Chapter 4 – Religious Life for Oceania 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
A question that arises as one reads through these letters is: Why was there such 'a longhistory' of some eighty-six years between Françoise Perroton’s setting out on board theL’Arch d Alliance in 1845 and the recognition of the Congregation she was to launch 'asan Institute of Pontifical Right under the jurisdiction of the Sacred Congregation ofPropaganda Fide by the Decree of Approbation of 30 December, 1931'?
Why, for example, did these women, alone and isolated as they were, not becomemembers of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions that wasoriginally called into being by the Marist Fathers in Lyon for the Pioneers and to preparewomen for the missions of Oceania. Why did these women not join the Marist Sistersof Jeanne-Marie Chavoin? Why did they not opt for the Congregation of Our Lady ofOceania established in the Navigator Archipelago (Samoa) by Sister Marie de la Miséricorde in 1877?
The answers to such questions rest on the fundamental premise of spirituality and, more specifically, on how the unique spirituality of these French lay women developed to the extent that it was to determine a religious life form suited to missionary life in Oceania. During the years of the 'long history ... a history of light and shadow with times of growth, times of patience and endurance in faith...' what was evolving under theinspiration of Divine Providence in whom the Pioneers so trusted, was a spirituality formission suited to the lived reality of both the people and Tertiaries in Oceania - not inEurope, or Africa, or the Orient, or in the mission fields of North America. It had tobe a religious structure that was flexible, able to adapt to a myriad of situations andcultures, and to be able to take root in the diverse islands of Oceania in which the Sisters were find themselves.
An examination of the letters of the eleven pioneer women of the Missionary Sisters ofthe Society of Mary, published in the four volumes of ’Our Pioneer Sisters fromCorrespondence 1836-1885’, may indicate their type of spirituality, and thus explain theform of religious life that the Pioneers’ experience determined should develop in Oceania.
However, it must be understood that these letters are a collection of only some of theletters these women wrote during the many years that they lived in the islands of Oceania. Also, in some instances, only parts of the letters have been released - thus possible removing the context from some letters. However, as these are the only letters available to date, they form the only primary material that can be used to study the way in which these women expressed in their own words their individual spiritualities.
The letters reveal a spirituality that is based on five main elements. These include the missionary life in Oceania, their position as lay women, a spirituality of assimilation thatwas integral to their way of life with its isolation, poverty, sickness and simplicity, theirvery Marian attitude, and the increasing awareness of the need for a religious communitydimension in their own lives, but even more in the lives of those who were to come.
Missionary Life: The Ideal in France.
The Pioneers’ original understanding of missionary life and of the spirituality thatunderpinned it are best expressed in the two following statements. The first is byFrançoise Perroton who wrote in her letter to Captain Marceau a virtual ’missionstatement’.
My firm wish is to serve on the mission fields for the rest of my life .. myresources are meager and the only thing I have of value is my good will.... Once I have arrived God will provide for my needs. I am confidentof this for I do not wish for anything else than his glory and the salvationof those good people of Oceania for whom I will willingly sacrifice myselfif it is what God wants of me ... If God wishes me to depart for themissions, He will guide your reply.
An analysis of this statement reveals elements of both the Jesuit and Bérullian schools of spirituality. First is the concept of ’discerning the Spirit’, a process that FrançoisePerroton was to work through for some twenty-five years before she left France in1845. 'I have given the matter much thought and my decision is final'. At the ageof 49 years and in her social and economic position (formerly a governess, then ahousekeeper to the Janmot family in Lyon), she could not afford to be impulsive aboutsuch an undertaking.
A second element is the blend of adoration and the missionary focus contained in thereasons she gave for her to embark on such plan. 'I do not wish for anything else thanfor God’s glory and those good people in Oceania.'
A third point to note is her common sense in that she understood that suffering andsacrifice would be part of the life she proposed for herself. To achieve her missionaryaims she wrote 'I will willingly sacrifice myself'. However, she qualified this with an’if, '... if that is what God wants of me'.80 A spirit of abnegation is expressed here, butnot of asceticism. She was prepared to be used as an instrument in the hands of God for the missions and was, therefore, open to Divine Providence that God’s will might bedone. However, she was not seeking a life of suffering. Rather, she was open toaccepting what might come to her.
