From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

16 September 1838 - Fr Catherin Servant to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Hokianga

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, May-June 2009

Reverend Father Colin, Superior General of the Society of Mary

Hokianga, from St Mary’s, 16 September 1838

Very Reverend Superior and dear Father
I will tell you nothing about the long voyage which took place before the New Zealand mission. I know the Bishop has given you plentiful details about it; I will content myself with telling you some news of the mission.
It was on the 9th January 1838 that we arrived at the Hokianga River.[1] The next day the Bishop set foot on land at a place called Totara, near the home of a Catholic Irishman.[2] This generous man immediately offered the best of his dwellings to His Lordship, in spite of his repeated insistence that he would be happy with another less handy and less spacious. From the first days after our arrival, I made haste, in line with His Lordship’s wishes, to put, working with good Brother Michel, an altar in the main room, and to set up on it a beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin. On the 13th January, the octave day of the Epiphany, the holy sacrifice was offered for the first time in New Zealand, and since that happy day two Masses have usually been offered.[3] How our poor Fathers in Futuna and Wallis would envy our happiness if they knew about it! It is very probable that they would have been deprived of this consolation from the earliest days.
When the news of a Bishop’s arrival in New Zealand was spread among the natives, the visits became frequent. A chief of a neighbouring tribe, who was already acquainted with the Catholic religion, came and settled near the Bishop’s home, never stopped talking to the islanders in favour of our holy religion and often attended holy Mass. Later on I will say something about the baptism given to this chief. A fairly great number of other chiefs also came and paid a visit; among these were some Protestants who, according to what interpreters said, confessed that they saw their minister in a bad light; they said they only prayed half-heartedly, laughed a great deal at the fact that they were married, and ended by stating that they did not want to go any more to their churches. Some of them, appreciative of the gifts which His Lordship gave them, asked how they could show their gratitude, whether they should give hens, or pigs; as the Bishop told them through an interpreter that he had no desire to accept anything, they were amazed at this generosity, [and] said over and over Ka pai, meaning it is good.
So the first part of our stay was peaceful, but alas! the peace was not long in duration, it was soon followed by a time of trial.
On the 22nd January at six o’clock in the morning about twenty islanders landed and came and sat in front of the Bishop’s house. They looked furious and threatening. The owner of the house, forewarned of the arrival and the intentions of these angered islanders, came up with other Catholics; a lively discussion began; some chiefs, about four or five in number, stood up and held forth one after the other while walking back and forth in the middle of the natives who were sitting in a circle. One of these chiefs, tall in build, spoke with fire in his eyes and a really lively action; then the Catholics who knew the language took up our defence boldly, and after long explanations they succeeded in pacifying them..[4]
According to the accounts that were given about it, the islanders’ plan was nothing less than to renew the furies of the iconoclasts against objects of veneration and to send away the Bishop and myself to God knows where, so as to do us harm, I suppose. These natives openly declared that they had come at the behest of a certain Methodist minister.[5]
I am amazed, Reverend Superior, when I think that in these circumstances fear so little affected the Lord’s representatives. During a good deal of the time that this sad situation worked itself out, the Bishop had retired to his room to recite the holy office and the others were curious spectators. At last, convinced of our innocence, the islanders were confused at having acted so hatefully and unjustly, and they hastened to shake His Lordship’s hand as a sign of friendship and gratefully received gifts from him. If you want to rely on the witness of some European interpreters, the heretics, in spite of having had little success in their preceding step, would not have been disconcerted. In their intolerance they would have aroused the natives against the Catholic ministers by telling them that if they did not want to get rid of them they would have to suffer cruel torments, but the natives with their well-disposed minds, their natural and judicious uprightness said in return that they would believe nothing of that sort before being convinced of it by their own experience, and if they saw it was so they would see themselves as duty bound to drive us out, and besides, they did not want to get involved in a war between the whites, and that the whites themselves should sort out their own differences between themselves.
On the day after the sad happening of 22nd January, the Bishop wanted to go on a little journey which lasted three days: I had the honour to be in his company with two boats of Catholics (because there are about 50 of them in the Hokianga, including women and children). His Lordship landed at the home of a Catholic who gave him a welcome full of respect and goodness. On the second day the boat was directed to a place called Mutukaraka.[6] The chief of this place, who is nowhere near adopting heresy, is offering to embrace the Catholic religion if the other chiefs nearby want to as well. The conversation, which could take place only through an interpreter, was ended by an avowal by this chief which is rarely made among civilised people; he declared in plain words that His Lordship was on a relationship with a madman. Near this same place there is a copse where cadavers are hung in the trees. The New Zealanders have the custom of making burials of this sort with chanting, cries, lamentations and remarkable ceremonies, discharging musketry over the bodies, tearing their bodies with seashells, and at the same time making great celebrations. These customs occur especially when a chief dies.
But let me come back to the next part of the journey I was talking about. On the same day as the visit to Mutu Karaka, the Bishop had the boat go to a place called Papakauwau.[7] That was the place where the owner of the house where we lived on arriving in New Zealand had given a few acres of land to the mission. There it was as well that His Lordship was looking for and considering a suitable place for building a church and a house made out of wood, as is the custom in this country; there as well I saw, with astonishment, the long leaf of the phormium tonax[8] which could be used well to make beautiful and strong cloth, and of which however the islanders make so little profit. I also saw the indigo plant, a type of wild vine which the natives use sometimes for drinking, and so many other products that they would take too long to enumerate, because this New Zealand seems to be without equal in the fertility of its soil and the abundance, variety and beauty of its products.
