Br Therese to Br Ladislas, Ouagap. 29 May 1860
Brother Ladislas (Michael Janin 1823-1889), perpetually professed in 1845, was director of St Paul-Trois-Chateaux where Therese spent several days before departing for Lyon to join his missionary companions. This letter covers much of the same ground as the previous one to Francois, although it provides more dates and records additional material on the voyage, as well as on the customs of the New Caledonians. While their ship may have called into Liverpool after leaving London, the story of the shipwreck recounted in [8-9] may rather have been associated with floating wreckage encountered on the voyage south.
The farewell formula missing at the end of this letter is probably supplied in the following one to Br Aquilas, since these two shared the same address at St Paul-Trois-Chateaux. Unlike the latter, this letter is not to be found elsewhere in the AFM.
Text of the Letter
- Very dear Br Director,
- The grace of Our Lord be always with you.
- If my own heart is a good judge, you must be waiting impatiently for news of me. So I am taking advantage of the first opportunity to come my way to give you the account of my voyage. It is beyond my capabilities, it’s true, but you know me well enough to forgive me. When I embraced you and said my last farewells, you know I was going directly to Lyon, and we left there on the 15th for Paris, 5 Fathers and 2 Brothers.
- On the 19th we left for London. We embarked on the 24th and I reached my destination on the 5th May. Our voyage was very pleasant. We had only one storm, properly speaking, on All Saints Day. That day, such a solemn one in France, my thoughts returned more than once to those happy occasions.
- Each of us had offered the sacrifice of his life to the good God and put himself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and all the saints. Each had prepared himself in the secret of his heart to appear before the divine judgment seat, making a free sacrifice of his life, but with the peace, calm, tender resignation that trust in the best of Fathers inspires – to live if it is his will or to die if it is his will.
- How spectacular it was to contemplate but how frightening too. We were surrounded by mountains of water. One would have said that we were going to be swallowed by the waves at any moment. The seas were so strong that the ship, for all its weight, was lifted up. The wind was blowing with all its force. The roaring of the sea which accompanied it and blended with it offered one of those rare spectacles, difficult to describe but stirring the soul to its depths. If faith, hope, and resignation are necessary, they are doubly so in those circumstances, where one is in the midst of the perils that often surround us.
- A single plank separated us from eternity. Picture our poor floating house, lifted into the air by the roaring waves unleashed against her and threatening at any moment to engulf her. The ship rolled, to left, to right, then righted itself and skimmed over the furious waves. And all this to the accompaniment of a terrifying creaking and the fearful whistling of the wind through the masts, sails, and rigging.
- Everything not securely tied down rolled around and smashed. The spectacle provided ample matter for meditation, and naturally one was reminded of the day when nature will be overturned and proclaim to the universe the last coming of the son of Man. I loved to contemplate the beauty of the rising sun. Oh! How beautiful and worthy of praise are the works of the Lord, how insignificant the soul feels at sight of them, how it is lifted up to the author of so many marvels.
- Fifteen days after our departure we saw the remains of a vessel which had just been wrecked near Liverpool. It had cost the lives of several hundred people. The bad weather had forced it into the bay of Dulac (sic). It dropped anchor there. Despite the precautions, it was driven on to the rocks at 2 in the morning. A Negro swam ashore to tie a rope which saved 2 lives. When the ship struck the first time, Captain Taylor entered the passengers’ salon to ask them to remain calm and collected, promising them there would be less danger for them if they followed the instructions of the officers. With the crashing of the ship against the rocks, it did not take long before the true situation was known. When the ship broke up, a great number of people were crushed by the fall of the boiler and the funnel. At the very moment Capt. Taylor, clinging to the mast, cried out, “There is still hope,” a lifeboat fell on his head crushing him. The first officer was also killed by tackle falling from the mast.
- Of 509 people, only 39 were saved. In those latitudes one evening we observed a ship quite close to us firing a signal gun. The next morning we were told it had probably foundered. Alas! In such cases it must be especially frightening for someone who is not resigned to God’s will.
- Sometimes on the ship you would be tempted to think you were in the open country. The crying of children, the singing of sailors, the bleating of sheep, the barking of dogs, the honking of geese, the crowing of cocks and the seabirds flying about the ship – all these things contributed strongly to the illusion.
- It was only on seeing the thousands of ropes crossing one another in the air, the sails flapping in the wind, the midshipmen clambering up to the top of the masts and along to the ends of the spars about 100 feet above our heads that we found our illusion completely shattered. Every day brought us some new sight to break the monotony: the sea sometimes calm, sometimes agitated, black, blue, greenish; the sun setting and inundating the ocean with a flood of light. At sunrise and sunset the horizon was covered with clouds of a thousand colours: gold, purple, violet, green. In the evenings we would sit in a family group on deck, and while some passengers gave themselves over to nostalgic reminiscences of the homeland they were leaving further behind them with each day, we who were thinking of immortality, would be reciting in choir the Ave Maris Stella or some of our canticles which I hope to teach the little Caledonians. I don’t know how to describe to you how happy one feels singing the praises of our good mother on a delightful evening in the middle of the ocean, under a beautiful sky sown with stars, and despite the hissing of the waves breaking against the ship, which impress on the soul a sudden feeling of apprehension mixed with loving confidence in her who protects us in such a wonderful way. Glory, honour to Mary, our guide, our support, and our sweet hope. For the rest, everything was so beautiful and majestic on this vast element that supported us; everything there lifts up the soul.
