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Marist Bulletin - Number 226


Brother Gabriel Michel speaks of Suzanne Aubert

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Ir. A. M. Estaún

Brother Gabriel Michel is recognised throughout the Institute for his work as a researcher on Father Champagnat. He has written Born in 89 (3 volumes), On the legal recognition: time of Father Champagnat and the time of Brother François, The obscure years of M. Champagnat or the Revolution at Marlhes, To know M. Champagnat better, Life of Brother François, various archive notes, among others. The annual retreat, organised by the Province during the month of August, gave me the chance to share some time with Brother Gabriel Michel who was also participating in the retreat.

During your many years at the Hermitage, you have accompanied visitors and students while doing research on the origins of the Congregation and especially on the life of Father Champagnat. How much time have you dedicated to these activities?
I started doing research on Father Champagnat from 1950. It was mainly during the period from 1976 to 2004 that I accompanied groups that came to the Hermitage and that I was in various countries to preach retreats on him and Brother François.

How long have you lived at Saint-Genis-Laval?
I have been at Saint-Genis-Laval since the end of August 2004.

Have you taken your library and personal notes to your new house?
I have taken to Saint-Genis-Laval my retreat preparations on François, in English and in Spanish.

You still give eight hours a day to this passionate work, but you tell me with one eye only for work as one of your eyes is considered as lost. How is your sight?
I was operated on for a cataract on the left eye. That was about seven or eight years ago. I need glasses for reading, but when I am not reading these glasses annoy me. Ordinarily, I no longer wear glasses; thats the opposite of my past life as I have worn glasses since the age of six.

Are you still continuing your research? If so, what are your works at present?
I have undertaken A Champagnat Dictionary giving a few words on the people, the places, the doctrines, the events etc. that refer to what Marcellin Champagnat would have known and lived. It is in my computer. As ideas come to me I keep adding them.

You have done some research on the historic milieu of Marcellin. Now you are working passionately on the translation of the life of Suzanne Aubert, from English to French.
Suzanne Aubert has been a recent discovery in my life. It is a pleasure for me to be doing this work.

How did you discover this woman? Why do you, a French man, have so much interest in a New Zealand woman? What do you find so interesting about her personality?
About ten or twelve years ago, a brother from New Zealand, passing through the Hermitage, said to me:
- Do you know about Suzanne Aubert?
- Not at all!
- She is one of the most important persons in the Catholic history of New Zealand.
I was a little interested in this but I very quickly forgot.

However this subject has returned recently and you have set yourself to work…
Two years ago, I was a bit surprised by the visit of Maoris who had come to Paris to find the remains of Mgr Pompallier to bury them in New Zealand. I had some negative ideas about this person, who around 1832 had been chaplain at the Hermitage and, according to Brother Jean-Baptise, wanted to annex us to the Clercs of Saint Viateur.
About the same time as the visit of the Maoris, a woman from New Zealand came to the Hermitage; she was in charge of Pompallier House in Auckland. She was going to send me a biography in English of Pompallier which I was going to translate and which, without hiding the faults of this Bishop, would give me a better idea of this man. I translated it as nothing existed about him in French except a brief notice in the four volumes of Father Coste.
To thank this woman from New Zealand (Kate Martin), I sent her my three volumes: Born in 89. She then sent me the life of Suzanne Aubert written a little before 2000, and which had been called: The book of the year. It was a large work of 400 pages with more than 100 pages of references and notes.

At a certain time, you noticed a detail that attracted your attention in a book in the Hermitage library because it put Suzanne Aubert as a child in contact with Marcellin.
When Suzanne was about four years old (1839) and when Champagnat was in his second last year of life, the young girl (I suppose with her mother) went to the Marist Fathers at Lyon and the little girl particularly liked Cholleton and Champagnat.

