Br Louis-Antonio to Br Philogone, Noumea, 28/29 October 1873
This very long letter, reproduced in a publication celebrating the centenary of the Marist brothers in New Caledonia (1873-1973), gives an excellent account of the opportunities as well as the problems facing the brothers at the beginning of their work in the schools of the colony. The political and religious divisions of France, accentuated in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, find themselves reproduced in New Caledonia. In the field of education, the struggle is between the conservatives, who desire an education founded on religion, discipline and authority, best represented by the teaching congregations, and the liberals, more or less Freemasons, committed to secular education and secular teachers (rf CFMNC 97).
Louis-Antonio is a good example of the type of ‘congregationist’ (ie. member of a teaching congregation) of the period. Jean Hippolyte Jourda-de-Vaux-de-Chabanolle (1834-1900) entered the Hermitage novitiate in 1857. Professed in 1862, he had over a decade of teaching experience behind him when he was appointed director of Noumea in April 1873. In this letter he is reporting back to Philogone, assistant for the province of Aubenas, who had up to now been responsible for the missions of Oceania. In fact, he had already been relieved of this charge in August, when the 6th General Chapter appointed Procope Daron assistant for the new province of Great Britain, Oceania, and South Africa.
The first school of the brothers in New Caledonia was a house which served as both school and residence. It opened on October 15 with 31 students and a month later had 100. Despite continuing growth and promises of a new location, the brothers had to put up with cramped and unhealthy conditions until they moved to a new school four years later (CFMNC 22-3).
As can be seen from this letter, the situation was due not so much to the attitude of the governor, de la Richerie, as to the opposition of the Freemasons well represented in the offices of the administration. The lodges, condemned by Pope Pius IX in 1865, had progressively become centers of anti-clerical activity, so that anything done against the Church, at any level, was attributed to Freemasonry. In Noumea, this was represented by the Union Caledonniene, established in 1868. It had its temple opposite the church and had grown considerably in influence with the arrival of successive groups of political deportees after the defeat of the Paris Commune. Louis-Antonio refers to two groups of these, the ‘communards’, sentenced to simple deportation, who enjoyed a certain amount of freedom, and the ‘petroleurs’ (‘incendiaries’), confined to the prison on Ducos peninsula. The brothers had travelled from Brest with some 580 of them on the ‘Calvados’. And there were also the ordinary convicts whom France had been transporting to its penal colonies since 1863 (ibid. 97).
Despite everything, the work of the brothers flourished in the colony. Between 1873 and 1877 they established or took over schools in Noumea, Paita, St Louis, Bourail, Nathalo, Vao, and Canala. The superior of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, who had been looking after the education of girls in Noumea since 1860, wrote of them in 1877: “The Brothers in Caledonia are already very numerous and spreading through the missions. They are doing marvels. Everyone is very happy with them” (Delbos 225). In addition to reinforcements from France, they welcomed back into community life two of the pioneers, Aristide in 1875 and Therese in 1876. Bertrand, however, was retained by the fathers until his death on Lifou in 1890. Of the four founding brothers, Louis-Antonio and Henricus died in New Caledonia, Theobald in Sydney, and Felix, having served as provincial of Oceania, in South Africa.
Text of the Letter
- Very dear Brother Philogone, Assistant,
- The final result of the meeting of the Committee of Instruction was their being forced to dismiss the present teacher and put us provisionally in possession of the site of the old school. Once officially installed in our new quarters, 11 October, I announced the opening of classes for the 15th, feast of Saint Teresa and the day consecrated to St Joseph. Out of gratitude I kept to using a Wednesday as the starting date. From the 12th I was enrolling students; the following Sunday we had 42, and today 71, while at the same period the old teacher had 30 at most. Their orderly behaviour on leaving school and especially on Sunday is making a good impression. Pointless to tell you that the malicious claim to see in these dispositions a lesson in ‘slavery’: they are their own words. 
