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27 April 1840 — Father Maxime Petit to Father Jean-Claude Colin (1), Kororareka

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, March 2011

Editorial note: The more careful writing of the first four pages possibly shows that Petit had begun this letter sooner; he affirms in the first paragraph that he is writing on the same day as Father Servant, that is, the 26th April. He has dated it the following day, ending it no doubt after finding out that a ship was going to leave for England. A second letter from the same man, bearing the same date (edited after this one) was evidently written in haste after the announcement of this vessel’s departure.

To be read by the Reverend Father Superior-General of the Society of Mary, and not by anyone else.
[In Petit’s hand]
I have opened this.

J(esus) M(ary) J(oseph)
Bay of Islands, Kororareka, 27th April 1840

Very Reverend Father Superior
Since our journey through the islands of Wallis and Futuna, I have become convinced of the need to write to you in the way that Father Servant is doing today; but, as several of our confrères, while agreeing on the importance of bringing you up to date about matters, were held back by the fear of distressing you, perhaps uselessly, it was decided to temporise. Special circumstances encouraged me to write to you in this way last September, but the men whom I sent to take my letter to the ship could not get there because the sea was rough. A change for the good made me hope for better things, and encouraged me to burn my letter. Seeing our funds disappearing at an unbelievable rate, I thought of saying something about it in my last letter, but the only confrère with me[1] having a contrary opinion, I contented myself with talking to you about some expenses which are being made[2] without adding that these could be lessened without doing any harm to the mission. The main reason that held me back then was that, the Bishop having these funds at his disposition, it would have been difficult for you to correct the situation. Now that I have found out about your plan to have a new Vicariate-Apostolic erected, I have thought of a way which seems to me to do away with the problems without at the same time being objectionable. It would be to get the [Society for the] Propagation of the Faith to allocate the funds to the Society of Mary and not to the Vicar-Apostolic, and to send to Sydney or somewhere else a procurator who would be responsible only to you and would distribute the funds and the goods according to your intentions and the needs of the various missions. Apart from saving money, it would be a way of preserving unity between the various missions who would be so many branches receiving sap from the same trunk. It also seems to me desirable that this procurator would be at the same time Superior of the members of the Society and that all had permission to write freely to him, as to yourself, without being obliged to send their letters for inspection by the Vicar-Apostolic. Sydney seems to me to be clearly the best place for his residence. Every day, ships from every part of the world arrive there. There are in particular frequent links with London, often as well ships come and go for the islands, from time to time for Valparaiso and France. It seems that someone has overstated the problems that would be encountered in having a priest in Sydney. Far from seeing French priests in Sydney with suspicion, Church leadership would be happy to have some. It has demonstrated that positively to our men when they have gone through that town because they have (it says) more concern for evangelising the savages; that makes me suspect that the problems that are seen in a priest living in Sydney would only arise from the fear that Bishop Polding would make requests to you for men to proclaim the faith to his savages who have, up till now, been almost completely neglected. Anyway, the one or two priests who would be responsible for the store would not have to look for employment in ministry because one of them almost always would be travelling to get a personal knowledge of the spiritual and temporal needs of the missions and the Society’s men. The sole problem I could see in it is that foodstuffs there are very dear and as a result two priests and a Brother would be a charge on the Propagation of the Faith if they had no other job which would help them to live. Perhaps they could set themselves up somewhere a bit out of the way to diminish expenses. Perhaps also we could content ourselves with an establishment of this sort at the Bay of Islands where probably links with England are going to become more frequent, in view of the fact that the government has chosen to establish itself in this place. It would have the advantage of giving a closer view of this part of the mission and its staff being able to make themselves useful to it by the exercise of ministry. A little schooner available for the use of the procurator would be needed whether for use in New Zealand or for voyages he would have to make to the islands, so that he could make visits regularly and for very little expense. Because it would be easy to find a captain who would be responsible for the management of the ship and paying its crew, provided that he was allowed to load the ship on his own account. As for Tahiti, apart from its being a great distance from New Zealand, that port is only used by ships that go there to get fresh supplies and usually do not return from there, which is a big problem, because you have to wait there, and sometimes for a long time, for the chance to get another ship. In the ten months we have been here, we have seen only three or four ships which have come through or were going to Tahiti. I think that many important island groups in Polynesia go whole years without having any link with Tahiti.