Another point is her Openness to Providence which she expressed as ' .. if God wishesme to depart for the missions, he will guide your reply.' Perhaps a final point maybe said to be the honesty (self-abasement) of this working class woman revealed in hercomment '.. the only thing of value .. my good will.'
The second ’mission statement’ to be considered is that written by Sister Marie de la Croixwritten very soon after her arrival in New Caledonia. It adds to Françoise Perroton’sstatement a sense of the quality of commitment that motivated tírese women and a veryMarian element. She writes
when I put foot on this promised land .. at the sight of these people forwhom I have given myself even to the very beating of my heart ... Iunderstood ... what happiness it is to work for the salvation of tíresepeople, for the glory of God and our Divine Mother, and to work for thisfar from the world and its applause, ignored, known only to God. Thishappiness is worth all that I have suffered and all that I shall suffer.’
She expresses in this extract the same inspiration and understanding of a total lifecommitment to the people of Oceania ('even to the very beating of my heart'), and aimsod mission similar to those of Françoise Perroton when she writes ' .. I understood ..what happiness it is to work for the salvation of these people, .. for the glory of God.'”0
The particular element that Sister Marie de la Croix introduced into her statement was theMarian aim of mission. - 'for the glory of our divine Mother'.91 Her approach is alsovery Marian in that she is happy ' ..to work for this far from the world and its applause, ignored, known only to God'. This reflects the prevalent Marian element ofthe spirituality of the time in France as outlined above, (see Chapter Three).92 As hasbeen explained before, the concept of '.. inconnu et caché dans le monde was acommon aspect of Marian spirituality in France.
In the sentence 'this happiness is worth all I have suffered and all that I shall suffer', SrMarie de la Croix is not expressing an ascétical inclination? Rather, she had sufferedfrom poor health in France and in the missions she understood that she would continueto suffer. But acceptance of suffering as it unfolds in one’s life and using to furtherGod’s plan is one thing: seeking it out and using ascetical practices in one’s life isanother. Again this statement reflects abnegation, not asceticism.
Missionary Life: The Reality in Oceania.
However, while such sentiments and convictions above may have expressed themissionary ideal of the Pioneers in France, when the transition from Lyon, Bordeaux orToulon became a daily lived reality in a small Oceanian village in Wallis, or Futuna, orNew Caledonia, in Samoa or Tonga, the Pioneers experienced the inevitable cultureshock. For example, Sister M. de la Presentation described her experience thus: 'Myantipathy for the mission was at its height, everything irritated me, the place, the people,not the local people though .. Now that trial is over'.
The struggle with the language was a major obstacle in overcoming this transition period between cultures. Françoise Perroton (to be referred to from now on as Sister M. du Mont Carmel) found the Wallesian language very difficult to learn. She felt that she wasprobably too old to learn it properly, but said that as God knew this before she leftFrance, her good will would have to suffice. Although she was able to communicate wellenough to teach, it was a cross for a person as naturally gregarious as she was to beunable to chatter away. She commented with her usual wry humour that it was '...agreat sacrifice for a woman to be reduced to silence'.
Sister M de la Merci also went through culture shock that was ended when she understoodthe language which she learnt very quickly. She relates thatBefore I knew [the people] I was very much afraid of them, to the extentthat I wouldn’t go out alone for anything. Every time I heard them theyseemed to be quarrelling. I couldn’t get used to their way of speaking.Now it’s quite changed, before Ï kept away from them, but now I just loveto be with them.
The current understanding of eschatology, both as a personal moment of judgementbefore and as a gathering of a community of believers, is a constant thread through the
Letters. While the Pioneers regarded their call to mission as a vocation and a blessing,at the same time they believed that, like the servants in the Gospel parable of the Talents (Matt 25.14-30), they would be called on to account for how they had used this grace. 'Such a grace carries obligations with it'. Sister M de la Croix expressed most clearly the moment of personal eschatology. 'What a terrible account must be rendered by those who waste their time and go away from such a fertile field. Oh my God, may it not be that way for me'.
