FR AUGUSTIN PLANQUE – (1826 -1907)
Background and Early Life
Augustin Planque was born on 25 July 1826 at Chemy in northern France and grew up in a hard-working, thrifty, Catholic family imbued with a strong faith.
At the age of thirteen, he went to live at Lille with his maternal grand aunt who offered to help him pursue his studies and who had a profound influence on his life. A deeply religious woman, she taught him how to meditate daily on the Our Father – a prayer which remained his favourite for the rest of his life.
Seminary and Ordination
The young Augustin was very religious and from an early age considered becoming a priest. It was no surprise for his family when he went to the Minor seminary at Cambrai and subsequently the Major seminary. After his ordination on 21 December 1850, he was appointed to teach philosphy in the Seminary at Arras, where he spent five years.
Joining the SMA as a Missionary
Though happy in the teaching field. Augustin yearned for the life of a missionary in darkest Africa. The opportunity presented itself when Monsignor Melchior de Marion Brésillacadvertised that he wanted to found a Society for the evangelisation of the most abandoned countries of Africa. Augustin offered his services and was readily accepted by de Brésillac. He arrived in Lyons in November 1856 just prior to the official launch of the new Society of African Missions on 8 December of that year.
Two years later, de Brésillac with his first missionary party set sail for Freetown, Sierra Leone. Within weeks of landing a fever ravaged Freetown and the little group succumbed to Yellow Fever.
The tragic news reached Lyons in August 1859 overwhelming Augustin with “incredible sadness”. Advised by the local Archbishop to abandon any further development of the Society, he recalled the advice of de Brésillac before he he left: “if the sea and its rocks were to make this year my last, you would be there to see that the work did not get shipwrecked too“. Sustained by his deep faith and courage, convinced of his belief in the mission work, and strengthened by the blessing of Pope Pius IX – “Blessed be God, the work will live” – he set about guiding the young Society of African Missions.
Candidates began to arrive and a new seminary was opened in 1861, the same year that young SMA missionaries, following in the footsteps of their founder, left for Dahomey. They were to be the first of many who were to give their lives in the service of the Gospel on the west coast of Africa. Under Planque’s direction the mission was expanded from Ouidah to Porto Novo in Dahomey, to Lagos and up country to Abeokuta in Nigeria and later to Ghana, Egypt and South Africa. The expansion of the work into countries under “British” rule gave rise to a demand for English-speaking missionaries so he set about extending the recruitment drive to Ireland in 1876 and saw the opening of the first Irish house of the SMA in Cork in 1878.
Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles
As the mission developed, the need for women religious was keenly felt. After making several unsuccessful attempts to recruit women religious, Fr Planque founded the Congregation of Our Lady of Apostles in 1876 in Lyons, France. An international group of French and Irish women formed the nucleus of the new foundation whose specific charism is mission, always mission and mission principally for Africa, with specific emphasis on the formation of women and children.
The first group of OLA missionaries went to Lagos (Nigeria) in 1877, the following year, 1878, to Dahomey (today Republic of Benin) and to Egypt in 1881. By degrees the Congregation expanded throughout Nigeria, Ghana, North Africa, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as well as Lebanon.
Wherever the Sisters went, they responded to the most pressing needs, usually by setting up schools, clinics and hospitals. Visits to villages, to homes and to prisons were also a very important aspect of the mission. Following in the spirit of the Founder, OLA Sisters have lived mission as seen by Fr Planque: “there is only one mission – Christ’s. There is only one way of accomplishing it – that of the Apostles empowered by the Spirit who would never cease urging them to travel the world.”
As ardent and simple followers, they would be prepared to risk all, even life itself, to spread the Kingdom. “You have been chosen by God to continue in your own way the work Jesus Christ confided to His Apostles. Could any task please Him more?” (Fr Planque). Augustin’s message was simple: he wanted the Sisters “to make God known and loved”…
Difficulties at home
Now Father Planque had to guide the administration of two institutes. First of al there was the daily worries about the resources needed for those in training and for those in Africa. All his life, Planque had to be directly involved, notably by his untiring search for funds in the city of Lyons. Then in 1870 France experienced a wave of anti-clericalism and all congregations were supressed by law. But Planque saved both institures by underlining the “civilizing” character of missionary work. Then he had to survive internal accusations of incompetence from other SMAs who mounted a campaign against him. Even the Archbishop of Lyons began to doubt his ability. Profoundly hurt, Planque thought of resigning. However, supported and encouraged by his friend, Bishop Fava of Grenoble, he worked through the suffering and difficulties and finally the situation became more agreeable.
The writing of the Constitutions of the Society also brought much internal difficulties for Planque. They were finally approved in 1990. The Constitutions of the OLA were finally approved in 1904.
First SMA Bishop
Despite all the obstacles the SMA grew. In 1891 Father Chausse was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Benin, the first SMA bishop after the Founder. In 1895 he was succeeded as Vicar Apostolic by Paul Pellet. In 1902 Bishop Pellet was elected Vicar General of the Society and became an outstanding collaborator with Planque in his final years.
Father Planque died on 21 August 1907. He was 81 years old. He had spent fifty years in the Society of African Missions and had governed the Society for forty-eight of those years. He was buried on the hill of Fourviere where fifty years earlier de Brésillac had consecrated the SMA to Our Lady. In 1927 Planque’s remains were brought to the SMA Seminary in Cours Gambetta, Lyons where they are to this day.