A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Sister Genevieve’s Bell

SMSM's Celebrate in Fiji

Sr Denise McMahon smsm

This is a special year for the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (SMSM's), being the 80th anniversary of Pontifical Approbation as a Religious Congregation, the exact date of which took place on 30th December, 1931. Our history though is much longer, with its roots in the Marist religious family, and the women regarded as our “Pioneers” who ventured into the Pacific.

The first was Francoise Perroton from Lyon, France who arrived in Wallis in 1845 where she remained for eight years. A further five years were spent  on Futuna before she was joined by a group of three women from France. Then a steady stream of other Pioneers followed in quick succession enabling small foundations to be established in  New Caledonia, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and at the turn of the twentieth century, Bougainville and the Solomons.  An important stage in our development occurred in 1880 with the integration of these groups into the Third Order Regular of Mary for the Missions of Oceania (TORM). The first TORM Sisters came to Fiji from France in 1882.

Fijian Foundations

Group at Sr Genevieve’s grave, Sr Denise behind the Cross

Group at Sr Genevieve’s grave, Sr Denise behind the Cross

Since that time there have been thirty-three TORM/SMSM foundations in Fiji and twenty of our deceased Sisters are buried around the country. Many of the locations where they are buried are still in rural areas and not easy to reach.  Our SMSM project in Fiji for this 80th anniversary  year is to visit the places where our Sisters are buried and to repair and restore the graves where necessary. Returning to our roots has been an inspirational experience.

Finding Sr Genevieve’s Grave

Vanuakula Mission in the hills near Suva

Vanuakula Mission in the hills near Suva

The most recent trip was made several weeks ago to Vanuakula, a parish in the interior, about one hour’s drive from Suva. Our goal was to find the grave of Sr M. Genevieve smsm who lived there from 1918 to 1938. The trip is an easy one today compared to what it must have been like in her day when travelling could only have be made on foot or horseback.

Bridge built for visitors - Vanuakula

Bridge built for visitors - Vanuakula

When contacting the parish to explain the purpose of our visit we were given no assurance that we would actually find Sister’s grave. When we arrived, the two Cluny Sisters now resident in the parish took us through the new parish church opened several years ago.  In front of the church is a large bronze bell which we were told had only been erected to its position several days previously, although it had been stored away in the parish for many years.  It had taken eleven men to lift and place it in its newly constructed belfry in a commanding position overlooking the parish.   As I looked at the bell I was interested to see small figures of the Sacred Heart embossed around the edge of the bell and, at the front, written in French, the name of the benefactor “Marguerite-Marie”.   On the next line was written “Jean-Marie Pelissier Godfather”  and underneath that “Sr M. Genevieve Godmother”. The bell had been given in her memory! What a sense of delight and wonder that discovery gave. Most likely, not even the older people in the parish today would remember her. But, the newly erected bell, standing in its glory on the hill outside the church overlooking school and parish buildings, was a reminder of  her hidden service of nurturing the faith in the hearts of the people of Vanuakula.

Location of the Grave

Finding Sister’s grave was no mean task. The village people had a general idea of the location of some graves but no one really knew who exactly was buried there. Fortunately, it was a fine day when we set out. Escorted by the parish priest, the village chief and fifteen young village men we descended a steep path which wound down the ridge the church was built on to the valley floor and then along a newly cleared track. The men had done a lot of work earlier in the morning cutting through the dense undergrowth to form a path and making a bridge from two felled trees across a stream. The final section of the journey was a climb up a steep hill which at the top faced the mission station across the valley and, in the distance, a massive mountain range.

But best of all, facing us were four graves which had been uncovered by the men earlier in the day. One, to our great delight, was Sr. M. Genevieve’s burial place as well as those of local Sisters who had worked with her. All the graves were remarkably well preserved and Sr. M. Genevieve’s name clearly legible etched into the cement headstone. Our mission was accomplished! At the side of her grave we listened to the account of her life and then remained in silent prayer for a while. Suddenly, at noon on this day which was the feast of the Annunciation, Sr M. Genevieve’s bell rang out across the valley announcing the time of the Angelus.

Sr M. Genevieve, Marie Francoise BERTHOLLIER   (1864-1938)

SR M. Genevieve, Marie Francoise BERTHOLLIER (1864-1938)

Marie Francoise Berthollier was born in Savoy, France on 16th July, 1864. After her novitiate she arrived in Fiji in February 1901. Her first assignment was to Naiserelagi where she stayed until 1912 when she was sent to Vanuakula to which she travelled up rivers and over mountains to a leaking cottage which remained her home until her death. For many years she taught in the parish school and as a younger woman worked alongside the children in the school plantations. She was much loved by the people and died at Vanuakula on 15th October, 1938.

From the SMSM Necrology

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