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The long way around, le chemin de l`école

The historian Reiner Jaspers makes the following kind and optimistic assessment:

The apostolic vicar, Mgr. Pompallier carefully prepared the way to open up his mission territory. He sought and got plenty of information from Pastre, who was familiar with the plans already made by de Solages, in Rome, in Paris from the Picpus Fathers, from government people in Paris, and from the Irish seminary there.[1]

This view is not shared by another acute and informed observer, Léonce Jore, who wonders why Pompallier travelled the way he did.[2] Nor is it shared by Pompallier himself! Once he had looked at the Pacific from Valparaiso, he fully realized the mistake. After six months and many thousands of miles at sea, he found himself on the wrong side of the biggest ocean of the world! He confessed as much to Colin:

As the good Lord evidently wants us to begin in Micronesia, it is evident that going from Europe over the Southern Atlantic, round Cape Horn, as we did, thinking that this was the way to New Zealand, one really takes the longest possible way (le chemin de l`école), and do four thousand miles more than necessary. We do not even have enough money to go the direct way![3]

Valparaiso confirmed all that Pompallier had heard already in Lyon from Pastre, in Paris from Coudrin and in Le Havre from shipping people. The Marists now got a better understanding of the lay-out of the Pacific, of its vastness, of the distances between the island groups, and of the patterns of communication between them.

They found a ship going to New Zealand but it was an American ship already chartered by Protestants who would not think of allowing Catholic missionaries to travel with them.

As to a procure, they were soon convinced that Valparaiso, given its immense distance from Western Oceania, and the near absence of shipping in that direction, was not the place from where to operate their missions.

At the same time, seeing the Picpus Fathers at work they realized the crucial importance of a procure, not only for communications and supply, but also as a refuge, whenever things went wrong. The internal unrest and the threat of wars between the countries of South America only confirmed their decision.[4]

New Zealand?

Already in the first letter of Cardinal Fransoni to Pastre, New Zealand was the most important and promising target of the new mission. Pastre understood it that way and gave it special emphasis from the beginning.[5] In French publications the senior naval officer Dumont d`Urville who had visited New Zealand in 1824 and again in 1826/1827 had made it better known in France and painted it as a paradise, peopled by splendid Maori people.[6]

Captain Dillon who had sailed all over the Pacific for years, and had visited New Zea-land at least six times, had persuaded his friend de Solages, Apostolic Prefect of the island Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, to set up a common venture to evangelize New Zealand in the late 1820’s and had nearly succeeded in getting Propaganda in Rome, the French government and the Picpus headquarters in Paris to take it on.[7] Rome was sold on it and only for the July revolution in France (1830) and the refusal of Fr. Coudrin to have his men work under de Solages, this fantastic project would have been attempted.[8]

The Propagation of the Faith in Lyon had in 1835 received a letter from Dr. Ullathorne, vicar general of Australia, telling them of Maori converts to the Catholic Faith and of a lively interest among Irish settlers in New Zealand to get Catholic priests.[9]

In October 1836, in Paris, Pompallier had picked up stories about a French nobleman, Baron Charles de Thierry, who in the early 1820’s had visited New Zealand, had befriended a Maori chief, Hongi, had bought extensive tracts of land, learned the Maori language and who had tried in vain to interest first the English then the French government to establish colonies. Pompallier was impressed and considered him a sort of king in New Zealand. Although the government did not take the stories seriously, the director for the colonies had given Pompallier a letter of recommendation for Thierry.[10]

In Santa Cruz Pompallier had met with an old soldier, Major de Plais, who claimed to have been in New Zealand and to have befriended the king of New Zealand (no reference to Thierry!). He had given him letters of recommendation and lent him a grammar of the Maori language.[11]

During his visit to England before sailing for Chile in 1834, Rouchouze had come to the comforting conclusion that, if Protestants were active there, New Zealand was just too big to be completely under their influence.[12] Pompallier would have heard that from his Picpus companions. No wonder New Zealand always had a central place in the plans of Pompallier.[13]

But here Pompallier stood with his band of missionaries on the shore of the Pacific, many thousands of miles from his target, in a place from where there just were no ships to where he had to go. To make things worse, he picked up stories that things in New Zealand were not as rosy as he had been told in Europe, and that the letters of recommendation he had got in Paris were worth nothing.[14]


  1. Jaspers, op. cit., p. 191.
  2. Jore op. cit., II, p. 148.
  3. LRO, 17 [3] dans toute la force du terme, prendre le chemin de l`école (i.e., like children who look for the longest possible way to go to school). To get to Sydney he travelled indeed about 7.000 km more than necessary.
  4. LRO, docs. 15 [5] & 17 [5].
  5. OM I, doc. 337. The original of this letter has not been preserved. We only have a copy made by a clerk in Propaganda who writes New Ireland! The original that Pastre had in hand must have read New Zealand, as is clear from Pastre’s answer, cf. OM I, doc. 341.
  6. Jore, op. cit., I, p. 76 & 80f. Jaspers, op. cit., p. 21.
  7. Simmons, op. cit., pp. 15 – 19. Jaspers, op. cit., pp. 162 – 176.
  8. Wiltgen, op. cit., p. 53 – 67.
  9. Simmons, op. cit., p. 16. For the contacts with settlers and Maoris and the text of Ullathorne’s letter. Cf. Keys, op. cit., p. 75ff.
  10. comme roi dans la Nouvelle Zélande, LRO, doc. 4 [13]. Wiltgen, op. cit., p. 133.
  11. LRO, doc. 12 [27].
  12. Jaspers, op. cit., p. 191. Roach, op. cit., p. 45. LRO, doc. 15 [5].
  13. A French newspaper spoke of New Guinea instead of New Zealand, and Wiltgen, op. cit., p. 153, n. 23, concludes that New Guinea was the original centre of Pompallier’s interest. More likely a journalist got the names mixed up, just as the clerk at Propaganda who had called it New Ireland a year earlier, cf. above, note 5.
  14. LRO, doc. 18 [9].

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