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2 October 1837 — Bishop Jean-Baptiste-François Pompallier to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Tahiti

APM OOc 418.1

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, February 2007

To Reverend Father Colin junior, Superior General of the Society of Mary

Tahiti, 2 October 1837

Father and dear Superior
I thought I would write to you only from the islands under my jurisdiction. But it is important that I do it sooner. So first of all, here is what has happened to us. We left the Valparaiso roadstead on 10 August and we dropped anchor at the Gambier Islands on the 13th September. That part of our journey was done, as you see, speedily and pleasantly enough. Seasickness was no problem for most of us; only Father Chanel and Brother Joseph were a bit affected during the first seven or eight days. We applied ourselves diligently to studying the English language, with the exception of the Brothers who do not need it as much as us. This language is indispensable for missionaries in Oceania, whether for travelling or carrying out the work of the mission; the English and the Americans are almost the only navigators in these areas; they are met in all the islands, and many islanders understand English. We have attained some success in this difficult language in terms of pronunciation. Mr Murphy, aka Brother Columban, [1] who travelled with us from Valparaiso to Tahiti, helped us greatly in our studies, being of British nationality.
When we arrived at Gambier, what delight I had in visiting the Bishop of Nipolis,[2] his zealous missionaries and his fervent newly baptised! His Lordship had sent a boat to our ship which had anchored about three leagues [15 km] from the island of Aukena,[3] where the worthy Bishop lives. He had already heard that another Vicar Apostolic, for Western Oceania, was soon to come to this area. So he was waiting for me and some of his missionaries who had to leave Valparaiso.[4] Hardly had the anchor been dropped than his boat came to find out who the new arrivals were, and those who were steering it had an order to offer it to me to go directly to Aukena. I accepted with gratitude and after three hours sailing powered by oars[5] I set foot on that island. I was accompanied by the Bishop of Nilopolis’ pro-vicar,[6] Father Chanel, Mr Murphy and Brother Michel. It was half-past eleven at night, but there was bright moonlight. The islanders soon woke when we arrived, they joyously surrounded us, giving us their eager greetings. I immediately went toward the Bishop of Nilopolis’ modest dwelling. He was coming to meet us, not having delayed to find out beforehand who we were. His Lordship gave us a wonderfully kind welcome and encouraged us to take food quickly so that on the following day, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross [14 September], holy Mass could be celebrated [In those days priests celebrating Mass, and people wanting to receive Holy Communion, had to fast from midnight -- translator’s note]. We thought no more of getting some sleep, so much did happiness urge us to conversation. The whole island was more or less up and about, a crowd of newly baptised was around the Bishop's dwelling; they were loudly reciting prayers, all talking to each other, all singing hymns so correctly and with so much unity that without understanding the meaning I was delighted by them. How happy I was to find out that almost all of the inhabitants of the Gambier archipelago were baptised. Finally, well into the night, it was decided that people should get some rest; the multitude were sent away, and soon the greatest silence reigned in the island.
