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26 April 1840 — Father Catherin Servant to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Bay of Islands

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, March 2011

A letter which can only be opened by the Very Reverend Superior-General of the Society of Mary

Bay of Islands
26 April 1840

Very Reverend Superior and dear Father in J(esus) C(hrist)
Here are some notes I think you should know about, and it is after consulting dear Fathers Baty, Petit and Epalle that I entrust to your prudence the following details.
1) It is appropriate not to take literally the mirabilia (wonderful signs) of conversion that the preceding letters could have told you about; it is a long way from the first dispositions of the natives to a true conversion. It is good to visualise these islanders as being a carnal and crude people who are attracted to J(esus) C(hrist) out of earthly concerns. Apart from a small number in each of our mission stations who give real reason for hope, the rest display frightful greed. How many are attracted to what they call prayers only insofar as it gets them clothing and other things! How many have threatened us with abandoning prayers if we do not give them this or that thing they ask for! This greed goes with deep ingratitude to the priests: some do not give any food unless paid in advance; others demand double the price for the wretched potatoes which we have eaten in their tribes while staying there to instruct them, others sometimes demand that they be twice paid for the same thing; others want agreed beforehand the price for canoes used to go and provide them with spiritual services. If you are aware of this, you are deceived by the lies and deceit of the natives who are skilled at showing themselves in the best light, and who see any way of achieving this as good. The great difficulty of communicating with the tribes which are scattered far away is a great obstacle to the instruction of the natives and slows up their conversion.
2) Concerning the temporal affairs of the mission. The Bishop does not understand business administration, but however he wants to do everything on his own. Here are some examples: A little time ago he wanted to buy a small boat which could have been very well done without; the price had been agreed on and fixed at 30 pounds sterling. The owner of the small boat wanted the price to be 40 pounds, in other words 1000 francs, and the Bishop accepted the boat which in other ways was not good. Then there was the purchase of an organ which cost about 300 pounds and for which 1000 francs had [originally?] been paid.[1] The Bishop, wanting to go by sea to visit some harbours in New Zealand, went and saw an Englishman about hiring a little brig. The Englishman asked him for 1250 pounds, and this price was accepted without any provision allowing a reduction.
To preserve episcopal honour, it seems fitting that a Bishop does not get involved in the details of a purchase to be completed; we find it embarrassing to hear from strangers that the Bishop is allowing himself to be deceived and does not understand business matters. It would also be fitting, in the interests of the mission, that the Procurator for the mission alone has the job to do, and that the Bishop remains in the background. It would also be very desirable that things donated for the natives were not at the disposal of the station at the Bay of Islands,[2] but that they were kept in a storeroom like liturgical things which would be shared out after the staffing of each station and according to its needs.
3) Concerning distribution of gifts. Gifts wisely distributed to the natives are necessary at the beginning of a mission among savages: it is through gifts that their friendship and trust is gained, but it seems that the Bishop should not make gifts alone, and that a simple priest, although he is not high in status, has almost nothing to give but refusals, and is called hard-hearted by the natives. As well, the Bishop beginning a mission should be careful to see that his priests are esteemed, so that they have full influence on the chiefs and the other natives, for priests who have little standing in the eyes of the natives will have difficulty in succeeding. So when the Bishop had left the Hokianga station to come to the Bay of Islands, Father Baty and I had a host of difficulties with the natives who ceaselessly made threats to abandon everything; the greatest chiefs have retained little esteem for us. We take no pleasure in seeing the natives from our mission station receiving gifts when they go and see the Bishop at the Bay of Islands. It would seem preferable that priests who, having been made responsible by their duty to observe and know their natives, made generous gifts with care and discernment.
4) Concerning conduct towards missionaries. At the beginning of a mission among savages, the priests have a lot of privations to endure, they have a lot of difficulties and troubles; sometimes even they have to attend to tasks humiliating by natural standards, but beautiful in the eyes of faith. When a catechist gets ill, or if he is forced to absent himself from the station, you cannot imagine how much, in these diverse circumstances, charity and the most intimate personal union bring consolation and encouragement; but, alas, this is not a blessing I have always received: no doubt this must be attributed to my sins and especially my pride. The Bishop’s company has often been for me a source of grief and bitterness; I do not know what monstrous faults there were in me to be pursued with such excess. Anyway, if those bitter convictions were intended to make me better, I hardly perceived it, but I believe that they were liable to crush and distress the heart. To give you a chance to form your own opinion, it will be enough for me to share the following examples: On the island of Vava’u [Tonga], the Bishop, believing he had perceived among us an attitude of alienation from him, had given us thunderous little speeches, dealing with us as wanting to create a separate group, as wanting to separate ourselves from him, and even to threatening us with excommunication. The vehement language he used could have easily been heard by our crew, but fortunately the crew did not understand French. Anyway, if the Bishop had wanted to speak to each of us on our own and sound out our thoughts, he would have seen that we were more devoted to him than he thought. In New Zealand I have heard, I don’t know how many times, most humiliating words in outbursts of anger; my punishments were sometimes shared with Brother Michel; all sorts of threats rambled over my head: warnings aimed at emphasising my guilt were sometimes made when the Brother was present. I recall as well that at one time, the Bishop having allowed entry to our house by a sailor with neither faith nor religion, whose honesty was very suspect, I experienced very painful humiliations. This sailor, who doubtless wanted to impress the Bishop for his base concerns, went to look for him to persuade him to go into the store to see something which was not where it should have been, and each time that happened I was forced to appear in front of the sailor to receive a lively reprimand in unworthy terms. That sailor had been accused by the Brother of having displaced things which were where they should have been. This example I have just mentioned was chosen from among several others of the same sort. Here at the Bay of Islands, Father Petit, for having taken back some things lent to a native chief, was forcefully humiliated by the Bishop in the presence of this same chief. Another little example: when Father Baty had come to the Hokianga, I was told to give him all the possible information about the state of the Hokianga mission so as to make it possible for the dear Father to manage it. As I described this mission in the way I stated in No 1),[3] and which was not the way the Bishop saw it at that time, Father Baty was forbidden by the Bishop from relying on my information because my mind was not united to that of my Bishop. This ban, and memories from the past which had very much weighed on my mind, made me decide, after having agreed with Father Baty, to write to the Bishop, telling him that I earnestly wanted him to retract certain opinions which he had had in the past which were unbearable for me; I begged him at the same time to grant my desires in writing, and I added that if he did not want to give me this sign of trust, I would see his refusal as proof that he no longer wanted my services in the mission, and the signal to go and rejoin the Society of Mary in France. The Bishop did not want to answer my request, and the reason he gave me was that it was not appropriate for a Bishop to receive conditions from a priest; but he sent Father Epalle to the Hokianga, and he, along with Father Baty, persuaded me to change my resolution. When I had the opportunity to meet the Bishop, he told me that the faculty sheets he gave me took for granted the trust I was asking for, and that I was close to becoming a bad apostle. These reasons were not given so much to please me, but, as it seemed to me, for the good of the mission.[4] However this matter was happily ended and since then my life has been very pleasant.
