Augustine Planque, born in Chemy in northern France, grew up in a hard-working, thrifty, Catholic family. As a child he went to live with his aunt Poupard who had a profound influence on him as it was she who taught him how to pray and meditate. Later he felt called to study for the priesthood and he was ordained in 1850. The young Fr Planque soon recognised that he was being called to leave his family and country and venture out to a mission in distant lands, an undertaking for which nothing in his life had prepared him.
An opportunity presented itself when he read that Monsignor de Marion Bresillac was appealing for volunteers to join him in his new venture to found the Society of African Missions. He arrived in Lyons in November 1856, just in time for the launch of the new Society of African Missions on 8 December of that year.
Augustine longed to go to Africa, but the Founder, Monsignor de Marion Bresillac, insisted he stay at home while he and a few others travelled to Sierra Leone. Sadly, this small group of first missionaries succumbed to yellow fever within weeks of their arrival. Despite the advice of the local bishop to abandon the Society, Augustine assumed the leadership bringing his unique leadership qualities, a sound judgment, a gift for analysing and foreseeing situations – enabling him to plan future routes, and a capacity to serve. In particular, he brought his deeply rooted faith which grounded him in humility and simplicity.
Fr. Planque’s strongest opposition to the civil powers of the time was in his fight against slavery and he was instrumental in liberating a large number of people and saving their lives.
The missions of the SMA now extended along the West African Coast from Ouidah to Lagos. But the missionary priests had come to realise that their mission was limited by having to be confined to men.
To reach the women of West Africa, women missionaries were essential. Father Planque had tried to get volunteers from existing congregations of nuns. However, the mission for which he was pleading was difficult. Added to the dangers of living in one of the world’s most deadly climates were hazards of frequent wars – with no roads, no bridges, no telephones, no police force!
Father Planque’s appeal was a challenge to be heard by only the most daring. A group of Franciscan Sisters for the Propagation of the Faith (Lyons) had volunteered and had for some years been working in the SMA missions. But their Congregation, having its own work elsewhere, was not able to give sufficient numbers or ensure continuity. Father Planque was in an impossible situation. “There are missionaries for every mission in the world. There are none as yet, at least no women missionaries for West Africa” (Mgr. Caillot). Father Planque appealed to the Holy Father for the help of a congregation of nuns, the reply he got was: “You want nuns. Well, make them!”
As Superior General of the SMA, a young and rapidly growing missionary Society, Father Planque already had more than a lifetime’s work on his hands. But he also had strong faith and trust in God; and since his mission demanded nuns, he would “make” them. As a first step in the big venture of founding a new congregation of nuns, he published an appeal in the “Annals of the Propagation of Faith.” France and Ireland gave the first response, and the first group came to form the nucleus of the new Congregation. Added to the new novices were eight of the Franciscans who had worked on the West African missions.
Appropriately, Father Planque placed his little group under the protection of the Queen of Apostles. Recalling the day before Pentecost, when the Apostles were gathered in prayer with the Mother of Jesus, they chose from Acts 1:15 a little phrase which was to be their motto: “With Mary the Mother of Jesus”.
As early as 1877 the first Sisters arrived in Lagos (Nigeria), the following year they came to the Republic of Benin and to Egypt in 1881.
Wherever the Sisters went, they responded to the most pressing needs, usually by setting up schools, clinics and hospitals. Visits to villages, to homes and to prisons were also a very important aspect of the mission. By degrees the Congregation spread to Ghana, Ivory Coast, North Africa, Algeria and Tunisia, and to Lebanon.
Today OLA Sisters are found in nineteen countries across Africa, the Middle East, North America, South America and Europe, where they respond to the emerging needs of our complex world – a world where there is violence and unjust structures leading to poverty, trafficking of women and children, HIV and AIDS, street children and where they promote peace with justice through interreligious dialogue.
Augustine was a man of deep faith comparable to that of Abraham who left all and went into exile. His faith was that of the Apostles rooted in Christ. His focus was “Mission, always Mission”. He constantly encouraged the Sisters to “know and love God in order to make God known and loved!” For him there was only one mission – Christ’s.
Father Planque died on 21 August 1907 at the age of 81. He is buried on the hill of Fourviere where fifty years earlier de Brésillac had consecrated the SMA to Our Lady. In 1927 Planque’s remains were brought to the SMA Seminary in Cours Gambetta, Lyons where they remain to this day.