- Despite my objections, we had, when classes began, only the very incomplete school equipment found in the house. For ourselves, no furniture as yet, we make use of our big cases. The essential thing was to begin immediately as much to satisfy the impatience of the parents as to make our first trial. Success has crowned our efforts. But what ground to cultivate! The greater number do not know the sign of the cross, the Pater or the Ave. For the parents, that’s the least of their worries. Let the child gain some competency in reading, writing, and arithmetic, fine! So it is difficult for us to get them on Sundays. I hope to succeed however by offering inducements; for the time being stern methods would be out of place, although I made these a condition for enrolment.
- The annual holidays are from December 15 to the first days of February, the period of highest temperatures. We will take profit of this time for a retreat. I made the observation to M. the Colonial Secretary, on whom we depend in our relations with the administration, that it did not seem opportune to present prizes this year. Anyway, those that they have ordered will not arrive in time. Previously the distribution was slapstick comedy, a mere matter of form.
- Before sending our students home, I will send you a photograph for your collection of the mixture they represent. We have Whites (the majority), half-castes, copper coloured, and blacks. There are French, English, Bourbonnais, Germans, Malabars, etc. Some are baptized, some catechumens, others nothing at all!!! (there are protestants too). The latter (those who are nothing) belong however to catholics, to French people living worse than the pagan Kanaks!! Poor children, poor people! How much good to be done! Pray, pray in all our novitiates, everywhere, that helpers as zealous as the Apostles come to us.
- Thanks to God, I hope that before three months are out you will have a request for 2 other Brothers for Noumea; despite the Freemasons, despite the devil. We must expect on their part every opposition. They have entered into a pact to give us none of their children. However, all are not faithful to it, we have half a dozen of them. Out of policy and to provide them with some excuse in their defence, they were not bold enough to bring them to us themselves. But judge if I admitted them. I do not despair even of the sons of the head of the Lodge, one of whom, by strange contradiction to their programme, is coming to catechism for his First Communion. Someone has just informed me, without committing himself, that one of the former teachers here , today in the post of Paita, 60 kilometres inland, under pressure from them, would have resigned in order to come to the capital to compete against us. Let him come! He is a Freemason…
- When there was question two years ago of getting Brothers, one of them left a bequest of 2000 F a year to any teacher, male or female, who would open a free, secular school. It was a question of forestalling two religious schools for girls and boys. Since no one responded to their appeal, despite several passing attempts, they made a vow to see that this bequest was augmented by a fixed allocation of 1000 F. It remains to be seen if the Governor will approve it. Note that the school will charge fees: it is a tasty bait. Don’t be surprised at their being able to make such a promise: they are all-powerful by the fact that they head all the offices of the administration. Fortunately, their authority is subordinate to the power of Jesus and Mary. Our arrival, our success have already well routed them. They are furious to see us with so many pupils and at being abandoned by some brothers and friends. Nevertheless, it is not their fault and despite meeting up to 3 times a week. For that, there is no concealment: their signal for a meeting is flying their flag during the day. I have offered them a famous snub, excuse me for this trifle, by refusing the hut they had set aside for us. They were expecting a triumph; all they got was a humiliating insult which continues with the derision of the good people and even of the convicts and the indifferent. In revenge they have made us wait for our furniture and personal effects and some minor repairs to the kitchen and to our rooms. We will know how to suffer and be patient, although we are cramped for room, but to give in, never. While observing all the proprieties, I will stand firm without losing confidence; I request what we need in writing. I keep copies of everything. They have tried to confuse me in my requests for furniture by changing their questionnaire. Unable to catch me out, they have called me a Jesuit. Fine!
- The most dangerous of all is the Director of the prison. He was the Governor’s superior in Cayenne, and cannot forgive him now for finding himself the inferior, and so he criticizes him in everything, raises difficulties for him everywhere, even in matters which are none of his business. In this case, a transfer would seem simple to you. Don’t be deceived, at this distance from the metropolis, nothing more extraordinary, nothing more embarrassing for M. de la Richerie, despite his full powers. Eh! If you could only see all that goes on here. How much arbitrariness! How much folly! The subordinates are jealous of each other, each administration wants to be in control, everyone wants to govern, no one wishes to yield an inch. So, who pays for the broken glasses? The poor soldiers, the marines, the lower officials, the convicts! But never the Communards: they are the sacred phalanx. Our head, the slave of opinion, does not know what side to take. Wishing to provide for both the one and the other, he succeeds in disappointing everyone… At base his views and feelings are good. He has the support of the majority here and in the Chamber at Versailles; unfortunately the latter does not know all the details and all the mischief done here. M. the Governor does not know them himself.