The moment of death and the subsequent account that must be rendered is a thought that weighed increasingly on Sister M. du Mont Carmel. Paradoxically, this fear was mixed with a longing for death that grew increasingly stronger as, still alone, she grew older and the filariases in both legs was rendering her more immobile. Continual requests for a happy and good Christian death are scattered throughout her letters. Father Mérias’s promise of thirty Masses tor her after her death gave her great comfort and consolation as she was fully expecting to go to purgatory for het sins. Hell she believed she would escape because no true follower of Mary is ever lost'.
A deep sense of ecclesiology comes through in the letters. The Pioneers possessed aquite profound sense of the Church operating at both a local and universal level although the modem terms of ’local Church’ and ’universal Church’ were not used. The network of rosary prayer that Sister M. du Mont Carmel set up throughout the Pacific - in Wallis, Futuna, New Caledonia, Samoa, Tonga, Rotuma, through the Association of the Five Wounds established by the Curé of Ars in France linked French and Oceanian people in a common unity of prayer for the Church. It also linked children, men and women, pupil and teacher from both sides of the world.
Throughout her years in Wallis and then Futuna, Sister M. du Mont Carmel retained an avidinterest in her beloved France, especially in Lyon. She continued to read the ’Annalesdu Propagation de la Foi’. It was from this source that she heard about the situation of’Holy Mother Church’ in Poland and in Russia. After her death on Kolopelu (Futuna)9/10? August 1873, Father Hervé wrote to Father Poupinel in Lyon that during her long illness'she would often think of the Church and the Holy Father, generously offering hersufferings and her life to God that he might deign to shorten the time of trial throughwhich the Church and our poor France was passing'.
Also present in this understanding of ecclesiology was the concept of a Church made up of both living and dead. This is well expressed by Sister M du Mont Carmel who identifiedthe cornerstone of her faith/spirituality as follows:
I believe firmly in all the articles of the Creed, but of them all, I believein the communion of saints in life and in death. It is there the cry of myhope, counting on the infinite merits of Jesus and of his mercy.
Lay Women in Oceania.
Perhaps because the Pioneers were lay women, often without the support of other French women for community, they adopted an approach to mission similar to that which wasto be found among the apostolic religious in the city of Lyon (see above) of living andworking with the local women and children. This style of living was determined at thevery beginning in 1846 because it was the only option possible. From the first pioneer,Sister M. du Mont Cannel who arrived unannounced in Wallis in 1846, to the eleventhpioneer, Sister Marie de la Presentation, who arrived in New Caledonia in October 1860,whether they lived in isolation or in a small group, their community became the groupof children with whom they shared their lives, homes and work. Later, the indigenousreligious aspirants became their community.
The troubles in the islands and the suffering that their people went through as the resultof disasters both natural and of human origin, were shared by the Pioneers. There wereepidemics, droughts, famine, wars, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as theconstant religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. These and similar incidents bound the pioneers even closer to their people to the extent that Sister M. de la Croix would write that her dearest wish was to die in New Caledonia , for to leave the missionsof New Caledonia would be worse than to tear my heart out'.
Father Poupinel realized that one of the greatest problems that these women would experience would be the Missioners - priests and Bishops who had very little understanding of women and of how to relate to them. For example, before these women left trance,the Marist Fathers had decided that for the good ordering of the mission, someone hadto have authority. Consequently, the Pioneers became Tertiaries of the Society of Mary(if not already one) and were required to take a vow of obedience to the Vicar Apostolicof Central Oceania - Bishop Bataillon. Thus this Bishop believed that he had theauthority to decide that Sister M. de la Miséricorde, Sister M. Augustin and Sister M. Rose wouldleave their mission station at Matautu in Wallis where the school was beginning toflourish and a new building for the school under construction, and go to work the missionfarm at Lano in Wallis. Sister M. Rose wrote
Finally his Lordship explained what we would have to do; he told us wewould have to take care of the farm, make it productive, to work andmake others work, so as to be self-supporting ... that our principle aimshould be to sanctify ourselves by making our exercises of piety regularly,and to make the farm productive, that the school would come later.
