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22 May 1838 — Fr Catherin Servant to Fr Étienne Buffard, Hokianga

(There are two copies – texts A & B – in the archives in Rome)

Etienne Buffard, the addressee, was parish priest of Grézieu-le-Marché (Servant’s birthplace) from May 1821 until his death on 15 April 1859, aged 72.

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, May 2009

Letter from Father Servant to the Reverend parish priest of Grezieux le Marché, canton of St Symphorien-le-Chateau, department of the Rhône.

Hokianga in New Zealand, 22 May 1838

Father and beloved parish priest
A few years ago I could not have foreseen that I could be writing to you from the antipodes of France. Providence has plans which surpass human foresight. May his holy name be blessed! Now I no longer have the advantage of seeing you, nor my parents, nor all my acquaintances whose memory is dear and precious to me, but in searching for yourself in God you will find yourself wherever you might be. Yes, Father, that is where you find yourself and find consolation in the separations you are forced to experience on earth. What will I now say to you, beloved Father? I will not set about giving you a detailed account of our voyage; already probably you know about it through the letters sent from time to time at the various stop-overs which occurred. Perhaps you will read with interest a few words about each of the islands of Oceania which we caught sight of, or near which our Bishop had us stop.
The first island we saw after leaving Valparaiso was the island of San Felix and San Ambrosio.[1] This island is uninhabited, uncultivated and barren. But with much more pleasure we saw the Gambier group. We found there sources of edification, a worthy Bishop and zealous co-workers, and faithful who seemed to me to be full of faith.[2] That visit was well suited to encourage us to work for the salvation of the savages. But these feelings were not in the same way brought to mind by the sight of the inhabitants of Tahiti where the ship anchored. This people which lives under the yoke of heresy, is only too unfortunately given over to frightful depravity, according to the reports given me by a few Europeans who have settled on this island. Oh, if this people were as well endowed in religious matters as it is by nature! For this island is truly an island of delights. Everywhere there are charming groves, trees and produce as surprising by reason of their variety as by their richness. On leaving Tahiti we discovered several of the Society Islands which also seemed to be of great beauty. At last, I come to the islands under the jurisdiction of our Bishop. Palmerston was the first group we saw. It consists of seven islands or islets.[3] As His Lordship’s plan was to stop there a short time to increase the supply of wood which was less than sufficient, and to get water, if it was possible, the captain of the schooner carrying us made it his duty to coast the shore of the main island to make a safe entry, but meeting coral reefs which had to be avoided, and as well, the loss of time in finding an entry for the little vessel caused the plan to be aborted.[4] This group of islands, which resembles a clump of greenery on the surface of the ocean, seems to be uninhabited because, in spite of the closeness of the island and our careful search with the help of a telescope, we didn’t catch sight of any sign of habitation.[5] Having got to Vava'u[6] we were in great danger of being shipwrecked. The rain was falling in torrents, suddenly the wind dropped and the night became very dark. Thunder and lightning reigned without letup. The weather was so bad that steering was useless. A current was dragging us towards the rocks. They were seen, these rocks – they couldn’t be avoided. Oh God, how insignificant is our existence. Save us! We are perishing! Salva nos, perimus.[7] Oh Mary, have regard for your children…! When the ship was about to be wrecked on the rocks, a wind suddenly got up from the landward direction and drove us out into the open sea again; but our trial was not yet over; the ship once again was pulled towards the rocks. The crew, deciding that we were in extreme danger, made haste to unlash the lifeboat so as to save at least people’s lives. The ship was so close to the rocks that shipwreck was seen as inevitable, when kindly Providence again sent us a favourable wind to get out to sea. I then saw the captain who, marvelling at seeing us escape so imminent a danger, fell to his knees shouting, “Providence! Providence!”
The island of Vava’u, near which there is a great number of other islands, is unfortunately under the yoke of heresy, and the intolerance of the Methodists has removed for the time being any way for Catholic ministers to be able to land on it. From Vava’u the ship headed for Wallis. The inhabitants of that island seemed to me to be hospitable and quite good in character, but I am justified in believing that some of them are inclined to theft. During this stop-over, His Lordship was taken to the house of the King where, having made the inquiries demanded by prudence, he offered the King Father Bataillon and Brother Joseph. The King accepted them as his friends and further, promised to have them built a house near his own. So there was a first mission set up in Western Oceania; it brought about a separation which we felt very much, but which was truly consoling to the eyes of faith. From there, after a short day’s sailing, we saw the island of Futuna, a quite pleasant and charming island; it seemed to me to be particularly hospitable, because its inhabitants had built a house exclusively set aside for receiving visitors; simple ordinary people are like foster-fathers for the latter when according to the customs of the country they adopt them as friends. There was a further pleasure in seeing these Indians begin to appreciate work and devote themselves to it, as I had reason to believe on the basis of their gardens of yams and taro, which they cared for skilfully. These islanders seemed to be not very many, I was told that their number was not above a thousand. I am going to tell you about the simple and innocent welcome which these islanders gave His Lordship when he went to visit the King. That royal figure, who walks barefooted and with hardly any clothes, like most of the kings of the islands whom we have had the opportunity to see, did not know how to express his happiness. The order was soon given to have a pig killed and to bring it on banana palm leaves, simple leaves from a tree served as spoons for the sauce, a drink which the natives prepared by chewing the root of a plant which they called kava, taro and yams completed the meal. But that was not yet everything. A dance was done in the style of the country; young people and even old men got involved