A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Marie Françoise Perroton

Sr Patricia Leamy SMSM

Part 1 of 2

175 years after Marie Françoise Perroton set out from France to be a missionary in the Pacific, the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary are celebrating this pioneer who started something which became so much greater than herself.

Are you considering a career change? And are you 49? How about overseas mission?

Such was the situation of a certain Marie Françoise Perroton living in Lyon in the 19th century.

How would her (modest) CV read?

§  born in Lyon 1796, just years after the beginning of the 1789 French revolution when France was in turmoil

§  received a good education which included writing and sewing at a boarding school run by the Dames Caillot, then kept on as an assistant teacher

§  for 25 years an active member in the Propagation of the Faith movement founded by Pauline Jaricot

§  housekeeper in several families

§  various duties at the Janmot’s shop for furniture and embroidery, and live-in companion (with her mother) in the Janmot family apartment for 12 years

§  acquainted with the founder of the St Vincent de Paul Conference through young Louis Janmot, witnessing their relief work after the 1840 flood

§  ran the household after the 1838 deaths of Mme Perroton and Mme Janmot

§  Intelligent, faithful and practising Catholic

Maybe not a CV to convince future co-workers - namely the Marist priests already in the Pacific. But a certain Captain Marceau of the Society of Oceania recognised the tremendously courageous faith of this woman and her willingness to leave country, family and friends to be with the women of the Pacific, sharing the love of God.

What led to her decision to volunteer for the Pacific missions?

She was always an avid reader of the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith bulletin with its stories of life in foreign missions. In 1843 Marie Françoise read a letter from the women of Wallis Island, grateful for the presence of priests, but asking for “some devout women to teach the women of Ouvea. We ... feel we would like to have sisters here too, that they may help us learn all sorts of useful things.”

What steps did she take?

§  prayed for light, reflecting seriously on her future

§  consulted her Capuchin confessor who did not discourage her 

§  contacted the Marist provincial, Fr Julien Eymard, who put to her the real challenges (sacrifices and privations) she would experience

§  requested an interview with the captain of a ship taking missionaries to the Pacific and followed this up some time later with a letter, offering her services as a servant on the ship during the voyage as she did not have enough money to pay for her passage

Once the decision was taken and plans made, she still had to tell Monsieur Janmot. Her news shattered him at first. Although close to her family and brother, Marie Françoise did not tell them her plans. Was it because their affection was so real that the parting would have been too painful for both to cope with? However, they did correspond over the following years.

After Mass celebrated at Notre-Dame du Havre on 14 November 1845, the Arche d’Alliance (Ark of the Covenant) sailed from Le Havre the next day with Marie Françoise on board along with thirteen priests and Marist brothers, a young man, and a family from Brittany.

Marie Françoise Perroton’s voyage on board the Arche d’Alliance

Voyage into the Pacific

Life on board was regular with morning and evening prayers. Although the ship dropped anchor off Madeira, no one went ashore. The first port of call was Valparaiso in Chile, five months after leaving France. All on board were happy to be ashore for Holy Week and Easter.

The next opportunity to be on land was in July when the Arche d’Alliance arrived in Papeete, Tahiti. How exciting: mail from France!

Father Peter Julian Eymard wrote informing her that he had enrolled her in the Third Order of Mary. In thanking him, she wrote:
My gratitude to God should be as great as the ocean. (This is saying a good deal, you know, Father; the ocean being so immense. Believe me when I want to cram repeated acts of love of God into a few words I say to Him: My God, I tell you that I love and adore you as many millions of times as there are drops in the ocean.)

From Tahiti she also wrote to the young lawyer, Paul Brac de la Perrière, friend of Louis Janmot, and secretary of the St Vincent de Paul Society which he founded with Frédéric Ozanam. He noted in his diary that her letter brought tears to his eyes because of the way she expressed her love of God and her hope they would meet again in the next life.

After a month in Tahiti, the Arche d’Alliance sailed for Tutuila in Samoa, but nobody went ashore during the eight days’ stay, as the welcome received was anything but warm, as the Protestants were already established there. The Arche d’Alliance stayed one month in Apia, Samoa, setting up a trading post, as had been done in Tahiti, and visiting the Marist priest who had been alone for a year. In Apia the fine sailing boat of the ‘papists’ was greatly admired.

Finally the “little promenade on the ocean,” as she described it, was over, and Marie Françoise reached the goal of her missionary journey: Wallis, 23 October 1846 – 11 months after leaving France. 

“Françoise Perroton
First Woman Missionary in Wallis”

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