Another consideration leads me to want the funds to be allocated to the Society of Mary, at least as far as New Zealand is concerned. For the good of the mission we are forced to buy a few bits of land on which to erect establishments free from the caprices of chiefs and the machinations of heretics. If things remain as they are, the Society, not being involved in purchases of this sort, will as a result find itself excluded from establishments such as colleges, seminaries or others that it will have worked to erect, and in which it could have done a lot of good things; while, if things were done in the name of the Society, a Vicar-Apostolic would think twice before dismissing us, which would be a happy counterbalance. Perhaps also that would make it easier to understand why it is wrong to say that “the Superior-General is to concern himself only with the perfection of his men[3] without being worried about whether possession of islands is taken in the name of Mary or any other saint.
Father Servant, through a fear of burdening you too much, has not told you that there is a strong prejudice here against solidarity, that several very lively attacks have been made about this matter, threats to take men elsewhere. From time to time we have been reproached for our journey through the islands of Wallis and Futuna, where we had reason to believe that our confrères had been massacred or were subject to persecution (as we had been told in Tahiti). This is parallel to the somewhat overlong stay of our confrères in Sydney, a stay thought to be of their choice, which led to it being said at that time that it could not be understood what instructions we were given on leaving France, and if people acted in that way a third time Rome would be appealed to, to complain and to get the situation fixed up.
Another thing that Father Servant has left out is that he has not told you about the difficulties that occurred between the Bishop and the gentlemen of Valparaiso who, there as well as at Tahiti, did not show him all the respect he thought due to his dignity. From time to time he speaks to us about the inferior nature of this mission, in which, in his view, the hierarchical order seems confused; that reason alone would be enough for him to dissuade you from sending via Cape Horn in the future. In the contact we had with those gentlemen we had only occasions for edification, and it was nothing but painful for us to see the coldness or rather the standoffishness that was shown towards them. I only tell you this to encourage you to remove by your kind relations with their mission in Paris the bad impressions that this state of things could bring about. I doubt that those gentlemen were happy about the sale of the schooner which they had had so much trouble buying, and the money from which they will not receive in the islands until well after that sale and perhaps an incorrect amount. I think they will have fair reason to complain, because if they had allowed it to be sold, it was with the condition, I believe, that another would be bought.
Recently a first mate of a French ship, having left his ship at Sydney following disputes with his captain, came to the Bay of Islands with a reference from a man who had known him only for one day, and who perhaps could have needed a reference himself. This man was received with joy and was given complete trust, to the extent that he was sent to Sydney to buy a schooner there for the mission – he was given drafts of money on Sydney. I couldn’t be certain that no one was less fit than him to buy a schooner for us, seeing that, before having this schooner at his disposal for the changes,[4] he was interested in buying as big a ship as possible, even if it lasted only five or six years, while what we need is to get something really sound for the same price. You would have to attribute too much dedication to a man who only came here to try his fortune to hope that he would neglect his own interest in the matter. We found out from him on the day before he left that he had received this task, that his berth was booked on a ship, and that evening we were called together, Father Servant, Father Viard and me, so that this purchase could be suggested to us. Consultation of this sort is wanting to make you believe that formalities have been preserved, but in reality only taking for a rule one’s good pleasure.
[Added in the margin]
We have found out that this officer came back from Sydney without buying anything, so we will be quit of him by paying for his return trip, which will amount to five or six hundred francs, provided however that we don’t have to pay him for his time, which we are unaware of: since we knew nothing of the arrangements that were made, here, if indeed any were made.
