Br Marie-Nizier to the Brothers of the Hermitage, Futuna, 14 June 1846
CSG 1. 427-438
This is the second letter Marie-Nizier addressed to the community of the Hermitage. The first, of the 10th October 1839 (L 12), was written in response to a letter the Brothers there had sent with the missionary group of 1838. No copy of this letter has survived. But, despite Avit's claim in the Annales (3. 23), this present letter is not a reply to the letter from the Hermitage of January 1845 which Marie-Nizier clearly never received. This is the reason for his plea in his postscript  for individual copies to be made of such letters. It is a suggestion he had already made in the postscript to his letter of 1839 (which is not included in the version in the Circulars). But as late as 1850 he is still complaining he has heard nothing from the Hermitage.
Much of this letter consists of material presented in earlier letters e.g. the baptism of Mary Philomena (L 11 ) and the account of his adventures on Futuna after Chanel's death (LL 26, 49). At the time it was written Wallis, Futuna, and Tonga had, by a Roman decree of February 1845, reverted to Pompallier's jurisdiction. The bishop had reason to fear the British authorities might expel him as the result of allegations about his relations with the disaffected Maori during the wars in the north, and thus had petitioned Rome for the return of part of his previous vicariate as a possible place of refuge (Hosie 53). Viard, who had been recalled from New Caledonia in October 1845 to be Pompallier's coadjutor, and was consecrated in Sydney in January by Pompallier and Polding, was visiting the region while the former was in Rome. It was hardly a popular move with the Marists and proved unnecessary anyway, and the decree was rescinded in 1847.
A copy of this letter is in LO (61) reproduced from the copy in the Cahier (155-165). Avit has a brief summary of it in the Annales (loc. cit.). An English translation is included in the Appendix to Gallagher (185-189).
Text of the Letter
- My very dear Brothers,
- It is almost 10 years since divine Providence parted us and I have had the pleasure of reading only one of your letters, the one you sent with the second band of missionaries in 1838. Oh, if only you knew what a pleasure it is to read a letter in this far off land!
- Now I have gained the satisfaction of writing to you, let me share with you some of the great consolations the good God has been pleased to bestow on me without any merit on my part. Six baptisms, two adults and four children, have been the fruit our good Master allowed me to gather in the three and a half years I spent on Futuna with Fr Chanel. Don't imagine though that it was easy to procure the joy of baptism for those poor unfortunates. There is no way, is there, Satan could see himself losing such a prey without trying to prevent it? But Mary brought to nothing all the efforts and obstacles the infernal monster raised to thwart the carrying out of these good designs. I will give you only one example to prove how our good Mother gathered under the protection of her mantle many of these poor little wretches in question when scarcely a breath of life remained in them.
- In a village near the one where we lived was a child who had been sick for some time. The parents refused to let Fr Chanel baptise her, and the good Father did not insist on that occasion, since the sick girl did not appear to be in any danger. Another day, when Fr Chanel was away, someone told me about this child's sickness and I promised to go and see her. Before I set out I provided myself with a little bottle of holy water. On arriving at the house I was dismayed to find it full of people, mainly women; I regarded the women as the ones most likely to thwart the good design I had in mind. However, in order to dispel any suspicions about my intentions in the midst of those gathered there, I didn't mention a word about religion. Without this precaution, every slightest movement of mine would have been subject to continuous scrutiny. Here is yet another example of Providence at work. The child's parents did not want her baptised, yet the mother herself invited me to sit beside the sick girl. What joy began to fill my heart! I stayed quite a long time in this position holding a fan I had been given to keep the flies away from the child's face. God allowed the mother to give in to the desire for sleep, and without any ceremony she lay down on the mat where she had been sitting and covered her face. She wanted to do the same for her child but I opposed it, assuring her she was peaceful and I would keep on fanning her. This was the opportunity heaven had arranged for me. Then I poured the holy water on the forehead of this privileged little creature; Marie-Philomene was the name I gave her. Isn't it remarkable! Of all the people in the house, not one took any notice. This was lucky, for otherwise I would have been blamed for the child's death and this would certainly have stood in the way of further baptisms. I didn't always succeed in baptising the sick children I was sent to. On one occasion I was chased away and threatened with having my head split with an axe if I persisted in wanting to baptise the child. I was not at all frightened by these threats, but emboldened to put my request more forcefully. But the one who threatened me remained obstinately opposed to the baptism. Fortunately, the child lived. Isn't it a just cause for consolation if those I baptised are in heaven, as I sincerely hope (for they all died shortly after their baptism). So I have six intercessors more in paradise! May I not also be confident there is a seventh whose prayers for me are of great efficacy? Could the blessed martyr of Futuna now in glory turn away his eyes and be indifferent to the continuous sighs and appeals his poor catechist raises to him from this vale of tears, and in the very place where the brave athlete won the palm and everlasting crown of martyrdom?
