UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

St Peter Chanel – first martyr of Oceania

France, Futuna

Peter Chanel was born on 12 July 1803 into a simple farming family in the village of La Botiere in the south east of France. These were the years after the French Revolution, when the Catholic Church and the clergy were unpopular.  Nonetheless, thanks to his parish priest, Peter went to study at the local minor seminary in 1819. In 1824 he entered the major seminary of the Diocese at Brou and was ordained a priest on 15 July 1827.

Since the age of 14, Chanel had wanted to go to the foreign missions. In 1828 he applied to the bishop of Belley for permission to go overseas, but he was instead appointed to a local parish.

He received permission in 1831 to join the newly forming Society of Mary. When the Marists were given the Oceania mission in 1836, he was selected to be among the first group of Marists to undertake this extraordinary venture. Finally, after waiting for two months in Le Havre, the missionaries set forth on Christmas Eve.

The journey took almost a year, around Cape Horn and up to Valparaiso on the Pacific coast of South America, and then west to Hawaii and Tahiti and the Cook Islands and Tonga and the islands beyond. There were eight in the original group of Marists, but one died at sea off the Canary Islands. Eventually, in November 1837, they found some islands where they might start their work: two missionaries were dropped off with supplies on the island of Wallis, and two – Peter Chanel Brother Marie-Nizier – on the neighboring island of Futuna, nearly 200 kms away. The remaining three sailed off for Sydney and New Zealand, with their superior promising to return within six months.  This did not happen.

Instead, Peter Chanel and his companion gradually found their way into the local culture, growing their own food and learning the language, and they were accepted and protected by the local chief. They were respected and cared for by the people, but they made few converts.  Occasionally trading ships would stop at the island, and Chanel would send letters off to France. But letters often took over a year to arrive, and to receive a reply.  The isolation might have been terrible, but Peter (now known as Petelo) seemed to be at peace in this simple living. At last, after two and a half years on Futuna, in May 1840, he received news from his superior in New Zealand, and a visit from a new group of Marist missionaries.

There was tension on Futuna between two warring clans, and some of the young men on the island had been adding to the disturbances there.  On the neighboring Wallis island many had decided to become Christian, and when the news came to Futuna there was trouble stirring: if they were to join the new religion, then the ancient gods of the island might be angry and wreak havoc.

On 28 April 1841, apparently out of fear or hatred, after the eldest son of the paramount chief  had decided to become a Christian, some of the young men of the island came to Peter Chanel’s little hut and clubbed him to death.  The final blow was with an adze to the head, which killed him immediately.

The chief and some others then fell ill, and in hindsight many recognized their debt to the murdered priest. The whole island was converted to Christianity.

Two of Chanel’s three notebooks containing his Futuna diary survived, and these provided a solid reference point in assessing his holiness as a missionary as well as a martyr. He was beatified in 1889 and canonized in 1954.