Only Sister M. du Mont Carmel who was also invited by Bishop Bataillon to begin a newcareer as a farmhand, stood up to him and refused, saying that it was not part of her plan when she left Lyon. She was to write to Father Poupinel 'You are quite right.. to say that His Lordship has a special talent for distressing and wounding people. I don’t think there is one of his subjects who has escaped the blows of his cruel rod.' She then addedcharitably 'His intention is always good'. Such strains in the relationships with theMissioners contributed to the Pioneers turning to the local people for community.
A Spirituality Discerned.
’Assimilation', not ’Imitation’.
The spirituality that is revealed in the letters is a mystical apostolic spirituality ofassimilation, not an ascetical monastic type spirituality of imitation. That this is so canbe seen, for example, in their attitude towards suffering and in their acceptance ofpoverty.
The Pioneers must have realized that to venture to the other side of the world wouldinvolve suffering. They found it in the isolation, the food, the climate with its heat andhumidity, their struggles to learn the language, the different cultures with their verydifferent value systems, and in sickness. They saw clearly that rather than imposepenances and the ascetical forms of European monastic convent rules, there was enough mortification, self-emptying and physical suffering to be embraced simply by accepting from day to day the reality of one’s lives situation.
Physical suffering was something that all of them endured in one form or another. Sister M.du Mont Carmel was on the point of death when she was cured of a hernia through amiracle obtained believed; through the intercession of Peter Chanel in 1858.1'3 BothSister M. du Mont Carmel and Sister M. de la Miséricorde contracted filariasis. Sister M. de’Espérance had to be taken to Sydney for health reasons before she could return to theislands. Sister Augustin had to be repatriated to France because of severe mental stress. Sister M. de la Merci would also have to return to France because of poor health. Sister M. de laCroix was not a well person before she left France, and her health did not improve inNew Caledonia.
However, this was suffering that came to them and was not sought after. Sister M. de laCroix wrote about this. 'I did not carve my own cross, rather God made it for me'.Sister M. du Mont Carmel expresses her thoughts on this matter.
We have to so act that our life lasts; the sword must not use up thescabbard. God does not wish that we kill ourselves when our neighbourneeds us to live. .. take good care of my health, and I wish to die only when it is my hour to do so.’
Simplicity and poverty were inbuilt features of the mission situation. On the other sideof the world with no shops for necessities, they had to make do or go without. Againthis was a powerful factor in their adaptation to the island situation. What they had theyshared with the people and their children who also shared with them. Sister M. du MontCarmel had to continually ask for shoes for her disfigures and sensitive feet. At onepoint this venerable old lady was reduced to just the clothes she was wearing and so wasgrateful to Sister M. Rose when this Pioneer returned to Futuna in September of 1871because 'she enriched me with a black petticoat. 1 had nothing at all, but I love havingnothing to look after''.
A Marian Spirituality.
At this point a distinction has to be made between Marian and Marist as in the Societyof Mary. This is of major significance to the understanding of the spirituality of thePioneers because, while the former term 'Marian’ would suggest that this spirituality wassomething that arose from these women themselves as a distinct spirituality, the later term’Marist’ if used to describe the spirituality of the Pioneers would suggest that it wassomething that was given to these women by the Marist Society. Indeed, a recentdocument from the VIIÏ General Chapter of 2001 states that 'Our pioneers, havingreceived this spirituality from the Marist Fathers, lived and expressed it in their way.'
Obviously to be Marist, one’s spirituality must be Marian. However, the reverse is notnecessarily so: to be Marian as the Pioneers were does not automatically make themMarist in the sense that their spirituality was that of the Marist Fathers, Marist Brothersor the Marist Sisters.
Indeed, Father Michael Fitzgerald SM would suggest that the spirituality of Father Colin was notapostolic but prophetic.' One Marist Brother describes the spirituality of MarcellinChampagnat as Sulpician.' Joan McBride SM writes that the apostolic spirituality ofJeanne-Marie Chavoin was diverted towards a monastic form by Father Colin who, as FrMayat wrote, wanted the Marist Sisters '..to resemble violets hidden beneath a bush and perfuming the garden of their heavenly Spouse without being seen.’'
