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The dedicated missionary clubbed to death on a Pacific island

St Pierre Chanel (April 28) had his heart set on missionary work abroad since the age of 14

By on Saturday, 28 April 2012

A museum housing St Pierre Chanel’s relics on the Pacific island of Futuna

A museum housing St Pierre Chanel’s relics on the Pacific island of Futuna

Pierre Chanel (1803-41) was a French missionary martyred in Futuna, a small island in the south Pacific about 1,500 miles east of Brisbane, Australia.

The fifth of eight children, Pierre was born into a peasant family in the diocese of Belley, a city some 50 miles east of Lyon. At school the parish priest took note of a boy clearly both religious and bright, and began to give him extra lessons.

In consequence Pierre emerged in 1827 from the diocesan seminary as an ordained priest. From the age of 14 he had set his heart on becoming a missionary in distant climes; instead he was sent to the difficult and unruly parish of Crozet, near Geneva.

In 1833 Chanel eagerly accepted an opportunity to join the Marists of Lyon, who were dedicated to missionary work. Once more, however, his hope were dashed when he was sent to teach in the seminary of Belley.

In 1836, however, Pope Gregory XVI established the Vicariate of Western Oceania, covering a sixth of the world’s surface, and insisted that it should be regarded as an important mission area for the Church.

The Marists undertook a share of this work, and at last Chanel was given the opportunity for which he had longed. On Christmas Eve 1836 he was one of a band of missionaries who set sail from Le Havre bound for the Pacific.

The ship safely rounded Cape Horn, and reached Valparaiso, on the coast of Chile, at the end of June 1837. Finally, on November 12, Chanel and a lay brother were deposited on the volcanic island of Futuna, where the inhabitants had only recently abandoned cannibalism.

Nevertheless, the two missionaries at first received a friendly welcome, which they improved by giving medical advice and making determined efforts to learn the local language.

Trouble only began three years later when the son of Chief Niuliki declared that he wished to be baptised, along with some other young men. Niuliki, feeling power slipping from his fingers, sent a son-in-law to deal with the matter. On April 28 1841 Peter Chanel was clubbed to death.

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Indeed, when a French frigate reached Futuna at the beginning of 1842 the crew discovered that the islanders had developed a remarkable attachment to Christianity. Or were they simply fearful of reprisals?

Fr Chanel’s remains were taken to New Zealand, then, in 1849, to Australia, before being repatriated to Lyon in 1850. The martyr was beatified in 1889 and was canonised as the first saint of Oceania in 1954.

His corpse was returned to Futuna in 1977, followed by his skull in 1985. “The man with the kind heart” was back were he had wanted to be.