From Marist Studies
28 May 1841 — Father Catherin Servant to Father Pierre Colin, Hokianga
Translated by Mary Williamson, November 2019
Based on the document sent, APM Z 208.
Two sheets of paper forming seven written pages, the last page having only Poupinel’s annotation.
- [p.8] [in Poupinel’s handwriting]
- 28 May 1841 Father Servant.
- 28 May 1841. Hokianga New Zealand.
- To the Very Reverend and dear Father Director Colin the elder.
- Very Reverend Father,
- It is eleven months since I left the Bay of Islands for Hokianga. During this period of time, I have almost always been amongst our dear natives, instructing them in the truths of our holy religion.
- First I visited the tribe of Teihutai, who are surrounded by the heretics; there I had to participate in a long discussion about Maori superstitions; nevertheless, I explained to the natives that their ancestors did not understand certain things and had lost understanding of the true God. These natives, very attached to the mortal remains of their people, as are all New Zealanders, invited me to visit the tomb of an infant who was fortunate enough to be baptised before death. I then went there, but they dared not accompany me because they feared breaking the tapu of the dead. I dealt with their scruples and we all prayed together. My stay there was not very long and the natives only agreed to my departure after I made them a promise to see them again as soon as possible.
- From Teihutai I left for another tribe, called Tairutu, who lived on the seafront. There the nights often passed in conversation about the truths of our holy religion; I baptised several infants there. At this juncture someone came to let me know that I should go and visit some sick people in a tribe called Wairoa. When I arrived, the women formed a circle to greet me with a chant of affection, following the Maori rites. Amongst the six people that I baptised, there was a respectable old man; to my great surprise I found that he was not opposed to consenting to baptism, but I had great difficulty in instructing him in the necessary procedures; finally he had the pleasure of receiving baptism and of dying at peace with the Lord. Returning to Tairutu, I sang a joyful Te Deum for the victory scored over the spirit of darkness, I had trouble crossing a marsh and as well I fell into the bed of a small river.
- When I arrived in Tairutu, there was a gathering; they were fearful; one of our neophytes declared publicly that he had concealed some small articles stolen by another native; they were expecting a severe reprimand from me. But the natives were very surprised to hear the mercy of God ring out towards the poor sinners and the one who had confessed his fault, not being put off by either the bad weather or the remoteness of the area, gave back to the other person there and then what belonged to him. Oh! Let it please God that in the civilised countries people might be as kindly in observing the divine laws!
- Two weeks having passed at Tairutu, I went, battered by rain and wind, to another tribe Whirinake. There, there is a chapel built with raupo and nikau  built by the natives and able to hold about two hundred people. I had no sooner arrived than some native heretics and passers-by in the area started to shout out slanderous things about the Catholic church; accompanied by about 150 natives, I went to find the troublemakers. I expounded the unity of the church, outside of which there is no salvation and I refuted their slanders. The astounded aggressors finished by telling me that I was right. A few days later, a battle of another sort arose. A native infidel from Whirinaki had abducted a young person against the wishes of the chiefs of his tribe and as a reprisal for other abductions which had been carried out in preceding years by that same tribe. The reclaiming party arrived in the area I was in. A council of war was held. The speakers from both sides, before starting to speak, sang to gain the attention of the audience. They spoke for hours on end, walking up and down between the rows at a fast pace, striking menacing attitudes, the two sides were no longer getting on with each other. All was disorderly and agitated; they became heated, they became furious. On both sides they readied themselves for combat. Amidst the rowdy and confused voices this terrible cry rang out: You are dead men! At this cry they rushed at each other; the combatants pushed each other to and fro equally. But, fortunately nothing too unpleasant followed. The native neophytes and catechists who had taken part in this skirmish had stopped out of respect for the crosses and medals inside the chapel and being aware that, in the current circumstances, there was no peaceful outcome to be reached, I had allowed myself to be shut inside a house situated near to the chapel. But this sad scene did not last long. The aggressors gave in and fled. Straight away I went to find the high chief who was in charge of the aggressors to encourage him to stop the hostilities. A decision was made to cease hostilities. The young people of Kawetiki, where I had gone, had me pass a large part of the night giving them explanations about the truths of our blessed religion. When returning to the mission establishment, I almost capsized in my frail canoe that was buffeted by the waves; the people in a large craft were ready to rescue me in case of an accident.
