Founders Day at SMA Blackrock Road

FOUNDER’S DAY AT SMA HOUSE BLACKROCK ROAD

Bishop de Marion BresillacSMA celebrated Founder’s Day on 25 June 2005. On this day in 1859 the Founder of SMA died in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The occasion was marked at SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork with a special Mass concelebrated by the community. Two of the concelebrants of the Mass were Archbishop Michael Francis, Archbishop of Monrovia and Bishop Boniface Dalieh of Cape Palmas, both from Liberia which in 1859 was part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Sierra Leone, territory entrusted to the SMA and Bishop de Marion Bresillac.

The principal celebrant was Fr Tom Curran SMA, the Communications Director of the Irish Province. The following is the text of the homily he preached at the Mass.

FOUNDER’S DAY HOMILY: 25/06/05

This day, June 25 2005, marks the 146th anniversary of the death of the Founder of SMA. We have come together for this Eucharistic celebration to commemorate the death of the Bishop, Melchior Marie-Joseph de Marion Bresillac. His death coming just 2½ years after he founded the Society was an event of immense significance.

This day is a challenge to us:
– It raises the question about who we are as members of the SMA
– it challenges us to examine the significance of Freetown and its impact on SMA.

December 8 1856, as Brésillac and his companions came together at the shrine of Our Lady at Fourvieres in Lyon, was a profound moment for the history of the missionary movement in modern times. What was inaugurated there was to make an immense contribution to the development “spiritual and material” of Africa and her peoples. This is because, and we should have no doubt about it, the SMA has had a deep impact on Africa and has and is continuing to set its mark on the continent to which Bresillac and his followers were to dedicate their lives, their energies and their service.

Just two years after the Society was launched the first SMA missionaries arrived in Africa, at Freetown, Sierra Leone, at the heart of the Apostolic Vicariate entrusted to Bishop de Marion Bresillac. These two years had been spent publicising the new Society, setting up the seminary, fund-raising and making preparations for taking on the missionary work in Africa. Within two months of the arrival of Frs Louis Reymond and Jean-Baptiste Bresson and Brother Eugene, Bresillac himself set off to join them on mission in the company of Fr Louis Riocreux and Br Gratien Monnoyeur. On 14 May they reached Freetown. It was the fulfilment of his deep felt longing to continue the missionary apostolate he had had to abandon in India.

The town of Freetown was engulfed by an epidemic of yellow-fever. Despite the urging of the ship’s captain not to, Bresillac went ashore to meet his confreres.
Why wasn’t he more sensible?
Why did he have to go ashore into the disease-ridden land?
Why did he take what, in hindsight, many would see as the foolish option?

To attempt to answer these questions might prove futile. But he must have been motivated by his missionary commitment and his desire to go amongst his abandoned people in their hour of need. He most certainly may have been motivated by the pledges he himself had made on retreat earlier. These would be the guiding principles of his missionary life.

  • “To be a missionary from the depths of my heart”.
  • “To neglect nothing that might advance the work of God”.
  • “To seize every opportunity to preach the Gospel”.
  • “Finally, and it is for this that I especially implore Your blessing, O my God, to use all my strength, all my study and make every possible effort to contribute to the formation of an indigenous clergy”.

His earlier experience in India would have enriched the Founder in the missionary apostolate but would also have sharpened his own ideas about what the missionary ought to be engaged in. Of particular significance is his own reflection on the method of Jesus in coming first to the locals, the children of Israel. So Brésillac became deeply committed to the establishment of the indigenous clergy, first of all in India and then, later, this was to become a major part of his vision for the new society he founded.

If the formation of the indigenous clergy was to be a fundamental aspect of mission policy, the second aspect was his own commitment to reach out to the most abandoned giving rise to the SMA prioritising Primary Evangelisation as one of its principal targets.

These two aspects of the missionary apostolate were what shaped his attitude and determined his vision. They also were to determine the vision of SMA up to this very day.

  • The commitment to be involved in the local church ensuring it would be developed and managed by its own people
  • And the commitment to the most abandoned peoples of Africa

were to be enshrined in our policy-making and to be the basis for our SMA mission location and apostolate.

Today’s Gospel account describes Jesus commissioning his disciples – “Go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News to all creation”

Melchior de Marion Bresillac’s love for the continent to which he was to dedicate the work of the Society was to inspire and compel him to go ashore to be with the people he had come to serve” even if around him the advice he was given would have suggested staying safely on board ship.

It was the culmination of all his work over the previous decade’s for resources, for recruitment, for animation about mission. Now at last he had come to Africa, to his people, to his territorial see” And go ashore he must and he did. He was going to proclaim the Good News to the people entrusted to him.

And we know the rest. Fr Riocreux became ill and after a few days of fever he died on 2 June, aged 27. Meanwhile Fr Bresson too became ill and died on 5 June, aged 47. When Br Gratien became ill, Brésillac was already beginning to see the tragic end to his mission in Sierra Leone and even spoke about moving the mission further along the coast to Dahomey. When Gratien died on 13 June at the age of 29, Brother Eugene was sent back to France. By then Bresillac himself had become ill and though he seemed to respond to some medical treatment and to hold out hope of recovery, his condition deteriorated a few days later and by then Fr Reymond too was ill. Bishop Brésillac died on 25 June at the age of 46, and Fr Reymond three days later aged 36. A French trader was present as the bishop died and he recorded the final moments including the spoken words of the Founder “Faith, hope” and the uncompleted word “Charity” and finally his very last words – and not insignificant – “Thank you”.

The sacrifice that was to be so much a part of the SMA for the next fifty years had begun. That sacrifice at Freetown was to motivate and inspire men and later women to continue to come to Africa to fulfil the mission command of Jesus. What ended tragically in Freetown was to mark the beginning of a new phase of evangelisation that brought the message of Jesus Christ to the notorious West Coast of Africa and in time over the next 150 years to many other parts of that vast continent.

Today we look back and recall and remember. We remember the price that has been paid, we remember the generosity of so many of our confreres who have gone before us showing us an example and inspiring us not to spare ourselves in the service of God and in the bringing of the Good News to people who have not yet heard it. That work, that vision continues today. We ought to take pride in being part of it. And, for the privilege it is for us to be part of it, we too could make as our own message to God the very last words of Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac: “Thank You”.

[Fr Tom Curran sma]