- At sea you see something new every day. One day will be calm, another stormy, today there is rain, tomorrow sun, one day a sail will be carried off by the wind, a spar broken, or a rope or cord snapped, or any other of the chapter of little accidents which happen every day. Today it was a hat which took flight, tomorrow it will be a handkerchief.
- On the 1st December we crossed the line, but the baptism ceremony did not take place. On the 11th we had a strong wind but favourable, the next day even stronger. Frightening mountains of water rose about us. Propelled by the wind we cleared them in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, when one has payed once, it is reasonable enough to take it into account. A wave entered a family’s cabin. The father and mother were eating with the youngest of their four children. The other 3, the oldest being 5 years old, were in their cabin when the wave entered through the porthole and inundated everything inside. The youngest, who had not come across this sort of animal before, finding himself so suddenly snatched up, began to cry like one lost and demand revenge. He could not believe he could be done such an injustice. He resembled a little kitten when it has come out of the water. The next day, too, a wave broke on deck, flooding the Fathers’ cabin and causing the loss of 150 francs worth of books and other objects destroyed or spoiled. Christmas Eve we were off the Cape of Good Hope. The sea was running high. Still, with all due precautions, we were able to have Midnight Mass, and another one at 10 o’clock. Our religious ceremonies were quickly performed because on board we always started on time; we had no parishioners to keep us waiting. With the English, it was each one to his own religion. On Sundays they had a book with the title “Luther and Calvin”. They allowed people to do no work on that day but only to get drunk.
- On January 22 we reached Melbourne. Only 20 years ago there were no houses in this part of Australia. Today you can count 400,000 of whom 60,000 are Catholics. There are rich goldmines which have caused the population to grow so quickly. On the 29th we reached Sydney. The town has existed for only 70 years and its population is a little less than Melbourne. All the country was previously inhabited by savages. Some of them have been destroyed and the others have taken refuge further away.
- After our arrival in Sydney we were put to work harvesting the grapes, but as I wasn’t used to picking grapes at that season, I didn’t put them all in the basket. On March 7 we left for New Caledonia on a warship named the “Cassini”. We arrived on the 25th. On this short crossing we ran a great danger. The night of the 16/17th we all believed we were lost. One man was drowned. We were let off with a fright but the ship, although solid, will show the effects for the rest of its days – it has been judged incapable of returning to France. Every day I handed out some medals or rosaries and each considered it an honour to wear it on his breast. The day we landed, before we left the ship, a cadet came to me all sorrowful to tell me, “Here’s a letter I have just received from my mother. She makes me many compliments on my writing, but she wants me to tell her if I have the rosary she gave me on leaving. I have lost it and someone has stolen the one you gave me.” I gave him another and told him, “you can tell your mother you still have a rosary.”
- He was pleased but not completely, and said “If only you had a medal. I would like to send one to my good mother. “ I gave him two and he was overwhelmed with joy.
- The same day I arrived in Port-de-France, I left for La Conception, the 14 April for the Isle of Pines, the 19th for Lifou, the 20th for Ouvea, and the 25th for Ouagap, the place of my residence. I arrived there the 5th of the good month of Mary.
- The people here are very difficult. They love their freedom and their ancient customs. They work only when hunger forces them to. Their food consists of some fruit, such as yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, coconuts. They also have fowls and pigs, but they sell these to buy tobacco or a pipe when they haven’t any for a day. You give them a pipe worth a couple of cents, they use it for money, and they try the patience of those who make them work.
- They are very inquisitive and they want to see everything. One day I was going to scythe the grass. Soon I was surrounded by men, women, and children. They all had a look and each had something to say about it. But when they saw me sharpening my scythe there was dead silence – it was a rare music for them. If you say something to them and do not pronounce it properly, they begin to laugh. If you have an accident, they laugh even more.
- In the 6 years the Fathers have been here we have not yet produced any Christians. They are attached to their way of life, their old superstitions, and there is no way of uprooting them. They spend part of their time in celebrations. The rites for the dead consist of mourning for a fixed time and at a time indicated. After the ceremony each of those invited is given a present of yams in his turn. Every time they build a hut there is feasting every evening, dancing, clowning, and horseplay until midnight. They have great respect for their superstitions, especially the women. When they see one of their chiefs, they go down on their knees to pass him, even when there are thorns on the ground. The women are treated like animals.
- When they have any animals, such as dogs, cats, pigs, fowls, etc. they regard them as part of the family. When they eat, each gets its share, all sleep in the same dormitory. That is why they never eat them. But if a stray turns up (even if it is half rotten), it is eaten quite raw, so hungry are they for meat. When you go for a walk here, you carry a gun. At night the slightest noise disturbs you.
- There is no need for me to commend myself to your prayers, you know how much I need them. For my part, I don’t forget you, and I hope with all my heart that you are doing great good, that the Institute is flourishing more and more. Every day I ask the Blessed Virgin to send good, fervent novices.
- My regards to all the Brothers I know. I commend myself to their prayers and those of the community. There must be a certain number I don’t know but we will make acquaintance in heaven if we are faithful to bearing always the name of Little Brother of Mary.
- Br Therese.
- This letter has the crossing of the line on the first of the month but the previous one puts it on the 10th and the conditions mentioned here on the 11th were probably sufficient reason for the cancellation of the traditional ceremony. The error is most likely the copyist’s.
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