Protestant missionaries came back to Africa with the repatriated slaves with the aim of giving them support and helping them to find their feet. In Sierra Leone, they were absorbed into the Anglican Church and the American missionaries from different denominations integrated them into their Churches in Liberia.
In 1837, the Society for the Colonisation of Maryland in Liberia set itself up at Cape Palmas on the West coast of Africa. A settlement of 500 Americans, including 18 Catholics was set up in Harper. The repatriated slaves also set up a number of villages for themselves. Rome received a request for Catholic priests to be sent to Liberia and in 1842, a missionary team of two priests and a lay man arrived: Mgr. Edward Barron, the Vicar General of Philadelphia, John Kelly, a priest from New York, and Denis Pindar from Baltimore.
Mgr. Barron set up his mission between Harper and the new villages. In response to a request from Barron to Francis Libermann, the first missionaries of the Holy Heart of Mary arrived at Gorée on October 10, 1843. Their Society had only just been founded.
All these events gave rise to a renewed interest in the missions.
Decline and Renewal of Catholic Missions
The suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, the French Revolution, and political upheavals in the western countries led to a significant falling-off of Catholic missionary activity.
But between 1817 and 1827, Mother Javouhey sent the first groups of Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny to Bourbon, Senegal, Guyana and Sierra Leone, Martinique and elsewhere. In 1822, the French Protestants started the Society of Evangelical Missions, and in the same year, Pauline Jaricot founded the association of the Propagation of the Faith at Lyon.
All these events gave rise to a renewed interest in the missions. After some initial hesitation, the French bishops joined in the movement some 15 years later, just as Francis Libermann was launching the missionaries of the Holy Heart of Mary.
Eugène Tisserant, Frederic Le Vavasseur and Jacob Libermann all shared the same vocation.
Work for the Black People
Eugène Tisserant, Frederic Le Vavasseur and Jacob Libermann all shared the same vocation which had its roots in their meeting in 1836 at the Sulpician seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux in the suburbs of Paris.
Francis Libermann had been a Christian for ten years when he met the other two, having been baptized on Christmas Eve in 1826, changing his Jewish name to Francis Mary Paul.
Less than a year later, he had entered the seminary of Saint Sulpice to prepare to be a priest, but he had to give up the idea because of his bad health. He remained with the Sulpicians, living close to the philosophy students at Issy.
Frédéric was beginning his second stay in France, in the care of a missionary in Bourbon who was returning to Paris, Nicolas Wernet of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.
Frédéric could not settle down to scientific studies. He visited Bourbon to rejoin his family, but was very distressed by the plight of the slaves working in the family’s sugar plantation. He decided to become a priest in order to help the Creoles. He returned to Paris and asked to be admitted as a seminarian at Issy-les-Moulineaux, arriving there in June of 1836. It was then that he first met Francis Libermann.
Eugène Tisserant was the son of a French father and a Haitian mother. He and his family witnessed both slavery in practice and the beginnings of the anti-slavery movement. What he had seen of the humiliating way that the masters and their subordinates treated the slaves undoubtedly had a profound effect on him. He entered the seminary at Issy at the same time as Frédéric.
Five years later, in September 1841, the Society of the Holy Heart of Mary was founded for this very purpose.
Francis himself had experienced the pains of exclusion. He was thrown out of his family because of his conversion, barred from ordination because of his epilepsy: he was reduced to total poverty, owning nothing. He supported the ideas of Frédéric and Eugène but he did not see his future vocation in such a work.
In August 1837, he left Issy for the novitiate of the Eudists at Rennes, but he kept in touch with Le Vavasseur . By the end of 1839, Libermann had received some sort of enlightenment from God and he left Rennes definitively.
His two friends put him in touch with Fr. Desgenettes and the whole work was put in the hands of Our Lady of Victories. They decided to go ahead with the work for the black people and Francis set about preparing an explanatory memorandum for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome.
Libermann stayed in Rome during 1840, submitted his memorandum to the Cardinal Prefect of the Propagation of the Faith and then left everything in the hands of Providence.
While waiting, he wrote a commentary on the first twelve chapters of the Gospel according to St. John and made a pilgrimage on foot to Loretto and Assisi.
On his return to Rome, a conditional approval of the Work for the Black People was waiting for him. He went back to the seminary of Strasbourg in February 1841 to prepare for his ordination.
Libermann opened the novitiate of the Holy Heart of Mary at la Neuville-les-Amiens on September 27, 1841. There were two novices who were ready to be ordained priests.
Frédéric Le Vavasseur was sent to work among the black people of Reunion in February 1842. Eugène Tisserant set sail for the mission of Haiti. And in December of 1842, an appeal was made to the new congregation that would be of great significance for the future.
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