When St. Peter Chanel (1803-1841) first applied for his bishop’s permission for missionary work, not long after his 1827 ordination, he was denied and sent to work in a French country parish. For a priest with his gifts and talents, it was no surprise that he revitalized it in a short amount of time. The people came to love him for his charity and care for them, particularly the marginalized and sick.
St. Peter Chanel did not let his desire for the missions die out, however. He had long been drawn to foreign evangelization since he was a young boy, after reading accounts of American missionaries written by the French missionary Bishop Louis Dubourg, who had authority over much of America’s southern states and territories.
A bright and gifted student, St. Peter won a variety of awards that proved his theological and linguistic prowess, making him an ideal candidate for the missions.
In 1831, St. Peter again sought permission to join the Society of Mary (called the Marists), a missionary congregation founded a few decades earlier in his native France focused on evangelical work in local and foreign missions. Despite joining the congregation, however, St. Peter was unable to fulfill his missionary desires for at least five years, assigned instead to teach in a minor seminary.
In 1836, after the Marists obtained papal approval, the order was asked to send missionaries to various regions of Oceania. St. Peter was assigned as superior of a group who set sail the same year.
A desire to share the Gospel with those who never heard of Christ brought St. Peter to the French controlled island of Futuna. He and his companion, a French lay brother, were in store for a difficult and arduous task in the mission field there. Although St. Peter struggled to learn the language, he went on to master it. And there were the difficulties with a new culture and isolation on a remote island. St. Peter wrote how he believed the local religion was Satan’s work, but he was patient and willing to work slowly for their conversion.
At first, the king of Futuna favorably received St. Peter and his companion. However, there was a miscommunication that the missionaries were only visitors learning the natives’ language and customs. Once their intentions were made clear, combined with the successes of Christian missionaries on nearby islands, the king turned on the missionaries. He perceived and feared the threats they posed to his power. But, for good reason, the Europeans were also feared for their exploitation of Futuna women and general mistreatment of the natives.
The king’s tension with the missionaries reached a boiling point when the king’s own son expressed his desire for baptism. In response, the king sent his brute son-in-law to kill the missionaries.
St. Peter knew well that his life was threatened, writing: “It does not matter whether or not I am killed; the religion has taken root on the island; it will not be destroyed by my death, since it comes not from men but from God.”
While others rushed the saint’s house and vandalized it, the king’s son-in-law clubbed St. Peter to the ground, killing him with an axe. He died, only 37, on April 28, 1841, the protomartyr of Oceania and of his congregation.
Within a year of St. Peter Chanel’s death, the local bishop assigned several other missionaries to Futuna, and most of the island converted to the Faith — including St. Peter’s murderer.
His feast day is April 28.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael