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18. Br Claude-Marie to Br Francois. Bay of Islands. 18 July 1840

LO 15


Br Francois (Gabriel Rivat 1808-1881), born in one of the hamlets of La Valla, was 11 years old when he received the religious habit from Champagnat. After perpetual profession in 1826 he spent most of his time at the Hermitage as the Founder's assistant and secretary. When, at Colin's initiative, the Brothers elected a Director General in October 1839 to relieve the ailing Founder, it was Francois who was chosen for the position. By the time this letter was posted the Founder had died and Francois was already assuming responsibility, under Colin, for the Brothers' branch of the Society. The other Brothers mentioned are the superiors and others Claude-Marie had known at the Hermitage and in the three other communities he had lived in before being sent to the missions.

As can be seen from the address and date Claude-Marie did not get a chance to post this letter, started on lst May, until they landed in New Zealand two months later. It appears to have been written in two sections, one on May 1 as the writer indicates, and the other the following month in the Indian Ocean before they were due to arrive in Hobart. Captain Lavaud's original intention was to sail directly for Akaroa but contrary winds after Tasmania at the end of June decided him to head north for the Bay of Islands instead.

Text of the Letter

Very honourable and dear Brother,

Our captain told Fr Pezant that during the voyage, and especially in the vicinity of the Cape of Good Hope, we might meet ships going to France and get them to carry mail back for us. In hope of this I have made use of some free time to write to you. You will perhaps accuse me of writing too often while the others are content with a couple of letters at the most. Please don't be annoyed, for you can't imagine the pleasure it gives me to take a few moments to talk to you. To have any idea you would need to be several thousand leagues from your dear friends, your cherished brothers, your reverend superiors and Father in Jesus Christ, in the middle of the Ocean, seeing only sky and sea for months on end, and frequently at the mercy of storms. You must have received the letter I wrote to our very reverend Father Superior from Goree the 25th of March, which the corvette, “Favorite” carried to France. Today, the 1st of May, I will continue the story of our voyage.
We left Goree on the 25th March at half past ten in the morning and within several hours were out of sight of land. From that day to the day we crossed the Equator we saw nothing worth mentioning. However, on the way the officers and others spoke to us about crossing the line. We were already dreading it because we had read what missionaries had to say about it in the Annals {of the Propagation of the Faith}, but we were a long way from having any real idea. On April 4, at five in the afternoon, Father Line[1] introduced himself from the crows-nest and asked if there were any new passengers aboard who had not been baptised. On receiving the answer yes, he announced he would be back next day to baptise them. A few minutes later, a messenger appeared, accompanied by a miller. The former went up to the captain and informed him he had lost Father Line's letter but that he would be coming with his entourage the next day, Sunday, to administer baptism. While he was delivering his message, his companion was throwing flour in the eyes of those who were too inquisitive. That ended the day, but it was only a glimmering of what was to come, as you will see.
At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, while we were in our cabins, the sailors came to call us and tell us the ceremony was beginning and invite us to come up on deck. We had no choice but to go with them. A few minutes after, we saw Neptune and a pilot appear to the sound of drums, accompanied by 6 gendarmes and a Mahometan priest, then a chariot carrying Father Line and his wife and daughter. Then came his guard of honour composed of half a dozen little devils, black and nearly naked, and a huge lion brought up the rear. They all passed by us and took up their appointed positions. Then they called up those who were to be baptised and we were made to pass under a tent in front of Father Line and the Mahometan priest. With everyone assembled, including the crew, the marabout delivered a little sermon outlining the ceremony. Knowing why we were going to New Zealand he declared our mission would not be successful unless we were reborn. We were a bit annoyed, however, when we heard him say we had to confess first so as to receive baptism with more efficacy. But we made fun of his confession and his baptism. Still, we had to go through with it.
