Fr Rougeyron to Fr De Meydat, Conception, 28 October 1855
APF T 28: 383-386
Introduction and translation by Br Edward Clisby FMS
The idea of a reduction or colony where Christians could build up a strong community away from the influence of their pagan countrymen had been tried before, notably by the Jesuits in Paraguay. Rougeyron himself had already attempted something along those lines at Yate, in the south of the Grand Ile, in 1849. When the Marists were forced to evacuate, this colony emigrated too, first to the Ile des Pins and then to Futuna. In August 1855 Rougeyron informed his superior general that, at the request of his converts, he was going to try again. He first thought of Yate, but conditions there being unfavourable, he had to look elsewhere for a suitable site. At length he found what he was looking for on the shores of a bay 12 kilometres south of Port-de-France. He called the new station La Conception, in honour of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (Delbos 100).
Rougeyron describes in detail the foundation of the reduction, which did not proceed without problems, in this letter to his friend de Meydat. He also announces proposals to increase the numbers at La Conception, create more such colonies, and to open a new station in the Beleps, an archipelago north of the Grand Ile . He had at La Conception a leading chief from that region, Oualau Amabili who had been converted at Balade and had followed the Marists in all their wanderings. Oualau accompanied the missionaries to the Beleps in January 1856 (Delbos 106). In March the same year, another reduction was established on the north coast of the Bay of Boulari and named Saint-Louis.
For these projects, the Marists could rely on the help of the government of the new French colony. France had taken possession of New Caledonia in September 1853 and governed it jointly with Tahiti. A centre for the new colony had been started at Port-de-France at Noumea in 1854. Rougeyron stressed the civilising effects of the reductions and, while New Caledonia remained attached to Tahiti, the mission had the general support of the administration of the island.
Text of the Letter
- Very dear confrere,
- In my last letter I told you that I was getting ready to found a colony made up of the converts from Balade. The project has been carried out. The Blessed Virgin, to whom I confided this important affair, has blessed it beyond all hopes. Here are some details about this migration which you may find of interest.
- Our Christians at Balade, oppressed by the pagans, found life very difficult at this station. Sensing their vulnerability, they asked me to take them to another country where they could freely serve God and save their souls, away from their enemies. The idea was a good one. After that I worked to put it into practice. But how many obstacles to overcome, how many difficulties of all kinds! My confreres despaired of success. And as for myself, I went into it with apprehension, but as if pushed by an invisible hand.
- Although not sure we would succeed, I hired a ship at great expense and provisions sufficient for a hundred people for six months. The evening of the departure, all those I was counting on most came to tell me that their relatives were keeping them back and that they could not come with me. What was to be done? Judge for yourself the embarrassing situation I found myself in! In my distress, I prostrated myself before an image of the Blessed Virgin, confiding my anxiety to her, confident but truly sad at heart. I got up consoled and resigned. The next day, since no one was following me, I went aboard by myself. No sooner aboard, and a hundred people arrived almost as fast as me. Having escaped from their relatives' clutches, my poor converts came running up as fast as they could. Oh! How happy I was at the courage they showed in leaving everything for their salvation!
- It was the Lord's will that my happiness be tempered with fear. Scarcely were my converts around me when a huge number of canoes appeared crowded with natives crying and lamenting as if their countrymen had died or were being taken to slaughter. The captain tried in vain to stop them coming aboard; they clambered up on the deck. On seeing them weeping, our Christians felt their hearts moved, and they too started breaking down in tears. Never have I seen such a strong and piteous struggle between grace and nature. Those poor natives loved their relatives and looked back with regret at their homeland, their fields, their coconuts, which they were giving up for a foreign land. Many went into hiding in the ship's hold to avoid seeing those they loved, and there they shed torrents of tears in secret. What a heartbreaking sight to see fathers, mothers clasping their Christian children in their arms. And the children, in tears, stretching out their arms to me, calling on me to help them overcome nature. The struggle was a terrible one, but grace proved the stronger. Mary was on our side.
- We raised anchor finally and the ship set sail. That night a boat came out to meet us. It was some women who, prevented the evening before, had taken advantage of the darkness to escape. With the help of two men accompanying them, they climbed aboard as if onto the Ark of salvation.
- The number of my emigrants rose to one hundred and twenty. The ship headed for Jale [Yate]. But when we arrived there, we learned that the savages were at war and that nineteen men had recently been killed and eaten. We did not think it wise to stop on those shores. We spent some days searching for the promised land without finding it. At last Providence guided us to a place three and a half leagues from Numea, the most important settlement of the French colony, which has been named Port-de-France. There we found everything needed to form a flourishing colony. My converts are happy here and so am I. May Heaven grant that the future lives up to its fine beginnings!
- In a few months we are going to found another mission at Belep, the island where the Frenchmen from the 'Alcmene' were massacred and eaten in 1851. The senior chief of this island is currently among our catechumens. When his instruction is complete we will leave with him for this new station which offers good prospects.
- Soon I hope to go and fetch about two or three hundred Christians from Puebo to increase the colony of La Conception. By means of reductions set up in different places on the island, we will do much for civilising and saving these poor natives. His Excellency the Governor has already assigned us a fine piece of land for this work. Why not come, my dear friend, and share our consolations in this new Paraguay! If you cannot come in person, at least send some good confreres, very prayerful, very zealous, and very persevering. They will win many souls for God and relieve us in our great labours.
- In the fortnight since we arrived we have been living in a tent with our Christians. It could be said that we are the Israelites camped in the desert. I have slept under the stars several nights. The good God gives me strength. I am in better health than in the past. The fever I had constantly for seven years has left me. Pray, my dear friend, that I use the good health the Lord gives me as I should.
- Your devoted confrere and friend,
- Rougeyron S.M.
- Your devoted confrere and friend,
- A dozen sailors from the corvette ‘Alcmene’ were killed and eaten by the inhabitants of the Beleps in 1851. Another three of the crew, wounded, were saved just in time by Br Jean Taragnat, who was helping the warship survey the islands (Delbos 90).
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