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15 April 1841 — Father Jean-Baptiste Comte to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Akaroa

Translated by Brian Quin SM, January 2014

Father Colin, 4 Barthelemy Rise, Lyons, France


Akaroa, on Banks Peninsula
15 April 1841


Very Reverend Father
[1]
May God be glorified by the Society of Mary everywhere in his universe. I have been at Banks Peninsula since 15th August 1840. I wrote you, then, a short letter from Akaroa. Forgive me please, Reverend Father, for delaying so much in writing to you. The Bishop requires that all the letters which contain details not concerning spiritual direction, even those which are addressed to yourself, go through his hands. Now, as I had things to tell you which the Bishop would not have allowed to be sent on (he only allows details to be sent which show the mission in a good light) I abstained from writing to you; although however it seemed to me very clear that a Superior cannot forbid the members of a society to write directly to their general to share with him their observations. However, very Reverend Father, I am waiting for a decision from you and I will carry out to the letter what you rule on this.
[2]
Banks Peninsula is very mountainous. There are a lot of streams there. Their water is delightful. Scrub, trees and grass: there are the three products which are obvious to sight. These products are not mixed together, they grow separately. There are no animals, no harmful insects, species of birds are not very many. Pigeons abound in the woods, where you also find parrots, budgerigars, wood grouse, a sort of thrush, a sort of canary not as yellow as the latter, a sort of blackbird with a white mark under the neck,[1] etc. Before dawn the birds give a display of fine music. You would believe you were hearing a concert of a thousand flutes gathered together. When we arrived, we found quails exactly like those of Europe. It seems they go away in winter to warm countries. Akaroa is a spacious and very safe harbour. There are beautiful places round about and a lot of cultivable land. The trees never lose their leaves, they just lose a bit of colour in winter. There are fish in abundance on the coast and in the bays.
[3]
The mainland contains high mountains, huge plains, beautiful lakes and very fine trees. The interior, and also the west coast, are not inhabited. The number of natives in the who1e island might be as high as three or four thousand. This handful of people is scattered over various points of the east coast from north to south, mainly in the bays and harbours where ships call. The number of natives who live on Banks Peninsula would not reach two hundred. At Otago harbor[2] near Cape Saunders, there are about five hundred. Twenty miles to the north, at a place called Moeraki, there are five hundred as well. Right down in the south two or three hundred can be counted. I do not have an exact idea of the population of the north, but it is small as well. I think that in a few years from now the natives will be in much smaller numbers and will end up soon by disappearing. They have been rapidly diminishing since coming in contact with Europeans, whether through drinking rum,[3] or through the immoral trade that women have with ships, or, finally, because all the white men who settle diminish the number of their women by taking them for themselves. The children of a European and a native woman have no darkening of skin colour. They are completely white. The natives' customs, beliefs and way of living are absolutely the same as in the North Island. The language is however a lot different in pronunciation. Here it is very hard to hear the natives. They do not speak at all clearly. They pronounce the letter 'g' like the letter 'k', or, rather, they do not have the 'g'. The letter 'r' is difficult to pronounce well because it is half 't' and half 'r', which doesn't happen in the north of the island. From there they send out natives as missionaries to preach their errors and inveigh against the church of Rome which they call Wakapokoko[4] or idolatrous. Add to that the depravity that ships bring us. It is impossible to get an idea of the immorality of whaling ships. The chiefs hire out women for some clothing. The women are no[5] less avid for European things, and have no problem with prostituting themselves. Another evil is that in all the main harbours there are English settlers. Alas, there are few who give the natives a good example. So with Protestantism coming from one side and bad example from another side, everything results in indifference. Very Reverend Father, I am not putting limits on the grace of God. He draws good out of evil when it pleases him to do so, but in the ordinary way of things it seems to me that there is a very small harvest to be brought in in the Middle Island[6] because the natives are too few in number, because they are too scattered over a distance of more than 200 leagues [1000 km] in length, and because of that, impossible to serve without a certain number of missionaries. You cannot travel over land, you have to go by sea, and the coast is very stormy, particularly in the south.
[4]
At Akaroa where we are living in a house built by ourselves, we don't have many consolations. Our ministry has been almost sterile up till now. The colonists, who number more than fifty, are generally indifferent about their salvation. They hardly take the trouble to observe Sundays and to come to services. Good heavens, what blindness oppresses people!
[5]
I will not speak to you about the mission in the North Island, nor about the way it is administered. My confreres are better placed to enlighten you about that.
[6]
The Bishop came to Akaroa about the beginning of October on his schooner. He has been to Otago where I went with him, then he went to see the Irish faithful at Port Nicholson in Cook Strait. They number about a hundred in a population of forty thousand English. He came back to Akaroa, from where he left for the Bay of Islands near the end of February 1841.