- I think, my very dear Brothers, you will be pleased to have a little summary of my adventures between the time Fr Chanel died and my departure from Futuna. You must have envied me my good fortune in sharing the trials of the first martyr of Oceania and be keen to hear about them. But I shall put them aside in order to concentrate on which touched me more personally through the death of the good Father, when I had to bear them alone. You are surely aware, my dear Brothers, of what deprived me of the crown and palm of martyrdom I should have shared with Fr Chanel, that valiant soldier of Jesus Christ. The first, alas, was my sins. But there were other reasons too. On April 26 1841 Fr Chanel sent me to the other end of the island to visit a sick man and give him some help, and see if there were any seriously ill children in the village of the area in need of baptism. My little mission completed, I returned on the appointed day, the 28th. On the way, climbing up a steep hill slope (I was only half an hour away from our residence), I met a native coming down the track with a spear over his shoulder, his head wrapped around with a large sheet of paper used to wrap up the holy pictures in Fr Chanel's house, and in his hand a roll of pictures. I was not slow in recognising where these things came from, but I gave no sign. The place I met the native is on the edge of a precipice. You can imagine my situation if I had encountered someone hostile. It would have been sufficient to force me back two paces and I would have plunged more than 100 feet to the bottom of the cliff - I was almost at the top.
- Matala is the name of the native I encountered, the one who became my saviour. He informed me emotionally of Fr Chanel's death which had just taken place that morning. He prevailed upon me to retrace my steps through the valleys I had come from and offered to accompany me. The good God gave me the grace of learning of the death without being visibly affected by it. On the way back with Matala I had several narrow escapes from being swept away by the waves on the reefs we had to cross, most of the way being exposed to the incoming tide. There was general consternation when we reached the villages of the conquered with news of the holy martyr's death, and work was abandoned for the day. I had just escaped inevitable death by my meeting with Matala and I had another close shave in the very valley we had come to. A Wallisian settled on Futuna was waiting for me with an axe a few steps from the door of the house where we were staying, I was already half way out the door when fortunately someone warned me that I was in mortal danger. At the same instant I perceived the assassin, his face daubed with black, axe in hand, eyes starting from their sockets - he was truly a fearsome sight. He had the axe poised to strike. I stayed inside. But he was not deterred. In the evening, at dusk, he returned with the same purpose. Outside, he was once more relieved of his weapons, reproached for his behaviour, and warned he would be the first to die if he persisted with his evil plan. He must have been impressed by this threat since from that time on he showed no further hostility towards us. All this had prevented me from completing my recitation of the office of the Blessed Virgin that day. When I wanted to make up for it in the evening by saying the rosary, I received another setback. I found that I had lost it during the day.
- I found some consolation in borrowing one from a convert who lived close by. We spent the night in the woods under the stars. It was the prudent thing to do considering the circumstances. The convert I mentioned had a little girl of about 10. Since we were all convinced death was inevitable, perhaps that very night, she pleaded insistently to go with us so she could die for the faith with me, but the parents wouldn't allow it. That was a night for reflection. It was a very clear moonlit night for the most part. I couldn't close my eyes except for a few moments when exhaustion overcame me. Then we had some rain to remind us that the roof of a simple hut was better protection against the elements than the trees of our forest. The next morning, at daybreak, we received a summons from Niuliki (the king who had Fr Chanel put to death) that he wished to see us. He had come the evening before to one of the villages of the conquered, pretending, no doubt, that he regretted this murder - he who had been its author (as he himself admitted to me). For a long time I refused to respond to the summons of the king's messengers. I regarded the invitation as a trap. I told them plainly I was aware of the king's evil designs for me; he could take my life, but I wasn't going to deliver myself into his hands. Since that approach didn't work, they sent Matala instead and I let him persuade me.
- The whites wanted to come with me. When I arrived in the presence of the king (or rather that monster in human form), he made me sit beside him, embraced me, and shed many tears in memory of Fr Chanel. Finally, as the culmination of hypocrisy, he begged me to return to our former residence again. What did he have in mind for me? To put me to death! Nothing could have enticed me into that trap. I told the king before the whole assembly, which included a number of his retinue, what I had already told his messengers. I added that death was all I expected on Futuna. He tried to placate me. Such were the main events that marked this visit. I politely refused his invitation. We spent most of the nights which followed until our departure in a young men's house for greater safety in case the conquerors made an attack on us. Since for several nights I had no covering, the mosquitos devoured my feet, hands, and face. As if that were not enough, the lice, inseparable companions of the natives, swarmed in frightening numbers to take advantage of the hospitality of the seams and folds of my clothes. Some of these new guests were remarkable for their size, others for their colour, but all, I repeat, were remarkable for their number. I couldn't get rid of them because I didn't have any change of clothing - a worn pair of trousers, a blouse, and a shirt, comprised my entire wardrobe - that, and one handkerchief. A little office book and the Christian Manual completed the list of my possessions. If I had had to stay longer on Futuna at that time, I don't know whether the natives would have given me enough even to go clothed the same as them.
