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Br Gennade to Br Francois, Woodlark, 10 December 1847

CSG 1, 457-464


Br Gennade (John-Pierre Rolland 1817 – 1898) entered the Hermitage at the age of 23 in July 1840. He claimed to have known the Founder while he was living with his family at Saint-Genis-Terrenoire not far from St. Chamond.[1] He made perpetual profession in 1844, a few months before leaving for Oceania with Mgr Epalle. A smith and stonemason by trade, he worked as carpenter, blacksmith, gardener, and cook as necessary. Gennade seems to have been relatively immune to the malaria which periodically laid low his confreres.

Since their installation at Makira in 1846, the missionaries had been plagued with fever. At the beginning of 1847 they sought to find a healthier area by establishing a station at Pia Bay several miles north of port Sainte-Marie. But within a month of taking up residence one of the priests had died of malaria. A further attempt to find a more suitable site was made the following month. Two priests and a brother were sent to investigate the possibilities of Ouanga (Wango) on the north coast. Both Jean-Marie Paget (1816-1847) and Claude Jacquet (1812-1847) had joined the Society not long before leaving France with Epalle (1843 and 1844 respectively). Br Hyacinth ((rf L 62) had taken over as carpenter of the mission in 1846. They ran another danger, having to pass through the territory of the Toro, a hill tribe with whom the Marists did not enjoy good relations. The latter seized their opportunity and attacked and killed all three on 20 April 1847.

Gennade refers to these deaths as martyrdoms [1] and Francois, in the introduction to the necrology in his circular of 1 August 1848, also writes:

Our very dear Brothers …
I have the consolation of announcing to you that we have a martyr from among our ranks, our dear Brother Hyacinthe … ” (CSG 1 137). [2]

But as Gennade himself points out [4] the three died not from hatred for their religion but in revenge for what the Toro regarded as the hostility of the Marists who were, moreover, friends of their traditional enemies, the One. For the next few months the missionaries lived under a virtual state of siege, eventually abandoned even by the One. When Collomb arrived at Makira Bay on 28 August he thus had little hesitation in ordering the evacuation of the mission (Wiltgen 475).

Collomb had been consecrated bishop not in Australia but in New Zealand, at Kororareka, by Viard on May 27 1847. He then sailed for New Caledonia, planning a rendezvous at Balade with the “Anonyme”, a ship of the Oceania Society, and so return to his vicariate. But the vessel had not arrived and he was forced to wait at Balade with his supplies. He could not have come at a more critical time. The local people had been suffering for more than a year from drought and disease for which they blamed the Marists. The latter, moreover, were seen to be well supplied but refusing to supply relief. The latest arrival proved the last straw. The Balade attacked the mission on July 18, seriously wounding Br Blaise and beseiging the house. The next day the Marists surrendered the storehouse and fled to Pouebo, several miles to the south-east. Blaise could not keep up with the othes and was axed to death. At Pouebo they found themselves again under siege and only the arrival of two French frigates in mid August prevented the rest from meeting a similar fate. One of Collomb’s party, Fr Leopold Verguet, did a sketch later incorporating the scene of Blaise’s murder and other details mentioned by Gennade [7]. [3] On September 3 Collomb sailed with what remained of his personnel, 3 priests and 3 brothers, westward for Woodlark (Murua) Island, about which he had heard good reports in Sydney. They arrived on the 15th and established themselves at Guasopa harbour which they named Port of the Nativity (of Mary). Gennade observes that some of the island’s advantages had been overrated [9] and, in addition, they were still subject to attacks of fever. But they managed to hold on here until Collomb’s own death on Rook Island in July 1848 prompted Colin to request Rome that the vicariate should be confided to another congregation. Out of 20 missionaries the Society had provided for Micronesia and Melanesia, only 7 remained (Wiltgen 530). The last Marists withdrew from Woodlark in 1853. Of the brothers, Aristide and Optat returned to France via Sydney in 1850, while Gennade himself, one of the last to leave, was appointed to the procure in Sydney where he spent the rest of his life.

Copies of this letter are found in both Cahiers in the AFM (pp 210-218 in the first, pp 172-180 in the second). It appears as No 67 in the collection Lettres d’Oceanie.