[7]
Such a long stay in the middle island, a too premature visit to the French at Akaroa, will not have done good to the northern mission in political terms. The Bishop came to Akaroa with a great reputation in the minds of people of note, but their esteem has greatly diminished. He had differences with the commanding officer of the Aube and they exchanged some silly remarks. If Father Tripe hadn't spoken to you in the letters he wrote to you while I was away, about the little squabbles that we had, I would have said nothing about them to you. Alas, pride has followed us across the seas. We are not dead to ourselves. Our will and our judgment live on in us. The Bishop has told us things more suited to discouraging us than to encouraging us. It could be seen that his words were uttered without consideration and were the fruit of a moment of quick temper. Father Tripe was very annoyed, but I calmed him by telling him that he should have no doubt about his vocation, because he had been sent in a lawful way, and that soon the Bishop would himself condemn what he had said to us, that, in the end, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence [Matt 11:22] and that God is pleased to test our virtue, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another.
[8]
Before his leaving here, I encouraged the good and virtuous Father Pezant whom the Bishop has since taken with him. Since he [the bishop] had decided to leave Father Tripe here, he was discouraged by the way the Bishop dealt with his character, and he yearned greatly for the day when the Bishop would send him away from His Lordship[7] and station him somewhere.
[9]
In a very indirect way I made some observations to the Bishop about Father Pezant. I told him that Father Pezant would do very well in the tropics where the people were concentrated together and very easy to pastor. Finally and briefly, if you want to be on good terms with the Bishop, you have to praise everything he says and does. If you speak to him, in contradiction of his views, even in a very moderate and honest way, straight away he will assert his experience against the inexperience of those who are talking to him.
[10]
The little altercation that I had with the officer commanding the corvette amounted to nothing. For the rest, the Bishop, after having reprimanded Father Pezant and me about the way we behaved towards those in authority, saw that we had not done badly, and that all the advice he had given us before his departure had directed us on the same way that we had followed.
[11]
Father, I find it very difficult to tell you all these things. I still remember the respect and submission that our rule wants us to show towards the bishops. It is certain that the Bishop's zeal for winning souls for God is great, even too great, it means that he is not reasonable enough, that there is no consistency in the Bishop's conduct and no pre-planned strategy. Everything is the product of a moment, a moment also upsets the decisions of the day before.
[12]
It is a very great consolation for me in this country, New Zealand, and one that compensates me a hundred times over all the rest that I like my confreres. They put up with all my failings with patience. We all remember that we are all children of the one mother and father. Oh, we do not forget Mary. She is the one who will save us from a sad shipwreck and who will lead us to heaven where we will have the happiness of contemplating for all eternity that mother of a God, mother of beautiful love, queen of heaven and of earth. She will make Marists her guard of honour.
[13]
We are all ardently yearning for a provincial. He will be the surest way of maintaining peace and union between us. Through that means we will be able to be in perfect union with our beloved Society in Europe. By this means you will be able to become perfectly informed about our mission.
[14]
I will not speak to you about our beloved Fathers in the tropics. I do not know if they are still in this world. I want very much to go and join them and share with them everything that God assigns them. My desire has become very great since the British have come to colonise New Zealand. I love the natives very much. God also arranges that they love me very much. I have baptised 25 of them on the peninsula and performed six marriages. Father, I very much commend them to your prayers.
[15]
Pray also, please, for me. My heart is very dry. I do not have time to speak to you any more. I will write to you again at the first opportunity that comes along.
[16]
I have the honour to be, most respectfully, Reverend Father, your most humble and obedient servant,
Comte.
[17]
I forgot to tell you that I very much want a history of the Church, l had made a list of the works that we want to have, in a letter which I wrote to you from Hokianga. Perhaps you have not received it.
[18]
A Menothius[8] as well.
[19]
Brother Florentin who is with us is ill. I hope he gets better soon. Father Tripe commends himself strongly to your prayers. We greet all the members of the Society in the hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Notes

  1. A tui, surely - translator's note
  2. The present city of Dunedin was founded there in 1848 by colonists coming from Scotland.
  3. Rome to be read as rhum.
  4. Wakapokoko for wakapakoko -'image', 'idol'
  5. Read n’ont as non
  6. The South Island was sometimes called the Middle Island, at the time when Stewart Island was called the South Island (cf Sherrin and Wallace p 3, p 257-260). [This was up till the 1880s - translator's note]
  7. “the Bishop” and “His Lordship” both refer to Pompallier.
  8. Menochius: the commentary on Scripture of Menochius (Giovanni Stefano Menochio) (cf Doc 38 [26] and [28])