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Peter Chanel

Peter Chanel

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Pierre Louis Marie Chanel, known in English as Saint Peter Chanel (12 July 1803 – 28 April 1841) was a Catholic priest
Priesthood (Catholic Church)
The ministerial orders of the Catholic Church include the orders of bishops, deacons and presbyters, which in Latin is sacerdos. The ordained priesthood and common priesthood are different in function and essence....

, missionary
A missionary is a member of a religious group sent into an area to do evangelism or ministries of service, such as education, literacy, social justice, health care and economic development. The word "mission" originates from 1598 when the Jesuits sent members abroad, derived from the Latin...

, and martyr
A martyr is somebody who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce, or accept, a belief or cause, usually religious.-Meaning:...


Early years

Chanel was born in La Potière
Montrevel-en-Bresse is a commune in the Ain department in eastern France.-Population:-References:*...

 near Cuet in the area of Belley
Belley is a commune in the Ain department in eastern France.-History:Belley is of Roman origin, and in the 5th century became an episcopal see. It was the capital of the province of Bugey, which was a dependency of Savoy till 1601, when it was ceded to France...

, Ain
Ain is a department named after the Ain River on the eastern edge of France. Being part of the region Rhône-Alpes and bordered by the rivers Saône and Rhône, the department of Ain enjoys a privileged geographic situation...

 département, France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...


After some schooling at Cras
Cras-sur-Reyssouze is a commune in the Ain department in eastern France.-Population:-References:*...

, his piety and intelligence attracted the attention of a local priest, Fr. Trompier, and he was put into Church-sponsored education. He followed this with seminary
A seminary, theological college, or divinity school is an institution of secondary or post-secondary education for educating students in theology, generally to prepare them for ordination as clergy or for other ministry...

 training in 1819, at the minor seminary at Meximieux
Meximieux is a commune in the Ain department in eastern France.-Geography:Located 35 km north east of Lyon and 10 km from Ambérieu-en-Bugey, the town is where the Dombes plateau meets the plain of the Ain River. Historically, Meximieux was part of the former province of Bresse...

 and Belley in 1823, and then in 1824 at the major seminary at Brou
Brou may refer to:* Brou, Eure-et-Loir, a village and commune in France* Brou-sur-Chantereine, a village and commune in Seine-et-Marne, France* Brou people, a Khmer Loeu ethnic group in Cambodia-Also see:...


He was ordained priest, along with 24 others, on 15 July 1827 by Bishop Devie, and spent a brief time as an assistant priest at Ambérieu. There he again met Claude Bret, who was to become his friend and also one of the first Marist
Society of Mary (Marists)
The Society of Mary , is a Roman Catholic religious congregation or order, founded by Father Jean-Claude Colin and a group of other seminarians in France in 1816...


From an early age, Chanel had been thinking about going on the foreign missions, and his intention was strengthened by the letters that arrived at Ambérieu from a former curate, then a missionary in India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...


The following year, Chanel applied to the bishop of Belley for permission to go to the missions. His application was not accepted and instead he was appointed for the next three years as parish priest of the run-down parish of Crozet
Crozet may refer to:* Crozet Islands, a sub-antarctic archipelago of small islands in the southern Indian Ocean, part of the French Southern Territories* Crozet, a commune of the Ain département, in France...

, which he revitalized in that short time.

His zeal was widely respected, and his care, particularly of those in the parish that were sick, won the hearts of the locals, who began again to practice their faith. During this time, Chanel heard of a group of Diocesan Priests who were hopeful of starting a religious order to be dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Marist and missionary

In 1831, Chanel joined the forming Society of Mary (Marists)
Society of Mary (Marists)
The Society of Mary , is a Roman Catholic religious congregation or order, founded by Father Jean-Claude Colin and a group of other seminarians in France in 1816...

, who would concentrate on local missions and foreign missionary work. Instead of selecting him as a missionary, however, the Marists used his talents as the spiritual director at the Seminary of Belley, where he stayed for five years. In 1833, he accompanied Fr. Jean-Claude Colin
Jean-Claude Colin
The Venerable Jean-Claude Colin, S.M. was a French priest who became the founder of the Society of Mary ....

 to Rome to seek approval of the nascent Society. In 1836, the Marists, finally formally approved by Pope Gregory XVI
Pope Gregory XVI
Pope Gregory XVI , born Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari, named Mauro as a member of the religious order of the Camaldolese, was Pope of the Catholic Church from 1831 to 1846...

