The spiritual letters of the SMSM Pioneering Women 'We, Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary. Are heirs of the pioneer sisters .. 1846-1885 Prepared by Sister Lindsay James SMSM
Chapter One – A Call to Discern
The Call to Mission in Oceania.
In 1845, a Frenchwoman from Lyon embarked on board the Catholic mission vessel L 'Arch d' Alliance for an eleven month voyage that would take her to the island of Wallis (Ovea) in Oceania. For this intrepid woman, Mademoiselle Francoise Perroton, this journey, taken at the age of forty-nine, was no sudden impulse. She was to write that 'From 1820 I had my heart set on being one of those whom God calls to do the work of missionaries'.
Francoise Perroton had been involved for many years in the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a group begun by Pauline Jaricot in Lyon in 1820, to collect finance for the missions.' However, the catalyst that prompted Francoise Perroton to go beyond this mission work on the home front to follow the call to mission ad extra, came from a letter published in the Annals of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith of which she was a keen reader.' This letter had been written by two women, Suzanne Pukega and Romaine Tui in the name of 'All the Christians of Wallis to the Faithful in Lyon'. It contained a mandate - a challenge - which Francoise could not ignore:
... if you hold us dear, send us some devout women (some sisters) to teach the women of Ovea. It is true we already know the word of God - the Fathers have made it known to us ..... but this does not prevent us asking you for some women to teach us, for we are moved to see the difficulties the holy Fathers (the Priests) have. They are able to cope with all sorts of difficulties, but we still feel we would like to have some sisters here too, that they may help us learn all sorts of useful things.'
It was while reading this letter that she experienced what she described later with wry humour, a call to 'undertake with the greatest enthusiasm the little promenade on the Ocean'.
In the spring of 1845, acting on her own initiative, Francoise Perroton approached the Provincial of the Society of Mary in Lyons, Father Peter Julian Eymard SM, to discuss her call to the missions of Oceania. He advised her not to contact the Marist Superior General, Father Jean-Claude Colin SM, whose newly formed Society had been approved by Pope Gregory XVI in the Brief Omnium Gentium of 29 April, 1836 in the hope that the newly formed Society would provide personnel for the Vicariate of the Western Oceania that had been established on 10 January, 1836. Father Eymard gave this advice because he knew Father Colin had been advised by his priests in the missions of Oceania that, while they recognized the need for women to complement their work, the situation was not yet opportune.
The Situation in Oceania.
There were a number of reasons for this stance. The first of these were the attitudes of the already established Protestant churches in many of the islands of Polynesia. Catholic missionary work in the Pacific was almost non-existent in the early nineteenth century mainly because the French Revolution (1789-1800) and the Napoleonic era with its international wars (1800-1814) had halted French missionary initiatives. This was in direct contrast to the Protestant church groups in Europe that had been quick to respond to the opportunities for religious expansion in the Pacific after explorations such as those by Bouganville 1776-1769, and the three Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in 1768- 1771, 1772-1775, and 1776-1779.
By 1800, Protestant groups such as The London Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Church had moved into the more salubrious islands of Polynesia. To avoid conflict among themselves, these Protestant groups had adopted the principle of 'occupancy' by which they agreed among themselves that the first Protestant group to arrive in a
particular island would claim spiritual ownership over the territory.' This idea was expressed in 1821 by the Anglican missioner, Samuel Marsden:
It appears to me that it would be a wise and prudent measure for each Society to select their separate fields for their missionaries to labour in ... New Zealand for the Church Missionary Society, The Friendly Islands for the Weslyan Society and the Society Islands for the London Missionary Society.'
The London Missionary Society had used the rationale of 'occupancy' to force the deportation of two Catholic priests from Tahiti on the 6 December 1836. The Weslyan pastor, John Thomas, must also have had 'occupancy' in mind when he persuaded the King of Tonga to refuse permission to allow Bishop Pompallier, the newly appointed Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania, and his party (including Father Bataillon SM and Father Peter Chanel SM), to establish a Catholic mission in Vavau in October, 1837.
