Br Ptolomee to Br Francois, Tonga, 29 April 1860
In this letter we get a more detailed account of the voyage from Sydney to the islands already described by Abraham (L 145). Ptolomee has nothing good to say about their ship, Bataillon’s latest acquisition, the “Caroline”, which had to return to Sydney after a day’s sailing for patching, as he reports in a letter the following year (L 161). They reached Wallis on 28 June – the 25 July in the LO text is certainly a copyist’s error. After stays on Wallis and Futuna of over a month, Bataillon sailed to Rotuma to deliver home Rafaelo, one of the students he had taken to Rome, and some catechists from Futuna to strengthen the tiny Catholic community – no further priests were to come until 1868. Then they had another stormy crossing from Rotuma to Fiji. Since the French had negotiated a treaty of religious freedom with Cakobau in 1858, the situation of the Catholics had improved. There were now 3000 all told and the bishop had two new priests to help those at Levuka (Kox 27). But the brother Ptolomee encountered there was almost certainly Sorlin rather than Charise , who makes no mention of a visit to Fiji in his letters.
Bataillon had priests for Tonga too, but it appears that Ptolomee’s appointment was a last minute decision . It was only on the eve of their departure that he was told to stay, to replace the coadjutor Jean Reynaud who was going north to Vava’u. He joined Chevron at Mua. In Tonga also, since 1855, the Catholics had had freedom of worship. There were now over 2000 of them, mainly on Tongatapu and concentrated around Mua and Ma’ofanga. A start had been made in the central group of Ha’apai and Jean had gone to Vava’u to make preparations for a foundation there. But the Marist presence was still under sufferance and only the fear of French naval intervention allowed them their foothold in Ha’apai.
A partial translation of this letter, which is on pages 87-94 of the Cahier (2) in the AFM, appeared in the New Zealand province’s periodical, Marist News, February 1986.
Text of the Letter
- Very reverend Brother Superior General,
- I received with joy and real satisfaction your precious letter dated 31 December 1858 from St Genis Laval. It reached me the following year on the 15 December at my post in Tonga. May the grace of O[ur] L[ord] J[esus] C[hrist] be always with the Society of the Little Brothers of Mary, our good Mother, of which I have the happiness of being a member, although I am so unworthy. I cannot express the joy, the consolation I felt. God alone knows. We will not see each other again in this world and it is only by letter that we can communicate, but in heaven it will be face to face. There will be no need there for this great sacrifice of separation from the things one loves and holds dearest in the world. God alone knows what it cost me on leaving France. But I have engraved in my heart this trust in Jesus, Mary, and Saint Joseph, the same trust our saintly Founder had all his life and with which he did so many marvelous things. Besides, wherever in the world I may be posted, I will always remember the wise instructions I received in the Society of our good Mother. They will follow me wherever I go. I have the life of our venerated Father Founder; it is a treasure for me. God knows, my very dear Superior, how much I would rather see you than write across the immense gap which separates us. But if the good God has seen fit to cast me so far away in body, the separation has not weakened the bonds of mutual love. This bond unites my soul in the closest union. If we are not physically present to one another as before, at least I will always be united with all the Brothers of the Society in spirit. That is a consolation I hope our good Mother will preserve for me until I die in my religious vocation in the Society of the little Brothers of Mary, unworthy though I am.
- I have always had only one desire and that is, with the help of grace, to pattern my life on that of the divine Model, Jesus, holiness itself, Jesus, the one who lived, suffered and died for the salvation of men. I wish, then, to imitate him as far as my weakness permits in working at my own salvation. I wish to devote myself entirely to the service of the Fathers and Brothers, even the savages, as far as my ability allows. I could not be more content and happy spending my time in such good work. If it were only given me to shed my blood for such a cause! On land irrigated with the blood of our divine Redeemer, I like to hope that this favour will be accorded me one day. Meanwhile I am resolved to give myself, to consecrate myself entirely to God and to devote myself completely to his holy service in order to belong only to him.
- It is with regret that I am aware of not having profited sufficiently from my opportunities. Remember the least of your subjects in your fervent prayers and those of the community. For my part, after all the benefits I have received, I cannot forget it. I have a great deal to thank God for. May this God of goodness himself deign to recompense you as you deserve, for I cannot. At least, as long as I live, I will never stop praying to Jesus and Mary to give you, together with grace, good health and eternal happiness, while continuing to heap blessings daily on our dear Society in bringing in good subjects and preserving those already there in the way of perfect holiness.
