Fr Rolland to Fr Favre (?), Taranaki, April / May 1872
AM 3. 205- 209
This account of the last days and death of Elie-Regis is found in the third volume of the Annales des Missions de l’Oceanie (Lyon, 1874). As an edited reproduction of Rolland’s letter it thus has no addressee or date given, and the opening and closing sections have been omitted. It was presumably addressed to Favre as superior general, or possibly to Poupinel.
Jean-Baptiste Rolland (1834-1903) was professed in 1861 and came out to Oceania at the end of 1862. He was employed at Clydesdale until 1865 when he transferred to New Zealand. As a chaplain to the Imperial forces during the land wars in Taranaki he had the idea, at the end of hostilities, of recruiting some of the Irish Catholics among the troops as coadjutor brothers for the Society. For this purpose he purchased some land at Koru, at the foot of Mount Taranaki, some 15 kilometres south of New Plymouth. When in 1869 Elie-Regis was transferred from Wanganui to Waitara for health reasons (he had long been suffering from TB), Rolland felt he was the ideal man to help him with this project.
Elie seems to have been given free rein in the formation of the young men. As Rolland makes clear, it was the rule of the brothers and not that of the Society which he had them follow . This may be because Rolland’s confreres regarded the project as very much his own personal one. Indeed, a note in the account in the Annales (p 205) insists on the Koru establishment as being “simply a diocesan work” – though Viard gave it little support either. He makes it equally clear that Elie remained firmly attached to his congregation. “His favourite reading”  was certainly Jean-Baptiste’s recently published (1868) Biographies de quelques Freres, many of whom he would have known personally.
Rolland’s project did not long survive the death of the brother. He was in Westland collecting on the goldfields for it when Viard died not long after, and when he was replaced in Taranaki by Lampila in 1874, the Koru monastery was closed. Nothing remains of it today, or the little cemetery which grew up around Elie’s grave, except for a Heritage Trail sign marking the site. One of the last three ‘brothers’ to leave, Patrick Murphy, approached Br Edwin, superior of the Auckland community early in 1887, asking if he could enter the congregation. He entered the novitiate in Sydney in May 1887, but left the following April (entries in Br Edwin Farrell’s diary, copy in MBAA).
News of Elie-Regis’ death reached France by telegraph in time for inclusion in the circular of 26 July (CSG 4. 368), but took a bit longer reaching Australia. In a letter of 6 October, Joseph-Xavier complains, “Brother Emery has just learned, from you, I believe, that Brother Elie Regis has died, and no one at Villa Maria knew anything about it. In New Zealand they put the dead into the ground, and that’s that. They don’t even tell their confreres in the neighbourhood. Sydney is not so distant that they could not let us know..” (letter to Poupinel, 6 October 1872, APM). A biography of the brother was published in serial form in the New Zealand Marist News April 2001 to August 2003, under the title: ‘An Elite Soul. The story of Brother Elie-Regis.’
Text of the Letter
- When he arrived in Taranaki from Wanganui, he was seriously ill; he could walk only with the aid of two crutches. Soon however his condition appeared to improve. He could put aside his crutches and feel as much happier in taking up his work as his assistance was becoming more necessary to us. It was about this time that quite providential circumstances allowed us to buy a quite extensive property where I decided to set up a novitiate for coadjutor brothers.
- We had to build a house. It was to this work that the good brother consecrated the last of his strength. He hoped that this establishment would one day render great services to the Christians of New Zealand. That was enough to stir up his zeal.
- From the beginning of winter he began preparing in our Taranaki residence materials for the new construction. At the time we had stationed there some Irish Catholic soldiers. Moved to see this poor old man undertaking a task beyond his strength, they many times took the tools from his hands to plane the planks themselves and force him to take a little rest. When everything was finished, these fine soldiers still wanted to help us transport all our material, piece by piece, to the country. For this new service, they were obliged to get up a long time before daybreak in order to set out early in the morning. And all that out of compassion and good will towards the good Br Elie-Regis whom they loved.
- His health having continued to improve, Br Elie left himself for the country once all the preparatory work was finished and set about putting up his house. Once the house was built, he was occupied with a garden, an orchard, and a vineyard. You would need to know New Zealand to appreciate properly the labour and difficulties of such a work, in a country covered with forests and brush, and which has never been under cultivation. Thus the good brother was regarded as the man of Providence, the man truly necessary for this enterprise. He was helped in his work by several young men and at the same time he strove to form them to piety and the practices of religious life by having them follow as far as possible all the points of his rule.
- Of a very great simplicity in his relations with others, Br Elie was gifted with good judgement and especially with the common sense so necessary in behaviour. We were often surprised by his brief but pithy comments, redolent of authentic devotion and bearing the stamp of wisdom. As well as this spirit of simplicity governed by wisdom, what we most noted in him was an exemplary regularity. Right to his last days he kept following the timetable with great punctuality. Even in cold weather, when he could scarcely move, exhausted by suffering and coughing, he still used to drag himself to the exercises and to meals, even though he was sometimes forced to interrupt them because of his condition. The least mark of attentiveness he was shown was always received with the utmost gratitude. Even when he was suffering most, he would move away from the fire to say his little office and often retired to a little room to do it better. I believe he remained completely faithful to this exercise up to the day of his death or the day before. Nothing would stop him, except the impossibility of attending Mass and approaching holy communion.
