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21 April 1840 — Father Jean-Baptiste Comte to his parents, Hokianga

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, March 2011

A letter from Jean-Baptiste Comte to his parents – to be sent to the editor of the “Annals” if thought appropriate.

(A copy of a letter of JB Comte of the Society of Mary, missionary in New Zealand, to his parents at Siangues-St Romain,[1] diocese of Le Puy.)

Hokianga, 21 April 1840
J(esus) M(ary) J(oseph)

My beloved parents
May the peace of J(esus) C(hrist) be with you always.
Often you think of me, and often you talk about me. Sometimes, perhaps, you get worried about my way of life. What is he doing among the pagans, you say to each other. Perhaps he’s languishing in poverty and in all sorts of privations. If only we could see what he needed and help him, but the ends of the earth are too far away from us. Thus reasons love, always worried about the object of its love. But, my dear parents, how very wrong you would be to be anxious about me. What would I lack in this land where I am? Isn’t God everywhere? Isn’t he aware of our needs? Isn’t he powerful enough to shelter us from the wickedness of men and the rage of hell? Everything that will happen to us will be with his permission, for his greater glory and for our true benefit. How consoling this thought is! When I left France, I left really convinced that difficulties, tribulations, privations, poverty and sufferings would be my lot. I rejoiced in this thought, saying to myself, this way is the most certain for getting to heaven; it is the way that J(esus) C(hrist) followed, and after him the apostles, the martyrs and all the saints. But the opposite has happened; in the midst of our dear savages, God is flooding us with consolations. They love us, we love them, and this mutual love recompenses us for everything.
I wrote you a short letter from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand dated the 8th January to tell you that I had arrived at Bishop Pompallier’s base.[2] I also said that I was going to leave straight away for the Hokianga. Here is the account of my little journey. It’s about 15 leagues [75 km] from the Bay of Islands to the Hokianga. On the 9th January, after receiving the Bishop’s blessing, I set out with about fifteen natives to guide me and carry my baggage. When we had crossed the Bay and were on land, the natives stopped to get their lunch ready. They made a hole in the ground. They filled it with dry wood. On top of the wood they placed several stones. When the stones were really hot, they covered them with green leaves, and in the leaves they placed potatoes and fish. They covered the whole thing with earth. A half hour later, everything was cooked. This way of cooking food is called by the natives Kapa Maori.[3] Then we set out again. It was very hot and the track so narrow that we could go only in single file. We frequently came across little streams, or, rather, generously flowing springs flowing through very high and very dense fern. My people stopped from time to time to have a rest and smoke their pipes. The ordered me to stop and sit down, but my clothing was so wet from sweat that I decided it was best not to obey them. About three o’clock in the afternoon we arrived at a river called the Wai mate. A little while earlier there had been heavy rain, and its bed was very wide. A native put me on his shoulders and took me across the river. As the water came up to his arms, I got a bit wet, but the sun soon dried me out. About six in the evening we got to Wai mate. It is a magnificent place: several Protestant missionaries have settled there. They have fine gardens, pastures filled with cattle and sheep, huge well-cultivated fields. I spent the night with a Catholic tribe, quite close to the Protestant missionaries’ houses. When these poor natives saw me, they began to call out heremai, heremai e Ariki,[4]come, priest, come. I shook hands with everyone, saying tenarako koe,[5] which is the rough equivalent of our ‘good day’. I was made to sit down on the ground next to the chief on a carpet that had been made of green fern. The Kapa Maori was cooked. I was served the best potatoes in a little basket. All the natives sat around me to gaze at me. I was hungry, but I am not yet an apostle. To my shame I said that I was repelled from eating the potatoes that had so generously been given me. When I had had my open air supper, a chief said prayers. Then a big fire was lit, and pipes were smoked.
At about 9 o’clock in the evening I said E moe ana ahau – I am sleepy. I wrapped myself in my cloak. While I slept, a chief came and covered me with his blanket, and great care was taken to rearrange it when it came off me during the night. So much love brought to my mind what a holy Father said about J(esus) C(hrist): when the Saviour of men, he said, slept among his disciples, he got up during the night to cover them himself. How many times also, my dear parents, did you interrupt your sleep to go and see whether your children were sleeping in peace. Please God that your children will show you as much love in your old age as you showed your children in their youth.