Anyway, that is not the only time that that has happened on fairly important matters. So I firmly resolved at the first opportunity to respectfully remark that it seemed useless to give my opinion on a matter that had been decided beforehand. On another occasion it was a matter of lending 3750 francs. I was consulted in the presence of the one asking for the loan and the one offering it, which was hardly a situation in which I could give a free answer; I replied anyway, saying that without doubting Mr D’s good will, I was afraid that instead of profiting, he would lose and that not having anything else, it would be impossible for him to give us back money which did not belong to us. I was disregarded. Fortunately he made on his deal and has paid us back two-thirds of the money. I am refraining from telling you any more about the loans, the payments made in advance to unscrupulous people who are skilful in the art of flattering though fine words; on the arrangements made as soon as they are suggested by adroit and greedy people who are convinced that they will obtain what they ask for. I will, however, note that I doubt the exactness of an expression in Father Servant’s letter. It’s when he says that most of the funds are used up by the Bay of Islands station,[5] because several things bought at the Bay of Islands have to be used for the good of the whole mission, like the big 1000 franc boat he is talking to you about.
I will also point out that most of the complaints which our letters are concerned about arise from an excess of zeal, if it can be so termed, from a poorly understood charity, whether in respect of the natives or the Europeans. The Bishop’s kind heart leads him to do every sort of good thing that shows up, and prevents him from considering that it would be preferable that he confine himself to what he was mainly sent to these countries for. Hence, as well, he very much concerns himself with appearances, and sees only with difficulty that we share our time a bit more than he between our duty to our neighbour and our duty to ourselves. When we were first here, Father Epalle and I fulfilled our obligatory spiritual exercises at times when we hoped we would not be seen. It’s not because we were forbidden to do them, but because several times we were criticised for praying endlessly: we were very far from doing that! As for the Mass, it was then customary to have only one,[6] so that we celebrated only every three days. Several times it happened that celebrating was only possible once a week and on Sunday, and that because it was necessary to get the work done, and so arising from a zeal that many people would see at the very least to be misguided, we are now more at liberty on this matter. One of the great causes of useless spending here arises from the belief that authority must be surrounded by a sort of performance which makes it respected. It doesn’t seem that the Apostles knew of this way of acting, and it seems to me that a noble simplicity (with the exception of what has to do with worship) would just as effectively bring this respect.
I thought, Reverend Father Superior, that I should add these details to Father Servant’s letter. I know they will distress you, but I hope as well that they will make it possible for you to remedy what we see as an evil.
I have not spoken to you favourably. [7] It is not that I could not say much about his great zeal for souls, his tirelessness in work, his unyielding patience with the natives, which has often been for me a reason for admiration… My silence in that respect only arises from my sole intention: to inform you about what I had reason to believe was not known to you.
I believe I can assure you that in giving you these details I have fulfilled a duty; that I have exaggerated nothing, nor have I stated doubtful things.
One of the reasons which caused us to put off writing to you like this was the fear that our letters would be opened.[8] I still have to write some words to you in a letter which will serve as an envelope and which will risk being opened in Lyon by someone other than you.
Petit – mis(sionary)


  1. Father Jean-Baptiste Epalle was with Petit at the Bay of Islands (cf Doc 33 [8])
  2. In his most recent letter preserved at APM, the one of 8 January 1840 (Doc 48), Petit makes no mention of expenses. It is possible he is referring to a letter that has not been preserved.
  3. A statement made by Pompallier before his departure from France (cf Doc 4 [4], [6-7])
  4. changes” of men from one station to another, presumably - translator’s note
  5. See Doc 55 [12]
  6. “to have one” celebration of Mass per day. In those days Masses were concelebrated only on Holy Thursday – so one Mass a day meant only one priest exercising his principal ministry each day - translator’s note
  7. en bien - translator’s note
  8. The writer was not afraid that the present letter would be unsealed, because Pompallier had been away since 2nd March 1840, not returning until early May (Cf Docs 51 [1], 57 [1], 58 [3]]). The letter mentioned in the next sentence is Doc 57.

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