The captivating traits of Marcellin undoubtedly attracted the attention of this curious child. Can you summarise the chapters that you have already translated?
As a young girl, she clearly had the idea that she would be a religious and she refused a proposal of marriage. As Ars was not far, she was going to become a disciple of the Cure of Ars who told her she should leave for New Zealand, that she would surmount a lot of obstacles, but that finally she would found a Congregation. He even described the house where this would happen.
She then told her parents she would stay with them until the age of twenty-five, but that she would depart soon after. Around 1860, Pompallier, who had returned from New Zealand and was about to return there, preached at Lyon on the mission of Oceania. It was thus clear that the time had come. One evening, she said goodbye to her father who must have thought she was going to Ars to the tomb of the Cure who had died the year before. In fact, it was the definitive goodbye. Happily, she said, it was dark, otherwise he would have seen what state I was in; it was death, worse than death. We would not see each other again. She left not for Ars, but for Paris and New Zealand.
Up till then, she already considered herself to be a religious. Pompallier, who looked after the Sisters of Mercy, introduced her to this Congregation, but a few years later, he would separate the four French women to make an independent group, more or less a Marist Third Order, in the line of Françoise Perroton. Anyway, in 1868, Pompallier returned to France and the group dissolved for the others did not have a vocation. Suzanne lived religious life with a Maori woman, Peata (=Beata) who was as fervent as she was. Little by little vocations came. She believed at first that she should dedicate all to the Maoris and she tried to find a priest. Finally, on the death of a Marist Father, Séan, a holy man like the Cure of Ars, a young Soulas became a priest in France and left for New Zealand.
There were now a few sisters and they had to find resources, as the money from the Propagation of the Faith had become insufficient. They received fifty hectares of land where they planted about 1000 fruit trees, which was a lot of manual labour.
Another event: they were able to build a church, but one day a fire ravaged all. For some months, Suzanne asked for money in the streets. That led her to know the generous people better and little by little she understood that her consecration that was taking shape must take account of Maoris, but also of colonials.
Another moment. An epidemic led her to concoct a remedy based on local plants; she was very good as a nurse and pharmacist and she had enormous success. But this was not an aim, but only a means that could send her in the wrong direction.
She started collecting abandoned children, and this time she was getting close to her aim, but they told her to limit the number. Finally her aim became clear. It was clear that certain sick people were crippled to such an extreme point that hospitals refused to accept them. With her sisters, these were thus the people she would accept.
Bishop Redwood, a New Zealander but trained at Saint-Chamond then in Ireland and England, was openly Marist. When a lot of priests criticised these sisters who plant trees, sell fruit, make remedies and sell them, he came to see them and he judged that this new formation which addressed a number of different activities in a life of prayer was excellent.
Now the aim was clear: welcome abandoned children and the most neglected of the sick. Redwood took it upon himself to say to Suzanne: Your aim is too different from other Marist tertiaries who are in the islands of Oceania. I will take charge of your Congregation and you will give it a new name. The Congregation was given the name Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.
Until then, it was understood with the bishop that children and the sick would be accepted, no matter their religion, even unbelievers. With or without a credo!
Redwoods successor would want to limit this accord.
I have not finished the translation, but I know roughly what happened.

What is left to translate is undoubtedly as interesting as that which you have just explained…
Suzanne knew there would be resistance. For example, in one case, she heard that an abandoned child (about ten years of age) was gong to be amputated. The idea was more or less thus: it is a child without a future, if a part of his body is amputated it will not change things much. That took place at Hieralinharama (Jerusalem in Maori) 500 kilometres from where she lived (Wellington). She departed for Hieralinharama by train, went straight to the hospital and asked the nurse: Would you give me the childs clothes? - I am going to ask sister. - No, give me the clothes. People knew her well enough not to resist. She managed to dress the child who was unable to do so alone, but who had found confidence because he saw what was for him his real mother. The doctors knew also that you could not resist her, but they tried to threaten her; You are taking on a heavy responsibility. - Yes, I know what I am doing. And she brought the child to Wellington where she led a new house for abandoned children and rejected sick people. The child recovered slowly without submitting to amputation and when he was an adult, he became a local politician.
Thus what she did in this case, she would do with the new bishop. There is no question of me ceding what was agreed on with Bishop Redwood: with or without credo! I will go to Rome. She left for Rome to find Pius X despite the seasickness she suffered. It was in 1914. She said to him: You have always had confidence in the Cure of Ars. For me he is an exceptional saint. Pray to him. He will answer you. In fact, she would expose her problem and the Holy See would recognise her Congregation as with pontifical right by approving in particular its aim: the sick of all religions.
As it was the war, she was caught up for several years. She had practically promised the Lord to never return to France, but as she no longer had any relations, she was told she could traverse the country. It seems to me that she did so to collect money.

For an historian like yourself who is so interested in the origins of the Congregation, what do you find in the life of Suzanne that is related to what is Marist?
A relationship with the Marist congregation? Firstly, Suzanne for several years wanted to be a Marist. It was not she who changed, it was Bishop Redwood who noted that she did things too differently from the other Pioneers and that, and as she was only depending on him, she would have more freedom to act as she wishes. In particular, she would not have to refer to other Marists who were less favourable to her.
Overall, I see a great resemblance in the intelligent and audacious obedience of Suzanne and of Champagnat. For Champagnat, when it was a question of uniting us to St Viator, he told the archbishop, “With the knowledge that I have of things, I do not believe, Monseigneur, that I can in conscience lend myself to this measure. If Your Grace orders it, I will let it be done, I will resign myself to it, it’s my duty, but I tremble for the consequences.” As we know, the archbishop ordered nothing, and a little later he was able to say, “I congratulate you…”
Suzanne, at a delicate time, saw that Bishop Redwood risked giving her only weak support. In no time she left for Rome. It was the only way to put her work in a safe place. And her audacious initiative was well received, even by Pope Pius X in person.

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