From Marist Studies
15 October 1839 — Father Catherin Servant to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Hokianga
Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, July 2013
- To the very Reverend Superior of the Society of Mary, in Lyons, France
- St Mary of Hokianga, New Zealand, 15 October 1839
- Ad maiorem Dei gloriam et Dei genetricis honorem
- Very Reverend Superior and dear Father,
- The letter dated 1st August 1838 with which you have honoured me has arrived here and has brought me unbelievable joy. I bless God a thousandfold for the really fatherly attitude you show me and the concern you have for my spiritual welfare. How much I am moved by your exhortations! How grateful I am for your suggestions and your warnings which show nothing but charity! I am only too happy to be remembered by you, and to be the object of your zeal and vigilance!
- Very Reverend Father, this is the second time I have written to you from New Zealand. I am still in Hokianga; Father Baty, to whom the Bishop has given the direction of this mission, has been here since June. He already knows the language well enough to instruct the natives. Soon these people will be able to be satisfied in their thirst for instruction.
- Today, dear Superior, I want to speak to you in some detail about the life I lead in New Zealand. Crosses, the happy lot of missionaries, are sometimes great and abundant here, but consolations carry them through the crosses. Especially at the beginning of a mission, importunities, selfishness, unreasonableness and the superstitions of the natives often put patience to the test. You will understand the nature of these trials by the evidence I have the honour to give you. Quite a long time ago I was among a tribe where there are some very influential chiefs. Some of them, having realised that by preaching the oneness of God and some other basic truths, I was destroying their superstitious system of belief, desperately began to object to what I was saying; they were encouraged by a certain high priestess who was in a whare next to mine, and who saw it to be in her interest not to adopt the teaching of our holy religion, with those opposing rousing themselves to fury against me, but I tried to calm them down, and their anger vanished like smoke. The next day I found myself to be in their good graces. They performed a dance to honour me, and asked me to do the honours in receiving a great chief who was coming to visit them. Not yet knowing their customs, I failed to observe the rules of their courtesy. They got angry with me over this. I squared things up by speaking to the gathering to justify myself, and peace reigned again.
- Recently as well, Father Baty and I were at Wirinaki to make a presentation to this tribe. One of the chiefs told me that the gift was not enough and that we had to go away with our gift. Knowing how to express anger in their language, I answered in a lively manner, pointing out the injustice of such a suggestion. I got the main chiefs together, who, truly regretting what had been said to us, hastened to make peace and to offer their hands in a sign of friendship. At that time this tribe was in a state of agitation, while discussing the way it wanted to declare on a neighbouring tribe which had insulted it; everyone was indignant, the high chief, really angered, walked about the middle of the gathering to harangue the people to go to war. However one of the chiefs said in my ear, “True missionary, we are wicked people, speak up, speak up for peace.” So I spoke up in favour of peace, as I had already done. We left minds divided: some wanted peace, others war. At last, after long discussions, peace was, fortunately, agreed on, not without difficulty, in view of the great inclination of the natives towards war, particularly when they are offended.
- On another occasion, being among the Waima tribe, whose people are noted for their association with Catholic ministers, a native belonging to a distant tribe admitted being guilty of adultery with the wife of the high chief, an action worthy of death according to the laws of the country. We were asked to come as quickly as possible – to the chiefs who were discussing the punishment of the culprit. When I arrived, I asked several chiefs, who were already preparing firearms, what they wanted to do with the guilty one: “He must die!” they shouted. “No,” I replied, “let him live.” And thereupon I began to talk. Among other reasons, I told them, “The guilty man can repent and become good. Allow him to live. Before your conversion, God put up with you, why would you not also be merciful towards this guilty one?” This reasoning impressed them, and they adopted my way of thinking. So the guilty one was spared. He was only thrashed afterward by his chief when he returned to his tribe; but the high chief of Waima, outraged at the crime that had occurred, asked us for a place in our canoe, saying that he did not want to return home until the guilty one was banished for his crime.
- You see, therefore, Reverend Superior, some of the disputes from which the natives must sometimes be freed, but, thanks be to God, it is easy to pacify them. It’s not the same with heresy. The heretics are irreconcilable: what they say about the Catholic Church is nothing but nonsense and lies, but the sole result of their efforts is that the natives, who are forced to find out how they should reply often come to us for an explanation. But to get a true understanding of these apostles of heresy, it is enough to be aware of the following acts: a long time ago I had the task of instructing the natives in a tribe whose chiefs were among the most influential, and these chiefs, among whom were, at the time, a great priest and a great priestess, were all deeply steeped in the darkness of paganism and superstition. However an apostle of heresy came along and suggested to each of the chiefs that they receive baptism forthwith, without his taking the trouble of further instructing them, but the chiefs were more reasoning than the heretic, all of them refusing baptism.
