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Chapter five : 1838-2 Worlds Apart

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Problem solved

In October 1836, when Peter Chanel passed through Paris, he happened to meet with Mgr. Ferdinand Donnet, a former classmate of Colin and Champagnat in Saint-Irénée, now coadjutor bishop of Nancy.[1] ‘Write to your superior general, he had said to Peter Chanel, I am at his disposal’.[2] When, shortly afterwards, he was appointed archbishop of Bordeaux he offered the pilgrim shrine of Verdelais, on the Garonne, upstream from Bordeaux, to the Marianists and when they turned it down, he approached the Marists. The bishop saw it as a parish ministry. Colin did not really want to accept parishes but it was a place of pilgrimage, a suitable base for home missioners and a good place for Champagnat’s teaching Brothers.

So far this had nothing to do with Oceania. However, from Le Havre Pompallier had already told Colin that Bordeaux was the port from which most French ships left for South America. The rector of the major seminary there, Mr. Cambis, looked after mail to the Pacific for the Picpus Fathers and Bordeaux had been mentioned as a possible site for a procure. In the perspective of travelling to Oceania via Valparaiso, Verdelais would be useful for missionaries, mail and mission goods.[3] It did not take long before the connection was made. The fact that Caret had left from Bordeaux would have helped.

On 3 June Father Colin wrote to the archbishop and presented the Fathers Jean-Baptiste Chanut and Jean Balmet for an appointment to Verdelais.[4] At the same time, Colin wrote to Fr. Pierre Convers, the former principal of the Capucinière in Belley, who was preaching missions in the nearby diocese of Angoulême, to go to Bordeaux and, apart from contacting the Archbishop in connection with Verdelais, look for a ship going to Valparaiso. Convers immediately found one: the Basque, and the booking was arranged.[5] It really was not all that difficult! On 12 July Chanut presented himself in a letter to the archbishop and alluded to the importance of a Marist house in Verdelais for the foreign missions.[6]

On 20 July, Colin could write to Cardinal Fransoni to tell him that the missionaries were now booked to leave from Bordeaux between 20 and 30 August. He introduced and recommended the three priests and supported their own request for more precise faculties.[7]

Colin already had informed Mr. Meynis, the secretary of the Propagation of the Faith, and explained why he was still sending the men to Valparaiso: ’It is a route we have experience with and it keeps us in contact with the Picpus missionaries. For the time being it appears to be the safer thing to do, in spite of Mgr. Pompallier’s preference for Sydney’.[8]

Taking leave

Only of Fr. Jean-Baptiste Épalle do we know something of the pain of saying good-bye. Mother had died earlier. His older brother, Barthélémy, was a priest in the diocese of Lyon. Jean-Baptiste joined the Society of Mary, volunteered and was appointed to Oceania. Before leaving he went to stay a week with his old father but he put off the painful moment of telling his dad. The last evening Jean-Baptiste told him, but in such a gentle and cautious way that dad did not immediately get the message. Still, he knew there was something wrong and in the early hours of the morning he at once understood and rushed half-clothed into his son’s bedroom. Jean-Baptiste stopped the emotional outburst by asking to be left alone a moment to dress. He then slipped down the stairs and jumped out of the window to avoid the creaking door. He went to the church to say Mass, where he was caught by his sister, warned by her own premonitions. While she went to call dad, he slipped out of the church and marched off, direction St.-Étienne. Witnesses later described him as a priest rushing off, on the way to anoint a dying person.[9]


Later in June Claude Baty and Maxime Petit travelled to Paris and walked unexpectedly in on Marcellin Champagnat in his room at the Missions Étrangères.[10] Champagnat took Baty to the ministry where they asked for letters of recommendation and applied for a grant to help them on their way. The ministry enquired about them with Archbishop de Pins and on 30 June de Pins wrote a letter to vouch for the two priests and to support their request for a mission that, as he said, was of great importance for the religion and for France. He recalled the support that Bishop Pompallier had received two years earlier from the king and the royal family who were very conscious of the value that a French mission in those areas could have for the mother country.[11]

