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The voyage

Before reaching the equator the Basque was becalmed for a time and later went through two violent storms. One squall became very bad during the night and a sailor fell overboard. The search went on all night and till eight in the morning, but without result. For the rest they had favourable winds, often making two leagues (i.e., about 11 km) an hour for days on end. On 20 September they sailed closely past Madeira. Brother Élie was the only one to be seriously seasick. Baty admitted having felt a bit sick at times, but never to the point of vomiting. He enjoyed the sailing, and grew poetical about the small white caps of the waves around the ship, comparing them to lambs in a fertile meadow. He described with pleasure the dolphins playing around the ship, the flying fish and the whales blowing close to the Basque.

On 18 October they passed the Equator and Neptune gave the priests a special dispensation to cross the Line without the usual baptism. The voyage was not without excitement. One day a fire broke out in the galley that had women and children screaming. Another time a row broke out between some young fellows and a married man about his wife. The officers and the ambassador sided with the man but most of the passengers were against the captain. The pious Marists were thoroughly shocked at the shouting and the swearing that went on.

On the latitude of the Falkland Islands they had some very fierce storms, with huge waves that threatened to swamp the ship and got into the cabins so they had to bail them out. Épalle quoted the psalm Though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for Thou art with me[1], and assured Colin later that he slept soundly through the bad nights. When they got to the feared Cape of Horn, not only did they happily sail along in fine quiet weather, it did not even get really cold. Experienced sailors had never seen the like of it, and the Basque could sail close enough to the land for the passengers to see the mountains of the Cape.[2]

Maxime Petit showed himself a promising missionary. He managed to give catechism to the sailors and two of them made their first communion. He spent a lot of time with the ambassador, who told him of the lamentable state of the Church in Ecuador.[3] On the one hand good and pious people, thirsting for instruction in the Faith, and longing to receive the sacraments; on the other hand a poorly educated clergy, the large majority not living the state of celibacy and especially during the carnivals misbehaving grossly. They insisted on generous stipends (Mass stipends of one piastre, i.e., 5½ francs, as compared to one franc in France), so that many people were deprived of the sacraments because they could not afford them. What Ecuador needed were good French priests, and the ambassador intended to write to Father Colin. Petit later urged Colin to give an eventual request from Ecuador serious consideration. It could also be very useful, he added, as a supporting base for the missions in the Pacific, a source of vocations and of financial support.[4]

Colin receives the first letters from the missions

Some time in October 1838, a good month after the departure of the second group of missionaries, Colin received Pompallier’s letter of 14 May, written in the Bay of Islands after the visit of the Héroïne.[5] In his Sydney letter the bishop had written: ‘This is what I would like: one priest to join Chanel, one for Bataillon, four priests and two Brothers for Rotuma and Pohnpei, and four priests with two Brothers for New Zealand’.[6] Now, in New Zealand, his dreams have expanded. He now needs ten priests and seven brothers for New Zealand, two priests for Wallis and Futuna, two priests and one Brother for Pohnpei. Rotuma is not mentioned here, but a page later it is. As on other occasions[7] Pompallier does not mind using figures for their rhetorical effect.

Pompallier’s first letter from his mission field gave Colin a lot to think about, and he shared his views with the Marist community at the Capucinière in Belley. Fortunately, the faithful Mayet was present and his notes[8] give us valuable insights in Colin’s thinking at the time. Even when pressed by the urgent requests of Pompallier and Fransoni, Colin did not take the initiative to invite this or that man for Oceania. He organized prayers and waited for volunteers for the third group. The Blessed Virgin would choose her missionaries and inspire them to come forward.

As to the 20.000 francs that Pompallier needed to buy a schooner he said: ‘That money does not worry me. The Blessed Virgin will provide it: if she wants the goal, she will provide the means.’