When he realized that the Weslyan missionaries in Tonga were on the verge of expanding into Wallis where the language was virtually the same as the Tongan language, Bishop Pompallier decided to use the rule of 'occupancy' himself and wasted no time in reaching Wallis and establishing a mission. However, recognizing the rights of fellow Protestant groups was one thing; affording the same right to the papists was another. Tongan emissaries were sent to Wallis by the Weslyan missionaries in Tonga to tum the people against the Catholic mission and to cause civil as well as religious disruption. That their mission met with success is supported by Bishop Pompallier in a letter to Commander Lavard in November 1841: 'At Wallis especially Monsieur Bataillon endured several times threats of exile, of insults and of death. Once he was even left for dead after being struck blows by a club'.
Another problem that resulted from the hostility of the Protestant missionaries was their misunderstanding (genuine or otherwise) of priestly celibacy. The Catholic missionaries understood well that the arrival of Sisters or single lay women could be used to exacerbate the already volatile religious situation. Given Colin's own difficulty in relating to women, this would have been a major issue for him.
A second reason for Father Colin's refusal to allow women to go to the missions of Oceania was the often violent reaction of the island people to the challenge that this new religion brought by the missionaries posed to their existed political and religious structures. Between 1841-1855, seven Catholic missionaries died violently at the hands of the indigenous people of the Pacific islands.
This may be seen as an indirect result of the Protestant policy of 'occupancy' that had forced the Catholic missionaries into the few remaining Polynesian islands such as Wallis and Futuna and the more difficult islands of Melanesia where problems included 'endemic malaria, ... the diversity of languages and the multitude of local rivalries stemming from the small scale of indigenous political units and sustained by the ubiquitous fear of sorcery.'' However, the direct cause of the problem was the failure of the Catholic missionaries in these areas to understand the enormous cultural disparity between themselves and the local people, especially in the perception and function of religion in matters such as the traditional political struggles and warfare that existed in the islands.
This tense situation between missioner and local people was further exacerbated by the fact that since the early years of the nineteenth century, the whaling ships and traders in the islands provided guns that 'contributed to enlarging the scale of indigenous warfare'and drastically altered the political balance of power in these island communities.' Indeed the presence of guns in Futuna and the subsequent realignment of political loyalties there may be understood as a major reason for the killing of Father Peter Chanel in 1841.
A third major reason for Colin's attitude was the very primitive state of the mission stations in Oceania. The poverty, the lack of an infrastructure such as accommodation, school buildings, clinics, and the lack of even the most basic materials and services such as medical supplies and trained medical people, made these islands most unsuitable places for men, let alone women. This is well illustrated by Wiltgen's comment that by 1850, in the Vicariate of Melanesia alone, of the 20 missionaries sent [there] only five priests and two brothers were alive, but in poor health as a result of their mission experience.
Financially the situation was very different to that of French missionaries in the years before the revolution in France where fortunes of Church and State had been linked. The pre-Revolutionary monarchy and government had generously provided funds for the Church's missionary work in North America and in the Orient. However, the revolutionary regime and the post-revolutionary government were not so favourable towards the Church and the same funds were not made available for missionary work.
The stoppage in the flow of financial support for missionary activity from the French State was coupled with a similar drought in finance from the Vatican administration. The invasion and annexation of the Papal States 17 May 1809 was followed by the invasion of the Quirinal palace 5-6 July 1809. Thus Pope Pius VII was a virtual prisoner of Napoleon. This resulted in chaos in the Vatican administration - nowhere more so than the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples that was no longer in a position to provide funds for missionary work. Instead, a large percentage of the finance needed for the missions of the Pacific came from The Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
Other reasons that created difficulties for the Catholic missions included the lack of a regular shipping service for supplies and the absence of French naval protection in the region exposed the missionaries to both danger and a loss of face before the indigenous people and the Protestant missionaries. Keys suggests that this may be seen as yet another contributing factor to the attack on Peter Chanel and the Catholic Mission in Futuna in 1841.
