From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

Pompallier getting his feet on the ground

Happily unaware of these goings on, Pompallier arrived at the Hokianga river on 10 January 1838. The Raiatea was taken by a pilot through the dangerous shoals at the river mouth and they sailed forty kilometres up the river to Totara Point,[1] where they landed at the house of the Irishman Thomas Poynton to whom Archbishop Polding had referred him. Thomas and his wife Mary with the three children put the best of their wooden buildings at his disposal and Br. Colombon and Fr. Servant did what they could to turn the biggest room into a chapel. Come Saturday Pompallier said Mass for the first time in New Zealand.[2] On 11 January the Raiatea sailed away, back to Tahiti. By the end of April she would have reached Tahiti and Moerenhout would have known that the Marist missionaries and their Bishop had safely landed in Wallis, Futuna and New Zealand. We can expect the story to have reached the Picpus Fathers in Valparaiso within a few months.

The Wesleyans were already well established in the area. In addition to their headquarters in Mangungu they had fourteen so-called ‘preaching’ stations on the river.[3] Soon a Wesleyan missionary on the Hokianga had so aroused his flock that a crowd of some twenty Maoris turned up, probably on 22 January, at Poynton’s house with the intention of expelling the bishop from the land and throwing his ‘wooden gods’ into the river.[4] Thomas Poynton, helped by a friendly Maori chief, succeeded in calming them down while Bishop Pompallier sat quietly in the house, saying his breviary. European Catholics as well as Protestants rallied behind the bishop and from then on the Catholics attended Mass and received the sacraments regularly at Totara Point. Servant and Pompallier began visiting Maori villages and learning the Maori language as well as improving their halting English. Both of them wrote with optimism of the promising contacts and the friendly reception they received on most places.[5]

Peter Dillon, famous among sailors for having found, in 1827, the remains of two lost French ships, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, at Vanikoro Island, and among missionaries for having planned, in 1829 - 1830, with Gabriel-Henri-Jérôme de Solages, a vast mission covering the entire Pacific,[6] had, unknown to Pompallier, visited the Tongan island of Vava`u shortly after the Marists. When, in February 1838, he sailed into the Bay of Islands in the schooner Jess, the news quickly reached settlers on the Hokianga river and Pompallier wrote to him. In March the bishop walked across to visit him. In Dillon’s own account he ’introduced Pompallier to the most powerful local chiefs and to the leading British and American residents, while Pompallier gave him a letter for Mme Adelaïde d’Orléans, in which he recommended Dillon for the position of consul to New Zealand’.[7]

When the news that Pompallier had been harassed by the Methodists got to Sydney, a French warship, the frigate Héroine, under Captain Cécille, promptly (15 April) sailed to New Zealand to show the flag and pay a courtesy visit to Pompallier in the Bay of Islands.[8] She also brought part of the mission goods stored in Sydney. The captain had sent a letter ahead to Hokianga, and Pompallier walked across to the Bay of Islands[9], where, on 10 May 1838, he was received on board with military honours. Pompallier said Mass on the deck of the warship and, when he left the ship, the guns roared. The message was loud and clear: this man belongs to a mighty nation that will stand up for its citizens.[10]

Pompallier was certainly not unaware of the political interpretations that some people were inclined to attach to his presence. Referring to the first months after his arrival he wrote: ‘People involved in politics felt threatened. They suspected me to be a secret agent for the French government’. If that is so, then for at least some British citizens in the Bay area, the action of the Héroïne can only have confirmed their suspicions. Still, that was not Pompallier’s impression. ‘I believe they now see that they were wrong’. Nevertheless, he felt a lot safer after the visit of the warship. The Annales of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith reported favourably on the intervention of the French navy.[11]

The first letters from New Zealand

Before returning home Pompallier wrote a few letters from the Bay of Islands, where mailing was easier than from the Hokianga River. Apart from the duplicate of his letter from Sydney, that he had already sent on 20 March[12], his letter of 14 May 1838 was the first one from New Zealand. He asked Colin to make a copy for Cardinal Fransoni but at the same time he wrote directly, to Rome as well as to Mr. Meynis, the secretary of the Propagation of the Faith in Lyon.[13]

With many colourful details Pompallier told Colin of the Héroïne, how he was received on the ship, and on the pastoral work he had been able to do on board: forty-year old sailors who made their first communion, and many others who had to come to New Zealand ‘where they thought to meet only des sauvages’, to receive the Sacraments after many years.[14] He could tell him of the attack by Protestant Maoris on 22 January and of the peaceful way it had ended. He shared with Colin his joy at the friendly reception he had met with in several Maori tribal places.