For the first time we hear Colin reflecting on the mission as more than saving souls from eternal damnation, and as more than providing Marists with unique opportunities to strive after holiness. He speaks of the Christian community founded by the Picpus missionaries in the Gambier Islands and calls it a small Christian republic comparable to the reductions of the Jesuits in Paraguay. The small communities on the islands of Polynesia lend themselves to this approach. It is easily done, he says (très facile). In New Zealand the model is not appropriate, he explains. because of the large scale presence of Europeans and the commercial activities that the Maoris become involved in.

Where did Colin pick up this for him rather unusual strategic thinking? The story of the Jesuit reductions may have been part of the Church history taught in the seminaries of the time. Contact with Jesuits in Lyon is not impossible, although there are no indications of it in the documents. The reductions had recently been mentioned in the Annales of the Propagation in Lyon, but only in passing.[9] There is nothing among the books that Colin regularly used to explain these insights.[10]

The religious ideal of the Picpus missionaries, says John Garret, was ‘the assembling of non-christian populations into reductions - villages gathered together around a nucleus of priests who followed a religious rule… The forest reductions of the Jesuits in Paraguay established their general model for the small islands of the Pacific’.[11] If this had been indeed the way the Picpus missionaries spoke about their work with the visiting Marists, one would have expected Pompallier or Chanel at least to allude to it in their letters from Tahiti, or Servant later on from New Zealand, but nobody did. The more likely scenario is that the idea comes from Fr. Caret, whom the first Marist group did not meet, and that he developed it only when in Rome or in France. In that case it could have been another topic in the discussions between Caret and Colin when they met in Lyon.[12]

Colin’s talk to the community of la Capucinière contains another remark that does not ring a Colinian tone. He spoke of the need to form a local clergy in due time but, he adds; ‘there are countries, China for one, where indigenous priests do not succeed, although they are very pious’.[13] This last remarks confirms the suspicion that Colin had recently talked with somebody who had a wide knowledge of the missions of the time, but therefore the Jesuits in Lyon come to mind first.


  1. Ps. 22, 4.
  2. Br. Élie-Régis to Champagnat, 12.01.1839, LO, Clisby009 [5].
  3. Petit to Colin, 15.01.1839, APM, 1404/20033.
  4. Petit to Colin, 15.01.1839, APM 1404/20033. Petit came back on the subject on 08.01.1840. LRO, doc. 48 [1].
  5. LRO, doc. 24. Cf. above p. 71. In contrast to the Sydney letter, that took eight months (from December to the first days of September) the first letter from New Zealand, sent by the Mississipi, a French whaler, did it in three to four months. The Mississipi must have gone straight west, over the Indian Ocean, which was not unusual. cf. LRO, doc. 53 [1]. Servant had not written to Colin on this occasion, but he did write to his parents (LRO, doc. 25) and to two friends (LRO, docs. 26 & 27) and Colin read these letters.
  6. LRO, doc. 22 [5].
  7. LRO, doc. 24 [7].
  8. The notes on this important conference are in the Mémoires Mayet (MM), I, 614 – 616. They are in the handwriting of his friend Philippe Dupuy, to whom Mayet had entrusted the task of editing his notes. Cf. OM, II, pp. 116 – 121. The notes are published in CS, doc. 52.
  9. Annales, 9 (July, 1837), LIII, p. 524.
  10. A. Greiler, Colins ‘Bibliothek’, Colin Studies I, pp. 27 – 47.
  11. John Garrett, To Live Among the Stars, p. 88. Garret ascribes this ideal to the Picpus missionaries of the time. He does not tell us what documents he has for the attribution.
  12. Cf. above, p. 69. Interestingly, in the Introduction to Laval’s book on Mangareva (p. X), Maurice Desmedt quotes an article of a certain P. Lesson in the Revue d’Orient, 1844, and in l’Univers, 1846, that also alludes to the Paraguay reductions, however, no mention of them has been found in Laval’s own text. Honoré Laval, with Francis Assisi Caret and Columban Murphy, had pioneered the mission of the Gambier Islands.
  13. Colin adds: because missionaries cannot be everywhere (sic!). CS, doc. 52 [5]: il y a des pays où les prêtres indigènes ne peuvent guère faire, par exemple en Chine, quoiqu’ils soient très pieux.

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