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St. Peter Mary Chanel, Priest and Martyr

April 24, 2020

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St. Peter Chanel was born into a peasant family in Cuet, France, in 1803. His faith and virtue were noticed by his pastor who recommended that he study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1827 for the Diocese of Belley, and he spent the next four years in parish ministry, the first as an associate pastor, the next three as a pastor of the parish at Crozet near Geneva.

In 1831 St. Peter Chanel transferred to a recently founded French missionary order, the Society of Mary, also known as the Marists. He hoped to be sent as a missionary immediately, but his dream was delayed when he was assigned to teach in a seminary at Belley. He was named vice rector at the age of 30. In 1833 he accompanied Jean Colin, the founder of the new congregation, to Rome to obtain papal approval. It was granted by Pope Gregory XVI in 1836, and the Pope gave the new order the South Pacific as a mission territory.

St. Peter Mary ChanelLater in 1836 St. Peter Chanel’s request to be a missionary was granted, and he and several other Marists were sent to French Polynesia. They arrived on the tiny island of Futuna in November 1837. It is west of Tahiti and between Fiji and French Samoa. The conditions were primitive. Cannibalism had recently ended. The residents had never heard of Jesus or Christianity.

St. Peter Chanel was a kind, gentle man with a cheerful disposition. He lived simply in a hut. He learned the local language immediately and cared for the sick with great compassion. He gradually gained the trust and admiration of the islanders, but initially made almost no progress in the proclamation of the gospel or making converts. Exhausted from his labors in the sweltering heat and disappointed by their opposition to his spiritual message, he was incredibly resilient, remained positive and upbeat, and persevered with exceptional determination.

Gradually the young priest gained some followers, made a few converts, and was able to stop a local cult of evil spirits fostered by the local tribal leaders to keep the populace under their power. As his popularity and influence grew, Niuliki, the local ruler, came to regard the French missionary as a threat to his authority. Matters came to a head when the ruler’s son asked to be baptized. The chieftain went berserk with rage. Niuliki dispatched a band of warriors with spears and clubs. The torment began with a severe beating with clubs. Then he was murdered with an ax and his body chopped into pieces with hatchets. His martyrdom took place on April 28, 1841, on the Island of Futuna. He was only 37.

The islanders were amazed by his heroic faith and courageous witness, and large numbers converted. The sick and crippled began to visit his grave, and many cures and healings took place attributed to his intercession. Eventually the island became almost entirely Catholic.

St. Peter Chanel is the protomartyr of the Pacific and the first martyr of the Marists. He was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954. His symbols include a palm branch, the symbol of the martyrs; a torch, which represents the truth which he spoke; an ax, the instrument of his martyrdom; a hut, where he lived in simplicity; and a black and white lily, the symbol of the Marists. He is the patron saint of Oceania, the islands of the South Pacific.

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