5) Concerning conduct towards the Brothers. In this country it is impossible for missionaries to have stations without Brothers, and it is the same for the other islands. But it is right that they are treated as Brothers, that corrections given them be only spiritual acts of charity for the good of their souls, and that consequently they should be wise and prudent, I mean, proportionate to the nature and the number of the offences, and made among ourselves and not in the presence of outsiders and the natives. Fits of anger and extraordinary humiliations, apart from being in no way edifying and charitable, serve only to harden hearts and discourage people. What I told you concerning the conduct of Brother Michel, in a letter dated 12th October, should not give any further grounds for concern.[5] This Brother is doing better.
6) Concerning correspondence. Sending letters to France was hampered until the arrival of the Fathers of the second dispatch; the Bishop wanted to inspect the letters and wanted no detail about the mission to be sent without having been examined by him, but Father Baty and I, being aware of the attitude of the other Fathers, energetically appealed for the freedom to write to you and to receive your letters without their being opened. The occasion of this appeal was that Father Baty believed that the Bishop had obtained knowledge of one of his letters which had been addressed to you and which had been sealed. His reason for thinking this was so, was that the Bishop had mentioned to him things, knowledge of which could only have come from the aforementioned letter. However the Bishop had declared that this was not so. As for me, I spoke up [je recriois de mon côté] for myself about a letter from you that I had received unsealed. The result of our appeal was that we are allowed to seal letters which are sent to disclose our spiritual situation to you, letters which concern the persons of the missionaries, and even the details of the mission such as are needed to describe the situation of each man. Concerning news of the mission, we are obliged to have them inspected by the Vicar-Apostolic. I found out from the missionaries of the second dispatch that the Fathers of Futuna and Wallis had discussed among themselves to find out whether it was lawful for them to send you their letters directly without sending through New Zealand, and I thought I had to inform them of the decision mentioned above in a letter which I had the opportunity to send them recently.
7) Situation of the mission in political terms. The governor[6] and the British authorities, influenced by their political views, show consideration to the Bishop and tell us that they view the Catholic mission favourably and even let it be understood that they will protect it and favour it, they make us aware of how much the influence that the Bishop and the missionaries have over the natives can be useful to them, but we work outside of politics as our duty demands, and we hope that the Protestant ministers who act in connivance with their government will do themselves harm in the minds of the New Zealanders and serve the interests of the true Church. Already the natives are beginning to protest especially at the sight of the British soldiers who have landed, and there is reason to believe that they will turn towards us when they have reasons for complaint. But the foreigners who are multiplying in number in New Zealand, and a fairly good number of whom are made up of bad characters, are a curse to us because of the bad examples they give the natives.
8) Prudence in making promises to the islanders. Promises which are made to the natives and not fulfilled have a bad effect on a mission. And so not giving clothes which were promised to the natives at a certain time, and the time now being past, people are seen and dealt with as tricksters. And so the Fathers in the tropical islands, having proclaimed that the Bishop would return in six months, as a result of the promise that the Bishop had made them about it, were seen in a bad light, especially in Wallis, when they saw that the Bishop was not returning there. And so that schooner that the Fathers in the second dispatch had bought in the Gambier Islands,[7] and which should have gone a little time after to the islands of Wallis and Futuna, but which did not go, was probably the cause of a bad effect in the minds of the people of those same islands. A failure to keep one’s word in this way is all that is needed to give a fatal blow to a mission.
9) Consideration of the mission in general. New Zealand, which is made up of three considerable islands, without considering small islands nearby, can offer a huge field to a Vicariate-Apostolic apart from the number of whites which is growing from day to day and which can, very soon, become a considerable population of which a certain portion will be Catholic in religion. And the natives scattered through these huge islands are prodigious in number. Add to that, that it is easy to absorb here a great number of men, and that the maintenance and housing of the missionaries is exhausting enormous amounts of money; now, that having been stated, I do not see how the tropical missions could avoid having to suffer for a long time from the lack of funds and men; from the long absences of the Vicar-Apostolic, because, for the good of this mission the Bishop would have to visit each of the stations and stay there for several months. He would also have to devote himself to writing instructions to get printed in the natives’ languages, and so many other tasks which would take up all his time. Now all that would significantly harm the tropical missions. Just as the Bishop’s long absences would be harmful to the New Zealand mission, so also they would harm the tropical missions.
So, this is the situation: we are now in the third year since the beginning of the mission; it can be said that the men and the money have been absorbed only by New Zealand during all of that time; the Father of Futuna and Wallis, in their destitution, have only been helped twice, namely, by the visit that the Fathers of the second dispatch made them and which was strongly criticised, and by the arrival of Father Chevron who was sent to them, but was that enough? I willingly believe that it was impossible to help the tropical missions, but the Fathers in the islands nonetheless remained isolated, and the harm was no less real. Besides, I do not see how a fair distribution of the goods of the mission can come to be, since even in New Zealand the Bay of Islands station absorbs most of the funds.[8] So it seems expedient and desirable that there be a new Vicariate-Apostolic for the tropical islands. In the tropical islands there is a much more worthwhile good to be achieved than in New Zealand; the foreigners who are flowing in here are very much upsetting the natives by their immoral activities; it is easier to bring about good among the islanders in the tropics than among these people, because these people, only being able to be visited rarely and not going very often to the mission stations, can be instructed and trained in evangelical morality only with difficulty and over a long period, while those people, being under the eyes of the missionaries and being easily able to be visited by them can provide good reasons for hope. Besides, the islanders in the tropics are hospitable and are not so greedy for temporal goods as the islands into which the whites are bringing the spirit of self-interest and business.
If the Holy See wants to appoint and send a Vicar-Apostolic to the islands in the tropics, a procure house could be set up in Tahiti from where it would be easy to bring help to the missionaries and to correspond with Europe. A little ship for the use of that mission would be very important. But in that case it would perhaps not be useless to point out that it would be important to hasten the departure because the Methodists are spreading very much and are making entry to the islands difficult and dangerous, and to tell the Vicar-Apostolic that it is not good to take on works he cannot carry out, or to leave a priest alone on an island, and to get his men to understand that they have no chance of success without knowing the languages; even if this way of speaking does not please everyone, it could later on be reason for withdrawing.
I am finishing, Very Reverend Superior, by asking, if you see it as appropriate, to support, by a letter from yourself, the request I am making to the Bishop to be sent to the tropics.
The dear Society of Mary will please find here the sign of my respects.
I am, and will always be, in the spirit of perfect obedience,
Your humble and unworthy servant,
Mis(sionary) Apost(olic)