in this display with so much skill, activity and unity that it was astonishing: their attitude was modest and well-controlled; there was not a gesture or movement that was out of order; their music consisted in striking a mat in rhythm and singing with precision but in a monotonous way, because of the lack of variety in their singing. It was in this island, Father, that His Lordship set up a second mission which he entrusted to Father Chanel, with whom he left as an assistant Brother Marie-Nizier. Again we had to offer the sacrifice of a separation. From there His Lordship had the schooner sail for the island of Rotuma, which is only three days’ sailing from the last mentioned island, but has a much large population. It seems to be very rich in produce and of great beauty. When we had arrived, a great number of Indians made haste to come and see us. The Bishop landed and I had the honour of accompanying him into the house of a chief who, after having given him a good welcome, took His Lordship to his brother’s house. There he received the gift of a fine stick made of whalebone and a large pineapple. He reciprocated this gift with another, which was accepted with delight and gratitude. This chief offered his dwelling for the time when a mission station will be able to be set up there. And he even went so far as to promise to build, together with his brother, who shared the same devotion, a house hear his for the use of the Catholic missionaries whom he was waiting for.[8] Our stay on that island was not of great length. The day after our arrival, which was the seventeenth of November, we made sail for Sydney. We arrived off the coast of New Holland in the midst of frightening thunder and lightning. When the schooner dropped anchor in the fine harbour of Port Jackson we set foot on shore, and the worthy Bishop of New Holland, who has his dwelling place in Sydney, and had already been advised of the arrival of a Bishop, gave him a welcome full of goodness and kindness. I noticed in the vicinity of that town a forest entirely consumed by the flames occasioned by one of the hot winds that sometimes blow in these districts. But I hasten to tell you about New Zealand where the Bishop and I have been since the 10th of January 1838. This huge country seems to me to be very interesting in several ways. Its interior is not without mountains, especially the southern coast, where Mt Egmont,[9] a peak all covered in snow and of prodigious height, is located. It is not short, either, of great lakes and vast forests of trees of great stature which are almost impenetrable. Hokianga, which is the place where His Lordship has decided to settle, is about 25 leagues [about 125 km] from Cape Maria van Diemen and 20 leagues [about 100 km] from the Bay of Islands, enjoys a temperate climate, beneficial to European constitutions and health. The place where we lived up till now is called Totara;[10] it is a Catholic Irishman’s house (because Catholics in this country, mostly English and Irish, are about 40 or 50 in number). This Catholic was generous enough to offer His Lordship the best and most important of his dwellings, and to choose another of them, less pleasant and less spacious, for him and his family. His Lordship is having a wooden house and church built at a place called Papakaukau,[11] near which ships come and anchor from time to time, and where, accordingly, it will be easier to have links with the outside world and where especially we will be closer to the tribes who, in good numbers, are asking exclusively for Catholic ministers. This is because religious zealots, of whom there is a considerable number in New Zealand, are generally discredited and have little success in making converts, especially since they have made unjust and odious accusations against Catholic ministers. They had provoked some tribes to use violence against us, through calumnies and seditious talk, but these vessels of iniquity have failed; the savages, most of them at least, have not been able to believe them; most of the European Protestants in the Hokianga have openly declared themselves to be against the Methodist ministers. They had even offered to unite with the Catholics to take up arms against the unjust aggressors, but the ministers of the God of peace were far from agreeing to taking revenge. Some of the Protestants I have just been talking to you about have already asked to embrace the Catholic faith. May the God of mercy be glorified in that! Now everything is peaceful; a great number of tribal chiefs approve and desire His Lordship’s presence in New Zealand; so here now everything is to be hoped for concerning the salvation of souls. Apart from those numerous savages who are waiting until we can speak in order to preach the word of God to them, there is also work to do for the sacred ministry among the English and Irish Catholics I have spoken to you about. From the very beginning, the Bishop has devoted special care to providing spiritual help for this little Christian community; His Lordship has made me responsible for helping out a little in this. You see, Father and beloved parish priest, that here we have to commit ourselves to studying two languages; we have to learn at the same time English and the language of the savages. Fortunately Providence decreed that on the voyage out we gave some care to studying English, and it is now a matter of perfecting ourselves in the study of this language. As for that of the savages, it doesn’t seem to me to present great difficulties; although it seems to me to differ considerably from the languages of Europe, it is easy to pronounce for French people; soon I hope, with the help of the grace of our God, who does not fail to help in these sorts of occasions when we want to work for his glory, and to extend a little his reign in people’s hearts, soon we will command enough of the language of the savages to set them on the ways to salvation.
Now, Father and beloved parish priest, everything is going well here. It remains only to bless the Lord a thousand times for his merciful concern for these poor people; they have been so long in the shadows of death! Let us beg this divine master to send workers into his vineyard,[12] that the pastor and the fervent souls of Grézieux do not forget New Zealand in their precious recollections in the presence of God! Could I be allowed to offer my humble respects to the Reverend parish priest of Chazelles[13] and to Father Blanchard when you have the opportunity to do so; I presume that my letter sent from Valparaiso has got to him, and that I like to recall his memory! Please accept, Father and beloved parish priest, sincere respect and affection from him who has the honour to be
Your most humble and obedient servant
Missionary priest
PS Please allow me to insert in this letter a note for my parents.


