Chanel - 200 Years On
By Peter J Ewart SM
In New Zealand there are six parishes, four primary schools, one college, a National Shrine and a Diocesan centre dedicated in honour of St Peter Chanel, the Bi-Centenary of whose birth takes place on 12th July 2003. How is it that a saint of French origin is so honoured in this land?
Father Peter Chanel was one of the early group of Catholic missionaries to the South West Pacific which set out from France in December 1836. The group was destined to found the Catholic Church in Western Oceania and New Zealand. Father Chanel and a Marist catechist Brother Marie-Nizier were placed on the island of Futuna, north of the Fijian Islands, in November 1837 and laboured there for three and a bit years. It was a difficult mission: learning the language, coping with isolation, different foods and customs, eventually beginning to bear some fruit.
On 28th April 1841 Peter Chanel was killed by a group of warriors incited by the leading chief of Futuna, in hatred of the Faith which threatened his control over the people.
Eventually the earthly remains of Peter Chanel were brought to New Zealand and remained at Russell for eight years before being sent to France. Peter Chanel was acknowledged as a martyr and declared Blessed in 1889.
He was canonized in the Marian Year 1954 by Pope Pius XII. St Peter Chanel is recognized as the first martyr of Oceania and the Patron Saint of this region. As a foundation member of the Society of Mary he is acknowledged by the wider Marist family - Marist Brothers of the Schools, Marist Sisters (Peter Chanel had a sister in this congregation), Marist Missionary sisters - all of these religious groups contributing to the development of the Catholic Church in New Zealand.
As a Marist, a missionary, a martyr and a Saint, Peter Chanel is of significance to New Zealand. We celebrate the anniversary of his death as a Church Feast day and the Bi-Centenary of his birth will give further opportunity for Russell, Manukau, Te Rapa, Whakatane, Hamilton Diocese, Hastings, Masterton, Otaki, Motueka, and Green Island (and indeed - all parishes and schools) to celebrate, remember and gain strength by Peter Chanel's intercession as the lives of Peter's spiritual descendants continue.