Bishop Melchior de Marion Bresillac, who had served for a time as a bishop in India, felt the call to found a congregation specifically for Africa and he returned to France to do so. From small beginnings in Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa, through great sacrifice, it gradually grew in size to become the international and cross-cultural reality of today.
From the founding of the Society of African Missions in Lyon, France, in 1856, the lay apostolate (or call to service) has been an integral part of the Society. Lay Brothers were among the five missionaries who accompanied the Founder, Bishop Bresillac, on his first mission to Africa in 1859. Lay Brothers, Volunteers and Catechists have always been an essential part of the missionary endeavor since that time.
The American Province of the S.M.A. Fathers had its beginnings in the early 1900's and for decades sent missionaries both to Africa and to African-American parishes in the Southern U.S. In many cases, lay people offered their services alongside the Fathers.
From the early 1960's up to 1989, many Lay Volunteers and Lay Missionaries assisted the S.M.A. American Province in its missionary work in Africa. One even became a permanent Lay Missionary with the Province in 1980. In 1987 several Lay Missionaries were accepted into a more formalized program. In 1989 the Fathers of the American Province in their Assembly formally established this integrated Lay Missionary program so that Priests and Laity would work closely together. This program encouraged and invited Catholic men and women to wholeheartedly live out their missionary calling in Africa and with people of African origin. Over fifty S.M.A. Lay Missionaries have served with S.M.A. in the missions in Africa since the 1960's.
The Second Vatican Council affirmed this tradition in its description of the missionary character of the entire People of God and of the apostolate of the Laity in particular, emphasizing the specific contribution to missionary activity which they are called to make. The need for all the faithful to share in this responsibility is not merely a matter of making the apostolate more effective. It is a right and duty based on their baptismal dignity, whereby "the faithful participate, for their part, in the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King." Therefore, "they [the laity] are bound by the general obligation and they have the right, whether as individuals or in associations, to strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all people throughout this world. This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ" (Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 1990).
In 2003 the Administration of the American Province of the S.M.A. Fathers decided that the Lay Missionary program would no longer be completely integrated with the Province but should become more autonomous in leadership, finances, decisions and unique vision within the S.M.A. Family. It would still remain connected with the Province and other sections of the Society as part of the S.M.A. Family of missionaries, and would contribute its own share to the special work of S.M.A.
Currently the S.M.A. Lay Missionaries, sharing the history and charism of the Society of African Missions, are developing toward new horizons and new structures as they continue the work of fostering the mission call of all members of the Church.