  1. S’est presenté aussi l’achat d’un orgue quie valoit environ 300 livres et que a été payé 1000 francs. 300 livres was about ₤300, I believe, and 1000 francs was about ₤40. Normally I would have translated qui valoit as which was worth – making the purchase a real bargain. But Servant’s theme is that the Bishop was over-paying, so I have translated qui valoit as the cost to Pompallier - translator’s note.
  2. The station at the Bay of Islands had been the Bishop’s base since June 1839 - translator’s note
  3. see [2] above - translator’s note
  4. Ces motifs n’étaient pas tant faits pour me plaire que celui que me, présentoit le bien de la mission - translator’s note
  5. Servant had spoken about the ‘good Brother Michel’ in his letter of September 1838 (Doc 31 [2]) but his letters of 15 October 1839 (to Colin and to Teraillon) mention neither Brother Michel nor any other Brother. There is no letter from Servant dated 12 October 1839 preserved in APM in Rome.
  6. William Hobson, Lieutenant-governor (cf Doc 52 [14])
  7. cf Doc 32 [1]
  8. It seems that Servant showed this letter to his confrère Maxime Petit and that the latter, in a letter he wrote at the same time to Colin (cf Doc 56 [5]) made a correction to what Servant says about the expenses at the Bay of Islands.

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