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22 May 1838 — Fr Catherin Servant to Fr Antoine-Adolphe Thiollière du Treuil, parish priest of Saint-Pierre at Saint-Chamond, Hokianga

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, May 2009

[Two copies of the letter are in APM in Rome – written in different hands; copies A and B. Reverend Thiollière du Treuil was appointed parish priest of the parish of St Pierre in St Chamond in 1832, and invited Servant to preach during Lent in 1835.]

Hokianga in New Zealand 22 May 1838

Father and beloved parish priest
May God be forever blessed! Today I am writing to you from a country far distant from France: from New Zealand where God’s will has brought me to accompany His Lordship with the catechist Brother Michel.[1] My intention is not to talk to you about our voyage, which lasted a year and a few days, nor about the missions which His Lordship set up in Futuna and Wallis. I presume that you already have had some acquaintance of them through letters sent at the different stop-overs which occurred on the way. I only want to talk to you about New Zealand, which has become greatly beloved to us because the will of God is making it seem like our own country.
For two months already we have been in the Hokianga, in a place named Totara [Point]. His Lordship disembarked at the home of a Catholic Irishman who has been in this country for some years already.[2] This Catholic man wasted no time in offering him, and those with him, the best of his dwellings. This house is situated on the edge of the Hokianga River, a fairly great distance from the sea coast; it has done us for a home up till now. In the Hokianga there is a certain number of English and Irish Catholics: a number perhaps between 40 and 50 people. The Bishop wanted to begin his apostolic work by exercising the holy ministry among these faithful who were unfortunately deprived of all the helps of religion, and among whom however were some who travelled to Sydney to fulfil their Easter duties and to have their children baptised. From the first days after our arrival a good number of these faithful people have come to Confession, and most of them are seen to travel many leagues by canoe to hear Holy Mass.
You may be sure, Father and beloved parish priest, that the cathedral of New Zealand is not equal to the beautiful churches of St Chamond; it is in the most appropriate room of our dwelling that in order to fulfil His Lordship’s desire I am busy, along with Brother Michel, in building an altar, in decorating the place with some pictures, in the midst of which has been placed a beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin. This temporary decoration, in spite of its simplicity, very much impresses the New Zealanders; up till now they have hastened to satisfy their curiosity, and they have been really satisfied at seeing these liturgical objects; and especially on Sundays they come in a crowd to assist at the Mass. The beauty of the ceremonies delights them, their eyes, not used to seeing such a sight, never tire of gazing at it. I have been told that these savages are appreciative of the singing of the Church, as on each Sunday of Lent, after the Mass which takes place at midday, for the convenience of the faithful who are mostly pretty distant from Totara, His Lordship has established the custom of singing the Miserere, the Domine non secundum, the Parce Domine; those hymns which are so moving in themselves made a happy impression on the savages.[3] Almost from the beginning, instructions in English were given each Sunday. His Lordship did the first preaching up till the time of Lent when, in view of his overwhelming workload, he entrusted me with the task of doing it. For in this country we have to work at studying two languages at the same time; we have to perfect our English, the study of which we began in a small way during the voyage, and we also have to learn the language of New Zealand, but what is encouraging in the study of this latter language is that its pronunciation is very similar to that of the French language; most of its letters echo the sound of ours, but its idiom and the construction of its sentences have no relation to those of European languages. His Lordship and I are beginning to say a few words in this language; we have to hope that God soon will give us the grace of being able to master it. In the meantime, we carry on the sacred ministry in the little Christian community. Already holy baptism has been given to fifteen people, as many adults as children. Among the adults is a tribal chief who for a long time had longed for baptism and who was sufficiently instructed in the main truths of our religion. His Lordship gave him the name of Gregory; there was also the daughter of one of the greatest men in New Zealand, who received the name of Mary. Up till now twelve marriages have been performed, but there has been only one burial – the child of the Catholic landowner who had given His Lordship such a joyful reception; the burial was done with as much ceremony as we could give it, near its father’s house. On the grave of this child was placed a cross which His Lordship blessed, and which was the first erected in New Zealand.
On the basis of this little sketch, Father and beloved parish priest, you can tell that we do not lack consolations here. However, tribulations, especially in the earliest days, have not been insignificant for us. But it is true that the soul’s life, strength and joy are found in the cross, it is through many hardships and afflictions that we must enter the Kingdom of God [cf Acts 14:22]. Persecution raged against us from the beginning. On the 22nd January a band of savages came and stood outside the Bishop’s house, with the intention, according to the report of interpreters who witnessed through hearing, of removing the liturgical furnishings and disposing of His Lordship as they saw fit, of His Lordship and me. But no harm came of it; a few Catholics strenuously came to our defence and made clear to them what they were not aware of, moved by the sight of our innocence and seeing the injustice of the hateful measures to which they had been incited by the heretics, as they openly admitted; those savages blushed and came and shook hands with His Lordship as a sign of friendship. This attempt not having succeeded, the heretics have since tried to ruin us in the esteem and trust of the savages, but most of these people are a long way from falling into that trap. Something providential! The very weapons that the heretics used against the true ministers have been turned against them; instead of believing us to be as we were described by them, those savages who are reasonably discerning have been able to recognise the legitimacy of our ministry. Circumstances of this sort have forced them to decide partly for themselves which ones were the true ministers; His Lordship had suggested to the Catholics the arguments which were most convincing and most understandable to the savages; and the Catholics explained them in the natives’ language so as to leave them satisfied.
