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Br Therese to Br Francois, Ouagap, 29 May 1860

LO 90


This appears as one letter in two parts (or three, if one includes Poupinel’s postscript) in LO, although the copy in the Cahier (2: 48 Lettres diverses sur les missions d’Oceanie a partir de 1846) treats it as two separate letters (pp 95-104, 108-111). However, the first part ends abruptly with only a signature, while the second, which repeats the formal greeting, has a full formal ending as well. This rather suggests a single letter interrupted and then taken up again by the writer with a different end in view. The second part, in fact, is close to the account of conscience type of letter we have met earlier. In addition, the closing section, obviously added by Poupinel, though the copy does not carry his signature, comments on criticisms made in the first part [21]. It has been thought advisable, then, to treat the whole as a single letter.

Br Therese (Michel Matthieu 1828-1906), received the habit at La Begude in April 1850 and was professed in September 1853. Le Luc in Provence (founded 1852) is the only establishment apart from formation centers referred to in his letters and it was probably his last appointment before the missions. This letter and the following ones to Brs Ladislas and Aquilas provide much detail about the voyage which he made in the company of his confrere, Aristide, returning to Oceania, and five Marist priests, almost all destined for New Caledonia. The two brothers were the last Little Brothers of Mary to be sent out individually to work with the fathers. There are a few discrepancies of date and detail among the letters but none notable, and most probably attributable to the copyist(s). Therese is the only one of the early missionary brothers to allow us some insight into the history of his missionary vocation [1-4].

Therese was assigned to the station of Ouagap (Wagap), about halfway down the east coast of the main island, south of Touho. Founded in 1854, it had a number of catechumens but still no baptized converts. It was in the charge of Jean-Baptiste Gilibert (1818-1891) who had come out to New Caledonia with Germanique in 1858. A seminary professor with no previous pastoral experience who joined the Society in 1847, Gilibert had not succeeded in winning the confidence of the people. But in 1861 Rougeyron recorded 50 adults were baptized. Therese was to spend the greater part of his time with the Fathers at this station.

The problems for the brothers mentioned in this letter [21] are the same covered by writers of earlier letters (rf eg L 140). In his note, Poupinel responds to some of the complaints. It was probably the community aspect [32], however, that finally decided the superiors against sending any more brothers to work with the priests in the missions.