In the morning, the Bishop of Nilopolis asked me to celebrate holy Mass in his place in the Cathedral Church which was made of reeds and roofed with thatch. I accepted this blessing with joy. The missionaries from the other islands in the group, who had already, during the night, received orders to gather together with their Bishop in this circumstance, were present with all my men and many newly baptised [according to Girard’s footnote there were six Picpus priests, including the three who had just come from Valparaiso, and three Brothers -- translator’s note]. I said the Mass, during which the latter recited prayers loudly and sang in unison so reverently that I was almost moved to tears. How consoling it was for me as well, to give them solemnly pontifical benediction. During my Thanksgiving, the Te Deum was sung, then one of the missionaries was asked by Monsignor of Nilopolis to give the faithful a pious exhortation. After the Mass and a lunch at the Bishop's home, his Lordship took me to the main island, which is called Mangareva, and about a league [5 km] from Aukena. It is on Mangareva that the King of the whole Gambier archipelago lives. Another boat contained most of the missionaries and catechists of our two groups. Hardly had we put to sea when we saw, coming to meet us, the King of Mangareva, who was in a boat, on which floated his blue and white flag, adorned with five stars: it was the one he had recently adopted for his little kingdom of Gambier. Having found out about the arrival of a new Bishop who had been expected in his islands, he was coming himself to Aukena, which he wanted to warn of his visit. But after we had greeted each other from our boats, we signalled to him that we were going to land on his island, and straightaway he ordered his boat to follow that of the two Bishops, and accompanied us with extraordinary gestures of joy. I regret not being able right now to give, to my satisfaction, an account of his effusiveness; the good God had blessed me with a violent headache since that morning. However I disguised my illness as much as I could, and we went on towards Mangareva. As we got closer, we saw on the shore a growing multitude of quite well dressed islanders. The Bishop of Nilopolis and I were in episcopal dress. The people caught sight of two Bishops with their missionaries; shouts of joy broke out; when we came near the whole crowd fell to their knees to receive the blessing which the Bishop invited and made me give instead of him. I saw eyes softened and moved with happiness. What inexpressible feelings I then experienced in thinking of the happy change wrought among these people who not long ago had been cannibals. How powerful is the empire of grace over hearts who co-operate with it! How much I congratulated their worthy Bishop and his zealous collaborators about this! Having come ashore, we could hardly make progress: there were greetings and good wishes dictated by the spirit of faith! The King came and grasped my hand with religious respect, and I was taken to the church which is not far from here. The whole multitude followed us, finding out about our names, our persons, our country etc. The mothers of families spoke about us with surprise: how was it that they had come so far? Had not their mothers and fathers died of disappointment at seeing themselves separated from them for life? Alas, these good people, how deeply they appreciated the sacrifices that God brings about for their salvation and his glory! And how much gratitude binds them to their Bishop and their missionaries!
In the church, after we had gathered in silence with the crowd which had come, a missionary was appointed to give all the faithful an address fitting for the circumstances; then I again solemnly gave episcopal benediction. Finally we withdrew to the presbytery, which is a house made of reeds like the church itself. Not far from are there two temples of false gods, of which one has now been converted into a rural chapel and the other remains in a ruinous condition.[7] Many workers are cutting stones and preparing other materials to build a church in place of this last mentioned [marae]. According to the plan I was shown, this church could do honour to wealthy and pious parishes in France. One has already been built in Aukena. What good works faith arouses in these good islanders! During my stay on this island, the people had a holiday -- the king invited them to celebrate. Thousands of people were here and there in several groups, seated under coconut palms and breadfruit trees. People chatted, recited by heart teachings about the truths of the faith, sang hymns. Oh! Good heavens! What a sight is presented by a fervent Christian community! Who is the missionary who would not give his life a thousand times over to contribute to such a great good?
In the afternoon of that day, people performed a ceremony for me which aroused both happiness and gratitude. This ceremony is called tapena;[8] it takes place only in memorable circumstances, I was told. At the time it was going to begin, the Bishop of Nilopolis led me close to the multitude, on to raised stones. We were surrounded by our missionaries and catechists. Immediately the King gave a signal and the whole crowd dispersed in the wink of an eye: people ran in all directions in the vicinity; they were going to fetch presents prepared beforehand. They came back in the same haste. A big minister with a grey beard had everything done in an orderly way in the name of the King.[9] Each person came in great haste to throw at our feet all sorts of fruit and their customary food. In a few moments an enormous heap of coconuts, bananas, breadfruit etc rose in front of us. At the end of the ceremony there were also gifts for the local bishop, for each missionary and each catechist, whom the islanders already called by their names, so much had they hastened to learn them in order not to forget them again. When the offering of gifts came to an end, I asked the Bishop of Nilopolis, who speaks the local language, to say some words to the crowd, to express to these new Christians my gratitude and my best wishes for them. I asked him to add that before re-embarking the next day, I was leaving for their disposition the heap of gifts which I had accepted with pleasure. Nevertheless they sent a quantity of this fruit to our ship. After the little talk, the celebration was not yet finished: the people left with shouts of joy, several times repeated. The big minister always led by example in everything that was done. His appearance was most imposing; standing and gigantic in height, he announced the orders and bore the insignia of royal authority: a garland of bird feathers draped around his neck, and whose great fluffy ends hung in front of him like a stole. He also held in his hand a long pointed staff which surpassed him in height; it was a sort of spear made of very hard wood, as black as ebony. Anyway, this minister gave a new order; two groups of people formed, people ran, a make-believe fight took place, people capered about in the local fashion, and everything then came to an end with new, thrice repeated acclamations. Then people came together in groups as before; we walked about, people followed us, spoke to us, repeatedly greeted us ad nauseam, in vain I tried to say it was enough. A lot of children knew how to express their greetings in French, and all gave the reply in unison. That amused us quite well and caused us to laugh in spite of ourselves.