After the sermon we were called up again one by one and made to sit on the left of Father Line on a big tub full of water with a plank on top. It was all covered by a little tent so you couldn't see anything. A barber stood beside the tub to shave us and cut our hair. This is how he plied his trade. For soap he had a spitoon full of flour moistened with seawater. He took a handful of this and spread it over the face, then once it was well plastered, he took a big wooden razor, like a set square, passed it four or five times over the face, and wiped it on our shoulders. To cut the hair he did wonders with a huge pair of scissors, also of wood, and a comb a foot long but with only five teeth. Once it was cut he still had to shampoo it and for that he used charcoal moistened with oil which he spread over the head, making sure he included the customer's forehead and face as well. While he was doing that, and when we thought we could stand up, there were people in position behind the tub who jerked away the plank on which we had been sitting and we fell into the water up to our necks. Once we got out we stood in front of the marabout, he threw a glass of water over us, and we were baptised. We thought it was all over then and were getting ready to go to our cabins to change clothes and have a wash, but we were mistaken and stopped from going, as it was by no means finished. After an interval, a fire pump filled with water was turned on us, and about eight buckets were put to use, filled and refilled with seawater over and over and poured over our heads. We were soaked continuously for a good halfhour. The little devils ran around and pranced in front of us and covered us with blacking, and we were the butt of jokes all the time. At a quarter to four they sent us off to change. We received the last order with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction as we were as wet as could be.
The evening passed in merrymaking. The captain, the officers, and the cadets danced and sang with the sailors until well into the night. Afterward, the captain had refreshments brought up on deck and about 11 o'clock we went to bed quite content.
On Monday, the sailors gave us a great example of charity. The evening before they had collected about 80 francs from the newly baptised. This money was for themselves and they discussed how they would use it. It was decided to put it in the hands of the captain who would give it to the unfortunate widow of Corfeni, the sailor drowned in the gulf of Gascony (Bay of Biscay), on their return to Brest. On seeing the sailors' generosity, the captain subscribed another 20 francs, and the sum was taken to the lieutenant and officers while they were having breakfast. I have every reason to believe they did the same as the captain and the crew. The same day, about 2 o'clock, we were entertained by the sight of 4 ships not far from us. They hoisted their flags and we ours. We thus found out that two of them were English by nationality and the third Dutch. The fourth, being too far away, did not show its flag.
The first of May, feast of Saints Philip and James, being the patronal feast of the king (Louis Philippe), was another holiday for us as we were on a naval vessel. The captain asked Father Pezant if he would chant the Te Deum and the Dominum salvum fac regem, which he did gladly on deck with the officers and crew in full dress uniform. In the afternoon, at halfpast four, the captain gave a splendid dinner for the officers and cadets, but the vessel was pitching so much that bottles, plates, etc were regularly falling and breaking. We had difficulty ourselves in keeping our seats; our chairs kept rolling about and now and then someone fell over, although we were gripping the table which was firmly bolted down. On the 11th we began to round the Cape of Good Hope under very good conditions, so that on the 15th we were already in the Indian Ocean. I don't know why they call this cape the Cape of Storms, but as far as we were concerned it would have been wrong to use the name because we had only fine weather there.
From Tenerife to the Tropic of Capricorn we had the consolation of having Holy Mass fairly frequently but further on, unfortunately, the winds became so variable and so strong that our good Fathers could say it only occasionally. The altar we have on board is a miserable affair! Simply a little board 2 feet long and a foot wide with a cavity in the centre where we put the altarstone. When we can celebrate we lay the board flat with the help of a couple of bits of machinery, then we cover the altarstone with a piece of linen we were given at Goree and over that a napkin folded in two so we have 3 layers of cloth over the stone; then 2 candles from the table, and the cross is suspended so it stays in place - and that's all the furnishings. Once Mass is over we put everything away in a trunk and that's all there is to it. On Sundays, Mass is celebrated on the gun-deck and those who wish to attend can, but the number who do so is not large. At the end of Mass we sing the Dominus salvum fac regem, the Gloria Patri, and the Oremus, quaesumus omnipotens Deus, etc. On Sundays we have a large altar, surrounded by flags, which makes it more attractive.
How dull our days now on the Aube! Really, sea voyages are so monotonous! Not mentioning the fact that we are always seeing the same things, it is even more depressing as far as devotions are concerned. For example, while you in France were fittingly doing penance during the holy season of Lent, and meditating on the death of God in Holy Week, we were having to eat meat and not to fast. It was only during the last three days that Fr Pezant obtained permission for us to have servings without any fat. The same when you were celebrating the great feasts of the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, and the beautiful processions of the Blessed Sacrament when you had the good fortune to sing the praises of our victorious God, etc. Here we were, sitting in some corner of the ship, thinking of your good fortune and consoling ourselves by humming some verses of hymns or canticles connected with the feast. What caused me most pain, I can tell you, was that we had to observe the holy month of Mary in private. For a chapel all we had was a picture of our good Mother.
