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Fr Servant to Fr Champagnat, St Mary's, Hokianga, New Zealand, 15 October 1839

CPC 172- 4


After leaving Futuna on 12 November 1837, the “Raiatea” sailed first to Rotuma and then on to Sydney where the remainder of Pompallier's party spent Christmas. At the end of December they sailed for New Zealand and landed at Onoke in the Hokianga harbour on the west coast of the North Island on 10 January 1838. They stayed in a house lent them by a local Catholic trader until June, when they moved into a house of their own at Papakawau on the Omanaia peninsular. It was the reception room of this house which also served them as a chapel. The new site for the station of St Mary was on the north side of the harbour at Purakau. When the second group of Marists arrived on June 16,1839, Pompallier also bought land and a small house at Kororareka in the Bay of Islands, which then became the centre of the mission. Claude Baty (1811-1851), one of those professed in September 1836, had been professor at the minor seminary at Belley. He was in Paris in June 1838 at the same time as Champagnat who mentions him in two letters to Br Francois (Sl Docs 196,197 - spelling his name as Bati in both). It seems clear that neither of Champagnat's letters to Servant could have come with the missionaries in June, but by a more roundabout route. Neither of them has survived. Servant's letter is included in the Circulars (1. 289-292).

Text of the Letter

Respected Superior and Dear Father,
I have just received, at the same time, two of your letters, one dated 23 December and the other 31 March 1838. The edifying things you have to tell me and your account of the success of your establishments fill me with joy. Your memory and that of your good Brothers is very dear to me. I am very far from forgetting a house which was such a haven of peace for me and where I had before me so many inspiring examples. I love to travel in spirit to that house of retreat, confident in the knowledge the people there are sincerely praying to God for me.
Here one is in frequent combat with the enemy of our salvation; we are in the lists and hopefully we will win the crown. The weapons of patience, of distrust of self, of confidence in God, and of profound humility, are very necessary. How unfortunate for me that I am so weak, so susceptible, and so lacking in trust in God!
What am I doing here, very dear Father? I am out and about a lot of the time, going right, going left, always along the Hokianga river. The river has an infinite number of tributaries going in all directions and allowing communication with all the tribes. If you want to visit the natives you have to go by water. The place we live is a central point for all the tribes which have become Catholic, but those tribes are quite a distance from us. The closest is a league from here, while the others are two, three, four, five, six leagues away. What makes communication difficult is that you can only set out when the tide is right, which means a delay of at least five and a half hours. As well, in winter strong winds often arise and the waves build up, making sailing almost impossible. Often enough the natives' frail canoes capsize but they are good swimmers and get themselves out of difficulty easily enough. But there was a serious accident not so long ago. Sixteen natives, all heretics, attempting to cross a river in very bad weather were drowned, except for one woman who swam to safety. But there is not much to fear for the missionaries since they are not so rash and have, as well, sturdier boats than the natives.
If making contact with the natives by water is difficult, it is equally so by land. You usually need a native as guide since so many of the tracks are almost invisible. Not so long ago I had to take the succour of our holy Religion to an Englishwoman struck down by a serious illness. I crossed this part of New Zealand from one side to the other, a trip of about three days. I set out without any money, without any pipe tobacco, the currency of the country, but I lacked nothing necessary. Some Catholics paid the natives to accompany me and even the Protestants took pleasure in offering me hospitality. But what sort of road had I to go by? Imagine a very straight path with sheer mountains constantly turning up in your way, which you need hands as well as feet to climb, tangled bush to right and left, almost impenetrable, but easy to grab on to when you are in danger of falling. Imagine also countless rushing streams you have to cross on the shoulders of the natives, with the force of the current allowing them no sure footing. On our way we came across a tree trunk lying across a torrent about 30 or 40 feet deep. I didn't notice the drop until I was halfway across. It was only then the natives told me to take care. Then I grabbed hold of the tree and dragged myself across on my stomach like a snake. In the end I completed the trip successfully and was able to administer the sacraments to the sick woman.
But, my dear Superior, I am not writing to just about my trips. Haven't I anything to say about the essential thing, that is, the conversion of the pagans of New Zealand? Ah. What a rich harvest we have here! There are I don't know how many tribes that say they are all Catholics! There are already over a hundred baptised and soon some whole tribes will have received the great grace of baptism.
Fr Baty, whom Monsignor has made director of this mission, already knows the language of the natives sufficiently well to instruct them, and soon their keen desire for instruction will be completely satisfied. But at present we are occupied with one thing, and that is the transfer of this establishment. The site here is not suitable because of the scarcity of wood and water; in summer especially, they do not meet the needs of the house or the natives who come in great numbers to the Sunday Mass. The spot Monsignor has chosen is opposite this, on the other side of the harbour. The natives will easily be able to build their little houses there so they can stay when they come to attend prayers. It will also be easy to build a chapel there. We have a pressing need for one. Until now a little room has served as one but we are quite fed up with it. Buildings in wood are very expensive but we hope, very dear Superior, that the Providence you count on with such confidence and which missionaries should with justice rely on in all circumstances, will come to our help, with the cooperation of those pious people who have at heart the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
In closing, very dear Father, I ask you to let me express my heartfelt good wishes to our dear Brothers. Since they still keep me in memory, may they be pleased to receive this proof of my most sincere affection. I will finish now, reverend Father; please accept ... etc.
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