A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Life of
Jean-Claude Colin

“On whatever distant shore”

Part 2 of 2

The Society of Mary begins

Sharing the Marist dream with his local bishop, Colin met with opposition and ridicule. “If you want to be missionaries”, said the bishop, “then start here in the villages of Bugey”.

So, Fr Colin did just that. On 29 October 1824, the Colin brothers were joined by another of the Fourvière twelve, Étienne Déclas. They would form teams to renew the Revolution-torn parishes in the mountains of the diocese. Pierre Colin wrote immediately to the bishop: “Today the little Society of Mary begins!”

The Marist group was soon asked to take over the bishop’s secondary school at Belley -- and the Society of Mary entered the world of education. Fr Colin soon provided his fellow teachers with firm, gentle guidelines which were to inspire later generations of Marist educators.

The Bugey in winter

The Bugey missions

The mountainous region of Bugey is part of the great massif separating France from Switzerland. Its many rural parishioners had been ill-treated by the French Revolution. Many parish priests had been killed or exiled by the revolutionaries, while others remained disheartened and ineffective. It was to these remote communities that the pioneer Marist missionaries were sent to restore faith and hope and to bring the mercy of God to a neglected people.

The Marist missions were possible only during the harsh months of the Bugey winters, when farmers and their stock were housebound. Fr Colin and his confrères were often housed in deserted, run-down presbyteries and preached their missions in unheated churches.

In such conditions Fr Colin was to say “never was life so difficult, yet never were we happier”.

Rome and “to whatever distant shore”

In early 1833, Fr Colin made the first of five journeys to Rome to plead for approval of the Marist project and its later development. At first, the curial authorities said “No... a multi-branched society with one superior of priests, religious and lay alike. Monstrous!”

In 1836, the opportunity came. The mission-minded Pope Gregory XVI was looking for missionaries for the south-west Pacific -- and the Marists were suggested. When the word got to Jean-Claude Colin he said simply, “We will do the work of Mary on whatever distant shore”. And the priests’ branch of the Society of Mary was approved.

La Capucinière

The first professions of the priests and brothers of the Society of Mary took place in       the chapel of La Capucinière, by now the residence of the Belley Marists. Reluctantly, Fr Colin agreed to become the first superior-general of the new Marist institute.

The Pacific missions

Immediately, he set about preparing the pioneer mission band for Oceania. It would be led by Bishop Pompallier, newly-consecrated vicar apostolic of Western Oceania. Amongst the small but enthusiastic band of missionaries was the gentle Fr Peter Chanel, soon to become the first martyr of the Pacific.


The Society of Mary grows

In subsequent years, Jean-Claude Colin led the Society of Mary through years of extraordinary growth, both in France and Oceania.

Many bishops were calling for Marist schools in their dioceses. The demand for more missionaries in the Pacific never stopped. Vocations to the infant apostolic group blossomed, as Marists were to be found in an increasing number of ministries, especially amongst the young. 

In the midst of this growth was the person of Jean-Claude Colin, founder and father of Marists near and far.

And whilst his dream of a family with several branches was never approved by the Holy See, each branch soon received the Church's recognition: the Marist Brothers under
 Fr Champagnat's leadership and the Marist Sisters with Jeanne-Marie Chavoin.

Marist lay groups were already emerging and later decades would see the appearance of a new branch: the Missionary Sisters of the Society Mary.

La Neylière years

La Neylière

In 1854 Fr Colin succeeded in a long ambition of shedding the leadership of the Society of Mary. Now he could retire to do the work of perfecting the Marist rule and constitutions while others would take over the administration of his little society.

He moved to the rural retreat of La Neylière to do this work, emerging from time to time to take part in chapters and retreats where he never failed to inspire the Marists of the day. The constitutions he had so long laboured over were accepted by the general chapter of 1872.

Jean-Claude Colin died at La Neylière on 15 November 1875 at the age of 85.

Today his giant strides for the beloved Society of Mary inspire young people of the world -- and the Marists of today -- to continue the work of Mary: simply, generously and in her gentle spirit.

And they will do this “on whatever distant shore”.

Fr Colin’s tomb 
“Father, pray for your children”

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