St Peter Chanel, the first martyr of Oceania

St Peter Chanel was born on 12 July 1803, the fifth of eight children, in a farming family with a small-holding in south-eastern France.

The area was still troubled by the political instability that followed the Revolution. That, plus the need to help on the farm, meant his primary schooling was rather fragmented.

In his early teens the parish priest helped him with special lessons in the presbytery, so that in 1819, aged 16, he was ready to begin his four years of secondary education at the minor seminary at Meximieux.

He progressed to the major seminary at Brou in 1824, to be ordained on 15 July 1827, at the age of 24, as a priest for the Belley diocese. For his first year of priesthood he was assistant in a medium sized town, already thinking seriously about applying for an apostolate in the foreign missions.

Then followed three years as parish priest in a small country town where the Church was still in disarray a generation after the Revolution. With quiet zeal, tact and compassion he transformed it. Underlying his approach was his personal motto, ‘To love Mary and bring others to love her.’

In 1831, at 28, with his bishop’s agreement, he joined the small group of diocesan priests in the dioceses of Belley and Lyons, who had hopes of starting a Society of Mary.

Its most prominent members were Jean-Claude Colin and Marcellin Champagnat, who was responsible for establishing a branch of teaching brothers.

There were also sisters, founded by Jeanne-Marie Chavoin, and groups of laypeople. Among the Marists’ declared aims was to undertake foreign missions.

At this stage, however, the priests were occupied in giving parish missions and in running the minor seminary in Belley, which also doubled as a college for boys who had no thought of a priestly vocation. Peter joined the staff of this college, where, in 1832, he became its spiritual director. Continue reading

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