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Br Basile to Br Francois, Kororareka, 2 Nov 1843

CSGI. 375-380


Brother Basile (Michel Monchalin 1814-1898) was 20 when he asked to be admitted to the novitiate at the Hermitage in March 1836. He made his first vows at the end of the retreat in October 1836 and perpetual profession a year later. In 1837 Champagnat sent him with a small group of others faced with military service to St Paul-Trois-Chateaux in the south of the Rhone valley. He had an arrangement there with Fr Francois Mazelier, Superior of the locally-founded and officially authorised Congregation of Brothers of Christian Instruction, and in his covering letter he wrote: "We are sending you a bootmaker. He is a very good lad and should be of use to you" (Sl. 214). He appears to have spent his time between the two establishments working at his trade until September 1839 when he was posted to the school at La Voulte, according to the Founder's last list of appointments (CSGI. 293). The following year he left for the missions. Like Emery he spent more of his time at the procure on other tasks than at his trade. Although in both cases there was no shortage of work in their line, the mission was often without the means to buy the necessary materials. The trip with Petit-Jean to Whangaroa [8] took place in October 1842, not long after the latter returned from Sydney where he had been fundraising for badly needed provisions for the New Zealand mission (including leather for shoe making and repairs). The animals obviously formed part of what Forest had referred to as "Noah's ark" (rf L 33 [2]).

This letter is included in LO (45). A translation appears in the appendix to Pat Gallagher's The Marist Brothers in New Zealand, Fiji, and Samoa 1876 - 1976 (1976) pp 181-4.