- Who would have believed that the natives were less hostile to me than one of the whites on Futuna? This man was fanatically opposed to the religious practices he saw me observing and showered on me the most unjust and bitter reproaches. To show him what I thought of his reproaches and just how ready I was to comply with his demands, I began to make the sign of the cross even more frequently, and all the other things he kept on denigrating. I will pass over the many other little things that happened between Fr Chanel's death and the day I boarded the boat, and will concentrate on the main events of the day the ship appeared and the following day. It was on the 11th May that the "Hamilton", an American vessel, appeared on the horizon off Futuna. That day I had a glimpse behind the curtain of hypocrisy I suspected covered the hearts of most of the natives (even the conquered), and saw that I had many friends in words but few in reality. For at the first news of the ship's appearance, messengers were sent to the king to ask him what orders he had about our going aboard, and word was given that we were to be closely watched in case we tried to do so. But God plays his own games with the designs and plans of the wicked. That same day, that morning the king was still in the territory of the conquered, and almost as soon as he left their villages, the ship appeared. It was not chance but Providence that brought it here. For it is certain that had the king still been there, that day would have been our last. Proofs of the protection of that mighty hand in my regard followed one after the other. Here is another example. The ship was heading for Wallis, and the same day, at about sunset, a small boat put ashore, something that had not happened in Futuna in all the three and a half years I had been there. So true it is that, as Our Lord Jesus Christ himself assures us, not a hair of our head falls unless our heavenly Father wills it. Nevertheless, the time came when the true colours of the natives were revealed. They showed themselves resolutely opposed to my departure - it was on their own initiative, since the king's orders had not yet arrived. In all that angry crowd only two men, and I know that for sure, had the courage to openly oppose the evil intentions of their countrymen and help me embark. (I don't know what the women and the children were doing at that time). Once outside the reef, I recited the Te Deum in thanksgiving. When we were on board the captain, after some hesitation, promised us passage to Wallis.
- The next day we learned that the king had met with the elders and it had been decided we were not to be allowed at any cost to embark, even if it meant massacring the whaler's crew. The messengers arrived during the night, but, probably, to the regret of most of the natives, had no chance to carry out their orders. We were safely on board. The same day a number came out curious to see the ship. One of them took me aside with an air of mystery. What did he want of me? He gave me back my rosary. But then he had second thoughts - he asked me for some material in return. I was happy to see my rosary again. I had returned the convert's one. But the only thing I gave the person who had returned mine was a scolding for keeping it so long. The captain carried on with his trading until he had enough supplies and then we sailed for Wallis.
- I am kept reasonably busy. I am still the only Brother on Futuna. This mission comprises two establishments, more than 4 leagues apart, and my time is shared between them. Since I have been on Futuna I have nearly always made use of the privilege of the shoeless, that is, of going barefoot. This privilege is also the rule in Caledonia, as we have heard from the mouth of Monsignor Viard, bishop of Orthosia, on a recent visit; he had made use of it himself. I don't need to tell you that I always go barefoot. What's more, our tracks are in places paved with rocks so jagged that for someone not used to it and without shoes, traversing them is an excruciating business. Now it's almost like walking on flooring to me. A few words about the inhabitants of Futuna will close my long letter. The islanders are almost all baptised and those who are baptised have nearly all made their first communion and approach the holy table frequently. There is no more superstition. The natives blame themselves for practising such things in the past. I am afraid, my very dear Brothers, some of you may be thinking I only report these things to you to complain about my situation. If that is so, you have things entirely wrong. I have not had the slightest cause to regret my position in any of the situations I have described above. Surely I will have the consolation of seeing a great number of you coming to the aid of the poor savages who inhabit so many of the islands of Oceania? Will the fear of being swallowed up while crossing the immense Ocean stop them? Surely the One who calmed the storm for his disciples with a word still has the same power! What is there to fear in the hands of so good a Master? Death? But shouldn't that be the goal of our desires? And isn't Mary, our good Mother, the Star of the stormy sea of this world, the one who will lead us into the haven of a blessed eternity? Oh, when will we see this happy moment!
- Convey my humble and respectful regards, dear Brothers, to the Fathers of the Hermitage, and ask for me a remembrance at the holy sacrifice.
- Accept the expression of fraternal affection my heart holds for you. Please don't forget me in your prayers.
- I have the honour of being, in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary our good Mother,
- Your very humble and affectionate brother,
- Br Marie-Nizier.
- Your very humble and affectionate brother,
- PS I cannot tell you how pained I was to learn that several letters have been sent to us on your behalf and that I have not been able to read any, except the one I mentioned earlier. Perhaps it would be better in the future to address a copy to each Brother. I think that would be a more reliable way than to address a single one to all the Brothers generally, because we are scattered all over the Ocean and occasions for communication are very rare. Besides, it is easier to do a tour of the globe on a map than to get from one island to another.
- Still, this is only my personal opinion. It is up to you to judge what is most convenient in this matter. If you want to honour me with a reply, give me all the details you can about the Hermitage, the Society, etc, since 1838.
- Dear Br Francois, although what I am asking you is not absolutely necessary, yet I would be most grateful if you respond to my request. I would like some books, including the "Religious Man", an arithmetic text book, a book of spelling mistakes and their corrections, and any other books you think would be useful to me.
- Matala did not become a catechumen until after the mission was re-established in 1842. When he was baptized he took the Christian name of Jean-Joseph (Ronzon 99).
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