- Br Elie remained always very attached to the congregation of the Little Brothers of Mary to which he belonged. He read the circulars of his superiors and learned of the success of his community with a lively pleasure. His favourite reading was the biography of the more edifying brothers. A short time before his death he had received several volumes which were his delight.
- After love of his rule, what everybody admired about Br Elie was his love of or rather passion for work. Not only had no one anything to reproach him with in this connection, so much did his health and strength correspond to his zeal, but even after a first attack, and on very cold days, I have seen him take his hoe or his bill hook and go around the fields until the cold or his weakness forced him to return. And it was always with a feeling of humility and regret that he did so.
- Some time before dying, he said to me, ‘Father, I believe that I will no longer be able to work, and as I want to be useful as long and as much as I can, allow me to give you some advice. I recommend you to have some hemp planted, for I think this product will become very valuable.’
- Previously, in one of his attacks, he let me know his troubles and told me that he had said the prayer of St Martin, that if it was God’s will to restore him to health, he would be happy, in order to carry on working for his glory and for the expiation of his own sins; that he was sometimes very afraid of the judgment of God; but, he also added, If he wants me to die now, let his holy will be done.
- This good brother, feeling his end approach, took his stick one day and managed to drag himself to several parts of the property some distance from the house. After closely examining it from all angles, he returned and pointed out to us the place where he desired to be buried. It was above his garden and his vineyard at the top of a little rise easily visible from the house. The reason he chose it was doubtless to get people to remember to pray for the repose of his soul.
- At last the supreme moment drew near. We could no longer delude ourselves. The sick man was noticeably on the decline. God desired to give him a great consolation, that of receiving the last sacraments from the hands of Fr Lampila with whom he had spent the great part of his missionary life. Unfortunately this good father was obliged to leave almost immediately afterwards for Taranaki and I remained alone with the dying man, to be the witness and consoler of his last moments.
- It was administered on Tuesday morning 23 April. About midday I went into his room. He could scarcely speak and made a real effort in saying to me: ‘Father, I ask your pardon for all the offences I have done you and the troubles I have caused you.’ When I said to him smiling, ‘But, my good brother, you have never caused me any trouble,’ he replied, ‘I know what I am saying.’
- In the evening we gathered to take turns in watching over him during the night. But about two o’clock in the morning he sent away the young man whose turn it was to perform this act of charity. Towards daybreak he was extremely weak, but he wanted to change his position. I helped him get into an armchair and since I had to go out I sent one of our young men immediately to look after him. On going into the room he found the brother collapsed on the floor. We put him back in bed. It was the first time anyone had done that. Soon he complained of the cold. I had him fetched a hot water bottle. Feeling uncomfortable, he asked for a change of bed. But hardly had someone started to satisfy his desire when he recognized it was only his imagination and he withdrew his request. Looking at his arms he said to me, ‘Father, I think the blood has stopped.’ I took his crucifix which was on the table. I placed it at the foot of his bed against the paneling, and encouraged him to consider the cross of the Saviour and to unite his sufferings to his own.
- I began to say my breviary at his side. Glancing frequently at him, I saw that his gaze did not leave the crucifix. When I had finished, he told me he was hungry, and asked to have a bit of bread and jam. I handed him a little piece. His hand could not grip it; it was without feeling. In order to satisfy him I put a bit in his mouth. At first he appeared to move his teeth with avidity and pleasure, but soon he slowed, and it was not long before he ceased altogether. His eyes became fixed, as if attached to heaven. I lighted a candle and said a few words of encouragement, reminding him of the promise he had made several times of taking a special interest in our new establishment.
- While I was speaking to him, I saw his face contract and his eyes slightly crumple. It was his last breath. The good brother had rendered his soul to God. It was the 24th April 1872, a Wednesday, the day consecrated to St Joseph. According to his own beautiful expression, I hope that his soul has become a beautiful flower in his heavenly Father’s garden. One day, while we were admiring together the flowers in our garden, he said to me, ‘Father, when I look at these flowers, I imagine that the souls of the saints are so many flowers making Paradise beautiful.’
- Our young men, for whom he had had so much affection, entered into holy rivalry among themselves in looking after all the preparations for the funeral, whether digging the grave, or marking out the path from the house to the place he had chosen. After a high mass, which I celebrated with as much solemnity as possible, they were the ones who carried him to the place where he rests.
- J. Rolland S.M.
- St Martin of Tours is reported to have said at the end, that while willing to die, he was equally willing to live, if that were God’s will for him (cf the office of his feast, 11 November, in the Breviary).
|Previous Letter||Letters from Oceania: 1872-3||Next letter|