A Marian spiritual thread runs through the letters and reveals interesting shades of aMarian spirituality. Sister M. du Mont Carmel is revealed as very much a lay woman andMarian in her approach to spirituality, and therefore, an authentic product of herLyonnais background. The letters reveal that her appreciation of the Society of Mary was something that developed in her as she came under the influence of the Fathers.However, her devotion to Mary - especially at Fouvière - was that of the type she herselfidentified as belonging to the lay women of Lyon. 'Your devotion to Mary, Mother ofGod, by which you have always been distinguished'.
Sister M. de la Croix provides somewhat of a contrast to Sister M. du Mont Carmel in that herletters reveal a Marian spirituality that has strong Marist overlay. She wrote expressionssuch as ' .. to work for this far from the world and its applause, ignored, known onlyto God'. This particular one reflects the '.7¡hidden and unknown in the world’ of FrColin’s writings. For her '..the Mother of heaven [is] our true, our only superior'.She also wrote about the style of vocation she saw for those who would come to Oceania:
Our vocation is to be unknown, hidden in God. Our zeal, the quiet zealof Mary without fuss, sometimes not understanding anything ourselves, itis all done so quietly. Our silence should be the silence of the heart ofMary, but deep down that fire bums before God in secret. Don’t judgeanything when you first arrive, .. don’t think,...wait.124
The question still needs to be asked about Sister M. de la Croix’s Marian/Marist spirituality:Did she absorb and develop this within the context of the centres of Bourbon-Vendee and then in Bordeaux, or was it the direct influence of the Marist Fathers? A spirituality that was seeded and grown in these parts of France would certainly have much in common with Marist spirituality as such and would be able to identify with expressions that encapsulated the Marist spirituality.
From Lay to Religious.These women were authentic people doing as wail as they could what they believed God was calling them to. They were strong characters - often they were very difficult and they could not always live with one another. With Mary as Mother, with a spiritualityof assimilation in the mission situation, with very little or no religious formation at all,and as they grew older, they turned to the question of religious life.' To what was onoffer from Europe their answers seem to be in general 'Religious life, yes, ... but...'.
The Pioneers came to realize that religious sisters were essential for the continuation oftheir work in the islands. In their letters they expressed the desire to become religiousthemselves for reasons that included a genuine esteem for religious life, a true calling,the desire for security as they grew older - often completely isolated from the otherPioneers, and because it would mean that they would continue to be part of this workthey had begun. They esteemed the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience of real religious as opposed to their undetermined state as Tertiaries with just a vow ofobedience to the Vicar Apostolic.
They firmly believed that a novitiate formation centred on a Common Rule and enshrined in approved Constitutions would foster a common spirit for community living. Theybelieved this would be the answer to their situation in terms of its loneliness,incompatibility of character and would identify unsuitable candidates. Such a formationwas necessary they believed for Sisters who would be entrusted with the continuation oftheir work; it would not remain in the hands of lay women as they were.
I would not advise anyone to leave her homeland to join me here, unlessit were a question of religious companions, sisters formed in the sameschool .. according to the same principles .. they will see things throughthe same eyes.
On this the Pioneers may have agreed, but the real question remained unanswered: Whatkind of novitiate and what kind of religious life was suited to Oceania? To belong to theCongregation of Our Lady of the Missions of Oceania, or even to the Marist Sisters,would have interfered with their way of being missionary, the process of indigenizationthey were undergoing, and would have distorted and diverted their spirituality away fromthe mystical, apostolic spirituality of assimilation to one that was more European,monastic, and thus one of imitation. The spirituality of the Pioneers, based on thefoundation stones of mission and Marian, needed a religious life form that would bothexpress and preserve such a spirituality - not just for themselves and for the Tertiarieswho were to come, but also for the fledgling indigenous groups of religious women thatwere beginning to form under the guidance of these women.