The charismatic and significantly lay nature of the PMS is clearly seen in the foundation of the Society of St Peter Apostle. In fact this society was born in France on the suggestion of the Vicar Apostolic of Nagasaki, Mgr. Cousin of the Paris Missions Ã‰trangÃ©res (MEP), who was convinced of the necessity of a local Clergy, that is, of priests who at that time were known as "indigenous Priests". Therefore this Society is particularly concerned with one of the most urgent necessities for the progress of evangelization: the education and formation of local Clergy through the construction and maintenance of seminaries in Mission lands.
To accomplish his plan to have a seminary in Japan for the spiritual and theological formation of Japanese Priests, Mgr. Cousin turns to a young lay woman Jeanne Bigard. Born in Normandy of a well-to-do family on 8 December 1859, Jeanne acquires from her mother Stephanie a profound interest in spiritual life and as a result develops a strong feeling for the needs of Gospel workers and particularly for missionary priests. Despite her shyness and delicate health, she would become deeply involved in this ideal which became the purpose of her whole life. For this reason she would visit all the dioceses of France and travel abroad as far as Rome.
After giving a large financial contribution to build the church of St Francis Xavier in Kyoto, on her father's death Jeanne sells everything and goes with her mother to live in two shabby rooms so that they can give everything they have to the missions. She keeps up a regular correspondence with missionaries and answers Mgr. Cousin's request promptly, devoting all her energies to collecting the funds necessary for his Japanese seminary. Jeanne used to say she was "pigheaded" on account of her tenacity in doing things, but soon her projects become so numerous and some last so long that she understands that without an organization she cannot perform her task of supporting the Missions. So between 1889 and 1896 she founds an Association that will later become the Society of St Peter Apostle. 1894 Jeanne Bigard publishes her first Manifesto addressed to all Christians in order to draw their attention to the importance of this work for the growth of the Catholic Missions. The Association's first Council of Administration meets and the first propaganda leaflet is published in 1896.
The official date of the Foundation of the Society of St Peter Apostle is 1889 in Caen, France. In 1901 the central office is moved to Paris and later to Fribourg in Switzerland to facilitate its civil recognition and to have a more autonomous administration of its funds. In 1920 its main office is moved to Rome. With the Encyclical Letter Ad extremas Orientis Leo XIII recommends the Work to all Christians and on 3 May 1922 Pius XI declares the Society of St Peter Apostle <> together with the previous two Societies. After the death of her mother Stephanie, on 5 January 1903, Jeanne falls into a state of deep depression which will transform her life into a painful Calvary. Aware of her situation, she entrusts the Society to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Fribourg. After being admitted several times to various hospitals and a deterioration of her state of mental health, Jeanne is taken to the sisters of St. Joseph in Alencon where she dies on 18 April 1934.
Jeanne Bigard will bequeath to the Church a keen awareness of the worldwide dimension of the missionary task, a clear consciousness of the importance of the local Clergy with a prophetic vision for the spiritual and human mobilization of the older Churches, with a view to solidarity with the young Churches: seeds of a missionary springtime that would blossom in all members of the Church in Mission.
The significance of her Work can be found in the words of St Paul: "How can they believe in him if they have never heard of him?" (Rom 10:14-15) The increase of indigenous Clergy finds its justification and necessity in Jesus' words: "As the Father sent me, so am I sending you" (Jn 20:21). In fact, as well as being based on the need for Gospel workers, the proclamation of the Gospel must also be based on the culture, religion, life and social organization of every people. All this is best known and used by the sons and daughters of this people, the native Clergy in their local Churches.
Recognized by the Church for its service to Mission, the POF has not only the title "Pontifical", but also "Episcopal". It is part of the Universal Church that co-ordinates missionary activity throughout the world, but it is also part of the Local Church that has the right and duty to "make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19). In fact for all the Pontifical Missionary Societies it is profoundly true that: "although they are the Pope's Works, they are also the Works of the entire Episcopate and of the whole People of God" (Paul VI, Message WMS 1968).