- The Colonial Secretary has informed me of the plans for building our future apartments. The residence, separated from the classrooms which are 3, 21, 8 metres by 6 metres, is itself 15 metres by 22. Conforming as far as possible to the rule, I have had the interior adapted slightly. I will send you the plans for everything by the next mail. We will be well off, looking down on the harbour, with only the presbytery on the south and the Sisters’ establishment on the northwest. The Governor’s promenades and gardens (open to the public only on Sundays) are above us (the terrain is shaped like an amphitheatre), but in 3 months the bananas we are going to plant will hide us from all eyes.
- At present we are lodged in one of the biggest houses of a town where everything is small. Moreover it is built of stone, with partitions of brick. From our place we can see all the ships coming and going. But we have neither yard nor garden. The children play on the road or in the swamp which is being drained. We hope that at the end of February, we will be in our new location, despite the Lodge. For the moment, we have 5 rooms, 2 for class, 2 others, very small, for bedrooms, and the 5th for refectory, parlour, and workroom. By a singular favour of Providence, we are supplied with a vast well of drinkable water. Each morning, attending Mass takes us an hour; we are 1200 metres from the church. As we have to cross almost the whole town to get there, we were much amused, the first days, on seeing the people and their dwellings. The old town, if one may use this term for houses built less than ten years ago, resembles a fairground in France. Imagine the huts or the vehicles, houses of traveling show-people or traders touring the markets of small places. One might say the encampments of gypsies. That would be a mistake, insofar as Noumea, occupying the site of a former swamp, is built on pilings. Despite this, rates are horribly dear. Our school lease of 2.400 F is going to be raised to 3.600. From that you may judge all the rest.
- Nothing more amusing than the heterogeneous population of our Capital: French, English, Americans, Bourbonnais, Australians, Malabars, etc… there are all nationalities. As for costume, the European prevails. With rare exception, white is preferred, as it is so hot!
- This year the temperature, during the winter season, never went lower than 18 degrees. As for the Kanaks, whether of this island or the surrounding ones such as Lifou, Ouvea, etc… they have quickly endorsed their uniform. On some you see simply a pair of pants, on others nothing but a shirt scarcely reaching the knees; these ones have only a tight waistband, those ones a rag from waistband to mid-leg. Those who have shirt and trousers are Christians, otherwise very rare in town where they come only to sell their fruit and vegetables. The pagans have their ears slit widely as a beauty mark and especially for carrying their pipe, knife, etc. Everyone is very proud to wear a kepi, a sailor’s bonnet, or any other vile thing they have found on the street or been given. Things are different at the Mission stations. More generally, hairstyles and footwear are those of Eden, and that goes for both sexes. The rascals, the dandies, among the non-baptised Kanaks, dye their hair, which they wear very bristly and very long, with quicklime which gives it a pale red colour, [and wear] rings of bone and white porcelain for bracelets or for garters, though, of course, they wear no stockings.
- The Malabars, come here for the cultivation of sugar cane or for domestic service, have delicate, gracious features, as beautiful as those of the whites. Their colour, darker than the New Caledonians’, is not unpleasing. On the other hand, their morals are very corrupt and they are very given to drink. Nothing equals their intelligence and know-how for housekeeping. They wash and iron the laundry, know how to sew, etc. etc. They are almost all pagans.
- Our district is the meeting place of the Communards. The ‘hardened’ (close confinement) do not leave their Ducos peninsula, but the simple deportees are very readily allowed to come to the main island. Naturally it is the capital which draws them. There they are as free as in Paris, able to exercise their industry and influence and, in particular, get drunk at their leisure. A little to our left, 10 metres from our crossing, is their favourite tavern. Every evening, up to the canon blast which announces curfew, they drink, shout to their heart’s content. My God! What faces, what staggering, what behaviour! It goes without saying that we are their nightmare. But they are the only ones to be seen in the streets, in all the workshops. In the beginning, they used to insult us. The first who tried it was taken straight to the police station by Brother Henricus himself. Three days later, passing in front of a bar, someone else had a go. By chance two policemen were passing. I went in with them to find the culprit. Being unable to discover him, they found fault with the head of the establishment. Since then and with the higher authority warned, we have been left in peace. M. the Colonial Secretary congratulated me on referring the matter to the proper quarter, promising me in return that if I gave him the name of any deportees, he would send them back ipso facto to the Isle of Pines.