Text of the Letter

Very reverend Br Francois, Sup. Gen.
When I asked you to be good enough to grant me the favour of being sent to Oceania, I told you it was the only vow I had ever formulated. In truth, this idea had been continually with me for a very long time and the day I took the habit something seemed to tell me St Therese would obtain this grace for me. However, fearing it might be simple presumption, I did not stop there. For 10 years, though, I prayed to this great saint to obtain this favour for me if it would serve the glory of God and the salvation of my soul. Today I am certain she has obtained this grace for me and I am finding more and more how good it is to abandon oneself in this way into the hands of divine Providence.
I told you at the time, very reverend Brother, that I could not tell by my own lights if that was the will of God, but that I was in his hands and I would do what you wanted of me. For many years I asked the good God to reveal to you his holy will. When, at last, the day having come, you said to me: “It’s time to go, “ I regarded those words as the voice of God and the expression of his holy will.
On leaving St Paul, after saying my last farewells, I offered up to the good God and his Blessed Mother and St Joseph all the sacrifices nature appeared to be demanding. I prayed them to bless my voyage and the mission they wished to confide to me. I commended myself to St Therese and my guardian Angel and to all my patron saints. On crossing the threshold I said to myself: “My God, I am leaving everything to follow you, but as long as I am with you, what have I to fear! “
So, with gratitude overflowing, I cannot help crying out: “Now, Lord, you can let your servant go in peace, since I dwell in the land of my desires. “ A thousand times fortunate (am I) if, after years of hardship and suffering, my lifeless remains might find their resting place near the generous martyrs of Oceania.
I am happy to be able to give you the details of our long crossing, very reverend Br Superior. I know your paternal heart desires me to go into all the details. All the same, I don’t want to bore you or waste your time.
We embarked on 20th October. Our voyage was very favourable from all points of view, but we did experience a terrible storm. It was All Saints day. That day I was reminded more than once of what a solemn occasion this is in France. Imagine our poor floating house lifted into the air by the roaring waves unleashed against her and threatening every moment to swallow her. The ship kept heeling over, at times to the right, at times to the left, then righting herself and skimming over the furious waves. And all this to the accompaniment of a frightful creaking and the terrible whistling of the wind through the masts, sails and rigging. Anything not fastened down rolled about and smashed. For myself, I stayed in bed all day and part of the next day, and I still had to hang on so as not to roll off.
If I could not sleep it was not for lack of rocking! The ceaselessly breaking waves roared in our ears and made the ship creak so much you could have thought all the joints were coming apart. Each of us had offered the sacrifice of his life to the good God and placed himself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and all the saints and made his preparations in the secrecy of his heart for appearing before the divine tribunal. We made the sacrifice of our life very willingly, with that peace, calm, and resignation which is inspired by trust in the best of Fathers and entire submission to his will in life or death.
If faith, trust and abandonment are always necessary, they are even more so in these circumstances, so as (to lead us) to be content and serene in the midst of the perils surrounding us, with only planks separating us from death.
This thought gave us plenty of scope for meditation and lead naturally to the great day when nature in upheaval will proclaim to the universe the last coming of Jesus Christ and the end of time. In the course of the voyage I loved to contemplate the beauty of the sun at its setting and its rising. The horizon is covered with clouds of a thousand shades of gold, purple, violet, and green. You would think volcanoes were erupting. The evenings offer moments delicious to the soul. Far from land and its restless tumult, under an azure heaven sown with stars, one is carried away to contemplate and admire the work of the Creator and to bless and glorify him. At times, too, you would think you were in the countryside. The shouts of the children, the singing of the sailors, the bleating of the sheep, the honking of the geese, the grunting of the pigs, the crowing of the cocks and all sorts of birds fluttering around the ship – all that provided a close enough semblance to a farm. It’s only when you look beyond the ship and see nothing but sky and water that you become only too aware of the illusion! We had 40 passengers on our ship, from all countries but all without religion. They were going to seek their fortunes.
In the evenings we would sit on deck in a family group and, while the other passengers spent their time together recalling fond memories of their homelands, now receding further behind them with each day, we, who were contemplating immortality, would recite in choir the Ave Maris Stella or the Salve Regina, or some of our canticles, which I hope to teach to our little Caledonians. On December 10 we crossed the line. The baptism ceremony should have taken place next day but the sailors received orders to the contrary. We were not disappointed.
On Christmas Eve we were off the Cape of Good Hope. The seas were rough but with precautions we were able to say Mass at midnight. During the crossing we always had the good fortune of having Holy Mass frequently and receiving Holy Communion. It was very consoling for me every time I had this favour. On the ship, after our exercises of piety, my occupations consisted of reading or writing.
On 22 January we reached Melbourne. In this part of Australia only 20 years ago there were hardly any houses. Today there are 1 million inhabitants,[1] 60,000 of them Catholics. There are rich gold mines – that is what made the population grow so quickly. On the 29th we were at Sydney. This town has been in existence only 70 years. The population is a little less than Melbourne. All these lands were occupied by savages. Part of them have since been killed, the others driven away.
After our arrival in Sydney we had to work on the harvesting of the grapes but as I was not used to it at this season, I didn’t put all the grapes in the basket. You understand. The Brothers are going well. Br Gennade directs the work, Br Augule works at his trade and sings all the time. Br Emery is with Monsignor Bataillon. We departed on 7th March, 3 priests and 2 brothers for Caledonia. We arrived on the 25th. On this short crossing we ran into great danger. Everyone thought himself lost. One man was drowned. It was a warship. It seemed to me I was back in France. We were very well regarded by all the crew. The priests were with the officers and we were with the petty officers who put themselves out to do us service. I spent a good part of my time distributing medals and rosaries among them or giving some encouraging words about the faith and the duties of a Christian. I asked the young cadets about the principal mysteries and some questions from the catechism. What was most edifying was that they always listened to me. In the evenings I often had a dozen around me asking questions on religion to clarify matters for themselves.
Everyone made a point of wearing his medal on his naked breast. One day, one of the boatswains came to my cabin and asked me for a medal, saying everyone had one except him. I could not find one at the time. The next day he didn’t hesitate to ask me for it in front of all the others. He inspected it, showed it to those next to him and hung it round his neck. If it doesn’t do any good, it will do no harm. One day before our arrival the chief boatswain came looking for me and said, “I’m the only one who hasn’t got a medal.” On another occasion, after I had given a sailor a rosary, he told me, “You couldn’t have pleased me more if you had given me 10 francs. “ At the same time he took out one of his own, with the words: “Here’s the one my mother gave me when I left. I want to give it back to her when I return.”

