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In France: a new player on the field

In 1838 a man joined the Society of Mary who was to play a major role in the running of the Oceania missions: Victor Poupinel.[1] He was born in 1815 in Vassy, in the diocese of Bayeux, Normandy, and had passed through the seminaries of his diocese. As a seminarian he learned of the Society of Mary and its missions from the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith. Shortly after his ordination as a deacon, in July 1838, he was given permission to enter the Society of Mary with a view of going to Oceania. He joined the community at the minor seminary of Belley when Jean-Claude Colin was officially still the superior there. It did not take Colin long to notice his extraordinary gifts. In September 1838 Poupinel was sent to Lyon to do his novitiate in Puylata under Claude Girard as novice master. Local superior was Pierre Colin who handled day-to-day business for his brother Jean-Claude, especially in financial matters and for the missions. In May Poupinel, while still a deacon and a novice, was asked to do secretarial work connected with the missions. Perhaps his Norman background helped, in any case, he immediately set to learning English. From that time on, letters to Rome, to the Propagation of the Faith and many others are of his hand. He made his profession on 3 September and was ordained a priest on the 15th. He was immediately appointed procureur général de la mission. [2]

Still in May, just after Petit-Jean and his companions had left for London, a parcel of documents from Rome arrived in Lyon for Bishop Pompallier. Deacon Victor Poupinel forwarded them to Heptonstall with the request to hand them to the missionaries, or, if they had left, mail them to New Zealand. In a brave attempt to write in English he introduced himself as having been given the task of looking after the affairs of the missions and humbly apologized for the mistakes he was bound to make, he wrote, in your ‘outlandish language’.[3]

Heptonstall had graciously offered his services to the Oceania missions and between the two of them they quickly rationalized communications. From now on mail for Oceania will go via the superior of the Foreign Missions in Paris and the chaplain of the French embassy in London. Parcels are to be addressed to an agent in Boulogne. Everything comes together at Heptonstall’s office who will take care of sending things to Polding in Sydney. Expenses will be refunded by Charles Weld of the Propagation of the Faith in London. Weld will be reimbursed by the Propagation in Lyon via Choiselat, their secretary in Paris. Poupinel offered to come to London if that would be useful.[4]

It was a learning experience for both Poupinel and Colin. Often Poupinel made the first draft (minute) for a letter and Colin would annotate. Some letters went through several drafts before the final text (expédition) was neatly written and sent off. The drafts were often filed for reference, but Poupinel always kept a summary as well. For Cardinal Fransoni Poupinel wrote a draft that contained minor matters such as asking advice on the possible opening of a Marist house in London, the disappointing lack of news from Wallis and Futuna, the increasing numbers of migrants from England to New Zealand etc. The final version was trimmed back to the business at hand and dispatched.[5] It gave Poupinel a chance to learn from Colin’s way of handling affairs: short and to the point.

From then on all letters were acknowledged and referred to by their dates, something that – to the irritation of Pompallier - Colin seldom did. Amounts of money were given in exact figures with indications of how and when they were sent. Little things, but they added a welcome edge of professionalism to the administration of the missions.

Widening the horizon

Victor Poupinel took over the contacts with the Propagation of the Faith and in lengthy discussions with Meynis he enquired how other missions operated. He wrote to the Picpus head-house about shipping opportunities and got a prompt answer from the superior general, Mgr. Bonamie, about a navy vessel due to sail for New Zealand.[6]

At the end of September Colin sent Poupinel with Antoine Dubreul, still a novice, on a tour to Paris and Normandy. They returned the first week of November, about the time that Colin moved from Belley to Lyon. They stayed at the Foreign Missions as all the missionaries had done.[7]

They visited the new[8] foreign minister, Marshal Soult, whom they found enthusiastic about the support that the French government could and should give to its foreign missionaries: bringing Catholicism to those islands means making them French![9] French commanders must protect French missionaries, because they spread French influence in the Pacific and open the way to French commerce. If the mission buys land it should be registered with naval captains. The government must establish French stations, send consular agents and give financial support. Poupinel got the impression that the minister’s concern was not only commercial and political, but religious and humanitarian as well. Soult was indignant at ‘the barbarous way Britain was destroying primitive peoples’ and. France should call a halt to the English invasion into the Pacific (paralyser l’envahissement des Anglais)! He asked for a detailed report on the activities of the Marist missions. They also visited Jean-Baptiste Teste, the finance minister who promised a thousand francs for the missionaries who, a few weeks earlier, had visited the ministry when passing through Paris.

Poupinel and Dubreul went to see the nuncio, Antonio Garibaldi and McSweeney the rector of the Irish college in Paris who immediately offered the Society of Mary a college in Limerick and they paid a visit to the Picpus head-house.

They travelled to Normandy where two priests in Caën, friends of Maxime Petit, had donated altar linen and vestments for the missions. In the same town they visited François Yvert, a layman who had asked to become a missionary in Oceania.[10] In Le Havre they renewed contact with Mr. Franques who had been of great help to Pompallier in December 1836. Franques undertook to notify the Marist administration regularly of ships travelling to the Pacific. Poupinel gave him the names and the whereabouts of the Marist missionaries with the request to pass the information to captains sailing for the Pacific.


  1. CS I, p. 111, n.1
  2. Pompallier alluded to the need of someone in this role in December 1836. cf. LRO, doc. 4 [7 & 16]. Again from New Zealand, 14.08.39, LRO, doc. 39 [9]. Bataillon also asked for it, cf. LRO, doc. 38 [27].
  3. CS, docs 73 [1].
  4. CS, doc. 80 [3].
  5. CS, doc. 82 shows two drafts, final version and summary.
  6. L’Aube that in fact sailed only 19 February 1840 under Captain Lavaud. Cf. Jore, op. cit. I, p. 197f.
  7. If Poupinel kept notes of his contacts they have not been found back. The following details are found in the letters he wrote after his return to Pompallier and the people he had met. Cf. CS, docs. 97ff.
  8. A reshuffle of the cabinet in May 1839 had put two men at crucial positions to support the missions.
  9. Si l’on catholise ces ìles, on les francisera. Cf. CS, doc. 97 [4].
  10. CS, doc. 174 [1].

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