History of Oblates of Mary Immaculate
About the Founder
Born on August 1, 1782, in Aix-en-Provence in southern France, Eugene de Mazenod was a member of the French nobility. During his childhood, the French Revolution broke out, and the de Mazenod family was forced to live in exile in Italy for several years.
During his time of exile, Eugene had little formal schooling and was introduced to people and ideas that were both good and bad. In Venice, the young Eugene was befriended by Don Bartolo Zinelli, a priest who provided some opportunity for education. Don Bartolo also instilled the first thoughts of a religious calling in the mind of the 12-year-old Eugene. As a young man living in Palermo, Eugene was also introduced to a more worldly society, to a life of parties and materialism.
When the Revolution ended, Eugene’s mother and sister returned to France. However, Eugene chose to stay in Italy with his father, who was forced to remain in exile for political reasons.
After 11 years in exile, at age 20, Eugene returned to Aix at his mothers’ request. He struggled to reunite his family, especially his estranged parents who were eventually divorced in 1802. He also tried to regain the family’s holdings that had been lost during the revolution. Meanwhile, he experienced an inner struggle, wavering between the kind of social life he had enjoyed in Palermo and the priestly life he dreamed of.
At age 26, Eugene’s struggle to “find himself” ended when he entered the seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. After his ordination in 1811 at age 29, Fr. de Mazenod declined the first assignment offered to him, the prestigious position of Vicar General to the Bishop of Amiens. Instead, he asked to work with the poor, neglected, and abandoned people of Aix.
Fr. de Mazenod visited the sick and those in jail and reached out to the troubled youth of Aix. He also preached church missions to the poor, working-class people of Aix. Instead of the French used by members of the upper class, he spoke to them in their own Provencal dialect.
Realizing that he alone could not meet the needs of Aix’s many poor, Fr. de Mazenod invited other men to join in his work. He purchased a former Carmelite convent and its adjoining church for his future community. Soon, a small band of priests was formed, and they began preaching church missions throughout the French countryside, calling themselves the Missionaries of Provence.
When the success of their work led to requests for their services on a wider scale, de Mazenod took steps to form his co-workers into a religious congregation. In 1826, de Mazenod received approval from Pope Leo XII for his new congregation, placed them under the patronage of Mary and so they were known as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
In 1837, Fr. de Mazenod became the Bishop of Marseilles. The new bishop had many plans for his diocese, from realigning parish boundaries to fighting the government’s monopoly on education. While serving as bishop, Eugene de Mazenod continued to oversee his small congregation of priests in Aix and to plan their future.
In 1841, at the request of Bishop Bourget of Montreal, four Oblate priests and two brothers went to Canada and began the congregation’s missionary outreach. Soon, Bishop de Mazenod began receiving more requests for help. While seeking priests for his mission in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), one bishop was told to visit Marseilles where he would find a “bishop with a heart as big as St. Pauls’, as big as the world.”
Bishop de Mazenod was determined to answer every request for missionaries that he received. Before his death in 1861, his congregation of 416 men had spread to ten countries, including Canada, the U.S., England, Ireland, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. His message of service to others has inspired many men to answer the call to serve in Oblate missions throughout the world.
Efforts to have Bishop de Mazenod canonized began in 1926 and were rewarded with his beatification in 1975. The process continued, and on December 3, 1995, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him a saint of the Church.
The Oblates in Natal
In March 1850 Bishop de Mazenod was asked by the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda (now the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples) to take over the new Vicariate of Natal. The Oblates were already committed in many parts of the world and there was only a relatively small number of priests available.
Therefore he had to consider carefully whether to accept the offer. After a great deal of prayer and soul searching he accepted the offer. This meant that the Oblates would provide priests and brothers for the Natal Vicariate as well as financial assistance, send replacements or additional clergy when necessary and provide advice and guidance to men working thousands of kilometres from home in an unknown country.
Bishop de Mazenod’s first task was to appoint a vicar apostolic from amongst his priests. His first choice, Fr. Charles Bellon was ill and could not accept, so it fell upon his second choice, Fr. Jean-Marie Francois Allard who was in Canada at the time.
On the 13 July 1851 Fr Allard was consecrated Bishop of Samaria and Vicar Apostolic of Natal in the Marseilles cathedral. Bishop de Mazenod and Allard now set about selecting Bishop Allard’s companions and preparing for the voyage.
Two priest were selected – Frs Jean-Baptiste Sabon and Lawrence Dunne. There was also a scholastic brother, Julian Logegaray and a lay brother, Joseph Compin.
It was Fr. Sabon’s job to arrange for the transport of the party and the luggage from Marseilles to Natal.
On 13 November 1851 the ship La Providence with the party on board left Marseilles for Cape Town, which was reached on 19 January 1852. After a wait of 6 weeks in Cape Town the party left on the 26 February 1852 for Natal on the cutter The Gem and arrived at Port Natal on the 15 March 1852.
In Durban the Bishop and his party spent the first few days with Edward and Leontine Snell, while they looked for suitable accommodation, and it was in their house that the Bishop offered the first mass. Bishop Allard then rented a small house in Smith Street and turned the largest room into a chapel; and the Catholics of Durban, having heard that their Bishop had arrived, attended mass there on the 19 March 1852, the feast of St. Joseph.
(“The Oblates in Natal” Adapted from and for further reading see “The Catholic Church in Natal over 150 years by Prof. Joy Brain.)