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When the first missionaries left, Colin had perhaps not fully realized how crucially important letters to and from Oceania would be. By asking them to pass all mail through Lyon, he just followed the common practice of handing outgoing mail unsealed to the superior.[1] He had another reason in this case: he wanted to keep an eye on what news from the missions would become public. [2]

Equally common was that lower superiors never had the right to open letters to or from higher superiors and the 1833 Constitutions, a version of which Colin gave to the missionaries, explicitly mention the exception. [3]

When Colin appointed Pompallier to religious superior, nothing was said about the visitation of letters and Pompallier cannot be blamed for thinking that this appointment gave him the right to check the incoming and outgoing mail of his missionaries. Like Colin he was concerned how the outside world would see his mission, especially as English translations from the Annales appeared in Australian papers as well as in local newssheets in the Bay of Islands itself. There was no place for bad news or for remarks that might exacerbate the already difficult relations with the Protestants.[4] However, he also saw himself – rightly – as a delegated, thus lower, superior and he must have known that correspondence with higher superiors, i.e., to and from Colin, was exempt.

Nevertheless, already during the voyage Pompallier wanted the missionaries to hand him all outgoing letters unsealed, even those addressed to the Superior General. When, in May 1839, Chanel and Bataillon entrusted their mail to the visitors for mailing in New Zealand, the matter came up and the two expressed their discontent with the bishop’s ruling. Later that year, from something Pompallier told him, Baty concluded that Pompallier had read a sealed letter to Colin and when Servant received Colin’s letter that had come with Baty, it had been opened. When, in September 1839, Pompallier came to Papakawau, Servant and Baty challenged his right to read their letters from and to Colin. It must have been a painful discussion, but Pompallier was out of order and he knew it. He gave in. [5]

In practice, entrusting letters to departing ships remained something the bishop reserved to himself and he expected his men to hand him their letters unsealed. There was little they could do but comply and they wrote their letters accordingly. Today’s reader must keep this in mind when reading them!

In spite of everything, the Marist missionaries were very faithful to Colin’s request to use every opportunity to give him news. For them as well as for their bishop, writing letters was a way to cope with their isolation and, as Claude-Marie Bertrand put it to Champagnat: ‘You can’t imagine the pleasure it gives me to take a few moments to talk to you. To have an idea, you would need to be several thousand leagues away from your dear friends’. [6]

Although most of his letters to the missionaries have been lost, it seems that Colin wrote to each of the priests at least with every group leaving. No small talk, no news; just a short words to kindle their spiritual fervour. But they were highly appreciated and often provided an occasion for many pages long answers.


  1. AT, VI, p. 17, nr. 35. CS, doc. 4 [9], cf. above, p. 33, 8°. This was called the ‘visitation’ of letters. Visitation is an age-old tradition in the Church. Bishops were expected to do the visitation of parishes, higher religious superiors of local communities. The term was extended over the right of religious superiors to read incoming and outgoing mail of their subjects. How much superiors used this right will have differed from case to case, but at least the principle was taken seriously. If a Jesuit candidate objected, it was a sign for Ignatius that he was not made for religious life. Communicating with the outside world was considered to disturb the spiritual life, especially of beginners. Cf. J. Coste, Autour de la Règle, doc. 8 [32]; doc. 11 [8]; doc. 15 [10], 4; doc. 17 [25], etc.
  2. Cf. CS, doc. 64 & 135.
  3. Cf. AT, I, p. 68, nr. 27, from 1833, in fact a summary only. Colin revised that text several times between 1833 and the first departure in 1836. Most revisions have not been found. Which version it was he gave to the missionaries at their departure is not clear. The stipulation remained in the Marist Constitutions – with the exception mentioned – until 1962 (nr. 221). Cf. Code of Canon Law (1917), canon 611. After the Second Vatican Council the rule disappeared from Church law.
  4. LRO, doc. 59 [12].
  5. LRO, doc. 55 [8]. Cf. LRO, doc. 70. Servant wrote Chanel and Bataillon to tell them, but his letter has not been found and it left no trace in the letters of either Chanel or Bataillon.
  6. Bertrand to Champagnat, who was dead by then, 18.07.40, LO, Clisby018 [1].

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