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Brother Attale to Fr Champagnat. St Jacques. July 1839

CPC 163-5


By the time the third group was ready to go Colin had been informed by Pompallier of the London – Sydney route, a much more convenient and time saving one for his missionaries. Br Attale (John-Baptiste Grimaud: 1809 – 1847) was the only brother with this group. From a reasonably well-to-do family he entered the Hermitage in May 1838 and, despite repeated attempts by his father to get him to leave (BQF 334-5), made his profession the following year, shortly before setting out for the missions There were four priests – Frs Joseph Chevron (1808 – 1884), with whom Attale was to found the mission in Tonga, Jean-Baptiste Comte (b 1812), Jean-Baptiste Petit-Jean (1811 - 1876), and Philippe Viard (1809 – 1872), later to become first bishop of Wellington. They were at St Yago (actually Sao Tiago) in the Cape Verde Islands, a Portugese possession off the west coast of Africa, only a few days before sailing for Sydney which they reached on 22nd October. A month later they obtained passage to New Zealand.

The copy of this letter we possess has no ending. Br Francois included a free version of it in his Circular of 6 December 1839 (CSG 28-9), ending with "The dear Brother concludes his letter by recommending himself fervently to the prayers of all the Society" which appears to indicate the closing section was edited out. Francois goes on to say, "It appears that they subsequently visited America since the letter, which is dated from Santiago [sic] carries the stamp of French Guyana." But Chevron in a letter to a friend, Fr Auguste Girard, 15 October 1839 (LO 10), describing the voyage from Cape Verde, makes no mention of landfall in America, which would have been well off their route. It is more likely the mail was transferred from their ship to another which was calling in to French Guyana. In any case, the original has not survived.

Text of the Letter

Dear Reverend Father,
I am writing this for the simple satisfaction it gives me to send you some news about myself, to thank you for all the kindness you have shown me and all the trouble you have taken for me, and to give you an outline of my travels so far.
I left Lyon 23rd May with the two priests, Frs Chevron and Comte, at 8 in the evening. We reached Paris at 6 in the morning on the 25th. We stayed at the Seminary for the Foreign Missions where they welcomed us in a very friendly way. Fr Dubois asked me for news of you; he certainly seems to have a real regard for you.
On the 26th we left at 10 in the morning and reached Boulogne at midday on the 27th. The same day we left on a steamer at 10 o'clock at night for London. We had a very pleasant crossing and arrived in London at 11 the next morning. There we found a Frenchman who had put up our two priests, Frs Petit-Jean and Viard who had arrived two days previously. But they weren't with him any longer. They came looking for us while we were having dinner. We went with them to their new hotel. The people there take in only travellers like us. They seem very reliable and call themselves Catholics the same as us, but don't seem to be well instructed in the faith.
I will tell you a little about the city of London. This city is very large and has a population of more than 1,400,000. The houses are not very high - my impression is they only go up to three storeys. I was especially fascinated by two English funerals I saw. On each occasion there were three carriages, each drawn by two horses, one for the deceased, the others, I think, for the ministers of their sect. Each one carried a rod, perhaps a candle, about 5 feet long, with a high black polish. The priests or ministers are dressed in black, wear round hats fitted with a cloth which falls over the shoulders. The horses and vehicles are all covered in black. The churches are very clean but there are hardly any furnishings in them. Both men and women don't seem to be able to leave their houses without taking a vehicle, so the streets are full of them. The Christian religion is in a very sorry state in London. This kingdom is riddled with sects - you can count more than 80 different ones.
All our belongings and cases are on the ship. Nothing has been lost. A Protestant whose wife is a Catholic has been of great service to us; because he vouched for us, we had only a few of our cases opened by the customs officers. We left London on the 14th June and set sail at 6 o'clock on the evening of the 15th. There are 36 people on board but we are the only Christians. There are 2 Jews, 2 blacks, and I think the rest are Protestants. The master of the vessel, the captain, has been very attentive to our needs. We have three little rooms, called cabins, for the 5 of us. They are very cramped, barely 51/2 feet square, and that is where we sleep.
The first days of sailing were not very good. After a few days the sea became calm, the Lord sent us a good wind, and we had fast sailing. We passed the islands of Ouhest (Wight), Scilly, Madeira, the Canaries, and arrived at St Yago on the 13th (July). We are staying there 4 days to take on fresh water. It is a very fertile island for all sorts of fruit. There are a bishop and two priests. What a shame, Father! The harvest on that island is ready, if only there were the workers. All they wanted was the knowledge of the true God. They wanted to keep two of our Fathers, saying then they would at least have priests to hear their confession and to bury them. The two priests there are Portugese. The governor is Catholic and the Consul too. The poor blacks - how one feels for them. They ran after us for a medal or a crucifix. There was one house we entered and stayed for a few minutes. It was surrounded by these poor savages and even a number of soldiers who were there, forage caps in hand, begging for a medal or a crucifix. The ones who got them quickly put them round their necks and appeared quite happy to be armed with such weapons. We gave out all we had with us and the number did not seem to grow any smaller. One of them made a deep impression on us. He said, "I am a bugler. Please be so kind as to give me a crucifix." I had a little one I had been given in London. I gave it to him with a cord provided by Fr Viard. He put it round his neck straightway. Never before, perhaps, was there a soldier so content.
I have told you a little about the churches in London, but even they are better than those of this land. They manifest negligence, or so it seems; these, I don't know, perhaps poverty, etc.
Br Attale
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