, were asked to send missionaries to the territory of the South West Pacific. Chanel, professed a Marist on 24 September 1836, was made the superior of a band of Marist missionaries that set out on 24 December from Le Havre
Le Havre
Le Havre is a city in the Seine-Maritime department of the Haute-Normandie region in France. It is situated in north-western France, on the right bank of the mouth of the river Seine on the English Channel. Le Havre is the most populous commune in the Haute-Normandie region, although the total...

. They were accompanied by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier
Jean Baptiste Pompallier
Jean Baptiste François Pompallier was the first vicar apostolic to visit New Zealand. He was born in Lyon, France. He became the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Auckland.-Appointment and voyage:...

 who was to become the first Bishop
A bishop is an ordained or consecrated member of the Christian clergy who is generally entrusted with a position of authority and oversight. Within the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches, in the Assyrian Church of the East, in the Independent Catholic Churches, and in the...

 of New Zealand
New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...


Chanel traveled first to the Canary Islands
Canary Islands
The Canary Islands , also known as the Canaries , is a Spanish archipelago located just off the northwest coast of mainland Africa, 100 km west of the border between Morocco and the Western Sahara. The Canaries are a Spanish autonomous community and an outermost region of the European Union...

 (8 January 1837), where Fr. Claude Bret (Chanel's friend) caught a flu-like virus which led to his death at sea (20 March 1837). Next Chanel traveled to Valparaiso
Valparaíso is a city and commune of Chile, center of its third largest conurbation and one of the country's most important seaports and an increasing cultural center in the Southwest Pacific hemisphere. The city is the capital of the Valparaíso Province and the Valparaíso Region...

 (28 June), where the French Picpus Fathers who had care of the Vicariate of Eastern Oceania had their base. His third and fourth stops were in Gambier
Gambier Islands
There was a time when the Gambiers hosted a population of several thousand people and traded with other island groups including the Marquesas, the Society Islands and Pitcairn Islands...

 (13 September) and in Tahiti
Tahiti is the largest island in the Windward group of French Polynesia, located in the archipelago of the Society Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. It is the economic, cultural and political centre of French Polynesia. The island was formed from volcanic activity and is high and mountainous...

 (21 September), where the group transferred to the Raiatea. In that ship they set sail (23 October) to drop off two missionaries at Wallis, the main seat of the mission in Tonga
Tonga, officially the Kingdom of Tonga , is a state and an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, comprising 176 islands scattered over of ocean in the South Pacific...

. Pierre Chanel went to neighboring Futuna, accompanied by a French lay brother Marie-Nizier Delorme. They arrived on 8 November 1837 with an English Protestant layman named Thomas Boag who had been resident on the island and had joined them at Tonga seeking passage to Futuna.


The group was initially well received by the island's king, Niuliki. Once the missionaries learned the local language and began preaching directly to the people, the king grew restive. He believed that Christianity would take away his prerogatives as high priest and king. When the king's son, Meitala, sought to be baptized
In Christianity, baptism is for the majority the rite of admission , almost invariably with the use of water, into the Christian Church generally and also membership of a particular church tradition...

, the king sent a favoured warrior, his son-in-law, Musumusu, to "do whatever was necessary" to resolve the problem. Musumusu initially went to Meitala and the two fought. Musumusu, injured in the fracas, went to Chanel feigning need of medical attention. While Chanel tended him, a group of others ransacked his house. Musumusu took an axe and clubbed Chanel on the head. Chanel died that day, April 28, 1841.

The news of Chanel's death took months to reach the outside world. It was almost a year before Marists in France learned of it; for those in New Zealand
New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...

, it took half that time. Two weeks after the killing the William Hamilton, a passing American trading ship, took Br. Marie-Nizier, Boag and others to Wallis (arriving 18 May 1841) and safety. In time, the news made it to Kororareka, New Zealand. There, Marie Nizier told Pompallier’s deputy, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Épalle, that Peter Chanel had been murdered.


Bishop Pompallier heard of the death of Chanel on 4 November 1841, while he was at Akaroa, and arranged for a French naval corvette L’Allier, commanded by the Comte du Bouzet, to accompany the Mission schooner Sancta Maria and sail on 19 November for Wallis and Futuna
Wallis and Futuna
Wallis and Futuna, officially the Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands , is a Polynesian French island territory in the South Pacific between Tuvalu to the northwest, Rotuma of Fiji to the west, the main part of Fiji to the southwest, Tonga to the southeast,...

 Islands, taking with him Fr. Philippe Viard
Philippe Viard
Philippe Joseph Viard was the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Wellington, New Zealand.Born to Claude and Pierette Charlotte , he attended the parish school of Saint-Nizier and then entered the minor seminary at Argentière about 1827, proceeding to the major seminary of Saint-Irénée at Lyon in 1831...