As soon as Champagnat had returned to the Hermitage after his second journey to Paris, Colin asked him to make sure clothes and shoes were readied for the three brothers as departure could be imminent.[12] All the time, nobody thought of doing one of the things Pompallier had insisted on so much from his very first letters: learning English![13]

Receiving and writing letters

As the last letter Colin had received was the one written in October from Tahiti, he still had no idea of what had happened to the first group of missionaries after their departure on the Raiatea.[14] It looked as if the missionaries would have to leave with the gloomy prospect of searching all over the Pacific for their superior and their confreres. Still, wherever they were, Colin set to writing to them. The only letter that has survived is one written on 31 July to Pierre Bataillon.[15] It was a dose of typical Colinian spirituality:

How beautiful to work only for the glory of God, to live only for the salvation of souls. You must feel very humble at the thought of being in Gods hands the instrument of his mercies. Be so in his hands that they can work through you in all your ministry. Never consider the deprivations you suffer, as long as Jesus and Mary keep you in their hands. With them you lack nothing, with them there are no dangers. My dear brother, do not live, let Jesus and Mary live in you. Be with them at all times and nothing will be beyond you.
Use the opportunities you get to write to me from time to time. Do not fear to write to me of your problems, of your joys.… Whatever interests you, interests me. I want each and everyone of you to write to me of whatever goes wrong, of the dangers he may be in for body or soul. Are the spirit of the Society, the unity, the courage, the spirit of faith and of prayer maintained among you? Remain united and obedient to Mgr. Pompallier.
I leave it to others to give you news of the country and to tell you of the blessings that God grants to the little Society of Mary. We are readying helpers to come to your aid and we do what we can to send you what you need.

The last paragraph is remarkable. Colin is anxious to be told everything, but in spite of the urgent requests of the Bishop and his missionaries (from Valparaiso and Tahiti) to be given news of the Society and of everything going on, he leaves that pointedly to others. Himself, he will not indulge in small talk. He sticks to what he sees as his own role: the spiritual guidance of his religious.

In his letter to Pompallier Colin mentioned the 8.700 francs he had sent in May the previous year and that Colin now knew Pompallier had not received either in Valparaiso or in Tahiti.[16]

Colin made sure the word went around that everyone was welcome to contribute mail. The Brothers in the Hermitage wrote to Marie-Nizier aand so did Champagnat himself. We can safely assume there were letters to Michel Colombon as well.[17] and Michel Colombon. With the help of the Abbé Vuillod of the neighbouring village of Attignat, Chanel’s mother wrote to her son on Futuna.[18] We happen to know there was a letter for Brother Joseph-Xavier Luzy from his family[19], a letter from Bishop Devie to Chanel[20], from Terraillon to Servant, from Convers to Chanel[21], and letters to Bataillon from Étienne Séon and from friends and former parishioners.[22] As is clear from the answers of the missionaries there were many others, letters as well as gift parcels.[23]


  1. OM III, doc. 888.
  2. EC, docs. 27 [7] & 53 [7]. Ecrivez à votre supérieur général que je suis tout à lui.
  3. LRO, docs. 7 [11] & 8 [17].
  4. CS, doc. 36.
  5. CS 1, p. 65f, n. 2.
  6. CS, doc. 40.
  7. CS, doc. 42
  8. CS, doc. 37.
  9. Monfat, Mélanésie, p. 51f.
  10. Cf. above, p. 76.
  11. LM1, doc. 196, ll. 18ff. CS, doc. 39.
  12. CS, doc. 41.
  13. Cf. LRO, 33 [8].
  14. LRO, doc. 21.
  15. CS, doc. 44. He wrote to Catherin Servant on 1 August (cf. LRO, doc. 39 [1].
  16. Cf. LRO, doc. 33 [5]. The letter itself has not been preserved.
  17. LO, Clisby 011 [1], Clisby 012 [1]. They would not have written to one and forget about the other!
  18. Cf. EC, doc. 57 [1].
  19. LRO, doc. 23 [21].
  20. EC, doc. 56.
  21. EC, doc. 38 [6], LRO, doc. 40 [1].
  22. LRO, doc. 41 [ 1 & 2], doc. 42 [1].
  23. Cf. EC, docs 52 - 58

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