The first full-length biography since the 19th century of a man whose name, it is said, deserves to be as well-known as that of Samuel Marsden in the history of New Zealand, has been completed.
“Jean-Claude Colin – Reluctant Founder – 1790-1875” by Fr Justin Taylor, SM, was introduced to this country at a function at Good Shepherd College in Ponsonby on November 15 — 143 years to the day since Colin’s death.

The biography, which runs to 1103 pages, took five years to write and 18 months to revise and prepare for publication.

The project started after the 2009 general chapter of the Society of Mary instructed the order’s general administration to “explore the possibility of re-opening the cause of beatification of Jean-Claude Colin”. A scholarly biography is required as a part of that process. Fr Taylor was asked to write it by his order’s superior-general.

Speaking at the Good Shepherd College function, Fr Taylor said that Fr Colin’s importance goes well beyond the Society of Mary.

“He sent to the southwest Pacific 15 missionary expeditions of priests and brothers, who laid durable foundations for the Catholic Church in New Zealand, Wallis and Futuna, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and New Caledonia. So Colin is one of those whose influence helped shape this part of the world.

“Professor Peter Lineham has written that ‘he deserves to be as well known a name as Samuel Marsden to New Zealand history’.”

Fr Taylor worked on the biography in Rome and in New Zealand. The latter part of this work took place at Good Shepherd College, where he has been “senior scholar in residence”.

Introducing Fr Taylor to the November 15 function, Good Shepherd College acting principal Fr Mervyn Duffy, SM, said the biography is “not hagiography”.

“Justin as biographer sets out to introduce us to a person. He does not tell us what to think or how to react to that person. He does want us to understand Jean-Claude and where he is coming from.”

Fr Duffy said there are controversies around some events in Marist history, with some strong opinions about things Colin did or did not do.

“Justin, as a biographer, puts the facts before us, alerts us to the positions held, clarifies misrepresentations and leaves us to make up our mind. There is not special pleading.”

“This is a work of scholarship,” Fr Duffy continued. “It is based on primary sources and a considerable body of research from the field of Marist Studies, which is meticulously referenced and appropriately acknowledged.”

But Fr Duffy also noted that “this is a work aimed at the general reader . . . it is not a dense or difficult read”, but rather “an absorbing read” with “beautiful, flowing English prose that carries you along so smoothly that you almost do not realise how much information it is conveying”.

“There is a narrative running through this, it is a story of a life, a life that is interesting, influential and which has impacted on our own rather more than we might expect.”

Fr Taylor said that during the writing of the work “Jean-Claude Colin revealed himself to me”.

“He did and said things I had not foreseen and which surprised me.”

Colin had qualities that made for human greatness, Fr Taylor continued, as well as holiness, yet he had many obvious foibles and faults, which were noticed by his contemporaries, even those who admired him. The founder was highly intelligent, with proven moral courage and was capable of inspiring great loyalty, yet he was also timid and socially awkward, could be hesitant and stubborn, was capable of contradicting himself and had
no magnetism or charisma. He meted out harsh treatment to some individuals who, Fr Taylor said, deserved better, “notably his old friend and confidant Jeanne-Marie Chavoin, foundress of the Marist Sisters”.

“If ‘Christian perfection’ means being a perfect human being — but I don’t think it does — then I’m afraid Colin wouldn’t qualify for sainthood,” Fr Taylor added.

But, referencing the title of the work “Reluctant Founder”, Fr Taylor noted that Colin took on a project that he had not initiated.

“All along, he saw himself as simply holding the fort until someone better suited to the role could take over; he made several attempts to resign [from being superior-general] until he was finally allowed to do so in 1854.”

“I believe he was a ‘servant of God’ in more than just a formal sense, one who, whatever his shortcomings, lived only for God.

“No plaster saint — the surface is too rough and uneven — but utterly real and human.”

Fr Taylor paid tribute to those who had previously written about Colin. Mention was also made of those who helped read over and check the biography. Among these were two deceased New Zealand Marists, Frs Noel Delaney and Craig Larkin.

The book is available through the ATF Press website, with versions ranging in cost from AUD$120.00 to AUD$70.00, plus shipping costs where applicable.