The founder of the SMA, Melchior de Marion Brésillac was born in Castelnaudary in the south of France, on 2 December 1813, into a family of social position and prestige which had suffered setbacks during the French Revolution. He was the eldest of five children. His father was an engineer and inspector on the Canal du Midi.
Early Life and Ordination
He received his early education from his father. Then in 1832 he went to the minor seminary to complete his secondary education and to realise his vocation to the priesthood.. Melchior was ordained a diocesan priest on 22 December 1838. After his ordination, he was appointed curate in the Church of St Michel in his native town of Castelnaudary. This was a comfortable position that many others would have enjoyed. However the young priest felt dissatisfied and began to hear a calling to Mission. This was not easy as both his bishop and his father were opposed to his desire to become a missionary. But de Brésillac was determined and eventually his bishop consented, but his father remained opposed. In 1841 he left his parish to follow a missionary vocation in the Paris Foreign Missionary Society (Missions Etrangeres de Paris – MEP) without saying farewell to his father. After nine months he was appointed to India and arrived in Pondicherry on 24 July 1842.
Before leaving he made a retreat and wrote down the following resolutions:
to be a missionary from the bottom of my heart
to neglect nothing that will advance the work of God
to seize every opportunity of preaching the Word of God
lastly, and it is for this above all that I implore Your blessing, to use every available means, all my strength, all my mind, towards the training of a native clergy.
Life in India
He spent 12 years in India from 1842 to 1854. Having spent some months learning the Tamil language in Pondicherry, he was appointed curate of Salem, and then afterwards was put in charge of the minor seminary of Pondicherry (now in Bangalore).
From the beginning, the caste system was of major concern to him. Preaching a Gospel, which championed the equality of everyone before God, he was shocked and angered by a system where a person’s worth was determined by birth. He was even more shocked and angered to see the Church condoning it. His attempts to question the system met with bitter opposition.
His ability, both as a pastor and seminary rector, was widely recognised and within four years of arriving in India he was appointed Pro-Vicar, and later Vicar Apostolic of Coimbatore. One of his first initiatives was the opening of a diocesan seminary. He gave much of his attention to this, visiting it regularly, giving talks and retreats to the seminarians.
At this time there was discussion on using some customary practices in the liturgy regarding the Malabar Rites and the caste system but there was no agreement as to which customs were acceptable and which were not. De Brésillac wanted the whole question studied thoroughly and clear directives issued by the Holy See on which customs were acceptable and which were not. He insisted upon the need to form a native clergy and hierarchy so that the missionaries could move on and engage in primary evangelization elsewhere. But these ideas ran counter to those of many of his priests. These thought that the native Indians were not yet capable of the intellectual and moral standards required.
Eventually In 1854 he came to Rome to make his case in person and to offer his resignation if there was no movement on the issue. Both the Pope and the Secretary for Propaganda Fide (the Congregation responsible for the Missions) listened attentively to what he had to say but in the end wanted to leave things as they were rather than stir up a hornet’s nest. De Brésillac asked to be allowed to resign as bishop. This was painful for him. Right through his life the one thing he wanted above all else was to do the will of God. Even after a lot of soul searching and prayer he could not be sure:
‘Have I been exact in listening to your voice, O God? Have I been faithful in obeying you? Is it in obedience to you that, after long years spent in India, I am now furling my sails.. or have I listened to myself?’
After spending some time with his family, he visited the headquarters of the Paris Foreign Mission Society and soon after received word from Rome that his resignation as bishop of Coimbatore had been accepted. The restlessness for mission was still with him. He wrote to the Secretary of Propaganda Fide asking that he might become an active missionary again. God, he believed, was calling him to be a missionary and he wanted to remain one to the end of his life. He again offered himself for mission, suggesting the interior of the West Coast of Africa.
Founding the Society of African Missions
His proposal was accepted in principle but Rome did not want him to go alone; they wanted him to found a society of missionaries for this work. On 29 February 1856, Rome gave him permission to found a society of missionaries but stressed that the road ahead would not be an easy one. With this permission in his hand he left Rome to begin the next part of his journey recruiting candidates and funds.
His community gradually grew. On 8 December 1856, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he led this small group of 6 to the shrine of Our Lady of Fourviere in Lyons, France. There he consecrated the Society to Our Lady and together this small group dedicated themselves to the work of the African Missions. Ever since the Society has celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December as its Foundation Day. The first group of three priests set sail for Sierra Leone on 4 November 1858.
West Africa and Death
De Brésillac then prepared for his own departure. He arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone on 14 May 1859 as the first Vicar Apostolic of Sierra Leone. He was accompanied by one priest and one brother. A cloud of gloom hung over the place as smallpox was devastating the African population and yellow fever the Europeans. On 2 June one of the first group who had been ill for a number of days, died. Three days later a second priest died suddenly and unexpectedly. Twelve days later one of the brothers died and a second one returned to France, leaving de Brésillac and just one priest. On 25 June 1859 de Brésillac died leaving only a critically ill Fr Reymond behind. There was no priest to offer a funeral Mass for the bishop or bless his grave. A protestant minister read the prayers over his grave.
Our picture shows a small Chapel built in the Freetown cemetery where the Founder and his companions were buried until their remains were removed to the SMA House in Lyons, France. It was blessed by Archbishop Ganda of Freetown & Bo, successor of Bishop de Brésillac in 2009.