Etaca, the Zealander I have already told you about, comes to the Fathers' cabin every day and we are teaching him to read which is all we can do, not knowing his language. Afterward, he gives us a few words in his language. I have amused myself writing down two or three for you, so you can see how different it is from ours.[2]
Goodday, my friend!
Have you any bread and water?
Give me some, please?
Would you like me to help you?
No, thank you.
Are there many people in your country?
Not many
Do you love the good God?
Do the children work?
tina koue he oa!
Me ou hatou ko uahi mooou?
homahi eto erua maako?
Eaanakoe te aere atouhai?
E noui enna te tanhata oto enoua?
Kauore inoui te tanhata.
Epahi ana te Atoua?
Tamahite aire ki tignoki?
We haven't any idea as to how we will get on for verbs. It seems they have only the present tense, for we have questioned him in various ways and have been able to get from him only the present indicative. For a long time I was the one in charge of his education, but Fr Pezant has taken over from me. It's a little sacrifice to make for the Lord - I was proud of teaching him the a,b,c,etc.
What differences in climate among the countries we have passed through! In France and down the European coast it was winter, at Tenerife and thereabouts, spring, in the torrid zone, summer, and the heat was almost unbearable. We could hardly stay in our cabins at night, it was so stifling. Below the Tropic of Capricorn it began to turn cold, a sign of the approach of autumn, and the days became noticeably shorter as well. Near the Cape we began our winter and doubtless we will remain in it until New Zealand where we hope to find Spring again. We are going directly to Banks Peninsular. It may be some time before we have the happiness of greeting our dear confreres for, as you can see from the Map, the peninsular is quite a distance from Hohinga (Hokianga) where the bishop has his residence.
You will no doubt have heard that the French government is seeking to set up a colony on Banks Peninsular and that the Comte de Paris, a merchant ship, has already embarked a good number of French colonists aiming to live there and farm the land. From what we have been told by several officers and the captain himself, we hope to call in at Hobart town (Van Diemen's Land) for a short break. If we do, we may find some ship going to the Bay of Islands to carry a letter for us letting Monsignor know of our arrival in New Zealand. Anyway, we are in the hands of Providence; doubtless things will turn out for the best.
Allow me, dear Brother, to say a few words to all my well loved Brothers and novices at the Hermitage and in the houses. They are always present to me in spirit. I would like to name them all, but unfortunately there is not enough time and I would be forced to go beyond the limits I set myself in this letter. It would then, without doubt, become boring. There are some, though, I cannot pass over: dear Brothers Louis-Marie, Jean-Baptiste, the good Stanislas, Louis, Hippolyte, Augustin, Damien, who was instrumental in leading me into the society, Xavier, Paul, my cousin Abrosime, Charles, Colomban, Maxime, Bernard, and my two former Directors, Denis and Pie. I ask them to pardon me for my failings in this regard, as well as in regard to others, and for the bad example I gave them during my time with them. But if I should be presenting my very humble respects to anyone, it is certainly to our very reverend Father Superior, who has been kindness itself to me and done me so much good. I will certainly never forget him. The good Fathers Matricon and Besson are also very dear to me. Please pass on to them my very best wishes. But the favour I ask of you and all the Fathers, Brothers and novices of the holy Society of Mary is not to forget a poor sinner who has, although most unworthy, the privilege of being your confrere, and who has great need of your fervent prayers to be able to carry out what he is commanded. How many things I will have to do once I arrive: learn the Zealand language, English, I who am so limited, as you know, and how many other things I cannot foresee which will certainly put me to the test. Oh, well, in response to the fervent prayers all of you offer on my behalf, God will grant me the grace to support it all with patience.
If any of the Brothers are going to St Sauveur, please get them to give news of me to my relations. And what a consolation it would be for me if I received a letter from the Hermitage with the next group to come out. If I dared, I would demand this favour of you. I do not know if we will have the pleasure of seeing one another in this life. We hope, at least, we will see one another one day in heaven, our beautiful homeland. Ask this grace of our good Mother for me.
Believe me, very dear Brother, to be your very humble and respectful servant,
Br Claude-Marie.


  1. Pere La Ligne, as Claude-Marie calls him, taking his name from the line of the equator.
  2. As with his previous letter we do not have the original, so we cannot ascertain if Claude-Marie’s attempts in French at recording spoken Maori have been transcribed exactly. Taking into account the fact that French vowel sounds are reasonably close to the Maori ones, a present day speaker of Maori might not have too much difficulty working out the Brother’s meaning. The differences in language structure, however, are another matter.

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