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Boismenu, Alain Marie Guynot de (1870–1953)

by James Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Alain Marie Guynot de Boismenu (1870-1953), Catholic missionary bishop, was born on 27 December 1870 at St Malo, Brittany, France, son of François Guynot de Boismenu and his wife Augustine Marie, née Thomas. Educated at St Malo and in Antwerp, he joined the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in 1886, was ordained on 10 February 1895, and was soon rewarded for zeal as a seminary professor with a posting to British New Guinea. Arriving at Yule Island on 25 January 1898, he was appointed counsellor and became virtual substitute for the ailing vicar apostolic, Archbishop Louis-Andre Navarre (1836-1912), as well as pro-vicar general and deputy superior. The mission suffered from an inappropriate European parochial system, from the government's confining 'spheres of influence' policy and from competition from the heretics of the London Missionary Society. Navarre thought a push to the mountains impossible, but in 1899 Boismenu entered the Fuyuge hinterland. The party was saved from massacre only by sang-froid: they refused to use guns 'in order to show we were not double-minded when we said we were men of peace', and thus retreated. On his return Boismenu found that he had been appointed co-adjutor to Navarre and titular bishop of Gabala; he was consecrated in Paris in 1900. He succeeded Navarre in 1908 in what became the vicariate apostolic of Papua in 1922.

By 1900 Boismenu had won the mountains for the Sacred Heart. The mission was reorganized with a system of head stations under directors. The functions at headquarters were also more carefully defined, while systematic annual reports were elicited from the districts and carefully sifted for future planning. From 1898 to 1945 the mission grew from five districts of 8000 people with 2400 adherents to eleven districts of 65,000 with 23,500 adherents, and had new centres at Onongge (1913), Port Moresby (1915), Toaripi (1927) and Samarai (1932).

Boismenu did not envisage any rapid progress towards political autonomy for Papuans, but his episcopacy was humane and practical. Recruits included the controversial stigmatic and mystic Marie Thérèse Noblet, the World War I air-ace Lucien Bourjade ('Le Papou'), the publicist André Dupeyrat and a community of contemplative Carmelite nuns. More concerned to redeem communities than to convert individuals, Boismenu concentrated on an elite of young Christians. By 1933 his catechists numbered 219, and an order of local nuns — the Handmaids of the Lord (fostered by Noblet) — flourished.

His administration kept religion as its central focus. Financial deficits were overcome more by austerity than by means of plantations, which tended to identify missionaries with European exploiters. Boismenu promoted primary and technical education, and pupils increased from 800 in 1898 to 7000 in 1945. By 1932 forty-eight 'graduates' were employed by the Papuan administration. Education was in English to ensure ability to participate in the wider community.

At the Australasian Catholic Congress in Melbourne in 1904 Boismenu had hoped to win support for 'liberty of conscience' against the 'Erastian' 'spheres of influence' policy. He declared that even compared to Polynesians, the Papuan 'was unquestionably of an inferior nature … which has lived too long a prey to original sin'. He told the 1906-07 royal commission that the Papuans were 'children'. This attitude may explain his inability to respond adequately to the papal call for an indigenous clergy: only two candidates were presented for the priesthood during his episcopacy. In 1918 Joseph Taurino, significantly part-Polynesian, was sent to France but died in 1922. In 1928 Louis Vangeke (created bishop in 1970) was sent to Madagascar for his studies; abandoned in infancy, he had lived only with missionaries. Vangeke was never given a parish of his own nor did he work among his Mekeo group as a pastor, but he continued to revere Boismenu as a saint.

He retired in 1945, was especially commended by Pope Pius XII and made archbishop of Claudiopolis in Honoriade. He lived out his remaining years 'in almost eremetical retirement among the citrus tress in the green valley of Kubuna'. Boismenu died there on 5 November 1953. Jesus-bearded, gaunt and bright-eyed, he seemed a living ikon of Christian benignity. Paul Claudel called him 'that lion-hearted bishop worthy of the most dazzling ages of the Church' and the poet James McAuley saw him as 'the man who most exemplified greatness', with 'a rare sanctity and unerring spiritual discernment'. His grave at Kubuna is a place of pilgrimage.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Grimshaw, Adventures in Papua with the Catholic Mission (Melb, 1913)
  • A. Dupeyrat, Papouasie: Histoire de la Mission, 1885-1935 (Paris, 1935), and Papuan Conquest (Melb, 1948)
  • A. Dupeyrat and F. de la Noe, Sainteté au Naturel (Paris, 1958)
  • P. Ryan (ed), Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, vols 1, 2 (Melb, 1972)
  • Royal Commission into … Papua, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1907
  • J. McAuley, ‘My New Guinea’, Quadrant, 5 (1960-61), no 3
  • private information.

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Citation details

James Griffin, 'Boismenu, Alain Marie Guynot de (1870–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boismenu-alain-marie-guynot-de-5281/text8905, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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