Text of the Letter

Very honourable Brother,
Here is some very sad news I would scarcely dare to communicate to you if I were not aware your faith is strong enough to raise you above the most depressing events. You have lost a Brother, but you have the joy of having a martyr from the ranks of the Society. The one I am talking about is Brother Hyacinthe. I will give you the details of his death, as well as those of the two priests murdered with him, for his death, unfortunately, is not the only loss the mission mourns.
On Aril 20th Frs Paget and Jacquet, accompanied by Br Hyacinthe, left Makira, the site of our residence, to go and visit Ouango, a place they had been told was ideal for the setting up of a new station. It was about six o’clock in the morning. Some time later[4] they reached a village of the Toro, a mountain tribe, as opposed to the Jone, or people of the coast. The natives made a great show of friendship – on the surface at least. They even went so far as to escort them beyond the village as a mark of respect. The Fathers suspected nothing. Suddenly there was a shout and they were attacked. The savages had taken care to separate their victims and had no great difficulty in dispatching them. Fr Paget received a spear in the pit of the stomach which felled him. A single axe blow smashed Fr Jacquet’s head. As for Br Hyacinthe, a native who had his arm around his neck in a friendly fashion, struck his spear between his shoulders. The first attempt was not successful as the weapon slid over the skin so he finished his prey off with blows of his axe. We learned this ominous news at nine o’clock and you can imagine, very honourable Brother, the thoughts going around in our minds. We were afraid, and with some justification, that the savages, intoxicated by their triumph, would come and attack us at our station. We have since been informed that, since they did not dare to mount an expedition themselves, they had suggested the idea of massacring us to the Jone, so as to get the plunder more easily. But God, who never allows people to be tried beyond their strength, frustrated their evil designs. The Jone remained loyal to us – at least they did nothing against us themselves.
Some time after the crime had been carried out we had a number of visits of condolence. The natives showed signs of sadness. But none of us put any trust in these outward displays because we already knew from experience they have no rivals in the art of hypocrisy. Treachery is a characteristic of our savages, as a general rule. Our informants told us that after striking down their victims, the Toros had temporarily fled the scene of the bloodshed, as if frightened by their crime.[5] But then they returned in even greater fury, carried off the bodies, dismembered them, and made arrangements to send various parts to their allies, for they were going to feast on them the following day. It was in vain that we urged the Jone to go and recover the bodies, in vain we offered them the greatest rewards. They did not refuse us outright but they laid down one condition we could not agree to. This was that one of us should go with them armed with a gun. The bodies of our Fathers and our Brother remained in the hands of the Toros. They were cooked and eaten. The Jone themselves had a share, even if they did their best afterwards to conceal it from us. Today their bones hang as trophies in the huts of the various villages.
Now, very honourable Brother, if you want to know the cause of these sad events, I can tell you this. (I will not mention the first and most convincing of them, that is, the intervention of the devil. He saw we were going to expel him from this island where he is undisputed master and he sought revenge.) We all believe that the Toros were carried to such excesses only because one day we forbade them access to our compound. We only took this measure because we knew from experience that when they came to visit us, it was always to steal something. That particular day we had put out to air a lot of little things easy to carry off undetected. According to our informants, it seems that from that day they swore our deaths. From this fact alone you can judge how debased our islanders are. What greed! What a vengeful spirit! What treachery! What cruelty! Well, very honourable Brother, all the more reason for more workers. Send us some help. In working for the fathers they will contribute also to the conversion of our pagans who are so sick they are not aware of their own evil.
After the disaster of April 20, we kept to our house, waiting for the arrival of Monsignor Collomb, who had gone to Sydney to have himself consecrated. For their part, the Toros, afraid of our resprisals, did not even dare leave their village. Both sides, unfortunately, became less cautious. We went as far as the end of our garden and our enemies came right up to the station. One day two arrows fell at the feet of one of our men. That was two months after the first attack. We resumed our earlier cautious practices and did not leave the house unless it was absolutely necessary. The Toros became bolder and one fine evening they set fire to our roof, which was all of leaves. God did not allow this ruse to achieve the expected success – after a few minutes we had the fire under control. We were informed the next day, that our enemies had expected us to go down to the sea for water to put out the flames and had hidden in ambush on the shore to kill us with their spears. Fortunately, our pitchers were full. From that time on we thought it necessary to set a watch every night. We organised a system you will find laughable, so inadequate was it to ensure our safety. But we had no doubt God could make use of it to deliver us. Accordingly we put a lighted lantern on each side of the house and we hung little bells round the necks of our two dogs.. Our situation was very much like a state of siege, though it did not always stay the same. It was difficult at all times but some times were worse. One evening, for example, someone came to tell us that 300 savages were preparing to stage an attack. The news almost made us to decide to leave the house and go to the Jone village to place ourselves under the protection of the sachaa or headman. We had arrived at a decision that night. Next day we changed our minds, and it was well we did. If we had followed our original plan it is very likely we would all have been massacred.
It goes without saying that we never stopped imploring heaven’s assistance at this time of crisis. We became especially fervent in calling on the Blessed Virgin. We recited numerous rosaries and said Masses in her honour, and each of us made a vow to her. After testing us a little, this good Mother finally allowed herself to be swayed by our tears, and on the 29th August, the feast of her Immaculate Heart, we saw coming into the port the ship carrying His Lordship, the Vicar Apostolic.
