Our Founder, Melchior de Marion Brésillac
Melchior de Marion Brésillac was a passionate visionary whose challenges in missionary life seem very contemporary. He struggled against church and family opposition to his missionary goals. He believed strongly in equality and sought to establish local churches with indigenous clergy. He battled the “status quo” attitude of many of his fellow priests who opposed teaching and ordaining non-Europeans while they themselves enjoyed the privileges of social position. Unlike many other missionaries of his time, Brésillac also valued the artistry and culture of the people he served, and he urged his missionaries to do likewise. Learn more about this temperamental, talented man who remains the model for SMA today.
Melchior Marie Joseph de Marion Brésillac was born into a family of social position and prestige on December 2, 1813 in Castelnaudary, in the south of France. He was eldest of five children in a prominent Christian family that had suffered setbacks during the French Revolution. Young Melchior received his early education from his father. In 1832, he went to the minor seminary to complete his secondary education and realized his vocation to the priesthood.
Becoming a Priest and Missionary
Ordained to the priesthood December 22, 1838, Brésillac served briefly as a parish priest. He was appointed curate in the parish of Saint-Michel in the town of his birth, a comfortable position that many others would have enjoyed. However, the young priest felt dissatisfied and began to discern his calling to mission. It was not easy for him. Both his bishop and his father opposed his desire to become a missionary, but Brésillac was determined and consecrated himself totally to that calling. Eventually, his bishop gave in and supported his choice, but the opposition of his father was so strong that the young priest left to enter the seminary of the Paris Foreign Missions without even saying goodbye to his family. He remained at the seminary for nine months then was appointed to Pondicherry in India where he arrived July 24, 1842.
Missionary to India
During his 12 years in India, Brésillac served in many capacities: Curate at Salern, Superior of the minor seminary at Pondicherry; Bishop of Pruse; Pro-Vicar and finally Vicar Apostolic of Coimbatore. His rise was swift, achieving the rank of bishop at age 29. Through it all, he cherished the desire to train Indian priests. He wanted to establish an indigenous clergy, with their own hierarchy, capable of taking on responsibility for the missions, with Europeans acting only as assistants.
Obstacles and Challenges
Bishop Brésillac found his progressive ideas were strongly resisted by many of his fellow missionaries. He was also distressed by many of the cultural realities he discovered in India, particularly the “caste” system, a practice that assigned people to strictly defined social classes of “desirables” and “undesirables.” Brésillac felt it was the obligation of any Christian to reject a system that made outcasts of human beings. He was appalled that so many of his fellow priests did not agree. They accepted this system as part of the culture of the people and opposed his democratic desire to train local clergy. Dismayed by this attitude and by the conflicts that the opposing views created within the community of missionaries, the young bishop eventually resigned his post and returned to Rome.
The society of African Missions is Founded
Though deeply disappointed by the incident in India, Brésillac was undaunted in his missionary goals. While in Rome, he conceived his desire to bring the Gospel to “the most abandoned peoples of Africa.” With the approval of the Holy See, he founded the Society of African Missions on December 8, 1856 in Lyon, France. He spent the next two years recruiting and training his new missionaries. In 1858, the first SMA missionaries (priests and brothers) set out for what was the newly created Vicariate Apostolic of Sierra Leone in western Africa.
That first group was joined on May 14, 1859 by Brésillac who arrived with two more missionaries in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Sadly, all of the SMA missionaries there succumbed to a yellow fever epidemic that raged through Freetown. Reportedly, all but one of the missionaries were dead within weeks of arriving. Brésillac died June 25, 1859, only six weeks after he arrived in Africa. Despite the tragedy, the newly trained SMA missionary priests who had remained behind in France were still eager to go to Africa to carry out the mission started by their Founder. The work and vision of Brésillac continued under the care of his close friend and advisor, Fr. Augustin Planque.
The SMA Story Continues
Today, SMA is a thriving worldwide organization with international headquarters in Rome and missions that serve the people of Africa and those of African descent around the world. Committed to the vision of their founder, SMA missionaries work continuously to establish indigenous clergy wherever they serve. The practice of respecting and preserving the culture of the peoples served by SMA is also integral to the Founder’s vision. For that purpose, SMA maintains several fine museums and collections of African art in the United States and Europe. All are non-profit and serve primarily as bridges toward unity and understanding among diverse peoples.
Candidate for Sainthood
Since January 1928, the mortal remains of Bishop Brésillac have been interred in the chapel of the Society of African Missions in Lyon, France. He is a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and the inquiry for his beatification was concluded in May 2000. All documents were handed over to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and await further action.