The day we were to land, before we left the ship, a cadet said to me sadly: “Here’s a letter I have just received. My mother congratulates me on my writing and asks me if I still have the rosary she gave me when I left. Unfortunately, I have lost it and someone stole the one you gave me.” I immediately gave him another and said, “You can tell your mother you still have a rosary.” He brightened up but still did not look completely satisfied. He added, “If only you had another medal! I would like one to send to my mother.” I gave him two, and he was overcome with joy. One is happy to come across such good dispositions.
After eating a hearty meal, I had only a few minutes with good Br Germanique, who is teaching about 20 pupils, half white, half black, on the edge of Port de France. Then we left for La Conception which is a bit further away. A few weeks after, April 14, we left for the Isle of Pines. On leaving Br Aristide asked us to pass on his respects. He is well and he and Br Germanique are neighbours. They see each other every week. We went to Lifou, to Ouvea, and finally Ouagap, my destination. I arrived there the 5th of May the following week. I have also been to the mission of Touo. (I am) in good health. The Caledonian missions are making very slow progress.
The people are not very intelligent. It is very difficult to get them to understand abstract concepts, and they love their freedom. Provided they can smoke, go journeying, sleep, they are happy – that’s all they care about. Ah! If they became Christians, what a happy change it would make in them!
They are so inquisitive they want to see everything – inside the apartments as well as outside. When they see you doing something that is new to them, they observe you very closely. One day I was cutting grass with a scythe. I soon found an audience of men, women, and children around me watching me with eyes big as a cat’s lying in ambush, and everyone had something to say. But when I sharpened my scythe, it was music to their ears. They are so funny. If you say something to them and don’t say it exactly the way they do, they look at one another and smile, as if to say, “He doesn’t understand a thing.” Often you have to have weapons on hand. They never go for a trip without their spears and clubs.
As for our way of life and occupations – they are very simple. In the morning Father says Mass and I serve. Afterwards we are both busy with our housework, working in the garden, looking after the fowls and other animals we have for our use. I do a bit of everything. Our storehouse is still not yet well stocked but we have water. Yams and taro serve us as bread. One learns quickly on coming here; it does not take long to learn all the trades. They are very necessary.
There are some little details, my very Reverend Brother Superior, jotted down hurriedly and with many mistakes, without any order or progression. But I know that will not prevent you in your goodness from following them with interest and that fatherly kindness you show everything your poor children insist on communicating to you.
Dear reverend Br Superior, the interest I have in the community and in each of the Brothers obliges me to let you know something about the situation they find themselves in once they have left the motherhouse. As I saw during my voyage a certain number of houses and stayed several days in each, I had the opportunity to see what was happening there. A good number of our Brothers are suffering. That is not surprising. After leaving a well-directed community with the Superiors acting as fathers, the Rules clearly spelt out, where there are rich spiritual resources, one finds everything the opposite. Superiors who have no consoling words, encouragement, or sympathy. Not having anyone to open up to, being left to oneself, the piety one originally had diminishes little by little. Brothers who admonish you or who foolishly incline to what is a bit flattering to nature. Some blame themselves for one thing, and that is having insisted too much in asking (to come). For myself, what gives me most consolation is that I am where God wants me to be because, ever since I began asking for this grace, I have always added, if it is God’s will.
The first time I spoke with Fr Poupinel, he asked me this question. “The only thing I don’t like about you is your name.[2] Couldn’t we do away with it?” I told him: “You can do what you like with it. As far as I am concerned, I will never forget it.”
Br Therese.
Very reverend Br Superior,
I am still, thanks to God’s grace and the protection of the Blessed Virgin, very content. Work and people keep me busy, but I ask the good God for strength and patience. What is the good, I ask myself, if after I have made so many sacrifices, I end up neglecting myself. I have even less time for prayer than at Le Luc. What am I saying? I am in error, for one has always the time to pray. I take care to offer all my actions to the good God and put them under the protection of the Blessed Virgin.
Amidst the fatigue and trials divine Providence sends me every day I am careful to keep up my spirits, as happy as if everything were going according to my wishes and desires. I remember especially the most consoling thought, that is to consider I am where the good God wants me to be. It doesn’t matter whether I am happy or sad, I tell myself, as long as I don’t offend God and can be pleasing to him. That’s all I can ask from him every day while I am among people who can only lead me astray. On his side, the devil does all he can.
It is an article of the Rule to keep, that’s the main thing, confession and holy communion to give me strength and courage. But one would say all the demons concentrate on stopping me. I make my meditation and say the rosary in the place of the Office.
There is no point in commending myself to your prayers and those of all the Brothers when you see the need I have of them.
For my part, I can assure you that I don’t pass a single day without commending you, the whole community, and the Superiors in particular, to the good God and his Blessed Mother.
My respects and regards to the Brother Assistants.
It would be very consoling for me if I could have a copy of each of our Rules so as not to forget the spirit of the Institute and to see what the community is doing at each moment. I have the life of the good Fr Champagnat but if I could also have a little engraving to put in my little room, how happy I would be. I cannot read it without (the) tears frequently coming to my eyes.
I embrace you with all my heart and remain, my very rev Br Superior,
your very affectionate and very obedient servant
Br Therese.

