From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

Now, what?

Less sure now that New Zealand was indeed the best place to start anyway, Pompallier had to tell the Superior General in the first letter he wrote from Valparaiso, 17 July, that to all practical purposes, it simply was out of reach.

Fortunately, an American came to see Pompallier who had lived for seventeen months on Ascension Island, today Pohnpei, in Micronesia. The American put him into contact with a captain who also knew the island. Both of them spoke highly of the people and of the opportunities for a successful mission. It lay in the Caroline group and from there the missionaries could work the whole of Micronesia and other islands, north and south, as far as New Guinea. Pompallier saw the hand of Providence in this opening, just when his original plans looked no longer feasible.

He knew he had come the wrong way, but he did not cry over spilt milk. He changed his strategy and decided to forget about New Zealand for the time being. He would sail from Valparaiso to the Gambier Islands and visit the successful mission of Bishop Rouchouze, then sail to Hawaii in order to establish a base, and from there try to reach Pohnpei. The American would sail with them and introduce the mission to the Micronesian people.[1]

Hawaii was a centre of shipping, from where the other islands were more accessible. They could leave some of their belongings with the Picpus Fathers who in spite of great resistance from the Protestants still had one priest in Hawaii: the Englishman Fr. Walsh, and one Brother. The latest news was that Catholic priests were allowed to stay provided they did not engage in missionary work among the Hawaiian people. Perhaps one of the three Marist Brothers could stay in Hawaii and wait for the next group of missionaries. With New Zealand put off for the foreseeable future, Pompallier lost interest in Sydney as the place for the procure, in favour of California and Hawaii. The next group of missionaries, he told Colin, should travel to Mexico, cross overland and take a ship in California for Hawaii. Mail should be sent care of Fr. Walsh whose address in Honolulu he already included.[2]

Pompallier explained to Cardinal Fransoni that he had to change all his plans and why. His presentation is not only a rosy description of the golden opportunities of Pohnpei as a mission field, but also a wildly optimistic estimate of its possibilities (its ‘quasi central’ location) as a base from where to extend his mission to the Western Pacific. One look at his new atlas will have made Fransoni shake his head in unbelief.[3]

An encouraging experience

Pompallier chartered the Europa under Captain Shaw for 150 piastres per person to take them to Hawaii via the Gambier Islands. Compared to the Delphine it was not much of a ship, much smaller (250 tons against 329). As a consequence, the accommodation was more cramped. But the missionaries transferred their luggage, that had survived the voyage so far undamaged, and on 10 August they bravely boarded for the first leg of their long Pacific crossing. Peter Chanel and Joseph Luzy were seasick again for a week, but the others by now had their sea-legs.[4] Two Picpus priests, Father Maigret and Father Guilmard, and Brother Columban, (i.e. the Irishman James Murphy) sailed with the Marists: an opportunity for the Marists to improve their English. Having heard that English was understood by many Polynesians, and that English and American ships were about the only ones to sail the Pacific, they put a lot of effort into it, but found it difficult to get their tongues around the strange English vowels. Pompallier considered it necessary for the priests but saw little reason for the Brothers to learn it![5]

Due to eight days of calm and three days of contrary winds, the 5.600 km to the Gambier Islands took them thirty-three days. On 13 September the Europa dropped anchor and they transferred to a rowing boat. Three hours through the lagoon, under a nearly full moon and the splendid stars of a Pacific night, gave them a taste of the beauty of Oceania. It was nearly midnight when Bishop Rouchouze met them gracefully on the beach of the island of Aukena. They enjoyed his hospitality and talked into the little hours, while hundreds of islanders sang outside as only Polynesians can.

They visited the island of Mangareva, where they were met by the King sitting on top of a magnificent large raft. What they saw exceeded everything they already had heard from the Picpus Fathers. Large numbers of friendly converts, enjoying the excitement of foreign visitors in a display of musical exuberance and happy children trying out the French words they had picked up from the missionaries. Pompallier and Chanel, in their written accounts, could not get over the beautiful and placid people they met. Page after page their letters reflect amazement at the rapid and total transformation of people from – as they believed - being little more than savage cannibals to peaceful Christians, piously kneeling for a blessing from the bishops.[6]

The Marists had ample time to listen to the stories of the successful missionaries and felt enormously encouraged to see that in spite of the unknown difficulties and dangers that still might lie ahead, theirs too was not a mission impossible. With Rouchouze Pompallier discussed at length the options before him. In the end Rouchouze laughed it all off, saying: ‘Wherever you will land up in the end, Bishop, it will be different from where you now think!’.[7] They delegated their faculties to each other, so that each bishop was empowered by the other to authorize his missionaries to work in the vicariate of the other, an arrangement that could be very convenient in case missionaries were expelled from one place or another.[8]


  1. LRO, docs. 12 [182], 15 [6], 16 [6], 17 [2]. Bataillon: LRO, doc. 19 [2]. Chanel: EC, docs. 34 [1], 35 [3], 37 [9]. The old name Ascension Island was very confusing, because of the island of the same name in the Southern Atlantic. From the two seamen the missionaries picked up spellings such as Pounipet, Bonibet, etc. It was later called Ponape, but the modern name is Pohnpei. In spite of the anachronism we will use its modern name. According to Bataillon’s diary the two came to see Pompallier on the 17th of July, the same day that he wrote to Colin and to his mother. Either some dates are wrong, or he had heard about Pohnpei earlier and had already decided to change his strategy before the two actually came to see him personally. The two would have been known to the Picpus Fathers.
  2. LRO, 18 [4, 6].
  3. ACPF, Congressi Oceania I, 424ff. LRO, 18 [9].
  4. As Servant wrote later: “The perils of travelling at sea are more in the imagination of people thinking of it from afar, than in reality”. LRO, doc. 27 [5].
  5. LRO, docs 12 [182 & 183], 21 [1], n.1 & 23 [1].
  6. Unlike most Polynesians, the people of the Gambier Islands did not have canoes but used rafts instead, even huge ocean-going ones. Perhaps the islands did not have the trees needed to build canoes. Cf. Laval, Mangareva, p. 248. for LRO, doc. 21 [2 – 6]. EC, doc. 38 [1 – 6]. Wiltgen, op. cit., pp. 151f.
  7. LRO, doc. 26 [2]. Ronzon, Delorme, p. 38.
  8. Wiltgen, op. cit., p. 152.

Previous Section A Piety Able to Cope Next Section