François and Christine Coillard – A Love Story

François and Christine Coillard – A Love Story

            When François Coillard first introduced himself as a teacher to the people of Leribé, in today’s Lesotho, they looked at him in disbelief. “The Teacher!” one of them said. “And what should he teach? He is a young man. He has neither wife nor beard.”[1]

            Immediately, Coillard determined to let his beard grow. Finding a wife would take a little longer.

François Coillard

            François Coillard was born in 17 July 1834 in Asnières-les-Bourges, Cher, France, the youngest of seven children, to a family of Huguenot descent. His father died when François was only two, leaving his mother nearly destitute.

            Before Coillard could attend the local Protestant School, he had to work as a gardener to help his family. He later attended Strasbourg University, where he joined the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS or, in French, Société des Missions Evangéliques de Paris). He trained under Eugène Casalis (1812-1891), another Frenchman of Huguenot descent, who had been working in Basutoland (in today’s Lesotho) on invitation of King Moshoeshoe I (1786-1870). Coillard was ordained in 1857 and assigned to the mission in Lesotho.

            He arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, the same year, on the eve of a war between Moshoeshoe of Basutoland and the white settlers (Boers) of the Orange Free State, which left the French mission station in ruins. Finding ways to maintain peace with the white settlers was a reason why Moshoeshoe had invited the missionaries in the first place.

            After the war, Moshoeshoe asked Coillard to build a new missionary station in Leribé, in a territory ruled by the king's son, Malapo. There was plenty of work to keep him busy. But his heart was partly pulled in another direction.

Christina Mackintosh

            Christina Mackintosh was born in Greenock, Scotland, on a “tempestuous” November night in 1829. She was a very passionate, strong-willed child, prompting her father to say, “Christina was born in a storm and will live in a storm.”[2] Determined to test everything she was taught, she once challenged the strict Sabbatarian custom of her family by sewing on a Sunday afternoon, waiting to see if God would bring down fire. Eventually, she realized that the Lord’s Day can be honored out of love rather than fear.

            As a teenager, she often visited the slums of Edinburgh, ignoring any danger. Once, she took her sister along, gave her coat to a poor family, and encouraged her sister Kate to do the same. The girls didn’t get punished. Giving to the poor was encouraged in their home.

            Finally, attending a lecture by the missionary Robert Moffat (1795-1883), convinced Christina that she should become a missionary as well.

            Her enthusiasm was dampened by the death of her oldest brother, Daniel. For a while, she questioned God but couldn’t bring herself to speak about it with anyone else. Finally, faith resurfaced in her heart. To her sister, who had gone through a similar experience, she could recall “the unspeakable joy I felt at the moment I could say, ‘Lord, I believe.’”[3]

François and Christina

            François and Christina first met in Enghien-les-Bains, France, at the home of a friend of the family, Madame André Walther. Madame Walther was a patron of the arts who provided refuge and support to many Protestants. She hosted a presentation by François about the missionary work in Africa. Christina was fascinated by his stories. François was mesmerized by her presence. After he returned to Africa, he sent her a marriage proposal through Madame Walther, since Christina’s father had died.

            Of Christina’s relatives, only Kate encouraged her to accept. Everyone else said that Christina shouldn’t bury her talents in Africa. She was needed in Europe, where she had been working among the poor as a teacher and a nurse. Besides, her family didn’t think her personality was fit for “a missionary, whose wife had to be a domesticated character, and that only.”[4]

            She finally listened to her family, and declined François’s offer. But François couldn’t get her out of his mind. Two years later, he repeated his proposal. By this time, she had come to believe this was God’s will for her life, and said yes.

            But leaving her present work, her family, and her friends was not easy. François understood. “I do not know that I could do what you are doing, giving up all for an unknown country and an almost unknown husband. … May I … by my constant love fill all the empty places in your heart.”[5]

            Before leaving, Christina visited François’s mother who still lived in Asnières, and who gave Christina some of the letters François had written over the years – a long, loving correspondence that continued until her death. François was happy when he heard what his mother had done. He thought the letters might comfort Christina “by assuring her that an affectionate son would not be an unloving husband.”[6]

            She cried when she left and cried again a few times on her way to Africa. It must not have been easy for her to arrive unattended in Cape Town. Through a misunderstanding, François was waiting for her in Port Elizabeth, almost 500 miles away. When François found out, he raced overland rather than taking a ship, earning the rebuke of the Director of the Missionary Society for having placed his life in peril.

            Christina’s first words to François were: “I have come to do the work of God with you, whatever it may be.”[7] They were married on 26 February 1861 in Cape Town. She kept her word and devoted her life to the mission. They never had any children.

A Missionary Team

            François and Christina worked as a team in the African mission, traveling around Africa, helping the people of the villages where they lived, teaching the Scriptures and practical skills, and caring for the sick. For some time, Christina homeschooled her husband’s niece Elisa, who had become orphan and was sent to live with them, and participated in some of the meetings with local leaders. “She has a power of judgment worth ten men,”[8] François wrote.

            It was not an easy life. Many kings refused to listen. Some threatened to kill them. The kings who welcomed them did so mostly for political reasons, because they needed someone to help them in their negotiations with the Boers, who were rather unfriendly and shut down the missionary operation twice.

            At one point, François and Christina found themselves in the middle of a coup, and their friendly relations with the usurper backfired when the legitimate king took back his throne. Besides these setbacks and political intrigues, they had to frequently travel through dangerous regions. Illness, insects, and poverty were a constant reality. Their diet was limited to what was available, and they often had to sleep in a wagon.

            The locals were not always grateful. When Christina, recovering from an illness, told a local princess she couldn’t sew a dress for her, the princess replied, “What are you here for if it is not to make dresses for us?”[9]

            In spite of this, they persevered. Even after they François’s serious illness forced them to return to Europe, they only stayed there long enough to recuperate. “We must remember that it was not by interceding for the world in glory that Jesus saved it,” François wrote. “He gave Himself. Our prayers for the evangelization of the world are but a bitter irony so long as we give only of our abundance, and draw back before the sacrifice of ourselves.”[10]

            And yet, once in a while they found great reason for joy. When a man from the seemingly indifferent Morotsi tribe started to cry bitterly because “he felt himself such a sinner,” Christina was shocked. “A Morotsi weeping, and weeping for his sins!” she said. “I thought a Morotsi had no tears to shed! It is a sight I would have traveled a thousand miles to see.”[11] The man, Mokamba, became a Christian. Later, he was chosen as Prime Minister of his tribe.

            For Christina, this joy didn’t last long. She fell prey to a tropical fever and died a few days later, on 28 October 1891. “This place had been to her the post of duty and suffering, François wrote, “but for me, what solitude!” François continued his missionary work until his death, also from fever, on 27 May 1904.

            François’s moving letters were collected and translated into English by his niece Catherine Winkworth Mackintosh. They became immediately popular for their warmth and sincerity.

[1] C. W. Macintosh, Coillard of the Zambesi, London: T. Fisher 1907, 61

[2] Ibid., 91

[3] Ibid., 93

[4] Ibid., 96

[5] Ibid., 97

[6] Ibid., 108

[7] Ibid., 100

[8] Ibid., 237

[9] Ibid., 375

[10] Ibid., 460

[11] Ibid., 376


Simonetta Carr