  1. San Felix and San Ambrosio are two distinct little islands, about 18 km apart, about 800 km west of Chile, to whom they belong.
  2. The Bishop of the Gambier Islands, Etienne Rouchouze and his co-workers were Picpusians. On the visit to the Gambiers, see Doc 21 §§ 2-6.
  3. Palmerston is an atoll in the shape of an irregular square with 35 islets on a coral reef around a lagoon. The unexpected remark that puts this atoll under Pompallier’s jurisdiction deserves attention. The documents of 1835 and 1836 in which are set down the boundaries of the vicariates of eastern and western Oceania put the boundary at 159º w of Paris (156º 41’ w of Greenwich) but place the ‘Roggewein’ group [N Cooks] in the eastern part and the ‘Mangea’ group [S Cooks] in the western part (cf OM 1, Doc 337, 11 6-12; 351, 11 51-57; 356 [2-3]; 390 [4]. A Russian navigator, Adam von Krusenstern gave the name ‘Cook Islands’ to the whole group – North and South. The Picpus Fathers began the Catholic mission in the Cooks in 1894.
  4. Brother Joseph-Xavier Luzy said that this unsuccessful attempt to land on Palmerston occurred on 14th October 1837 (Doc 23 §4)
  5. Servant was right in saying in 1838 that the atoll was uninhabited. There were signs of shipwrecked or marooned people there for short times, but the atoll remained uninhabited most of the time until 1862 (or 1863) when William Masters settled there with some women from the island of Tongareva – his descendants forming the basis of the small present-day population.
  6. Vava’u (see also Doc 23 §3) – in the northern group of islands making up Tonga.
  7. Mt 8:25. They came and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us, we are perishing!”
  8. In text B the words “And he even went… whom he was waiting for” are in parentheses. A note in the margin explains: What is in parentheses is a marginal note in the original letter – text A.
  9. Mt Egmont, also known as Mt Taranaki, a dormant volcano, is in the western part of the Taranaki region in the North Island.
  10. now Totara point - translator’s note
  11. Papakawau, where this ‘Catholic Irishman’, Thomas Poynton (cf Doc 24§ 13, 27 §2) had given a sic-acre [about 2-5 ha] piece of land, is on the Omanaia peninsula, just to the west of the present township of Rawene. The taking over of the house mentioned by Servant was marked by a Mass on 29 June 1838. When the documents mention ‘Hokianga’, they mean, up till this time, Totara Point (the Poynton’s house lent to the Catholic missionaries) but after that nearly always Papakawau.
  12. Cf Mt 9”37-38 and Luke 10:2 “Pray the lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest.”
  13. Father Jean-Baptiste Galland, parish priest of Chazelles-sur-Lyon from 1807 to 1845.

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