From this place we left for a tribe with the name of Whirinaki.[9] A chief of this tribe came to meet His Lordship, who received him in his boat; having got to this place he was taken, along with his companions, inside a palisade fence which enclosed a certain number of Indian huts. As soon as the natives became aware of this arrival, there were, among them, nothing but demonstrations of joy, signs of admiration and of haste to welcome us. As it was getting late, the chiefs offered His Lordship the most beautiful and best of their huts to spend the night in, all the while telling him that there were not, in Whirinaki, any houses like those in the country from which he came, but that they were offering him for lodging all of the best they had. There is, however, nothing simpler than this Indian hut. Its entrance was so narrow that it needed more than one attempt to get through it. Inside there was no furnishing but a piece of matting spread on the bare floor, which served simultaneously for seat, table, and bed. At nightfall the natives had a great celebration. They lit a good fire in front of the hut that His Lordship was living in and formed a circle, singing with manly and sonorous voices. Their singing seemed to me to be very like that of the savages in the tropics whom we had visited, in that it is monotonous and done with marvelous unison. In this way the time went by pleasantly, but what especially helped to brighten up the celebration was the acting out of a game special to the New Zealanders: in order to begin it they gave a signal and suddenly there was deep silence; all in common accord waved their arms energetically and at each gesticulation they uttered a simultaneous whistle which would be hard to describe. The next day, about dawn, a great gathering of islanders arrived. His Lordship through an interpreter gave some explanations on the singleness of God and the legitimacy of the ministry. The natives understood everything and their chiefs asked urgently for a priest to instruct them. His Lordship promised everything for the time when their language could be learned, after which these fine natives went with him uttering greetings and farewells.
You see, Reverend Father, that the natives belonging to this tribe have shown excellent dispositions, but they are not the only ones so disposed, and it is hard to describe how much the favourable attitudes of mind towards our holy religion have developed so quickly! Even before we knew the language of the country, the islanders were complaining that the Catholic ministers were delaying too much in visiting them and teaching them. But the Bishop had them informed that it was in their interest, that it was necessary for visits to be rare so as to give preference to learning their language. Nevertheless we couldn’t always excuse ourselves from making these sorts of visits, and when they occurred, how many reasons for consolation we found in them! But, as well, they occasioned some little trials. I recall how one day, the Bishop having wanted to visit some tribes, we were caught in a swamp because the natives who were leading us were not good guides; one of them who was carrying me on his shoulders fell, and his burden along with him. He called to his companion to help him, but he too fell in the same way; at last after many attempts we escaped from danger; but we have been well rewarded for theses difficulties and others like them when we see these unfortunate people smile on finding out that soon they will be able to be taught about the truths of salvation! A few tribes have even anticipated His Lordship’s wishes by offering to build a chapel on their land. How many entreaties have been made by many natives to have instructions that were not possible for us to give them, through not yet knowing their language! They gave roars of delight when they were told that soon their wishes would be granted. Some chiefs also wrote letters to His Lordship full of good will and devotion, in which they expressed the desire to see him in their midst, to teach them as soon as possible; others wished that the Bishop’s house was nearer them, and they saw with pleasure that a house was built in a central locality where relationships and visits would be easier. On the day before the one when the so longed-for change of residence was to occur, some chiefs from the Whirinaki tribe came to Totara with a certain number of their people and other natives from various tribes. They gathered together with English and Irish Catholics who had come to accompany His Lordship. During the voyage, which took about three hours and was done on the Hokianga River, the islanders uttered shouts of joy. When the canoes had arrived near the new episcopal residence, the Bishop set foot on land and blessed that place and the Catholics who were kneeling on the shore in the midst of a good number of natives; at their head appeared a white flag on which was represented a shepherd, with these words “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep”.[10] After several volleys of musketry, the sound of some little bells was heard; everyone quickly followed His Lordship to the Bishop’s house; there, in the most appropriate room an altar was standing, with the decorations that it had been possible to make. After the blessing of this house the Bishop with his own hands placed a beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin on a pedestal made ready beforehand; he announced that he had chosen Mary as the patroness of New Zealand, and for the first time the word of God was preached to the New Zealanders. From this same day onward, some chiefs from various tribes build dwellings near the Bishop’s house so as to hear the word of God more easily. Another circumstance contributed as much as the above-mentioned ceremony in turning minds in favour of the faith. Some time after the change in place of residence, Divine Providence willed that during one of his voyages His Lordship met more than 600 natives and 40 chiefs who had come together for a celebration. The welcome was most friendly; one of the most influential chiefs came to meet him, introduced him to the other chiefs and, on a signal being given, placed him in the middle of this gathering arranged in the form of a circle. Suddenly some stentorian voices repeated really loudly some words of greeting; but what was more interesting was that the chiefs, hearing some preliminary ideas about the religion, promised to embrace it when they had a deeper knowledge of it, and even two natives, up till then supporters of heresy, offered to have themselves taught afterwards.
But among so many natives who gave such beautiful hopes there was a chief who was said to be the greatest in New Zealand; serious, thoughtful, with a pacifying influence on minds. He is highly esteemed by the islanders. The heretics, who understood all the influence that the actions of this chief could have if he became a Catholic, made prodigious efforts to get him to be part of their group, but they did not succeed.
This chief, who was well aware of his dignity, used a curious ceremony to show the group he wanted to join openly; from time to time he sent to Blessed Mary now his children, now some great chiefs who proclaimed the imminent arrival of the great Papahia, whose praises they were quick to sing, but that visit was still being awaited and desired, when at last the great Papahia arrived with a large pig which he offered His Lordship as a gift, telling him that the heretics were not telling the truth, that he himself saw that the Bishop alone spoke it, and as a result he and his many tribes would turn to him only, and ended by declaring that he had a great liking for him, while shaking his hand; he had already declared to some heretics who did not stop pestering him that they themselves were not the real ministers because they did not come from the Pope, and so his decision was made. He wanted to go to the Bishop.
