Br Jacques Peloux to his family, Samoa, 20 August 1848
D’après la copie, APM ON 208 (Samoa) Peloux.
Clisby Letter 76. Girard doc. 744
Introduction and translation by Br Edward Clisby FMS
In 1848 the Marists had 4 establishments in Samoa, at Lealatele and Salelavalu on Savai’i, and at Mulinu’u and Vailele, both in the vacinity of Apia, on Upolu. There were 5 priests and 1 brother serving the mission of probably fewer than 200 Samoan Catholics. Because of his work, Jacques was obliged to travel around the various stations, but was based at Mulinu’u where he wrote this letter.
The arrival on April 22 of the “Stella del Mare” (referred to incorrectly as the “Stella Maris” in some Marist documents of the period) must have been a source of great joy to the Marists and their little flock (4). This Genoese merchantman, under the command of a Sardinian naval officer, Vicomte Jean des Cars, had been chartered by the French Oceania Society to carry another group of missionaries to the Pacific. It consisted of 12 Marists, most of them for Douarre’s vicariate, four members of the Congregation of St Vincent de Paul, commonly known as Vincentians or Lazarists, and twelve Daughters of Charity of Vincent de Paul, all of them destined for the Chinese mission. The 5 brothers among the Marists were all coadjutors of the Society. As it was Holy Saturday, they had the added joy of celebrating Easter with great solemnity during their stay.
The visit which had started off so happily, however, ended in tragedy. One of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Anne Ville, caught a fever and died on Sunday April 30, at the age of 33 (7). She was buried beside Br Gerard at Vaiusu. The vicomte des Cars describes the scene: “She was buried beside a coadjutor Brother who died recently, in the Catholic cemetery situated behind the bay of Moulinouou, on a little rise at the mouth of a river. Some trees and coconut palms shelter this spot, a place of solitude and peace. The sorrow of the poor Sisters at the moment of saying farewell forever to their companion was truly moving. There was something that spoke directly to the heart in that prayerful funeral rite conducted by missionaries in transit on the shores of a savage island in the middle of the ocean” (Monfat p 279). In 1919, when the remains of all the missionaries buried at Vaiusu were exhumed and reinterred at the new cemetery at Moamoa, the remains of Sister Anne and Br Gerard were by mischance mixed together and buried in the same coffin in the sisters’ plot.
It would appear that neither of Jacques’ parents were alive at this time since the only close relative he refers to in his correspondence at this stage is his brother living in Lyon. This letter, then, would have been meant first for him and then for the other members of his family.
There are two copies of this letter in the APM, the shorter of which is basically what appears as the “Extract of a Letter of Brother Jacques Peloux, of the Society of Mary, to His Family” in Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, Tome 22 (1850) pages 113-116 (APF). The latter, though, omits everything relating to the death and burial of Sister Anne. Monfat, in his Premieres Missionaires, also reproduces parts of this letter, with details, though that suggests either a third copy, not now extant, or, more probably, some elaboration of the text on his part (pp 276-8). The signature is that supplied in the APF.
Text of the Letter
- My very dear relatives,
- You must certainly be wondering why you have not received any news from me. Perhaps you think I no longer remember you. That is not the case. I think of you often and of all the people I know. In the middle of the forests of the islands of Oceania I frequently have fond recollections of the St Bonnet parish and, if I listened to the inclinations of my heart I would be sending you news of myself more often. But opportunities are rare and the needs of the mission pressing. I am still the only Brother in the Navigators group. I have to construct the churches, build the houses, procure our meagre provisions. The days, the weeks, the months fly past without one noticing. You needn’t ask me if I find this country boring; my many occupations easily put boredom to flight, and besides can one be bored working for the good God who keeps account of everything, even a glass of water given in his name. He who fills with strength those who hope in him, keeps me always in good health and gives me daily the energy I need to work for his glory and the well being of the poor people among whom I live. Today I am taking advantage of a ship from Tahiti which is touching at Samoa on its way to Sydney to give you an account of my situation.
- It is now three years I have been in Samoa, in the Navigators group. God chose me to accompany Fathers Roudaire and Violette who were going to found the Samoa mission. At first we had a lot of trouble getting into these islands, for Protestantism had them in chains for eight years. A thousand calumnies were spread against us by the Protestant ministers. We were complete scoundrels, according to them. They said we would kill everyone off, that we were evil men. Finally, God opened to us the door of these islands. In the beginning we ended up in the largest of them, which is called Savai, but it is not the most important because it lacks a good port. Ships have their anchorage on Upolu. So at first one establishment was founded on Savai and another on Upolu. When the “Arche d’Alliance” arrived, Mgr Bataillon founded two others. He stayed with us for the space of seven months. So we have four establishments, two on Savai and two on Upolu. The number of converts is not yet very great; the faith encounters obstacles on all sides. The Protestants do all in their power to prevent the good. They stop at nothing to make the natives hate us. On the other hand, the natives are quite indifferent. However they are starting to show pleasure at seeing us, and this mission is beginning to show promise, but it will take time. The natives are not hostile, they are friendly. I get on alright with them and live among them just as I would with you. If the situation doesn’t change, I will have to look at winning another palm from the one reserved for martyrs.
