Peter Chanel was born in a small village near Lyons, France in 1803. Observing his simple piety and intelligence, his parish priest had him admitted to a church-sponsored school. Chanel eventually studied for the priesthood and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Belley in 1827. His mind was set on missionary work and after four years of parish ministry, he joined a recently formed religious community of missionary priests called the Society of Mary, the Marists. Father Chanel sought an assignment to a foreign mission, but instead was sent to teach in the local seminary where he soon became a spiritual director and the vice rector.
In 1836, the Marist congregation was assigned a vast area in the South Pacific for its mission work. Very little was known of the New Hebrides, the colonial name for the island group that now forms the nation of Vanuatu. But a delighted Father Chanel was appointed superior of a small group of missionaries that travelled to the area. They split up and Father Chanel went to the Island of Futuna, between Fiji and French Samoa, accompanied by a lay brother and an English layman. They were received by the island inhabitants with much hospitality and soon earned a great deal of respect for their care of the sick.
Once the missionaries learned the local language and began preaching directly to the people, the king of the islanders became disturbed that Christianity would pose a threat to his sovereignty. When his son asked to be baptized, the angered king sent warriors to assassinate Father Chanel. On April 28, 1841, Father Chanel was killed with an axe and his body cut up with knives.
Two weeks after the killing, a passing American trading ship took Father Chanel’s companions and others to New Zealand and safety. The French landed the following year to make official inquiries and to take Father Chanel’s remains with them. By the time of their arrival, however, the entire island nation had converted to Christianity.
Father Chanel was declared a martyr and was canonized in 1954. His relics were returned to Futuna in 1977.
Saint Peter Chanel’s feast day is April 28.