There you have already numerous and beautiful conquests which seem to lead to the growth of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. But I pass over in silence so many tribes, so many chiefs who are coming from a distance to make request after request to have the bread of the word, but alas! the workers are so few in number! The children have asked for the bread of the word and there is almost no one to give it to them. O God, O God, provide workers for the vineyard.[11]
Up to this point, Reverend Superior, I have spoken to you about the happy dispositions of the New Zealanders, but I have said nothing about the first fruits of the holy ministry that His Lordship gathered in this mission. Without getting into describing of the successes gained among the English and Irish Catholics, to whom have been added a young man and a woman who were professing the errors of Protestantism and who publicly adjured their errors between His Lordship’s hands (I presume that you already know about this) I will content myself by giving you some details, which may interest you, about the good which is already being wrought among the islanders.
Among the natives who have been baptised, a chief called Tiro has been worthy of note. For a long time he had been longing for baptism. He was the first person that His Lordship baptised in New Zealand and he received the name Gregory. His wife had the same blessing; she had displayed excellent dispositions before being baptised, in a lively discussion she had with an heretical minister. As the minister was at first trying to arouse in her a hatred against the Catholic missionaries, she answered him by giving as an example the heinous event of 22nd January.[12] “But at Totara you worship wood etc” – “It is not wood that I worship, but Jesus Christ, whose memory it brings back to me. Catholics do not worship the wood of the cross, but Jesus Christ, whose sufferings and death they honour; and I myself following their example, do not worship the wood. Anyway, why do you not talk about that to the Bishop? He would give you the complete explanation which we cannot give you.” Then the minister asked her to keep quiet and the conversation came to an end.
Holy baptism has also been given to two chiefs, brothers, whose conduct is very edifying. Before receiving this precious blessing, they had ardently shown signs of wanting to be instructed, telling the Bishop that they wanted to be Catholics, and ended by telling him as they were leaving: “Now you can pull us out of the evil which we must avoid, and teach us the good which we have to practise.” I have had the chance to be edified myself, in the persons of two chiefs who, dangerously ill, had asked to be baptised. In spite of the difficulties I experienced on the part of the natives who were leading me, but who were vacillating in their plans, I came across a sick man who, having heard and understood the instructions I gave in his language (I still only manage to stumble over it), he told me that he would be very happy to receive baptism – I went along with his desire. Then I went on to the other sick man who, surrounded by a good number of chiefs, listened to the principal truths of salvation with a great deal of joy and respect, and had the blessing of receiving the precious grace of baptism. In that situation my three-cornered hat was very useful in helping me explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which was hard for me to describe in this new language.
Before ending my letter, beloved and Reverend Superior, I presume that you will be interested to find out something of the character and certain customs of the dear New Zealanders.
These people share the gentleness and simplicity of the tropical islanders, but instead of fickleness and childish jollity which are noticeable among the latter, they show gravity and seem energetic and manly. There is general agreement that they are fearsome in vengeance and never forget an injury; an injury and all its circumstances is handed down from father to son, and a curse on the one who was responsible for it. Tattooing gives especially to the chiefs, who usually are more tattooed than the others, a fearsome look. They are warriors and everything about them puts me in mind of the ancient Gauls. But it is only too true that as well as excellent qualities there are found among them terrible faults, and unimaginable ferocity especially towards their enemies and their slaves. Eye witnesses have told me that these people had and still maintain in many tribes the custom of cannibalism, that in their frightful meals these inhuman men ate the raw and still palpitating flesh while saying “Kapai” or “that’s good” and that they would go so far as to glare at those among them who refused to take part in their horrible celebrations. O what is a man who is brutalised and without self control not capable of!
The New Zealanders build for their dwellings little huts made of rushes and reeds; inside these huts the natives’ possessions are very few: some rags, fish hooks, firearms, oars made of hard wood and well carved, which serve them both as weapons in their fights and as oars for their canoes, there you pretty well have it. Their clothing, at least going by what you see in the Hokianga, is generally a belt made of a material which is more like a strong paper than a cloth, a long cloak made of phormium tenax, and woollen blankets. That all that is necessary. They have quite remarkable games, one of which is notable, a war dance which is carried out with simultaneous frightful shouts, and with vigorous movements of the arms – that sums up amusements. Collars made of pearls which they hang round their necks, some adornments which they have from their ears, in their mouths a pipe which they love madly, sometimes a single feather on a chief’s head, that sums up luxury. Their food matches the simplicity of their dress; it usually consists of fish, potatoes and some fruits; they sell their pigs for woollen blankets, muskets, gunpowder, etc. This frugal life led by the natives does not fail to be for them a little like ours. Here you do not find seasoned food, not anything superfluous – but you find what is necessary: God who feeds the little birds of heaven and takes care of the lilies of the field, does not forget his workers for the Gospel. However, Reverend Superior, in spite of the frugality of the diet which we share with His Lordship, I confess to you that we enjoy vigorous health, and if we need to suffer a bit to conquer an everlasting kingdom, we cannot fail to be happy, no matter where we are, the difficulties and privations we have to bear, the dangers we have to run and the works we have to perform.
I end, very dear Father, by telling you that it is a great consolation for the children you have in this distant mission to think that they have a share in your prayers and in those of the dear Society of Mary; never will they forget their duty of gratitude. The beloved Fathers of Futuna and Wallis do not fail to agree with all the good Brothers in sharing my feelings.
I truly have the honour to be with deep respect,
Very Reverend Superior,
your most humble and obedient servant,
PS. How much I love to read, from time to time, the letter you were so kind as to send us at Le Havre. For me it is a great cause for encouragement. How much I would still like to receive your good advice in the circumstances in which I find myself. The bustling life which you have to lead here really exposes me to the risk of neglecting my interior life; I feel that I very much lack the religious spirit. As for my Rule, I try to observe it as much as I can amongst difficulties and tasks. I do not forget the happy moment when I made my vows at your hands. This memory is precious for me, I will preserve it always.