- A number of them have been joined by their families on the ‘Fenelon’, moored in the anchorage on the 23rd. Nothing to compare with the impudence, the shamelessness of most of these shrews. For 4 or 5 days, it was a little Commune. But those of the peninsula carried off the palm. Fr Montrouzier, chaplain (in form only) of this prison, put up a notice of the Mass time for last Sunday, but no one came, not even the children. For the men, he has someone who serves him as altar boy. But do you know what made him accept the job? It was the 20 sous, the quart of wine he is given each time. They have sworn to well and truly murder the first to go into the chapel. How better to paint them for you than by letting you know that people like Paschal Grousset, Regere, Assy pass for clericals in the eyes of these purists. Do you yet know how these famous incendiaries introduced themselves? Singing the Marseillaise, with two coconuts coloured red covering their breasts. Those of the simple deportees are not as bad; they would perhaps imitate their worthy rivals of the hardened, but they find themselves gagged. It’s all the same, we are completely surrounded. If bad news comes from France, we will have the 2nd volume, the 2nd edition of March 18 to May 24 1871. Nothing is wanting: everything is ready. Ducos peninsula supplies the saltpeter, Nou Island (prison) the flash, Noumea the sulphur. Ah! France is miserably destroying a colony whose produce of cotton, coffee, iron ore, sugar cane, copper and gold should be such a powerful resource for her. Obviously I am not speaking about the Faith. She takes no notice of this last but more potent means of the only true colonization. Instead of missionaries, solidarists and communists!.., there is an infinite difference. But why be surprised at the almost irremediable evil of this unhappy land? Isn’t it what France wants, isn’t it what she is looking for? Of all this hive of swarming officials, scarcely a tenth attend church. The shadowed path of the Lodge is, certainly, much more attractive. People in the metropolis don’t know enough of what is happening here, they are only concerned with ridding themselves of this terrible and infectious brood so as to throw it into one of the most beautiful countries on earth, one where the Faith had produced the most happy fruits. Pray that we get a good stable government which knows how to remedy so many evils, in France and in our ever more abused colonies. For ourselves, for me in particular, I am very happy to be here. It does not seem to me 5000 leagues from you. The harvest is truly great; obtain for us the favour of not failing in this task but on the contrary, of redoubling our zeal in the measure the work grows. The Governor and the people, for different reasons, desire a boarding school. There are so many children who, without it, would be deprived of any sort of instruction. The request for new Brothers will be made without delay. I have already been presented with twenty boarders, not counting those whose parents have already presented a petition to M. de la Richerie to this effect. If matters turn out well, it will not be long before we have schools at Ourail, Poebo, Paita, Bourail and at the mines of Diahio, not forgetting La Conception, Saint-Louis and Kanala. The Christians of the Isle of Pines are also insistent in their requests. Worthy natives whom it is good to see with their big crucifix or rosary on their breast; they have no fear of the Freemasons.