- I will not give you the details, reverend Brother, of our crossing from France to Sydney. You must already have received them in a letter dated 3 June 1859. I will only say that we were very fortunate and experienced none of the dangers or afflictions commonly encountered by travelers at sea. But our passage from Sydney to Wallis was not a happy one. I can tell you we suffered all the mishaps possible at sea. We had such frightful gales that the Fathers, and even His Lordship, Monsignor Bataillon, were afraid. Even the officers on board said they had never come across such conditions. We had only one fine day, the feast of St John the Baptist and that day we were able to have Mass. Nearly every other day we found ourselves in peril. We had a tub of a boat the winds played with at will. On the 26 June, the sea was so wild it threatened to engulf us. At 10 o’clock in the evening, lightning struck the ship twice. It brought down a mast, discovered the chains and began to snap them. Links a flea could hardly penetrate were broken into half a dozen pieces. It spun the ship around and even knocked the helmsman head over heels. Monsignor was on deck at the time, sliding this way and that, and so disoriented he no longer knew where he was in the haze. I lead him down to his cabin and shut the doors. The shock and uproar were too much for the nerves of Br Abraham and the Sisters. We did not know how to pacify them. You can see that we were really tested. When day came, everyone wanted to collect souvenirs of the lightning bolts. I have some at the bottom of my trunk.
- At last, on the 28 June, we reached Wallis. Those prone to seasickness have a lot to suffer. Good Br Abraham, for example, almost never left his cabin, so he didn’t see the bad weather, but he certainly felt it. Several times we thought he wouldn’t make his destination. His face completely lost its colour, it was painful to see him, but we didn’t know what to do. His Lordship had put me in charge of tending the sick, this good Brother in particular, and, at the same time, asked me to look after all our provisions. This employment left me not a moment free day or night, and I had become very feeble myself.
- We spent 25 days on Wallis, that is, from 28 June to 23 July. During our stay there we had some great feasts the natives put on in our honour. On 23 July we left for Futuna 40 leagues away, and we stayed there 10 days. That is the place where Fr Chanel was martyred. We saw the good Brother Marie Nizier, always content and happy in his post. He asked us for news of the Society and it gave us joy to tell him how the good God is pleased to bless it more and more. On 5 August we left for Routoumah (sic) and arrived on the 7th. Young Raphael lives there – the one His Lordship took to France and whom you saw with two others at the Hermitage. We stayed there 4 days. There are no priests there, though there were some before. The people are of Chinese origin; they are small and very dirty. His Lordship was not able to leave a priest. We spent 4 days there, 4 days of feasting for the island and for us since we had brought back the high chief. We left Routoumah at nightfall on the 10th sailing through those islands for Fiji with a good wind behind us. Routoumah is 105 leagues from Futuna. 6 days later we were putting into port when a contrary wind pushed us back and out to sea again. We could not approach shore and were driven almost as far as New Zealand. It took us 18 days to complete the crossing. Monsignor told us he had never seen storms like it in these waters. We anchored at last in the port of Fiji on 26 August. We were delighted to meet dear Br Charise,  as always content and happy, and we gave him all the news of the Hermitage. Fiji is a very mountainous country and the water is excellent.
- We left for Tonga on 5 September and arrived on the 14th. I didn’t know then that this was to be my place of residence. It wasn’t until the eve of our departure that His Lordship gave me my mission to stay here. The miseries of our time at sea have all passed but the memory of my wonderful community will always remain with me. Yes, I love this beautiful Society and will always love it. God takes account of everything; he is the one I made this great sacrifice for and I desire only to work for his glory. It is in him I have the consoling confidence of finding everything again and of being united with all my dear confreres around our saintly Founder in heaven, never to be parted again.
- Tonga is a very pleasant country. All the vegetables grown in France thrive here and are more productive than in Europe. This is what makes it the best of all the islands of the Centre, and so we want for nothing. I am with Fr Chevron from Nantua (Ain) at the place where Br Attale died. The people are fine-looking, coming the closest to resembling Europeans. Cannibalism has been abolished. I am making a start on the language of the country. I don’t get impatient with these poor people, however rude they may be. It is true it is a bit irritating to be continually interrupted in my work to attend to their little problems, but I put up with their importunities patiently. I lend myself kindly to these inconvenient requests coming from all directions. I do what I can, courteously putting off what I cannot perform at the time. I have some pleasant words for those I cannot satisfy, and I let them see I just cannot do everything I would wish. Hope in God is a consolation which sustains me and which will gain me all I desire. I bless God for placing me where I will never be idle, even if I wanted to be, since tasks without number compete for all the moments of my day. What makes it all worthwhile is that they all tend to the greater glory of God.
- Please pass on my respectful and grateful regards to dear Brothers Louis-Marie, Jean-Baptiste, and Pascal, your worthy assistants. Although I name no others, rest assured I don’t forget them and I love them all. Send us your news from time to time. It is the good God who is speaking to us through you.
- I remain always, etc. Brother Ptolomee.
- Rf S. Caroline Duriez-Toutain, The Story of a Mission. The Marist Fathers in Tonga, 1992, p 23.
- In fact, they are Polynesian and mostly resemble Tahitians, Hawaiians and Maori.
- But refer introduction.
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