Msgr John Broadbent
St Peter Chanel was born at Cuet near Billey in France in 1803. At seven he began shepherding sheep on his father’s farm. But his disposition and intelligence attracted the attention of the parish priest who brought him to a small school he had started in post-revolutionary France. From there, Peter went to the seminary where he won great esteem leading to his ordination.
However, Peter longed to be a missionary. After three years as a parish priest in Crozet where he was noted for visiting the sick, he joined the newly formed Society of Mary (Marists) in 1831 and taught at their minor seminary for five years while he waited for the establishment of a Marist mission.
In 1836, Pope Gregory XVI created the huge vicariate of Western Oceania stretching from the Philippines to Antarctica, bordered by Australia and, on the other side, the Eastern Oceania Vicariate roughly divided by what we call today the International Date Line.
Hundreds of islands including New Zealand dotted this vast ocean. The Marists’ founder, Fr Colin, sent Peter with eight priests and brothers and Jean Francis Pompallier, whom Rome appointed a bishop.
The party was to leave for Valparaiso in Chile in October 1836 but bad weather delayed their voyage until Christmas Eve. Exceptionally bad weather and a damaged rudder which took 52 days to fix delayed their arrival by some months. As well there was much illness and one death.
Crossing the Atlantic and rounding Cape Horn in early June, St Peter Chanel wrote to his mother, ‘There was rain, thunder, lightning, hail, ice and snow. It was hot and cold … Sometimes we had the good fortune of being able to celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass.’ They arrived at Valparaiso in Chile where the Picpus Fathers kept stores for their missionaries in the outer Tahitian islands. The Pacific crossing was still ahead!
Pompallier could find no ships going to New Zealand, so he decided to head for Pohnpei (formerly known as Ponape) in the Caroline Islands north of the equator and try to visit New Zealand on the way. He was running out of money. The Picpus warned him it would be difficult to land on Tahiti because the protestant missionaries controlled the young Pomare queen who forbade Catholic missionaries to come ashore.
They left Valparaiso in August 1837 and landed at Vava’u in the Tongan islands, the first of their new territory. Here the young King George welcomed them until the Methodist, John Thomas, arrived and ordered them off the island. They then went to Wallis arriving on November 1. Here the King Lavelua was friendly and allowed Pompallier to leave Fr Bataillon and Br Joseph there. Then on to Futuna where there were two kings – Niuliki was friendly and allowed Pompallier to leave St Peter and Br Marie-Nizier there. He then called on Rotuma but had only one priest and one brother whom he would need in New Zealand. Pompallier then went to Sydney for Christmas with Bishop Polding. He arrived in New Zealand January 10, 1838.
St Peter Chanel was treated well but the stores Pompallier was to send six months after he left never arrived. Peter’s diaries show his loneliness as he walked the beach every evening saying his rosary. In the last few months of his life he suffered badly from toothache. A couple of times Bataillon visited him from Wallis, a half-day’s journey by boat.
Gradually, King Niuliki grew to hate Peter because he converted the king’s son to Christianity. When the son refused his father’s demand to give up the new religion and fled to a remote village, the king followed him but even under blows the young man refused to recant. This was April 27, 1841.
The following day, the king’s men surrounded St Peter Chanel’s mission. A man with a leg wound came to St Peter and, as the saint bent down to bandage the leg, struck him on the forehead with an axe . A witness told of another man hitting Peter repeatedly with a club. St Peter fell to his knees and wiped the blood from his forehead. A third man pushed a bayonet into his shoulder which came out below his arm. Without a word, the priest himself drew the blade out of the wound.
While the others were looting, the murderer who had struck the first blow, picked up a carpenter’s tool and hit him again ‘taking off the top of his head’. It was April 28, his feast day. St Peter Chanel was beatified in 1889 and canonised in 1954.
I taught the great, great grandson of the man who struck the first blow, Mausilio Musumusu. He became a priest and died recently, proud of his ancestor who had humbly asked to be buried under the doorstep of St Peter’s shrine for all to walk on.