The day after this celebration I said Holy Mass in Mangareva; then the Bishop of Nilopolis took us to dine at his home in Aukena; from where we went to the ship Europa to continue our voyage. His Lordship accompanied us with his missionaries and spent some moments on board with us. We left each other with embraces of Christian charity; the anchor was raised, and we headed in the direction of Tahiti. Our call had therefore lasted only two days. How happy I was, therefore, to have met the Bishop of Nilopolis and his men. I was able to discuss with his Lordship several important matters concerning the Oceania missions. We reciprocated in giving each other faculties which could be useful in times of persecution or other major difficulties. His reverend pro-vicar and one of his catechists continued with us their journey from Valparaiso to Sandwich [Hawaii] where he was sending them. During the voyage from Gambier to Tahiti we never stopped talking about the happy Christian community we had just visited. How wonderful are the effects that religion brings about in people willing to listen to its voice. The people of the Gambier group of islands, numbering 2000 or more, were slaves of all sorts of passions, prey to division and to frequent wars between one island and another, and often within the same island, they had at the horrible custom of cannibalism; and there, they have become gentle, good, pure in their moral behaviour, fleeing from laziness, becoming used to work. I was delighted to visit several of their workshops made of reeds. But I saw nowhere in the place any militia, or war fortifications, or even police. That people has, only in their King and their various chiefs, a Christian authority which governs them paternally. Already the pious King has put his little territories under the protection of the Most Blessed Virgin, and did it in a solemn way, on the most recent holy day of the Assumption. There are, among this people, only a few civil laws, yet equity, integrity, order, justice, peace and unity reign there in an admirable way.
Let the experts of our country search as much as they want to for systems and new ideas to make people happy! The little old book of the Gospel coming from backward times, contains a wisdom that no human reason will ever be able to surpass. That wisdom is enough: it teaches the creature to know, love and serve its creator, and so receive all sorts of blessings. "Omnia bona venerunt mihi pariter cum illa" [In her company all good things came to me – Wisdom 7:11]. "Et nunc reges intelligite; erudimini qui judicatis terram" [So now, you kings, learn wisdom, earthly rulers, be warned – Ps 2:10]. Oh! How much I would like the attractive young people of our country to really understand these things! They would not, to their loss, be so much caught up in admiration for new ideas.
We arrived in Tahiti after five and a half days’ sailing.[10] We thought we could not set foot in this big island, because the ministers of the sects did their best to stop Catholic missionaries from coming in.[11] However thanks to the Divine Master of minds and hearts, the Queen[12] gave us permission to stay, free of restriction, until the end of a stopover which our ship made here for commercial reasons. Mr Moerenhout, the American consul[13] who asked for the said permission, extended to us protection full of goodwill and courtesy. We appeared on the island, where we went to walk about almost every day.[14] The people saw us with delight; we were greeted from all sides, and people expressed the desire to have real missionaries. But alas, the time is not yet favourable for these poor islanders! Yesterday I said Mass at the house of the American consul; the authorities of the country were not aware of it. Anyway, they could not have complained; it was only a private act of worship.