. The two vessels arrived at Uvea (Wallis) on 30 December 1841. Fr. Bataillon, the missionary priest on Uvea, persuaded the Bishop to stay awhile on Uvea, where conversions were plentiful. The Bishop sent Viard to Futuna, where he landed on 18 January 1842. A chief named Maligi, who had not agreed to Chanel’s murder, agreed to disinter Fr. Chanel's body, and brought it to the L’Allier the next day, wrapped in several local mats.

The commander of the vessel asked the ship's doctor, M. Rault, to inspect the remains. After a prolonged examination he was able to certify the identity of the remains, bearing in mind the description of the manner of Chanel's death given previously by Brother Marie-Nizier. The doctor undertook to embalm the remains, so that they could be kept. They were wrapped in linen and placed in a cask, and taken to the Sancta Maria. The body was taken back to Kororareka, New Zealand, arriving on 3 May 1842.

Late in May 1842, a French vessel, the Jonas, arrived in the Bay of Islands. The ship's doctor visited the Marists there, and they mentioned to him their concern to have Chanel's remains more fittingly cared for. With the doctor's help, a little tin chest was made and well lined with linen; the remains were placed in it as decently as possible. This chest was wrapped in linen, and then placed in a "box made of good quality wood." After telling Fr. Colin, the founder and first Superior General of the Society of Mary in France about these arrangements for more appropriate care of the remains, Fr. Forest said that the box would be kept "in a fitting place".

The relics remained in the Bay of Islands until 1849, when they were accompanied by Fr. Petitjean to Auckland – most likely early in April 1849. They left New Zealand on 15 April 1849 by the ship Maukin, and arrived in Sydney, Australia on 4 May. Fr. Rocher S.M. received the container that held the bones and took it to the Procure Chapel at Gladesville in Sydney on 7 May. Fr. Rocher was very careful in making the decision as to when to send the container on to England and France. He looked for a trustworthy captain, and a reliable person in London to receive the consignment, attend to the Customs, and have it sent on to Lyon. Early in 1850, Fr. Bernin S.M., pro-vicar for Bishop Douarre, vicar-apostolic of New Caledonia, had to leave for France. He left Sydney for London on the Waterloo on 1 February 1850, taking Peter Chanel's remains with him. On June 1, 1850, the remains arrived at the Mother House of the Society of Mary in Lyon, to the great joy, in particular, of Father Colin, founder of the Marists.

Conversions in Futuna

Chanel's martyrdom accomplished his missionary work, however. Pompallier sent Frs. Catherin Servant, François Roulleaux-Dubignon and Br. Marie Nizier to return to the Island. They arrived on 9 June 1842. Eventually, most on the island converted to Catholicism. Musumusu himself converted and, as he lay dying, expressed the desire that he be buried outside the church at Poi, so that those who came to revere Peter Chanel in the Church would walk over his grave to get to it.

Fact and fiction

It is important that a biographer distinguish overly keen hagiography that might make it seem that the local people of Futuna converted overnight. The rigorous scrutiny demanded by Chanel's Beatification as a martyr in 1889, and even more by his canonization in 1954, sifted out such exaggerations and embellished piety. Two of the three notebooks containing his Futuna diary survived, and these provide a solid reference point in assessing his character as a missionary. It is equally regrettable that many of the errors made in earlier biographies abound and can be found on websites elsewhere. Mistakes in geography including statements that Chanel went to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) or that Futuna is part of that island group are also frequent. (In fact there is another island as part of the Vanuatu group called Futuna but the two islands should not be confused.)

As a kind of penitence, a special action song and dance, known as the eke
Soke (dance)
sōkē or eke is a Tongan group dance performed with sticks which the performers hit against each other on the beat of the drum. It has some common elements with, but is a complete independent development from the English Morris dance. As with most Tongan dances, the whole performance is to dazzle...

, was created by the people of Futuna shortly after Chanel's death. The dance is still performed in Tonga
Tonga, officially the Kingdom of Tonga , is a state and an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, comprising 176 islands scattered over of ocean in the South Pacific...


Chanel was declared a martyr and beatified in 1889. He was canonized in 1954 by Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII
The Venerable Pope Pius XII , born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli , reigned as Pope, head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City State, from 2 March 1939 until his death in 1958....

. His feast day in the Catholic Church is 28 April. The relics were returned to Futuna in 1977. The fractured skull was returned to Futuna in 1985.

See also