Now a great number of chiefs, among whom are some of the most powerful and influential on the minds of the New Zealanders, as well as their many tribes, are showing themselves very inclined to the Catholic religion. Oh, may God dispose of everything as seems pleasing to him! Oh that this good people will rejoice one day for having given the Lord’s true representatives such a happy welcome! Doesn’t it seem that the Kingdom of heaven is coming near for the poor Oceanians? Approprinquavit regnum caelorum.[4] With the little knowledge I have of their happy dispositions, I am tempted to believe that there is no need to work astounding miracles to bring them to the Catholic faith; the good example of the apostolic virtues, conduct characterised by zeal, charity, patience, selflessness and humility; in a word, all the virtues appropriate to a missionary, and which I am unfortunately too much lacking; become marvels which create a powerful empire over the hearts of the savages, who wonder at seeing a sight which they do not ordinarily witness. These sorts of wonders have for them a certain something which amazes them almost as much as the miracles which our divine Saviour commanded his apostles to work when he said to them: “Cure the sick, raise the dead”, etc.[5] Who could believe how much the poor savages are moved by seeing that we are totally devoted to them? How much they appreciate our stooping down to their simplicity! How sensitive they are to signs of concern, generosity and charity that are shown them! These poor savages, for such a long time seated in the shadows of death [cf Mt 4:16] with great cries ask for the bread of the word. They already seem to recognise their errors through the simple presence of Catholic ministers who, not yet having the knowledge of their language, regret not being able to immediately fulfil their desires. They wait impatiently until we know their language. They want immediately Catholic ministers and instructions, so as to be on the way to salvation. But alas! the evangelical workers are so few. Parvuli petierunt panem et non erat qui frangeret eis. [6] Father and beloved parish priest, when I think of those workers for the Gospel who live in idleness and whom the master of the vineyard calls at the ninth hour [Matthew 20:5], I call to mind the people of Oceania so long deprived of the light of faith, and to whom our divine Saviour seems now to be saying: “Why do you stand here doing nothing - Quid his statis tota die otiose? [7] But today it seems that the hour for leaving the shadows of death has now sounded for them. The harvest seems quite white and ready to be gathered in. Jan alba ad messem.[8] How hearts suffer at the thought that the workers are so few. Operarii pauci.[9] Oh if it were possible for me to inspire those whom divine providence is calling to these missions, to decide with joy in favour of their vocation, to not fear sufferings and difficulties which, considered from a distance, can exist more in imagination than in reality, to fear a voyage whose dangers, I believe, are more exaggerated by those who consider them from a distance than by those who effectively face up to them. Oh! Let us ask the Lord for workers.
I very much hope, Father and beloved parish priest, that the pastor and the worthy faithful of St Chamond bring before God a special concern for the souls of Oceania, that the small number of co-operators is not forgotten in your fervent prayers. Be really convinced that you will receive a just reward. His Lordship is having prayers said for the benefactors of the three missions that have been set up.
Please accept my respects. I have the honour to be,
Father and respectable parish priest,
Your most humble and obedient servant,
Servant, missionary priest.
PS. Father may your curates kindly accept this sign of my respects, and if it were indeed possible, what a delight it would be for me if, at one of those gatherings of clergy which take place at St Pierre’s, the clergy of your canton, whose memory is dear and precious to me, would find pleasure in this sign of my respectful attachment to them.
PS 2. I warmly greet in Our Lord the Reverend parish priest of St Pierre and all the clergy of the canton of St Chamond. May the love of Jesus Christ continuously grow more and more in our hearts. Sine modo.
J(ean)-B(aptiste) François, Bishop of Maronea and Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania


  1. Servant with Bishop Pompallier and Brother Michel (Antoine Colombon) entered Hokianga Harbour on 10 January 1838.
  2. Thomas Poynton
  3. Miserere – Have mercy on me – the 50th (51st) Psalm; Domine non secundum – Lord, not according to our sins… - the tract for Ash Wednesday in the Tridentine Mass; Parce Domine – Lord, save your people – Joel 2:17, also from the Ash Wednesday Mass - translator’s note
  4. Mt 10:7 “On the way, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is very near.” Also Mt 3:2 and 4:17
  5. Mt 10:8
  6. Lament 4:4. The infants yearned for bread, no one gave them any.
  7. Mt 20:5-7
  8. John 4:35. Do you not have a saying: Four months more and the harvest comes? But I say to you, life your eyes and see – already the fields are white for the harvest.
  9. Mt 9:37-38. Then he said to his disciples: The harvest is great, but the workers are so few, so pray to the lord of the harvest that he send labourers into his harvest. And Luke 10:2.

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