- These poor people not enlightened by the light of faith, are very proud. They have absolutely nothing, no wealth, no clothes to cover themselves, not even food to live on, yet they believe they are the most remarkable of men, and they rank other people well beneath themselves. They imagine their land is the most beautiful and extensive in the world. When they say “That’s Samoa”, they believe nothing more need be said. They frequently ask if our country is larger than theirs. Sometimes they ask if the king of France has coconuts to drink or taro to eat. You can imagine how laughable it is. We keep on telling them that this country is nothing in comparison with France, but they are not convinced, although they appear astonished at what we say. They are not only proud but very lazy as well. They do nothing except sleep all day. They sit around all the time, their legs crossed like the Indians. It would require something very important to disturb them. How these poor people are to be pitied, my dear relatives. They do not know the good God and a lot of trouble must be taken to open their eyes to the light. But even though they are wretched, it is easy to become attached to them, to love them, and to work cheerfully to make them happy. Pray ardently for these poor souls, dear relatives, for if you could see them you would feel sorry for them. They merit your compassion; the prayers you offer for them will not be wasted.
- It had been a long time since we had had news from France when suddenly one day we saw a Sardinian ship arrive carrying many missionaries. In the evening we went aboard to pay a visit. There we found seven of our Fathers, five Brothers, four Lazarists, and twelve Sisters of St Vincent de Paul who were on their way to China. Great was our joy. We heard news of France, we embraced our good brothers, our friends. You can imagine, dear relatives, what a joyful occasion this was for us.
- Everything was organised for the great feast of Easter, which we were to celebrate the next day. The following morning at six o’clock, everyone went to the mission. There were 12 priests, 5 brothers, myself making the sixth, and twelve good sisters. The Mass was sung; the ceremony was beautiful. All the natives were there, the Catholics inside the church, the Protestants looking through the windows. We had deacon, sub-deacon, assistant priests and brothers in albs serving at the altar. We processed out of the church in good order and perfect weather. Our hearts beat with joy to find ourselves together to celebrate such a great feast. The setting was very beautiful for a procession. We walked in the shade of the tall coconut palms along the seashore. The sound of the waves mingled with the joyful chants. All the natives were filled with admiration. The church was well decorated; the good sisters had provided the most beautiful furnishings they had. This church cost us a lot of trouble and labour, but it is for God. Our labours and difficulties will be well repaid. At the elevation the French flag was hoisted to the top of a coconut palm to notify the ship that the good God was about to appear on the altar and at the same time the cannon saluted the Lord’s appearance on this foreign shore. The Lord was inviting these poor savages to come to him to receive the magnificent treasure he had to give them and to accept him as their entire happiness. Heaven grant that the voice of the Lord may be heard by these hardened hearts.
- When the Mass was over the nuns came to pay us a visit in our poor little hut. We had not even water to offer them, for the source is a little distance from the mission. You have to cross a bay to go and fetch it. We don’t have everything we want in this country, but we are the disciples of a poor God and we are happy to be able to imitate our divine Master in some way. During his mortal life, he had nowhere to lay his head. In the evening we had Vespers. This was the first time it had been chanted in Samoa. That was followed by solemn benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. This was the first time Our Lord had shown himself on his throne to the eyes of the poor natives. How happy we were to receive the benediction of our lovable Saviour.
- The week passed quickly. On Thursday a sister of St Vincent fell sick. The sickness made rapid progress. At seven o’clock on Sunday, she abandoned her soul into the hands of God and went to receive the reward for all her sacrifices. I made the coffin the same day and in the evening the body was brought to the church. All the brothers and priests were there. She spent the night in the church. The next day, the first of May, the holy sacrifice was offered for the repose of her soul, and at two o’clock she was buried a little distance from the mission beside one of our brothers who had come on the “Arche d’Alliance”. You can imagine what a trial it was for those poor women to leave one of their companions on an island in the middle of Oceania, six thousand leagues from her homeland, her parents, and friends. But in it all she was doing the will of God. They showed great courage on this occasion and I think that this death and burial will produce good results for our mission.
- But soon it was time to separate from those dear confreres. The Sardinian ship left on May 4 for China. Eight of our Fathers and Brothers left for New Caledonia on a schooner of the Society of Oceania. Two others are going to Wallis and the other two are with us waiting for a ship to Sydney. Such is the life of those dedicated to the missions, a life of sacrifice and continual renunciation.
- (Br Jacques Peloux
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