Pompallier told Colin that he began to feel at ease speaking English and could provide pastoral service to the Catholic Europeans in their own language. The need to learn English put the study of the Maori language back. He praised the British authorities who maintained a strict impartiality between the different missions and would not allow the use of violence. With obvious satisfaction he reported: ‘There will be no other combat than that of the word and by persuasion’.

Pompallier also aired his frustration at not having received as yet any mail, news or money from France, and at the debts he had been forced to make. He listed all the letters sent so far, asking Colin to acknowledge receipt as soon as feasible. He explained how he had planned his new house, down the harbour from Totara Point. He let his imagination run riot on how he would spread his missionaries if he got large numbers of them! He dreams of a schooner to visit his men on Wallis and Futuna, and what land he could buy in the Bay of Islands if he received some money. Eight tightly written pages in all! It must have kept him up all night.

With the experience of sailing the oceans of the world, he could confirm what he had already written from Sydney. He excluded all other ways than going round the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. There can be no better place for the urgently needed procure than Sydney. New Zealand may geographically not be central to Polynesia, but the prevailing winds and the frequent shipping made the Bay of Islands a good base, and easily reached from Sydney.[15]

With the same ship Pompallier also mailed a letter he had already written to Cardinal Fransoni before walking across to meet the Héroïne. It was the bishop’s first letter since leaving Valparaiso and he explains why he simply had to change plans several times. He tells the Cardinal of the failed attempt to start a mission on Vava`u and of the successful establishment of missions on Wallis and Futuna. He recounts his visit to Sydney and Mgr. Polding and, of course, his arrival in New Zealand. His account of the first months is optimistic and he does not dramatize the incident of 22 January. He proudly mentions his first adult baptism, and the name he gave: Gregorio, in honour of the Pope Gregory XVI. In the end he expresses his admiration for the talented Maori people and already mentions the prospect of sending students to Rome for priestly formation in not too far a future.[16]

Another letter went to Mr. Meynis of the Propagation of the Faith in Lyon. Pompallier gracefully thanks them again for their support and he describes his voyage over thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, the near shipwreck off Vava`u, the events at Wallis and Futuna, the stop in Sydney and the arrival in New Zealand. He also mentions the need of a schooner and of a house in the Bay of Islands and asks for their continued support.[17]

Father Servant had not waited for a mailing opportunity, and from Totara he had written letters to his parents[18], to Étienne Buffard, the parish priest of his home village, Grézieu-le-Marché, and to a priest in Saint-Chamond, Antoine-Adolphe Thiollière du Treuil.

Servant has plenty to tell his family, of the trip across the Pacific, the visit to Tonga, the founding of the missions on Wallis and Futuna, the voyage to Sydney and finally, of the arrival in New Zealand. He enthusiastically gives the first – very favourable – impressions of his new country and its people. The climate suits him, food is sober but adequate. The people are tough and hard working, They are well disposed to the Catholic missionaries. Having put their minds at rest, he exhorts them to accept the sacrifice of his absence wholeheartedly: ‘We are not permanently in this present life. Unless providence arranges things differently, which, humanly speaking, is not to be expected, we meet again in heaven.’

To the two priest friends he goes into more detail on the voyage, the near disaster on the reefs near Vava`u, the beauty of the Pacific islands, the impressive Christian community in the Gambier Islands, the determined resistance from the Protestants and the way they were received on the islands of Wallis and Futuna where the Protestants had not ensconced themselves yet. He recounts how they were received in Australia and how they have fared in New Zealand so far. To them he describes (what he left out to his parents!) the attack of 22 January, and how since then things have settled down. He feels he is making progress in English and in what he feels is the easier language, Maori.[19]

Pompallier, in his letter to Colin, is disappointed in Servant and his limited abilities: ‘Poor Father Servant is not of much help. His partial deafness is a real handicap in the beginning of the mission, especially in his contacts with outsiders. I can use him only for internal work on the station, he does some writing and I get him to give a few instructions to the English Catholics’.[20] The unpleasant tone of his remarks reveals that, to put it mildly, the two did not get along well. Brother Michel Colomb does not even get a mention.