- 29 October 1873
- M. the President of the Committee of Instruction is just leaving our place. Rev Fr Artignan had already conducted me to his house but we did not find him home. Having time today, he wanted to honour us with a visit. After listing for me his titles and qualifications, he asked me various questions, these among others: ‘How many children in class? How are you going? What are you in need of? Have you had requests for boarders?’ My reply to the latter earned me a little scolding. ‘What, Brother, you are taking no notice of these requests; we want them in order to oppose the enemies of good; M. the Governor regards it as essential. Take the names of the ones who ask, we need them in support of our approaches to setting up a Colonial College. You are called to play a great role in the work of colonization of the Island and its dependencies. Before long you will be running schools in the Interior. Don’t be afraid of competition nor of the difficulties some can raise for you. You will have the support of the higher authority and all the forces of order.’ Taking advantage of such good dispositions, I proposed a visit of the classes. I was sure of my coup, although our classes were poorly equipped and without the communicating door I had been asking for for a fortnight (the opening was already there). He could not get over seeing 57 little heads in the 2nd class and 16 in the first (I received two others today), he who had been used to finding no more than 30 in the school of M. Bertrand, the most respectable of the teachers Noumea has had Brother Henricus, in his class, Brothers Theobald and Felix not knowing him, did not want to be disturbed for so little… He’s a politician, it is true, but he was enchanted by everything, despite our poor set up for the school. ‘Brother, he added on taking leave of me, we will come back with all the gentlemen of the Committee. Keep ready for us the note of everything you need; for the moment, I will proceed in this way, tell M. The Colonial Secretary to give you immediately what you have already asked of him. I recognize how necessary they are. Oh! How necessary it is they get a move on to give you new quarters. Impossible to take any more children, and yet classes have been going only fifteen days. Then you need other Brothers, there will have to be further subdivisions. We ask nothing better than that the teaching personnel increase. It is a mark of success…’
- If by the September mail they request two new Brothers, give me all-rounders. I absolutely need a Brother for singing, none of us is capable of rendering a piece for several voices. And yet the Governor thinks it is essential. Seek to satisfy him, for he has made me feel that we were imposed on him; he was counting on the Director of Tahiti with whom he was acquainted. The Fathers have informed me that the two had a long and frequent correspondence. He was so sure of it that he had already announced it in several houses. The Governor’s wife, however, has vowed that she would make the sacrifice, if we succeeded like her protégé. This did not prevent her from receiving us coldly when we were presented to her by Father Artagnan. For the rest, it is important for you to know that we have many distinguished people in town; there are so many officials: courts of preliminary hearings, criminal high court, of commerce, court martial, Bridges and Roads, Administration of Deportation, of transportation, of colonization, of model farms, of Marine, of war, of medicine, etc. Everywhere braid, horses and carriages, as in a great city and not in the wilderness, I assure you. Everyone has nothing to do but to stroll about at every opportunity and chat to one another. But they also have children they wish to have educated and we are the only ones able to raise them. So, I beg you, some capable Brothers, if you wish to have the various posts of the Interior and the Coast soon. Men who have to be moved all the time do not develop over the years… They must be pious and devoted. As for the dangers, they are less than in France, I believe. Vice, when it is flagrant, is too repugnant; one can scarcely hang around with the deportees.
- The Brothers are well, all full of fire for the instruction and education of their pupils. However, as Father Champagnat says, piety is not enough, tact is also necessary. One of our number by his garrulousness and eccentric behaviour caused problems for himself during the voyage: 3 times he earned a reprimand from the officers on board. This was scarcely pleasant for the others. It is regrettable that there were passengers for Noumea at our table and the word has spread about; I have this from the Chaplain. Know that we are being weighed up in everything and for everything. In the streets they stop short to watch us. Freemasonry, I am told, is spying on us so as to denounce us in the Press.
- We have been in residence since the 27th. I have a servant as cook under my supervision; he is a native given me by Rev Fr Rougeyron. For two years there has been no First Communion. The children preparing for it know nothing, not even the sign of the cross. I have thought it urgent to put Brother Felix in class with Brother Theobald. He takes them apart at catechism time to teach them what is most necessary. I hope to obtain for him as well as the others a salary of 800 F. But if I am refused, he will carry on anyway. I am aiming at progress on all fronts until the end of December, the time for holidays.
- We have not been immediately able to follow the Rule in everything; we observe it now as best we can. I hope that the foundations will be solid and that J.M.J. will bless them. Our classes are from 7.30 to 10.30 in the morning and from 1.30 to 4.30 in the afternoon. You cannot do more because of the climate and the customs of the land. The Sisters do the same.
- Although everything is expensive, I hope to send you annually 3000 F which you will give to Fr Poupinelle [sic]. In handing them over to the Mission, he will retain them on the allocations of the Propagation of the Faith, unless you prefer some other means of sending.
