JOHN MARX | Catholic Church of PNG & Solomon Islands
FATHER ANTOINE FOURNIER MSC (1926-2013) was one of our great missionaries and it looked like God had prepared him for his mission from a very early age. He was born at Bramois in the canton of Valais, Switzerland, on 13 October 1926 to a poor but very pious family.
He was the sixth child of 18, of whom one became a priest, three were Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and one a lay missionary. From the tender ages of eight to 12 Antoine was separated from his family for six months each year and sent in solitude to mountain pasture. There he lived a frugal life, worked in the fields and slept on straw.
For most of his time in Papua New Guinea, Father Fournier worked as a missionary in the diocese of Bereina to which, after an extended rest in France to regain his physical and spiritual strength, he returned in 1989.
Usually a missionary is not alone, he belongs to a community which supports him, but Antoine did not feel at ease in a community and longed for the large spaces as in the time of his childhood.
His preferred mission was the evangelisation of people who never heard of Jesus Christ and the Good News, and this explains his pioneering role in the mission.
He had also a natural aptitude to communicate with anybody and it did not take long for him to address with familiarity any person he talked with.
He was the first to go to the Kukukuku people, who had the reputation of headhunters and who the Australian colonial Administration only began to control from 1961 on.
At that time it was not without danger to venture to the Dameas in Kaintiba. But Father Fournier went with two lads who he called catechists but who had no catechetical formation. He opened the large district of Kotidanga, which now comprises five parishes, one-third of the diocese of Kerema.
Then in 1990 he threw himself into the conquest of the west. The Catholic Church was not present in the district of Kikori because of lack of funds and personnel. Protestant sects and churches anyway occupied the whole territory.
Antoine daringly settled into an old abandoned house right in the centre of the town of Kikori. He dug a cavern that he used for his chapel, and for over a year lived a semi-hermitical life.
But since he related well with the people and managed to get a piece of land where one of his friends, a companion of the Duty and the Tour de France, built him a beautiful presbytery, which his nephew, little Antoine, fitted out. From these humble beginnings the Catholic Church is now present in the district of Kikori and fast expanding.
Over the years, Antoine acquired a reputation as a builder. It began in Kamulai where the whole station, originally built of bush material, was old and rotten. The presbytery was about to collapse and the Bishop asked Antoine to fix it.
He decided to build a house of brick, which had never been done in the Goilala Mountains. The bishop claimed it was madness; there he is again with his eccentricities. But Antoine persisted, even though it meant bringing the cement by air and dropping it on to the station. It was of course at great cost.
On his next visit the Bishop was amazed to see the new presbytery and ordered Antoine to go to Kerema to show Fr Michellaud this building method, because he was about to build his first church in Kerema. Finally it was Antoine who built it with the help of the police, who sent the prison inmates to make his bricks.
Antoine was a little man but had an extraordinary energy so he was often branded a daredevil. If he fell from a horse, he immediately jump back and gallop away. He rolled his car, found his glasses, took the steering wheel and drove home in the rain without a windscreen.
He fell from a tractor when a bridge collapsed into a creek, but survive. At 68 he still climbed on to the roof of the elevated water tank much to the consternation of onlookers.
When he needed to drain the land where the presbytery stood, he dug the deep drains himself. Once he went six meters deep in search of a spring, a risky enterprise, but he found it.
He did not hesitate to undertake the long trip from Kerema to Kikori in a dug out log. He ventured into the sea and the multiple creeks with it, in places where one could easily be lost. He spent more than one night in his log waiting for the dawn to see where he was.
Antoine was a rough man; he did not know how to spare himself, being always a little extravagant. But he had a soft heart.
Without bothering too much about canon law and regulation, his faith and his piety were deep, his dedication to the bishop entire and he had a special devotion to St Joseph, to whom he attributed all his successes.
Finally in 1994 fatigue and sickness got the upper hand and he decided to return to France.
Fr Antoine Fournier MSC died at Marseille on 23 August 2013 at the age of 87. May God bless his soul and let perpetual light shine on him forever.
Bishop John Paul Marx MSC is Emeritus Bishop of Kerema