in his lot with Belley. In a passionate letter to Marcellin Champagnat, 19 January 1836, Colin expressed his appreciation for the loyalty of Champagnat and Pompallier, who, in the Lyon group, had opposed the local solution. They were the only ones with a truly religious spirit, he added; meaning evidently the only ones to appreciate what it meant to be a religious, something that did not come easily to men living for years the life of diocesan priests. Colin’s reservations about Pompallier as the eventual head of the new mission did not make him less appreciative of the man’s sincere commitment to the Society.[2]

After the letter of Archbishop de Pins of 20 November 1835 to Cardinal Fransoni, history seemed to repeat itself. As had been the case when Jean-Claude Colin returned from Rome in February 1834, the Marists in France expected action from Rome and nothing happened. As Pompallier wrote to Champagnat on 29 December: ‘Rome is silent’.[3]

By the end of January 1836, apart from the granting of some indulgences, Fransoni’s letter of 22 September 1835 was still the last thing they had heard from Rome. We can safely assume that Pompallier had given vent to his impatience also to Cholleton and the Archbishop. The exciting prospects of a new large mission had become widely known. The lack of further news was unsettling for Pompallier, for Cholleton and Pastre, and for all those who had expressed a willingness to commit themselves. No wonder that the Archbishop found it necessary to put their minds at rest. In the diocesan council meeting of 3 February he declared that he intended to go ahead with the mission to Polynesia, but that, contrary to Fransoni`s suggestion, and as he already had made clear to Rome, the men would have to come from Belley as well as from Lyon.[4] He might as well have waited a little longer. Within a couple of days, two letters from Fransoni reached Lyon.


  1. OM IV, p. 175f. Kerr, op. cit. pp 270 – 278.
  2. OM I, doc. 358, [2] & [4]: c’est en vous et en Mr. Pompallier que j’ai le plus de confiance.
  3. OM I, doc. 353 [3].
  4. OM I, doc. 366. The editors of Origines Maristes assume that the council decision in Lyon refers to the letter of Fransoni of 23 January. If so, the decision of the archbishop is very odd indeed. If on the contrary we assume that this letter had not yet arrived (only ten days!), then the council was referring to Fransoni’s letter of 22 September. The council had good reason to react to the growing unrest among the men concerned, of which Pompallier’s letter of 19 December is an indication. The archbishop wants to reassure the men that the mission will somehow go ahead and he reacts to the fact that Fransoni (in his letter of 22 September) only spoke of priests from Lyon: a point he rebutted in the same way in his letter of 20 November. Not knowing that the mission had in the meantime been entrusted to the Society of Mary, the archbishop would understandably think that he was to direct the mission, provided he could draw on Marists from both dioceses.

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