Father Poupinel to Brother Francois

I find Br Mathieu’s letter to Br Francois astonishing, and that is why I am adding this note. On arriving he made some critical remarks about the priests and brothers, the missions and the people, which were greatly exaggerated. This letter came to me opened and, if it had been addressed to anyone else, I would have sent it back with some comments to its writer. He is not in a good position to judge men and affairs; I mean with Fr Gilibert, who does not love and who will not succeed in making himself loved.
There is no argument that the situation of the Brothers in the missions is a difficult one, that it requires really solid virtue of them, and they cannot have the advantage of living in community. You don’t have to come to Oceania to know that it has to be this way. In this regard, The Fathers equally have many sacrifices to make.
I have a great deal of love and respect for Br Mathieu. I believe he will do well and he will change his ideas. I will make these observations to him as he has written about the same things to me. He has heard Br Emery on the subject of Monsignor Bataillon; the Brother was very unhappy at that time. Why did he get himself into such a fix? Today matters are going better. He causes Fr Junillon more trouble than he experiences.
Br Germanique gets little sympathy from Fr Fremont, but I am sure they have a great respect for each other. By temperament the Father is very cold, but he is the man required in Port-de-France. The misfortune is that the Brother, who wants to lead a regular religious life, has no other interests, and not enough work. I hope the situation will improve. I will speak of him in my letters in August.
It is quite amazing that he is surprised to find no noble sentiments among the savages, to find them animals in their tastes and behaviour. The tree produces the fruit appropriate to its type. Grace alone can give them sentiments of generosity, but it is quite false to say that, in the face of dismaying obstacles, our missionaries have not made any progress. I would say more but intelligenti pauca…[ a few words are sufficient to the wise ].


  1. In the letter to Ladislas (L 153), the figure is given as 400,000, which is certainly the correct one. The total population of Australia in 1860 was only a million.
  2. While the name of Mary was a common part of the Christian as well as the religious names of many French Marists, it is less common to find one using the name of any other female saint. Therese, however, makes his devotion to his namesake very clear at the beginning of this letter. Poupinel appears to have been uncomfortable about using it as in his covering note he refers to the brother by his family name. In the records of the mission he features most commonly as Theresi or Teresi.

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