Yesterday evening the Reverend pro-vicar of the Bishop of Nilopolis gave me a young child to baptise, who was born in New Zealand. Its father was the third officer of our ship Europa. The father, who is a widower, said he was a Catholic and promised to have the child (about six years old) brought up according to the teachings of the Church. He had entrusted him to people in Tahiti, but he is going to take him with him on the seas. So I solemnly baptised this little lamb in my cabin in front of a sort of ship's altar where I said Holy Mass. As well I gave him confirmation; he went along with the noble ceremonies I was performing, like an angel. All the priests and catechists were present. The father of this child was moved to tears. I am confident that he will have a very special care for it. Imagine the consolation I felt: that little Christian was, for the Church, the first fruits from New Zealand. Does he not seem to have come as a sign of the graces which we are happy to bring to these distant peoples? The father wanted to give him the name Jean, and I insisted to the godfather that he should have as well the name of Marie. So Jean-Marie has become the first neophyte of my mission. May he have, one day, a high place in heaven!
Now, at last, it is a matter of setting out directly for the islands under my jurisdiction. Here, we are not very far away from them. What happiness! Tribulationes pro Christo adhuc manent nos; sed regiones videntur albae ad meesem [Chains and distress await me there – Acts 20:23. I say unto you: lift up your eyes and look: already the fields are white for the harvest – John 4:35]. I have learned here about circumstances which are very favourable for the mission in the Friendly Islands [Tonga], Fiji and New Zealand; to the degree that I am leaving our ship Europa which was going to take us to Sandwich [Hawaii] where we would have to wait for a new opportunity to get to Micronesia.[15] I am hiring a schooner in Tahiti[16] which belongs in fact to Mr Moerenhout, the American consul, who has shown great good will to us. I am hiring it at 400 piastres a month[17] for an unlimited time and with permission to have it call at the islands I will point out while going through the island groups of the Friendlies, the Navigators [Samoa], Fiji and Ponape. Our Captain[18] is a fine sailor who has already travelled a lot in Oceania and who has even spent time at the island of Ponape or Ascension, where he is known and well thought of. It is very likely that I will go to Sydney to try to enter New Zealand with a priest and one or two of our Brothers. So as you can see, it is very possible that I will divide my small and beloved group into two. However I have no intention of leaving for New Zealand without having already been to Ponape and carefully examined the situation in that locality, about which I have received satisfactory information. Be so kind, please, as to pass on this news to the Council of the [Society for the] Propagation of the Faith. Subjects, subjects, Reverend Father, and also help from the generous Society.[19] I wish a thousand blessings on the fervent and worthy administrators: I hope to write to them soon, when our work has begun.
As a result of the new and fortunate circumstances for the mission which I have just described to you, it seems wise to suspend the founding of a procure house in California or Mexico, which I had asked you to set up in my preceding letters sent from Valparaiso. If, as I am now beginning to see, we can soon open up a mission in New Zealand and in the Friendly Islands and in Fiji, it would be better if that house was located in Sydney on the coast of New Holland, where there is civilisation, a Vicar Apostolic[20] and a Christian community protected by England. At Sydney there are easy and frequent opportunities for voyages to Europe and our islands. You can travel non-stop from England to this new colony. There is not, as in Mexico, a stretch of land to cross in order to get from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and you know that for missionaries the shortest journeys are those soonest completed, although geographically speaking they may be in fact longer. So I would like you to wait for new advice from me before founding the above-mentioned house. It is enough for the time being to send subjects and funds if possible. My cash box will soon be quite empty. Now if for lack of money we cannot travel in the Oceania missions, the outcome of the work will be lessened, heresy will win the island groups where we are not seen, and many souls will be lost, to the advantage of idolatry and error. So, God, who would give us all wings to carry us about nimbly and multiply us in every place?
If the missionaries whom you send me, and who are already so much longed for, go through Mexico, they can go directly to Tahiti and Mr Moerenhout (pronounced as Mornot), the American consul, who in every way favours the Catholic missions of Oceania. If it happens that the Queen of the island does not want them to set foot on the island to stop over, the consul has, in the roadstead, a ship which does not leave it, and which is used as a store for merchandise. There is good accommodation aboard, and this place is secure. Mr Mornot will also give them all the necessary information about us and the places where we will be, because the schooner I have for our present voyage is his; on its return to this roadstead, it will bring news of us after having left us in the islands which God has appointed in his adorable plans.
Your letters can also be sent to us through Consul Mornot (written as Moerenhout) who in the services he zealously and cordially promises us, has no other concern than that which cuts across his own,[21] for he is a father of a family and a businessman in his consulate. By sealing your letters and putting them in an envelope addressed to the worthy consul, they will certainly get to us.
