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Chapter three : 1837 ‘Towards the fight proposed to us’

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Perils in the sea (2 Cor. 11, 26)

For two months the Delphine and the Joséphine had been swaying in the port of Le Havre. Finally, on Christmas eve the wind veered to the north-east, the temperature dropped to below zero and it snowed. The captains decided to leave. At nine in the morning the missionaries went on board. They were: Mgr. Blanc with seven Jesuits and fourteen or fifteen sisters on the Joséphine, bound for New Orleans; Mgr. Pompallier with seven Marists and four Picpus missionaries on the three-master Delphine, 329 tons, for Valparaiso.[1] In the words of Chanel, they were “happy as kings”, yearning to face the dangers of the sea. Jesuits and Marists had agreed to stand proudly on deck when leaving port and to sing together the Ave Maris Stella,[2] but when the ships hit the raising swell, they all rushed to the rails: everybody was seasick! As Pompallier later confessed to Colin: the first days at sea one is unable to do anything, but soil one’s clothes and leave everything lying about in total disorder.[3] Although some of them at least had put on civilian clothing when shopping in Paris, they wore their cassocks all the time on the ship.[4]

In a more vital aspect too, getting out of the port of Le Havre proved a messy business. The two ships touched, but worse, an underwater cable lying across the harbour got caught in the Delphine rudder. The crew felt that something held the ship back and forced it loose. In fact, two of the four tenons holding the pins on which the rudder hung, had broken off and the third one was severely damaged, but nobody thought of checking if any damage was done. At eleven o’clock the damaged Delphine blissfully left port.[5]

They made good speed, passed several other ships and when darkness fell the Joséphine was out of sight. As night fell, the English Channel turned very nasty, and next day a rumour went about the ports that about 32 ships that had left at the evening high tide were shipwrecked during the night. The Delphine was rumoured to have taken shelter in an English port. These rumours were published in the March number of the Annales de la Propagation de la Foi. The Marists must have heard it earlier, because Champagnat mentions it in a letter of 23 February.[6] It was corrected only in the May number of the Annales. The missionaries themselves did not hear about it until June in Valparaiso.[7]

On Christmas day, with the English coast in sight, some of the missionaries had sufficiently recovered to enjoy the Christmas dinner. Pompallier, Chanel and Joseph Luzy took several days to get over their sea-sickness.[8] The Delphine got clear of the Channel before dark. They had to hoist a lantern to avoid a brig. For four days the cold north-easterly wind with hailstorms and rain pushed them along, but on 28 December the sea calmed down and they were far enough south for the temperature to become comfortable. With obvious pleasure Claude Bret describes in his diary how they now all came out, sat on the deck and enjoyed the beautiful sky at night, the phosphorescence on the sea and the porpoises playing around the ship. For two more days the weather was fine and the Delphine managed to keep to three knots. Chanel attentively observed the fish and the birds. His interest in nature was known. He had been asked by a naturalist to collect specimens for an entomological collection.[9]

On New Year’s eve they ran into a storm and the ship had to take in the sails. To maintain steerage one sail was left up, but it got promptly torn off by the wind. During the night another ship approached. The lantern was hoisted too late, and the two ships touched, but fortunately without damage. On New Year’s day the wind fell but it had whipped up a nasty swell in which the ship drifted aimlessly, rolling and creaking, an experience that, Claude Bret writes, is more unpleasant than the storm itself. The Master sent the Bishop a letter with the good wishes of the crew for New Year and the Bishop sent them an appropriate treat.[10]

Apart from the eight Marist and four Picpus missionaries and Captain Rouget, there were on board two officers, the master, two apprentices, the guest master and the cook, eight sailors, a ship’s boy, and two other passengers, a merchant and a former customs officer. By now they had had time to become acquainted and the sailors had already promised to do their Easter duties.[11]

Then, on 2 January, the captain discovered the damage to the tenons and the pins holding the rudder. By the investigation overboard the third tenon, already damaged, fell off too. The rudder now hung on one pin only and the sailors had to attach ropes to keep it from floating away in case it should fall off. The nearest land, at eighty miles, were the Canary Islands and that is where they now cautiously set sail for. To make things worse, the wind turned against them and the ship had to tack. Two English ships passed them, one a steamship, bound for India. They exchanged greetings and the Delphine raised the distress pennant to ask for help, but the steamer took no notice.[12]

It took the Delphine a week to reach Santa Cruz, on the island of Tenerife. A full week to do eighty miles, while in the first week they had sailed from Le Havre past Madeira. On 8 January, before going ashore, the bishop could say Mass on board, the first time after leaving Le Havre. They received Holy Communion in thanksgiving for their safe arrival: ‘the Blessed Virgin has saved us’.[13]


  1. LRO, docs. 1 [25] & 12 [1], LRO, p. 2, n.4, EC, p. 27
  2. EC, doc. 29 [1].
  3. LRO, doc. 13 [6]. Nizier to Colin, 06.10.1867, APM, personal file.
  4. Servant to parents 16.10.36: déguisé en laic, cf. LRO, doc. 2 [2] & doc. 15 [4]. Champagnat would probably have considered it an exaggerated precaution, cf. LC, doc. 194, ll. 15f.
  5. LRO, docs. 12 [1] & 1 [33].
  6. LC, doc. 95B, l. 75.
  7. EC, doc. 35 [1].
  8. At least that is the Marist story. According to Fr. Emmanuel Coste, SS.CC. Pompallier and two other Marists were sick all the way to Tenerife, cf. Coste to Coudrin from Tenerife, 24.02.1837. By courtesy Fr. A. Mark.
  9. LRO, doc. 1 [26 – 30]. EC, doc. 37 [5].
  10. LRO, doc. 1 [31 - 32].
  11. LRO, doc. 1 [26].
  12. LRO, 1 [33-36].
  13. LRO, 1 [37 – 49] La Sainte Vierge nous a protégés.

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