Fr Monnier to Fr Favre, Tonga, 28 October 1863
AM 2. 321-324
In this letter to his superior general, Monnier reports the death of Ptolomee who had been with him at Ma’ofanga since 1860. It is clear that the brother’s imprudence as much as his love of work was a contributing factor to his death at the age of 42. (rf L 161).
Pierre Castagnier, who was stationed at Mua at this time, also records the brother’s illness and death in his diary, now held in the archives of the Diocese of Tonga in Nuku’alofa (Box 3, Castagnier). He had heard of ‘Br Jean-Baptiste’ being sick on 25 June, and visited Maofanga on 2 July to find him very low. Later in the month, however, the brother was well enough to come to Mua. He had a relapse at the end of August, rallied slightly at the beginning of September, then sank again to die at midnight on the 5th.
Ptolomee was buried at Ma’ofanga under the name by which he was generally known in the mission, Brother Jean-Baptiste. This was to cause complications for the brothers since the Circulars announced his death only in the most general terms: “Br Ptolomee, deceased in Oceania in September 1863” (CSG 3. 218). While it was known that he had died in Tonga, the location of his grave was not identified until 1988 when research in Castagnier’s diary allowed the brothers to identify the place. The weatherworn cross in the cemetery next to the cathedral has since been replaced by a new headstone recording both his Christian and religious names.
Extracts from this letter in the Annales des Missions can be found also in Mangeret: Mgr Bataillon, II, p 246.
Text of the Letter
- (Very Reverend Father)
- Death came to ask a heavy sacrifice of us on the 5th of September this year. Br Jean-Baptiste, known in religion as Br Ptolemee, was the victim of his zeal for work. As I was the witness of his illness and as I was alone with him in his last moments, I could better than any other, perhaps, give you a faithful account.
- It was sometime about 2 years ago that the good Brother began to show a particular interest in working in stone. Since he had for quarry only the reef at low tide, for tools only an old broken axe, and for assistance only his own arms, you can imagine the immense difficulty he had to overcome to build these things for us with enormous blocks dragged from the water: a cemetery cross with five steps, a little clock-tower surmounted by a big cross facing the church, a well covered by a vault roof which was the admiration of the natives, two paved floors in our rooms, an enormous baptistery in the chapel, and a little cloister wall at the entrance to our courtyard. Apart from these ambitious projects, enough to occupy two less robust men in the tropics, he had the care of our stores, the kitchen, and the arrangement of the garden. With all that, he did not think he had enough to do. It would have caused him pain, for example, if he had been relieved of the laundry and other things our Catholics could have done instead.
- It is not necessary to inform you that these occupations, beyond the strength of ordinary men, were not imposed on him. We even frequently tried our best ourselves to curtail them. Finally, we let him go his own way in order not to disappoint him. Those well acquainted with Br Jean-Baptiste’s fear of idleness will understand that this was the only line we could take. Besides, past experience and his numerous protests lead us to believe that he was invulnerable, and we would not have been wrong, perhaps, had he not been imprudent. He used to come back to the church every evening soaked with seawater and sweat, without changing his clothes, despite the night chill. During the day he quenched his thirst with glasses of lime juice. Consequently his sickness was an inflammation of the stomach. It became apparent several days before Corpus Christi as a general lassitude, and then took on complications with a very painful cough. Despite everything, he did not want to leave his wall unfinished. The last month we forced him to give up any type of work – but it was too late. Rest was as painful for him as work: there seemed to be no relief possible for him. He spent almost all the time in his room, head resting on his table, except for the hours he consecrated especially to prayer.