If missionaries rounding the Cape of Good Hope go to Sydney in New Holland, Bishop Polding, Vicar Apostolic of that part of Oceania would no doubt be pleased to give them whatever information he had about us.
But I strongly advise you to recommend them not to go and call at Sandwich, because since our departure from Valparaiso, where I told you the opposite, we have found out, here in Tahiti, that entry to that island group is totally forbidden to the French missionaries who have been sent there. Quite recently Father Bachelot, prefect apostolic of that place, who had fled to California, made a new attempt to re-enter the island group which had banned him some years before, but he was forced, along with another priest of his mission, to stay on board the ship which had brought him.[22] In this situation there have been hateful actions by the Methodists who have acted on their own or through the authorities in these places. However the consuls of civilised powers who were there had intervened on behalf of the just. People are now awaiting the upshot of the situation which there is some reason to hope will be favourable to those oppressed for the name of Jesus Christ.[23] Fiat! Fiat! [Let it be done!] May Mary triumph in all these places. All my men, who still remain all yours, along with me, embrace you with respect and submission. A thousand blessings to all those men and women who have the happiness of belonging to the Society of Mary; and I have the honour, indeed, of being the most devoted, with affection in Our Lord, Reverend Father,
your most humble and obedient servant
+J B François, Bishop of Maronea, Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania


  1. He was an Irish Picpus Brother -- later ordained priest in the Gambier Islands
  2. Étienne Rouchouze, Picpusian, Vicar Apostolic of Eastern Oceania
  3. about 4km from Mangareva
  4. Il m’attendoit donc avec quelques-uns de ses missionaires qui devoiut partir de Valparaiso. The context seems to mean the missionaries were on the ship with Pompallier rather than on the shore with Bishop Rouchoze - translator’s note
  5. à force de rames
  6. Father Louis Maigret
  7. C Girard notes: ‘Temple’ – in the Mangarevan language – marae. At the time of the first conversions to Catholicism, Matua, high priest of the pagan religion, gave an example by overturning the idols and knocking down the marae. One of the marae was given to the missionaries who made a hospital out of it -- translator’s note
  8. a ceremony involving offerings of gifts -- mats, spears, living animals, bundles of food etc in honour of guests -- translator’s note
  9. This was Matua, uncle of King Maputeoa, who had previously been high priest of the Mangarevan religion -- he had been baptised in 1835.
  10. Father Chanel in his diary says they arrived on 21 September, about midday
  11. London Missionary Society -- (Methodist) -- missionaries had lived in Tahiti since 1801; the Picpus (Catholic) missionaries arrived in 1831. The Catholic missionaries had been expelled in January 1837, not long before Pompallier's arrival, but came back in 1841 -- translator’s note
  12. Pomare Vahine IV -- translator’s note
  13. He was a Belgian businessman.
  14. It seems that they were based on a yacht hired from Moerenhout during their stay -- translator’s note
  15. Pompallier's discussions with Bishop Rouchouze in the Gambier Islands, and Moerenhout in Tahiti seem likely to have caused him to change his mind. Ponape (Ascension Island) at that time was little visited by ships apart from whalers, and rarely would ships go from there to New Zealand
  16. the Raiatea - translator’s note
  17. A piastre was worth about an American dollar or about six francs - translator’s note
  18. Mr Stocks - translator’s note
  19. He refers to the Propagation of the Faith -- translator’s note
  20. John Bede Polding - translator’s note
  21. ne veut d’autre intérêt que celui qui l’empêche d’être du sien
  22. Fathers Alexis Bachelot and Patrick Short had arrived in Hawaii on 17 April 1837. The British Consul, and British, French and American naval captains intervened in favour of the two priests, but Queen Kinau, governing in the absence of King Kamehameha III, at the urging of the Methodist missionary Hiram Bingham, insisted that the French priests not be allowed to enter (Girard footnote) -- translator’s note
  23. Pompallier at the time of his writing would not have known of the expulsion of the two priests, one later in October 1837 and the other in November -- translator’s note

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