From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

Philippe Viard

A month after his arrival Viard wrote to his former parish priest at La Guillotière in Lyon. His letter is full of naïve admiration for Pompallier. He recounts how Maoris maltreated a French settler and set fire to his house. The story went around and the Frenchmen in the area came together to take revenge, whereupon the guilty tribe warned they had the guns to defend themselves. As Viard tells it, Pompallier rose to the occasion. He got two ships that lay for anchor in the Bay and went to the tribe. As he approached he saw a large number of warriors armed to the teeth. He went ashore and the simple sight of the epikopo calmed them down. They received him with joy, promised to pay compensation and said they wanted to make friends with the French.

Even more naively Viard writes that in the six months since Pompallier had settled in the Bay of Islands there had not been even one death among the Catholic adherents while several very sick people had recovered after they had received baptism on danger of death.

The first story is clearly not the account of an eyewitness and as he had not been there long enough to speak Maori or know the people, the second one too can only from Pompallier himself. These tales of what Servant mockingly called the bishop’s mirabilia tell us how Pompallier saw himself and how he wanted others to see him.[1]

We probably do hear an eyewitness, where Viard describes the great patience with which Pompallier treats the Maoris and how he keeps up his sweet demeanour even when they behave like troublesome children, sitting down at his table and sharing his food uninvited! [2]

Catherin Servant

On 5 March Servant wrote from the Bay of Islands in answer to the letter Colin had sent him with the third group. He expresses his appreciation for the valuable spiritual direction, or, as he puts it, ‘the holy exhortations and the amiable and fatherly concern’.

He tells Colin of the signing of the treaty after Pompallier called him to Kororareka in January to assure the continuity of religious instructions. He is with Maxime Petit who is the bursar and easily fills twelve pages with colourful tales of his visits with Baty to Whirinaki and Wairoa. He also recounts visiting alone places like Ahipara, Tairutu, Wangape, Pawera, and Motu Tapu. He obviously enjoys his work with the Maoris who feel enough at ease to share a joke with him. When one man greeted Servant by touching noses, his friends told him: watch it, you touch a priest’s nose and you will die! [3]

On 14 May[4] he wrote to Champagnat how he narrowly escaped getting lost at sea. He had gone to Whangaroa on a visit to Épalle and Petitjean whom he had not met yet. On the way back the canoe was driven past the entrance of the Bay of Islands and they barely managed to get ashore, miles to the South. After an awful night in a derelict hut full of lizards, they took to the sea again and were driven even further off. This time they spent the night at sea, chilled to the bone. The next day by rowing very hard they managed to reach the shore, again on a deserted spot.[5]

Maxime Petit

Petit wrote to Colin on 8 January and to Poupinel on 21 February. His work as the bursar takes up so much of his time that he is not making much progress in either Maori or English. On behalf of Pompallier he asks for Bible commentaries and church history books. The people love nice church ornaments and the pontifical ceremonies draw people from near and from afar. Don’t hesitate to send precious things for fear they would be stolen, he adds. Maoris would never steal anything sacred!

He needs cassocks for the priests and lay-clothing for the Brothers because Pompallier has forbidden them to wear cassocks.[6] Judging from his shopping list, the mission storeroom must have resembled a bazaar: tobacco, church bells, all sizes of nails, carpentry and gardening tools, ink for the copying machine and letters for the printing press (234,800 a’s, 81,600 e’s please!), vast quantities of printing paper and any amount of colourful second-hand clothing: ‘sometimes a gift to a chief wins a friend, he turns to the Church and converts with his whole tribe’.[7] The next day Petit wrote again to Colin with details of the exorbitant costs of travelling, be it as a passenger or by hiring a ship. Equally expensive are building materials: timber costs four times as much as in France, and a good carpenter has to be paid 15 to 18 francs per day. Marie-Augustin is the only Brother at Kororareka and has three hired carpenters with him. Even local food is expensive and Maoris take it for granted that they can stay for days on the mission and be fed while they are there. The bishop pays for the medical expenses of Catholic adherents for fear they would go over to the Protestants! But Petit also speaks with admiration of the zeal with which people from far and near attend Church services and follow religious instruction. It can only be the Holy Spirit![8]

Jean-Baptiste Petitjean

At the end of January, barely six weeks after the new priests had arrived, people from Whangaroa, a bay to the North, had come to Kororareka and refused to leave until the bishop gave them a priest. To the objection that none of the new priests knew the language, they answered: we shall teach them! Pompallier asked Petitjean and Epalle to go with them. On 18 March, from Whangaroa, his first mission station, Petitjean wrote a four-page letter to his brother-in-law Auguste Paillasson who acted as an intermediary with the rest of the family. Referring to his first appointment he wrote:
‘This, my dear brother, is what religious life is like. To be everywhere as if you were nowhere. To be attached to neither people nor places, always ready to leave everything behind, at the first wink of the superior. You are always ready to part for another place , where the Lord has prepared other friends, other brothers. It hurts, of course, but while it hurts, the spirit is joyful, the heart expands and becomes more apostolically minded’[9]

Jean-Baptiste Comte

After a few months in the Hokianga area Comte wrote to his parents. He describes in striking detail the walk with Brother Florentin across the North Island and their arrival at Purakau. Servant, Baty and Brother Michel received them as ‘friends, brothers, sons of the family’. He must have picked up a lot of the language in a short time, his letter has quite a few Maori sayings. He was very impressed by the kindness of the people, the care they took of the missionaries and their piety. ‘In the midst of our dear sauvages, God covers us in consolations. ‘People love us, we love them. This mutual love compensates for everything we left behind’.[10]

In spite of the restraint of knowing that Pompallier might read everything they wrote, the letters of the missionaries bring out the depth of their commitment, their love and respect for the Maoris and their ability to stand up to the extremely tough conditions of mission life. Their piety was able to cope. Pompallier need not have worried. But how was his own piety coping with the task of leading these splendid men?


  1. LRO, doc. 55 [2]. A biblical allusion, e.g.: ‘narrabo omnia mirabilia tua, I will tell of all thy wonderful deeds’, Ps. 9, 1
  2. LRO, doc. 45. New to Polynesia, Viard could not understand Maori behaviour in any other way. It may also echo the bishop’s own way of speaking. He often writes in similar terms.
  3. LRO, doc. 52.
  4. The trip to Whangaroa must have been between 3 March (he did not mention it to Colin), and 26 April when he writes he had spoken with Épalle (who was in Whangaroa).
  5. LO, Clisby 016.
  6. FMO, p. 31. The Brothers were very upset at this ruling.
  7. LRO, doc. 49 [5].
  8. LRO, doc. 51 [4 & 6].
  9. LRO, doc. 53 [1].
  10. LRO, doc. 54 [1 & 4].

Previous Section A Piety Able to Cope Next Section