- For cooking utensils, table service, bed linen, it has been proposed to me for provision and maintenance a mean yearly subscription of… The head of the Main Office (a Freemason) has spoken to me of 200 F per Brother. If it is given me, accept it immediately. In 2 years I recover my expenses, the result, almost a net profit. I have presented an account for all the class and other requirements provided by us. The mail which has just arrived, is holding up the settlement of this matter. So as to avoid scandalizing anyone, I have taken responsibility for the images, medals, little pamphlets, etc. given out as rewards to the children from time to time. If you continue to provide prizes for them, increase in addition to the profit the 33% that is deducted on receipt of the bill; this deduction is made by Marine and Colonies, we have taken it from our salary.
- Clothing, religious books are our responsibility.
- I have written to Tahiti for all the information possible. The Governor does not recall anything at all. But with the reply coming via France, you should have it much sooner through Ploermel.
- Any detailed business, I will treat provisionally, always with the reservation of the Rev Brother Superior’s approval. Although at such a great distance, we will be agreed on everything.
- Don’t forget to procure for me in succession everything connected with the bedding, housekeeping, garden, rations, class furniture, etc… as well as copies of your correspondence with the Ministry or the Governor. I need them so as not to be tricked by the junior officials, nearly all Freemasons. They have everything in their hands, but I cannot ask them for it.
- School and personal furnishings are made according to the Rule, except for some things necessary here, not provided for by the Rule made for Europe.
- M. the Colonial Secretary, our civil and university head, does not want me to take class, but to simply oversee and keep everything in order. On my request, I will give some lessons in optional subjects when need arises, if I can. He desires that I be, and be seen to be a big shot, for the discipline and greater influence over the parents and children. According to the budget and in everyone’s eyes we do not consider ourselves ordinary primary and secondary teachers. One of these days I will be called to membership of the Committee and it will always invite me to its meetings to consult me and listen to my observations. They want everything to go like clockwork. In all cases, even for my most serene dignity, I will do everything by the Rule, you can count on that. All of us, wanting only that. That will not prevent me from helping in class when necessary. We have been asked for a class for adults, I have agreed provided we get another teacher. While waiting, on the orders of M. Charbonnet, Procurator of the Republic, President of the Committee of Instruction, I am taking down the names of those making the request. The good God is blessing us very visibly. He is arranging everything for our success. Thanks be to him forever. We are making novena after novena.
- The second mail from Europe since our arrival has reached us, we receive the circulars, but no letters… As you will, if you do not give us any news of yourselves, we will go into schism now that we are well installed. We are hungry for your letters; have pity on your children more than 5,000 leagues away; we deserve it more than our confreres in France who have it when they want.
- Please offer my respects to the Reverend Brother Superior and to all the members of the Regime, and believe me, dear Brother Assistant, your very humble and very obedient Brother and Servant in J.M.J.
- Br L. Antonio.
- P.S. 3 November, 81 pupils, last hour before the departure of the mail, 9 November 86 pupils. Victory! The head of the Lodge gave me his son this very morning.
- Brother Aristide absolutely wants to rejoin us, he says, in accordance with the Reverend Brother’s permission. I cannot accept his offers at once; it is proper that the matter be arranged between Superiors. With the boarders, he could be useful to us. Brothers Therese and Bertrand express the same desire. They can only, I believe, be teachers of the lower classes, which is not what we need at present.
- (In text) Overall, our children equal those in France on all counts; they are even better developed physically. With good discipline from the start we will turn them to excellent account. The parents are very pleased to see us conduct them in file.
- People from the Malabar Coast of southwest India, where France had established a sphere of influence in the preceding century.
- Presumably Louis-Antonio is quoting the words of the Colonial Secretary. It is surprising that he makes no mention of the school conducted by Br Germanique a decade earlier which was continued for several years by Fr Marcellin Bertrand and finally closed for financial reasons in 1866.
- The culprit is certainly Henricus who gained a reputation at St Louis for being too fond of his wine. Henricus (Theophile Martin 1842-1895), a Marist since 1858, is a good example of a man on the move since he had 8 changes during his 21 years in New Caledonia. He died at Nemeara in November in 1895.
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