Father Catherin Servant himself writes on a very different tone. He is a contented missionary, working hard to learn the languages that he needs for his ministry and optimistic about the prospects of the mission. He cannot have been unaware of the bishop’s feelings. From later letters we know that Pompallier felt entitled to open and read the outgoing mail, even letters to the superior general! Fr. Servant had to hide his feelings.[21]

Servant had stayed behind in Totara to assure Sunday Mass for the European faithful of the Hokianga area. Pompallier took Servant’s letters to the Bay of Islands and mailed them with his own.[22]


  1. Information on this distance by courtesy of Tony Williams
  2. Pompallier, op. cit., p. 71. Pompallier to Propagation de la Foi, 21.05.38. OPM H30. Simmons, op. cit., p. 30f.
  3. Lillian Keys, op. cit. p. 85. The rev. Nathaniel Turner was in charge at Mangungu.
  4. Pompallier himself estimates the number of Maoris at twenty. Pompallier to Propagation de la Foi, 23.05.38. LRO, doc. 31 [5]. Simmons, op. cit., p. 31. The name Maori was not yet in general use for the New Zealand Polynesians until a few years later. The missionaries initially speak of Nouveaux-Zélandais, e.g. LRO, doc. 31 [8]. First mention of ceremonies maoriennes in LRO, doc. 52 [4] & [6], 05.03.40, by Servant. To avoid confusion we allow ourselves the anachronism. Cf. Yarwood, Samuel Marsden: the Great Survivor, p. 170.
  5. On the Wesleyan missionaries on the Hokianga see Howe, Where the Waves Fall, p. 224. LRO, doc. 26 [3] & doc. 27 [4]. Four years later (14.05.1840, doc. 59 ]26]) Pompallier writes that the Catholic Europeans had advised him to leave (because he did not speak English at the time) and to ask Polding to take over the mission. Perhaps someone said so, but as a generalization it differs so much from the contemporary accounts of both Pompallier himself and Servant that we must put it down as one of the exaggerations Pompallier often used to dramatize his position.
  6. Cf. Wiltgen, op. cit. pp. 23 - 88.
  7. Davidson, op. cit. p. 278. Dillon tends to ascribe to himself a central and prominent role. Pompallier does not mention the event in his May letter to Colin.
  8. Jore, op. cit., I, p. 189, II, p. 86.
  9. According to Fr. Servant twenty leagues, i.e. a good hundred kilometers, LRO, doc. 26 [3]. Road distance today would be 60 kilometers (information Tony Williams) but it must have felt like a hundred in 1837!
  10. Jore, op. cit., II, p. 86; Jaspers, op. cit., p. 194, LRO, doc. 24 [4].
  11. LRO, doc. 24 [3]. Annales, LXI, November 1838, p. 76. For the background of the fears of Maoris as well as British settlers cf. Lillian Keys, op. cit. pp. 87 - 90.
  12. That duplicate reached Lyon, but when we do not know. Cf. LRO, doc. 22, introduction. On 10.11.1838, eight months later, Colin had not yet received it. Cf. CS, doc. 54, p. 98, n.2.
  13. OPM, H30, 00866.
  14. LRO, doc. 24 [1].
  15. LRO, doc. 24 [8].
  16. ACPF Congressi Oceania, vol 1, 485r – 488r. Propaganda keeps here two nearly identical letters of Pompallier, both dated Hokianga 21 May 1838 (the date must have been added later). One is obviously a copy, most probably written by Servant and sent by a different ship. It must have arrived later: the secretary of Propaganda speaks of only one letter, cf. CS, doc. 55.
  17. OPM, H30, 00866.
  18. LRO, doc. 25 [1]. On Servant and his parents, cf. above, p. 28.
  19. LRO, docs. 26 & 27. The dates on the letters are unsure, probably added later. In all his letters Servant writes extensively on the Maori people, their way of life, their behaviour, their customs. Cf. below, p. 123
  20. LRO, doc. 24 [5].
  21. Servant to Colin in 1840, LRO, doc. 55 [6]: ‘The company of the bishop has often been for me a source of pain and bitterness’, La compagnie de Mgr a été souvent pour moi une source de chagrin et d’amertume. Cf. Petit to Colin, also in 1840, LRO, doc. 56. On the opening of letters by Pompallier, loc.cit. [10].
  22. Pompallier gave the letters to the captain of a French whaler, the Mississipi, that was on the point of leaving for a direct voyage to France (LRO, doc. 24 [2]). Jore (II, op. cit., p. 404) says the Mississipi left the Bay of Islands on 3 May. That cannot be correct.

Previous Section A Piety Able to Cope Next Section