Text of the Letter

Very dear Brother,

I have indeed been slow in writing to you, but I pray you to forgive me, for my work does not give me much opportunity and, in addition, I am not famous for my writing, as you know. I have been all this time at the Bay of Islands in the mother-house, Monsignor's residence. My work is to do the cooking, the bootmaking on occasion, acting as butcher and at times as baker. You know that in France I was often sick ; here I am in marvellous health, I have put on a lot of weight, am in fact doing very well. I thank God and Mary, our good Mother, for it, for in these lands it is essential we enjoy good health because of the amount of work we have to do.
I also have occasion to go with the fathers to visit the natives and I will use this opportunity to tell you something of what we see on those trips. When the natives see us in the distance they call out to us: "Haere mai, haere mai!" which means: "Come! Come!" They greet us as joyfully as children do their father. Their houses are very low, especially the doors, as you have to go down on all fours to get inside. They keep a fire going all through the night so that you can hardly stay inside unless you lie down, for the smoke is blinding and, what's more, everyone, men, women, and children, smokes a pipe. With all that and the door closed you can imagine what it's like. You lie down on a mat and sleep there as on the best of beds. That's a little slice of the missionary's life.
One day I made a trip with Fr Garin to perform a burial. We thought it would be in the afternoon but it was put off to the following morning. When the time came we were told they would not be doing it until they had had a good fall of rain and that until then they would not move the body from where it was. The Father asked them if at least they wanted him to bless the place where they were going to lay him. The chief replied yes, but as we were climbing a little hill, an old woman cried out, "Tapu! Tapu!" "This place is sacred. This place is sacred!" The blessing had to be done from a distance. You see how patient one must be with these poor savages. The men sit around the body smoking their pipes, the women take turns lamenting and lacerating their bodies with very sharp shells. One of them approached Fr Garin and asked him if it was a good thing to tear themselves with the shells, but she didn't seem put out when he said no.
So there, my very dear Brother, is how ignorance leads uncivilised people to act. Sometimes I have been asked, "How kouware (ignorant) we were in the past. Why didn't you come sooner?"
They say that their god sleeps during the day and that at night they can hear him whistling. If they have someone sick they believe their god is annoyed. They put the sick person outside and don't bring him back in until he is almost recovered. At other times they only put him outside for his meals. The chiefs are handfed by a slave or pick up their food from the ground with their mouth. We hope that with the help of God's grace and the protection of Mary, our good Mother, and with the help of your prayers and those of our very dear confreres, we will succeed in ridding these poor people of these ridiculous customs. And that is already beginning to happen.
Every day some come asking for the books we have had the good fortune to print. Books have had an extraordinary effect. The first book had 16 pages and the second 96. They learn to read and write so quickly it is scarcely credible. They learn all the catechism and recite it in a way that arouses admiration. There might be a hundred reciting it and you would think there was only one, so well do they have it off by heart. Children of 5 or 6 recite it like the others. It's the same for their prayers. They gather at the house on Sundays from as far away as 4 or 5 leagues to go to confession and receive Holy Communion. They sing hymns all day and nearly all night. This amply compensates the missionary for any trials he may have to endure in his ministry.
To visit the natives we almost always have to go by sea and so we cannot avoid being exposed to danger. On one such occasion I was transporting some Maoris in the boat and on the way back the sea was very rough. We had a very strong wind and at every moment I expected to be swamped with the three natives I had with me. The Fathers and Brothers who were watching us sometimes lost sight of us in the waves and thought we were lost. But Jesus and Mary, who are our constant companions, did not abandon us. I commended myself to Mary and my good angel and had the good luck to escape the danger. Such are the telling lessons, my dear Brother, we frequently have to warn us that we should always be ready to appear before God.
I had occasion to make a trip to Wangaroa, the nearest of our establishments, 12 leagues away. Fr Petit-Jean and I were taking a heifer, three sheep and a lamb. We both had huge packs on our backs like traders. The Father had his tattered soutane tucked up to his knees. In this fashion we travelled across mountains and valleys without a guide, and without knowing the route, often enough without even a track to follow. The first day we were worn out by exhaustion and thirst. I said to Fr Petit-Jean: "You see, Father, we can't go on unless we find water." "So," he replied, "go down this hill and see if you can find some." I went down and, thanks to God, I found a native hut. I went in and saw a pot I could use to collect water from a nearby hole. This I carried to Fr Petit-Jean and we had our supper as happy as kings to have found a little water. We spent the night in the hut. The next day we continued on our way and found shelter with a Maori tribe where we spent the night. We left in midmorning and Fr Petit-Jean said to me, "There's only one thing I'm afraid of and that is our meeting in our present state a Protestant minister I travelled back with from Sydney. " He had scarcely spoken when we encountered him. He was on horseback and another man was following on foot. Fr Petit-Jean exchanged a few words with him and we moved on. You can imagine what he thought of us in such a state, as I told you earlier, each of us with his huge pack, the Father with his soutane hitched up and his legs all scratched from tramping through the bush, the three sheep trotting in front of him, and me in front leading the heifer. It was a sight enough to make anyone laugh, I can assure you. As Fr Petit-Jean said, "If that minister recognised us he must be having a good laugh." That day was also very trying for us because of the rivers we were constantly forced to cross and the hills we had to traverse or rather climb. That day we had to sleep on the wayside again since we had not reached our destination. Our shelter was the hut of a shepherd working for a Protestant minister and he shared his supper with us, poor as it was, consisting of potatoes and the head of a chicken. The next day, the fourth, we set off once more and the good Fr Petit-Jean said to me, "Come, my dear Brother, courage! We will be at Wangaroa before the day is over." And that was in fact the day we arrived. Imagine if you can how surprised Fr Rose [Rozet] and Br Elie were to see us with such a following, and how happy I was to be able to embrace dear Br Elie. It was the first time I had seen him since coming to New Zealand. As you see, we have occasional trials to put up with but we work for such a good Master. He certainly knows how to recompense us if we constantly do everything for his glory.
I also act as doctor sometimes. When the natives come to the house they begin by saying to me, "I am very sick. Give me some remedy." (There is no formality with the Maori). Some say to me, "I have a very sore throat," others, "I've got a very bad cold," others still, "it aches." To the first I give some sugar in water, for those with aches I give some fat I boil up with camphor. They find that an excellent remedy. They say I am a good doctor. As you can see, we have to do a little of everything.
I am closing now since time doesn't allow me to say more. I have to write in the evening before bed. My Reverend Brother, I pray you not to forget me in your prayers and I fervently commend myself to the prayers of the good Brothers of the Hermitage. Please present my respects to Fathers Matricon and Besson as well as dear Brothers Louis-Marie, Jean-Baptiste, Jean-Marie, Louis, Stanislas, Hippolyte, Spiridion, the dear Brothers of the Hermitage and all the others.
Accept, I pray you, my very Reverend Brother, the assurance of my respect and affection,
Your very humble and obedient servant,
Br Basile

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