In the morning the next day we started out again. We walked nearly the whole day over the lands owned by the heretical missionaries, so large they are. About midday we entered a great forest. It took us four hours to go through it. The track was impassable. Huge tree roots, old trunks which time had felled continually blocked our path. In several places the mud was knee deep. As I did not want to sleep in the forest, I took the front with two natives. We arrived at the house of the Fathers of the Society of Mary about seven o’clock in the evening. Oh how wonderful it is to belong to a Society. I wasn’t received as a stranger, nor as a friend, but as a brother, as a son of the household. Just the thought that I belong to the Society of Mary was my whole joy and happiness. Let us love this good Mother on earth, and we are certain to see her eternally in heaven with her divine Son. Oh, if God had granted as many graces to the pagans of Oceania as to the faithful of Europe, I believe that the love they would show to Jesus and Mary would be much greater than the love which the latter have for the Son of God and his holy Mother. Here is a little indication. One day two women came to our little chapel. It was almost night time. One of the said to me: Ko Ho hane Papita,[6] Jean Baptiste, that woman whom you see there has come to see Hehu Kerito, J(esus) C(hrist). Some fire was brought. I showed her a crucifix. I said to her: “There is Jesus Christ, who died to save all people.” “That’s not the one,” she replied, “I have already seen him; it’s the one who is with his mother that I want to see.” Then I showed her the Blessed Virgin holding the child Jesus in her arms. Her wonder just had to be seen. “That one is the mother, this one is the son,” she said. “There are his feet, there are his hands, there is his head, there is his hat.” Then she repeated: “This one is the mother; this one is the son; that one is the Blessed Virgin, this is J(esus) C(hrist).” She had a little child in her arms; the other woman was saying the Hail Mary, and I was interiorly offering the woman and the child to Mary and Jesus, asking the Queen of Angels to write their names in Heaven. Then they wanted to pray. After prayer, one of the Fathers gave them a little instruction. He asked one of them: “Tell me, where will men go who commit theft, who give themselves up to vice and impurity, who do bad things?” “They will go to heaven,” she answered. “No,” the Father replied, “they will go into the darkness, into the fire of Hell, if they die without making peace with God. And good people, where will they go after they die?” This time she made no mistake: “To heaven,” she said, and she was overwhelmed with happiness at being right.
The New Zealanders really like praying. They are not satisfied with doing it in the evenings and mornings – they are often heard reciting prayers during the day. Little children are seen, three or four years old, who know their prayers very well. I strongly urge my sisters to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. But they will only succeed in doing that to the degree that they themselves will fear God and give their children a virtuous example. If they take care to arouse in them early a great confidence in Mary and a great love for this tender mother, if they offer them up from time to time to the Queen of the angels, the Blessed Virgin will take them under her protection, and those whom Mary protects will die in the love of the Lord.
My dear parents, I do not forget you. It is especially at the holy altar, where God gives me so many consolations, that I pray for you. Very frequently I say holy Mass for you and my deceased relatives. Soon we will all meet again, never to be separated from each other. While we wait for that happy day, let us fight on courageously. I have seen many people from every nation, many rich people and many who are poor, but the only happy person I have seen is one who is just and virtuous.
I heartily commend myself to your prayers and to those of all my relatives and friends, and I am, in Jesus and Mary,
Your totally devoted son,
J(ean)-B(aptiste) Comte
Missionary Apostolic


  1. Siangues-Saint Romain, a little village in Haute-Loire, between Le Puy and Langeac.
  2. Father Comte’s letter of 8th January is not to be found at APM.
  3. To be read as Kopa. Kapa was what the writer heard. In the Rarawa dialect of Maori, Kopa means an oven dug in the ground. (The Rarawa live in the north of Northland in New Zealand.) It is obvious that the author is talking about an oven and not about Kapa, a variety of potato. (Information from Peter Tremewan 24 April 2008)
  4. For heremai, certainly read haere mai (come forward, welcome).
  5. Tēnā ra ko koe in fact; expression of greeting one person.
  6. The author writes Ho Hane for Hoane (cf also Hoani and Hone (John), spellings established by various missionaries and based on English or Latin. Papita – Baptist. (Information from Peter Tremewan 24 April 2008)

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