- In this regard, he was an inspiration. He never missed Mass, which is before sunrise, even though he had not had any sleep during the night. He always showed great love for the Society to which he had the honour of belonging. He received with very obvious joy the circulars of the Very Reverend Brother Superior, he read and reread them with a truly filial affection. He used to regale us very often, especially during his sickness, with the immense services his venerable Superiors had rendered him. He had forgotten none of the places where this Society he loved had placed him; he had an excellent memory for each of the confreres with whom he had lived and for the children whom he had taught. He omitted none of the exercises of his Rule. Two days before his death he accused himself of negligence because a certain drowsiness following a period of crisis, had prevented him from finishing his rosary. He had a singular devotion to the Holy Virgin Mary and would regularly address her with childlike tenderness as his good Mother. Another virtue of which he gave proofs without number, was the faithful practice of his vow of poverty. He feared making an expense almost as much as a formal violation of the apostolic vow. When he could no longer do anything he would often ask me to see that nothing was wasted through the fault of the natives or carelessness. He knew how to get use out of a whole lot of things many others would have judged useless. He understood what the expenses of a missionary cost the Propagation of the Faith and the charitable people who contributed to it. ‘Father’, he said to me one day, ‘how ashamed I am not to be able to do you any service, but to be a charge on you.’ ‘Brother, you are not a charge. A sick man draws down heaven’s blessings on an establishment.’ ‘If I were to be sick for a long time and have the alms of the Propagation of the Faith wasted on me, that would be the hardest of all sacrifices for me; I would rather 100 times have a quick death!’ The response to that fear was obvious, but it showed a certain delicacy in Br Jean-Baptiste which the good God has recompensed in heaven.
- The same Brother, though, before his own sickness, had a particular concern for the sick. Gifted with a kind heart, he knew how to find remedies for all the physical sufferings we were subject to. He would like to have cured all our converts. He even found it hard to bear that prudence and the circumstances of places and persons forbade us treating the Protestants. He would sometimes ask permission to relieve people in excessive suffering, for example, those tormented by toothache. He could extract teeth with a dexterity unmatched anywhere in Tonga. It should be recognized that, despite this charity, his relations with the natives never went beyond the indispensable, and that he practiced his vow of chastity in such a way that it was obvious to all that he was beyond reproach in this matter. Happy Brother, who realized that here as elsewhere, and in certain circumstances more than in others, the dangers are great and the occasions frequent, and that the best defences are always reserve, avoidance of occasions, and devotion to the Queen of Virgins. That all pure Queen did not abandon him.
- On Thursday 27 August, Brother had a good helping of soup in the evening, laughing over his appetite, and telling me he did not look like a sick man. The next day, his sickness took a more serious turn. He could not take anything from then on until the moment he died except a few glasses of sugared water. On Monday September 1, Fr Chevron believed he was almost out of danger, and on Thursday 4 Br Louis left him thinking he was on the way to recovery. A quarter of an hour later the sick man was in the grip of a new crisis, he called me and begged me not to leave him. As I had no suspicion at all that he was approaching his end, I agreed only reluctantly to his repeated requests, because I had a lot to do that day. Brother was in pain, but he spoke very clearly, he wanted to go to confession. Since he had already confessed only a few days before, I put him off to Saturday evening with the remark that he couldn’t have done much wrong since his last confession. ‘Alas,’ he said, ‘I am truly a great sinner, but if you wish me to, I will wait.’ He then talked to me about everything concerning his work, the Society, religious life. ‘Your presence,’ he added, ‘lessens the pain.’ When another crisis overtook him he cried out, ‘Ah, another attack! Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I offer it to you. It’s over. Poor body, poor limbs, how worn out you are.’ I changed two shirts he had put on together so as not to catch cold, and put others on him, without thinking of his scapular. The Blessed Virgin was watching out for me and the scapular was found in the right position after his death. At 11 o’clock that night he asked me what time it was and asked me to prepare a glass of warm water for him so he could vomit. The water was ready at midnight on 5 September. He tried for some time while I supported his weary head. ‘I am calmer,’ he told me, ‘I am going to vomit. Leave me.’ He did not vomit, but he was peaceful. I sat down for five minutes and my eyes closed. I woke with a start. Brother did not say another word but he seemed to be murmuring an act of contrition. I gave him the absolution he had asked for the previous evening and he understood me. I ran to the church to fetch the holy oils, but when I arrived back I was probably just in time to give a corpse a general anointing… The burial followed the native practice. The Brother was placed at the foot of his cross.
- His absence leaves me in solitude. Every object I see or touch or find beneath my feet recalls to me his services. The natives everywhere repeat they have never seen a worker like him. You will know better than I to recommend to all the Fathers and Brothers, who are, like him, the children of Mary, to pray for the repose of his soul…
- J. Monnier.
- The text in AM reads here, the “Very Reverend Father Superior”, but the context clearly refers to the superior general of The Little Brothers of Mary, and the mistake is probably that of the editor rather than Monnier’s own.
- Br Louis Meyronin (1831-1902) came to Oceania in 1857 and worked in Tonga, where he was professed in the Society in 1861. At the end of the decade he returned to Sydney and remained at the procure until his death.
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