Very soon after Eugene de Mazenod became a bishop he was begged by a Canadian bishop to send some of the Oblates to Canada. The Bishop of Montreal came to find missionaries to work in the vast mission fields of North America, amongst the Red Indian tribes in Canadian territory. By good fortune Bishop Bourget’s search brought him to Bishop de Mazenod. The Canadian Bishop explained his need to the French Bishop.
“Missionaries to work amongst the Indian population?” Bishop de Mazenod said. “But the foreign missions were not in our plans; and besides, I have so few priests whom I could send as Missionaries . . .”
“And I have so many, both white and Indian, who are poor and destitute in soul and body; so many crying out to hear the word of God . . .”
It was the appeal which Eugene de Mazenod had never been able to resist. Once again, as in those days amidst the poor of Aix a quarter of a century before, the call had come to him from the forgotten men of the world; and once again he remembered his long-ago resolution to bring the Gospel to the poor.
That day he put Bishop Bourget’s request before his Oblates. Of the forty-five members of the congregation every one volunteered. But six only were chosen. They embarked on 22nd October, a group of four Fathers and two Brothers. The work which began in that October of 1841 with such few numbers soon began to assume larger proportions.
Four years later, the Oblates left for Western Canada and the diocese of Saint Boniface and immediately launched into their ministry to the Amerindians. In a few years they spread out over the entire expanse of the prairies and the polar region in search of tribes which were still nomadic. In 1847, two new foundations were undertaken: one in the United States on the Pacific Coast and the other in Jaffna in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. In 1848, a mission was established in Algeria, a mission for which the Founder had been offering his services since 1832. In 1851, the failure of the mission in Algeria made it possible to accept a mission in Natal. In the meantime, from 1849 on, the Oblates had forged on to the Mexican border and three years later established themselves in Texas. A simple listing of the foundations is totally inadequate to reflect the daring that was called for here when we take into consideration the difficulties presented in travel and cultural integration as well as the tasks rapidly assumed in ever more extensive territories.
At the death of the Founder in 1861, the Oblates would have over four hundred members; they would be found on various continents.
Saint Eugene was very proud of his Oblates going overseas to preach the Gospel however he suffered a lot when the time was coming to farewell them. He found the separation most painful. Every time when the missionaries embarked a ship Eugene would climb the hill of Notre Dame de la Garde to watch the departing vessel as long as possible. As the ship was sailing away Eugene would pray for his spiritual sons and he would keep blessing them from the distance. Today in front of the Basilica overlooking the port of Marseille there is a statue of Mary holding in her arms the lifeless body of her son. It was erected to acknowledge the missionaries of foreign land who went there from Marseille. As I was standing on the platform supporting the statue and looking at the magnificent view of the port and the sea I meditated how well this monument expresses the feeling of St Eugene de Mazenod. He suffered when his Oblates were leaving like Mary who suffered at the death of her Son. However Eugene embraced Mary’s belief that it was necessary for the salvation of people.
This Sunday is Mission Sunday, let us pray for the Missionaries as we are looking at the photos recalling such a turning point in the life of the Oblates. Let's also remember that 22 of October is the anniversary of the departure of the first group of the Oblates for the foreign missions.