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The Congregation in France

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were founded in Provence, in southern France, by Charles Joseph Eugène de Mazenod, a French nobleman turned priest.

Born in Aix-en-Provence in 1782, de Mazenod was forced to flee the country to Italy at a young age on account of the French Revolution in 1789. He did not return to France until the age of 20. Touched by the poor state of the Roman Catholic Church in secularized post-revolutionary France, de Mazenod entered the Seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris in 1808 and was ordained as a priest in Amiens on the 21st of December, 1811.

Eugène de Mazenod’s ambition was to renew the Roman Catholic faith among the poor and the neglected, and to bring the youth of the country back to the Church. He would do this through the foundation of the Société des Missionnaires de Provence in 1816, a missionary order formed to reawaken the Roman Catholic faith in southern France, particularly among the poor. The society was also founded upon de Mazenod’s Ultramontane belief that the Roman Catholic Church was the true church and the only source of salvation. At the time of its foundation, the society had four missionary members, Fathers Deblieu, Mye, Icard, and Tempier.

Eugène de Mazenod’s missionaries would travel the countryside, visiting abandoned parishes, and giving sermons and instructing the Catechism, while holding confessionals and writing hymns to popular songs. They would use images to communicate to the non-literate and spread their gospel in the language d’Oc, used by the common people of Provence, The Oblate policy of teaching in the vernacular language of a region would later aid their success in their missions abroad. The Oblates were also required to supervise the lives of their converts, by visiting the families and ensuring that they led a moral Christian life.

As the Société des Missionnaires de Provence grew, its structures developed. Because de Mazenod felt that the education of his missionaries was central to the success of the mission, he opened the first Oblate scholasticate in Marseille in 1827 to train them. Eventually, there were three stages of education – the juniorate, novitiate and scholasticate. The missionary congregation included not only priests, but also lay-brothers to deal in temporal matters, and do necessary labours for the missions. Financially, the Société des Missionnaires de Provence was aided by L’Oeuvre de la Propagation de la Foi, a lay society formed in 1822 that collected donations from Roman Catholics in France.

By 1825, the society had four residences in France, located in Aix, Laus, Marseille, and Nimes. There were only eighteen full fledged Oblates and eight noviciates in the society. It remained a small and localized group. The congregation was also wracked with internal disputes, and their presence was opposed by certain bishops. These factors weighed in favour of Eugène de Mazenod’s decision to seek formal approval for his society from Pope Léon XII. The society received that approval on Februrary 17, 1826, under the new name Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée (Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate).

Following the papal approval of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Revolution of 1830, which saw King Charles X deposed and replaced by the constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe, damaged relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the French government. Eugène de Mazenod was to replace his uncle Fortunat as Bishop of Marseilles, but the revolution had put the bishopric in danger. Nevertheless, de Mazenod was ordained as a bishop d’Icosie in partibus (abroad) in Rome on October 10, 1832, but his bishopric was not immediately recognized by the French government. Shortly after, de Mazenod was accused of anti-governmental actions, including participation in the murder of a commissary in Marseille. His French citizenship was revoked and he was nearly removed from his office, until Oblate Hippolyte Guibert petitioned Queen Marie-Amélie on de Mazenod’s behalf. Eugène de Mazenod regained his citizenship, and he became Bishop of Marseille in 1837.

Meanwhile, the Oblate congregation grew slowly, gaining a few more residences and gradually expanding their apostolic field within France and Switzerland in the following order: Gap (1819), Marseille, (1821), Nîmes (1825), Billens (Switzerland), Grenoble, (1834), Ajaccio, Corsica (1835), Vico, Corsica (1836), Avignon (1837) diocese of Viviers, departement d'Ardèche (1846, Limoges and Nancy (1847), Fréjus and Bordeaux (1851) Valence at Romans, and Quimper (1854, Autun, 1858, Paris, 1859, Anger, 1860). The Oblates were also engaged to run two Grand Seminaries, in Marseille and d’Ajaccio (Corsica).

Eugène de Mazenod was now eager to begin evangelizing in foreign missions. Between 1830 and 1833, the Oblates attempted to establish themselves in Algeria, among the Arab Muslims, but failed to do so. Fortuitously, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate would have the opportunity to expand their apostolic field in 1841, when Ignace Bourget, the Bishop of Montreal, asked Mgr Eugène de Mazenod (who was now Bishop of Marseille) for missionaries for the diocese of Montreal. Soon after Bourget’s visit to de Mazenod, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate began spreading outside of mainland Europe into Eastern Canada (1841), England (1842), Western Canada (1845), Oregon (1847), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (1847), Texas (1849), Natal (in South Africa) (1852), Ireland (1855), British Columbia (1858), Mexico (1858), and Basutoland (Lesotho) (1861).

Bibliography

Grant, John Webster. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.

Knight, Kevin. “Oblates of Mary Immaculate.” New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 26, 2009 from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11184b.htm

Levasseur, Donat, OMI. Histoire des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée: Essai de synthèse. Vol. I: 1815-1898. Montréal: Maison Provinciale, 1983.

Levasseur, Donat, OMI. Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée dans l’Ouest et le Nord du Canada, 1845-1967. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.

McCarthy, Martha. From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene, 1847-1921. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.

Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. “St. Eugene de Mazenod.” Oblate Communications. Retrieved March 26, 2009 from http://www.omiworld.org/StEugene/StEugene1.asp?L=1


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