You can imagine the sorrow our Bishop felt, very honourable Brother, when he learned of all our misfortunes, and how this had the effect of reviving our own, even though his arrival signalled our deliverance. But it was quite the opposite when he told us of the trials he himself had endured. As he had come by way of New Caledonia, he found himself at that mission when the natives rose against the missionaries. The Balade station had been attacked, the buildings set on fire, and Fr Blaise killed. The Fathers and Brothers survived only by abandoning everything to the pillagers. Then the savages gave themselves up to excesses only the devil could have inspired in them. They took out the sacred objects and profaned them in the most shameful way. One of them dressed in a violet soutane, was holding a book and was pretending to recite the divine Office. Another was drinking from a chalice, while another band of scoundrels tied a rope around the statue of St Autremoine,[6] which they believed to be our god, dragged it in the dust and cut off its arms. Our confreres, however, succeeded in reaching the station of Ponepo (Pouepo). But the natives there showed themselves very hostile too, and if God had not sent a warship to the help of his missionaries, no one knows what would have happened. The ship took them on board and saved them from the fury of the natives. Even so, the day they embarked, 106 men of the crew, all well armed, who had been sent ashore to protect the mission, were attacked and five of them wounded. Mgr Collomb, in particular, had run very grave risks during the retreat from Balade to Pouepo. This was not the sort of news to reassure us. It meant nothing less than the destruction of a fine mission. Several days after, His Lordship the Bishop announced we were leaving the people of Saint-Christoval, and on September 3 we all went on board.
The inhabitants of Saint-Christoval are truly to be pitied. They are certainly guilty and if we have abandoned them, they have certainly deserved it. But they are so debased that you cannot help feeling sorry when you wonder how much longer they will continue in their brutal state. They do not lack intelligence – just from observing our gestures they could understand what we were saying. They are also gifted with qualities that could contribute to their conversion. Thus, they are hard workers, they are keen to learn. But, apart from that, what vices! They are prodigious liars, and thieves who beggar description. Treachery is the mark of their warriors. With them, you do not fight face to face, but hide in ambush near a path used by the enemy. Then you throw 3 or 4 spears from behind and run for your life. Their resentment is something you really must avoid; a single word is sufficient at times to rouse them to fury. Since they always go about armed with 3 or 4 spears, or a club, because of their never-ending wars, to irritate them is to court death – they recognise no other way of gaining revenge. Pray, very honourable Brother, that the dispositions of these people change sufficiently to allow a missionary to remain among them.
We are now on Voodlark (sic), an island recently discovered by an Englishman and marked only on the latest charts. It is a little island about two hundred leagues from Saint-Christoval and closer to the equator than the latter. There are few mountains, which makes it easier for our priests to exercise their ministry, but the soil is sandy and water scarce and of doubtful quality. We have set ourselves up in a bay where there are several villages, and at present we have a house strong enough to withstand any violence from the savages. You could say the mission has already started; two infants have been baptised, and one of them is in paradise.
I will not tell you of my normal occupations. They vary from day to day. Sometimes I am carpenter, sometimes blacksmith, or gardener, or cook. What I can tell you is that work is not lacking, and there is plenty for those of our Brothers who feel themselves called to the foreign missions. Among occupations exhausting in themselves, but especially so in a hot climate, I am very happy and have no regrets at having left France. God who puts us to the test, helps us to come through with his grace. He has given me back my strength, for example, so I can get down to work, and now I am very well. It’s the same with the other Brothers. But the fever has not been so kind to our priests.
This is a long letter, reverend Brother. Dare I ask a similar one in return? You cannot imagine how much I would enjoy receiving one. I often think of the Hermitage and everything going on there is of interest to me. It will always make me happy to hear that the brothers are growing in numbers and that the Holy Virgin continues to bless her children
Allow me, in closing, to embrace you in the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Br Gennade.
Please remember me to the good Fr Matricon and embrace for me Brothers Marie, Jean-Baptiste, and Stanislaus. I commend myself to their prayers, as well as to your own and the Father’s.
We are still together – Brs Aristide, Optat, and I. They don’t enjoy such good health. The fever still visits them from time to time. But they bear this trial with good will. They are certainly thinking of you and commend themselves to your prayers.


  1. So Br Augule writing to Br Theophane from Villa Maria, Sydney, about his death 18 May 1898. Cf Biographies de quelques freres pp 509-11.
  2. The Marists had a certain predilection for martyrdom. Rf esp Hugh Laracy, “Roman Catholic “Martyrs” in the South Pacific 1841 – 1855”, Journal of Religious History (Sydney) Vol 9 No 2 December 1976.
  3. Rf Antoine Forissier, “Missions Maristes en Oceanie de 1836 a 1854” , Monteverde 1995 p 136.
  4. The text in the Circulaires has here for some reason the word “instants”. but in fact the Toro Village was about a walk of 2 hours away.
  5. A note in Hyacinthe’s personal file in the APM adds a detail picked up by Fr Durand SM from the people of Makira Bay in February 1973: “When Br Hyacinthe was killed he had his gun loaded, with a finger on the trigger. One of the murderers took the gun by the barrel and gave it a shake. It went off and the charge caught the man full in the stomach. He fell beside the Brother.” According to Durand’s informant it was this that caused the Toro to flee, frightened to see a dead man kill a living one.
  6. Douarre had placed New Caledonia under the patronage of this saint, the patron of his native Auvergne.

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