- In another situation, I was with a great number of natives who had come to a place situated close to the seashore, where the Bishop had sent me to say Holy Mass. A heretic came to us. All the natives, delighted to have found an opportunity for a public discussion in their language, came into the house where I was. Their most urgent concern was to persuade me to go out and appear in their midst, while they would be sitting down, with my three-cornered hat on my head and my breviary under my arm. The heretic came along, but wanted neither to stop nor to speak.
- Heresy doesn’t fail to depict us as anti-Christs, idolators; as having to kill the disciples of the Catholic Church, and as having to drive us out of the land of New Zealand. But I am not going to dwell a long time on the clamours of wickedness. I am hastening to give you an idea of the consolations that we experience. The tribes are all avid for the word of God. A young chief told me one day that if by going a day and a half without eating his body would suffer from hunger, in the same way his heart had a hunger for instruction. He went on: Give me reasons in favour of the Catholic religion, because when people ask me for an explanation of my religion, I put my head on my hand. I thought, but finding nothing in the way of a reply, I remained silent. So as to satisfy the hunger of the natives, the Bishop had for a fairly long time got me to copy some leaflets of instruction and prayers. Already some tribes have made great progress in being instructed and show favourable dispositions. “Father,” a young man from Wirinaki wrote to me one day, “greetings, I am writing to you because I am sad because of my wickedness. Father, I need to go to Papakauau (the place where we live at present) to see you. I ask God every day for the forgiveness of my sins.” “True missionary,” a good neophyte said to me one day, “go and say evening prayer in the sick man’s house (this was a native who had not yet really decided to ask for baptism) and God will make him better,” but the sick man was not in danger, was soon cured, and was destined to receive more instruction.
- The attachment of the natives to us has shown itself on many occasions, but especially at a time when a rumour went round that the heretics were planning to drive us out. The natives got wind of it, and came in great numbers, especially from Waima and Wirinaki. They stayed several days, waiting for the heretics’ emissaries. After prayers and instruction one evening, all the chiefs asked if they could discuss the matter in the very room where the prayers took place, and they asked the Bishop to be present so they could ask for a new explanation on the legitimacy of Catholic ministry. The Bishop accepted their invitation, and after his speech was finished, one of the main war chiefs stood up, and spoke, directing his words to the Bishop with such feeling and gestures as would have struck dread in those present. His speech was short but most energetic. Here are his own words, translated into our language: “Bishop, you left your homeland and your family to come here and enlighten us. Stay, stay, stay – we are all here to defend you, and be aware that before anyone touches you, we will all lie dead on the place where you live.” “We are trembling,” a Wirinaki chief said to me at the time. “Why, then?” “It’s not on our own account that we are trembling. We are afraid that when we get back to our tribes someone will come and seize you and take you away.” But for a long time now the threats from heretics have made no impression on the natives. Several high chiefs from the different tribes have even agreed to support each other in case a tribe was harmed by heretics.
- You can see now, Reverend Father, the fine outlook of this mission. There is a huge field to cultivate, and the number of workers is not enough! From every side people are asking for priests to Catholic instruction. A chief baptised a long time ago by the Bishop, who showed a most ardent desire to have a priest for his tribe, but seeing that his priest did not come, offered to go in a group to ask for one.
- Ah! How necessary it is to ask our divine Master to send many workers into his vineyard. So many poor souls are starving for lack of the word of God!
- I am finishing, very Reverend and dear Father, by telling you how happy I am to be included among your precious remembrances before God. This child whom you have in this distant country is far from forgetting his father in Jesus Christ and in Mary. He loves to recall that he is all yours through the holy obedience which he has had the happiness to vow before you.
- All the Fathers of the Society of Mary will be so kind as to find in this an expression of my respect and affection for them.
- Please accept my deepest devotion and respect, with which I have the honour to be, in the holy hearts of Jesus and Mary,
- Very Reverend Superior,
- Your most humble, obedient and unworthy servant,
- Louis Catherin Servant
- Missionary apostolic
- Your most humble, obedient and unworthy servant,
- Very Reverend Superior,
- Cf CS Doc 44, letter dated 31st July 1838
- His first letter to Colin from Hokianga was written on 16 September 1838 (Doc 31)
- Cf Doc 31 [10-13]
- Read as papakawau (cf Doc 26  f/n 10]
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