In summary, Father Colin's position was that, while he recognized the need for women to complement the work of the missionaries, he realized that the Society could not take responsibility for Sisters in Oceania as it could not guarantee the physical, moral or material welfare of women in the islands.
It was on her own volition, then, that Francoise Perroton approached the Captain of the L'Arch d'Alliance, Commander Auguste Marceau, and requested him to take her on his next voyage to Oceania. The letter she wrote to him in the summer of 1845 expressed clearly her understanding of what she had discerned as God's will for her.
My firm wish is to serve on the mission fields for the rest of my life. I am confident of this for I do not wish for anything else than his glory and the salvation of those good people of Oceania for whom I will willingly sacrifice myself if it is what God wants of me.
So it was that one day in December 1846, Bishop Bataillon of Wallis, was informed that a middle-aged French woman had arrived on board the L'Arch d'Alliance to work for the mission. He refused to have anything to do with her and it was left to Commander Marceau to arrange accommodation for this woman with the King of Wallis.
Inspired By Her Example.
Francoise Perroton was to remain alone in Wallis for seven years, and then in Futuna for another five years - a total of twelve years alone apart from the girls that she gathered around her, before the next group of French women would arrive in Oceania. As a lay woman, and acting on her own initiative, she went where no other lay woman (or religious sister) had gone before - or would be able to go for some years yet.
However, the situation changed somewhat when France established itself in the Pacific by annexing New Caledonia as a colony in September, 1853. This gave a limited measure of protection to the missionaries in Oceania. Also, with the resignation of Father Colin from the position of Superior General of the Society of Mary in 1854, the subsequent election of Father Julien Favre, and the increasing number of requests from the Marist missionaries for women to come to work in the different islands, the way was opened for the Society of Mary to accept responsibility for lay women who would be bound to the Society as Third Order members and with a vow of obedience to the Vicar Apostolic of Oceania.
In 1857, some twelve years after Francoise Perroton's departure from France, small groups of lay women began to leave for Oceania. Frarnoise Bartet (Sister M de la Pitie), 38, from Lyon, Marie Basset (Sister M de la Misericorde), 27, from Saint-Laurent de Chamousset, and Jeanne Albert (Sister M de !'Esperance), 26, originally from Rive-de-Gier, then from a town near St-Chamond, were the first group to leave in 1857.
Two groups of three tertiaries left for Oceania in 1858. Pelagie Phelippon (Sister Marie de la Croix), 27, from Bourbon-Vendee and then Bordeaux, Marie Virginie Jacquier (Sister Marie de la Paix), 33, from Colzets and then Lyon, and Clotilde Viannay (Sister M de Bon Secours), 40, from Lyon departed in July. The second group that departed in October, 1858, consisted of Jeanne Marie Autin (Sister Marie Rose de Lima), 20, from Jonzieux, Jacqueline Claray-Fromage (Sister Mary Augustin), 32, from Savoie, Marie Meissonier (Sister Marie de la Merci), 22, from Aix-en-Provence and then La Ciotat. Two years later, in 1860, Marie Brait (Sister M de la Presentation), 26, from Toulon left France for Oceania.'
It is this group of eleven women that became known as 'the Pioneers' to those who were to follow them to Oceania and who inherited their spiritual tradition/charism. Questions that arise from this account of the Pioneers 'venturing into the deep' include the following: What were the formative factors and the resultant nature of the spirituality that animated these women to go to Oceania? How did their experience of the everyday reality of their lived response to their missionary call in the islands of the Pacific shape their vision for the continuation of their missionary work? Does their unique tradition of spirituality and vision continue today? The following Chapters are an attempt to answer these questions.