  1. The 10th of January 1838 was the date remembered by Pompallier for the arrival in New Zealand (cf Pompallier: Notre Historique p55; Servant had written in May 1838 that Pompallier and he had been there “since 10 January 1838” (doc 26 [3])
  2. Thomas Poynton (cf Doc 24 [13], 26 [3], 27 [2])
  3. each day, he seems to imply. Concelebration was not permitted then - translator’s note
  4. Cf Doc 24 [6]
  5. Nathaniel Turner – of the Methodist mission at Mangungu (in the upper Hokianga River, opposite present day Kohukohu - translator’s note). He had preached against the Catholic missionaries but denied having sent the natives to do violence to them (Keys Pompallier pp 85, 94-95)
  6. could be Motukaraka which is today a small settlement with a very prominent Catholic church on the west side of the Hokianga Harbour directly opposite Rawene - translator’s note
  7. Papakawau (cf Doc 26 [3])
  8. A plant whose leaves provide textile fibres (NZ flax)
  9. Whirinake is a place on the south side of the Hokianga Harbour – about eight or nine km in a straight line SW of modern Rawene. The local hapu of Ngapuhni is called Te Hikutu (translator’s note)
  10. John 21:15-17
  11. Paraphrase of biblical texts: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send workers into his harvest” (Mt 9:37-38 – parallel in Lk 10:2) “The children ask for bread, no one gives them any” (Lamentations 4:4)
  12. See above [5-7] – also Doc 24 [6]

Previous Letter List of 1838 Letters Next letter