- When the worries about war were dispelled, I went to see the friendly tribe of Waima where almost everybody was baptised and where all were of one voice in loving God. The high chief, given the name of Mathias, in approaching me, made the sign of the cross with an admirable simplicity. The young people of his tribe gathered together and had me discuss at length the truths that our holy church espouses. The heretics also have a footing even in this tribe and have made enormous efforts to make some converts amongst our natives, but their efforts have been in vain; the faith of the natives in Waima has remained invincible. I stayed a few days with this tribe. I returned to Teihutai. My arrival there was very appropriate: those blessed by heaven were rejoicing over the baptism of two small angels who were dying.
- During my stay at Teihutai there was a reunion of natives. One of the high chiefs spoke and openly declared that the beliefs that they had inherited from their ancestors were untrue, that he renounced them himself, that he did not wish to see amongst the natives of his tribe any more marriages other than those that were legitimate, that the licentious games and songs of Maori were the work of the devil and that they must renounce them. This fine statement, that he delivered forcefully, was not contradicted by his own conduct; since then this chief has been baptised and has become a fervent Christian.
- Here is yet another example of consolation for me in this same situation: a young man found himself seriously ill; I spoke to him to encourage him to think of the salvation of his soul before he died, but he did not wish to do anything about it, he did not even want to speak to me. The devil had filled him with such horror for the holy doctrine that he covered his head so as not to hear me. Nevertheless, this damaged heart was swayed; as I shared with him the small amount of food that I had with me he seemed to be touched, he exchanged a few words with me and excused himself for his harshness towards me; then imperceptibly I started to instruct him and, the day of the Presentation, Mary achieved for him the grace of baptism which he received with enlightenment and some time later he died in the peace of the Lord.
- After several other trips which the duty of the holy ministry required of me, I returned to Tairutu. One of the neophytes of that tribe had himself written to the heretic minister asking him to come to Tairutu to have a discussion with me; for this heretic had told him that the Catholic church was not the original church and that his sect was the religion established by Jesus Christ. But is seems that the Protestant minister did not think it suitable to come to the arena. At the same time, some native heretics gathered for times of prayer and amongst them was a young chief from Whangape who had been converted to heresy before our arrival in New Zealand, but who, since then, had abandoned heresy because of the bad behaviour of the Protestant minister who had instructed him. These natives had me discuss at length with them the difference between the Catholic religion and Protestantism and they ended up stating to me that ours was the true religion. After that I left for Wairua,  by a route used by the natives of Tairutu, who accompanied me and we rested, during the night, on the sand and I had a fine opportunity to satisfy their curiosity by giving them an explanation of the movement of the earth and its size and its distance from the moon and the stars.
- Having arrived in Wairoa, how consoled I was to give the sacrament of extreme unction to a dying neophyte, who was full of fervour and love of God! In the conversations that I had with the high chief, I was impressed by this unusual reflection: He told me that before our arrival in New Zealand he was wishing that Protestantism was not the true religion and that when we appeared for the first time, learning that we were bringing the true religion, he was so filled with joy that he felt himself raised up to heaven. I will pass without mentioning several other trips made to various tribes in the holy cause of Jesus Christ. I come now to speaking about a trip of about thirty leagues that I made to Ahipara. I set off through forests on dreadful, steep footpaths and arrived at a place named Herekino where there are about fifty natives and where I spent 8 days. Around the end of the week, the curse of discord brought about a brawl between those who were practicing prayer and it was not without difficulty that, with the help of some more well-intentioned natives, I managed to pacify everyone. Continuing my journey, I found the natives of Ahipara nothing less than well disposed; my arrival was so well timed that one of the natives said to me: it is the Holy Spirit that has led you here. Angry heretics there had, because of slander against the mother church, succeeded in upsetting them; so it was necessary to refute the absurd and pitiful objections that heresy was raising in these countries. I also had to struggle against untruths about the creation of New Zealand that their ancestors attributed to Maui.  Finally I managed to satisfy them and I went to spend some time with the natives of Wangape who were gathered on the sea shore to do some fishing; there, a good number of young people asked me enthusiastically about the word of God. Returning to Hokianga, I visited several tribes, but soon we learned that war had been declared between Ahipara and Wangape over the murder of some natives of Ahipara, committed by a young chief of Wangape who thought that they had killed one of his parents. Already they had been fighting for a day. So I left immediately for Herekino, scene of the battlefield. Fortunately, no natives had been killed, only a few of them had received minor wounds. A very influential chief from Hokianga, summoned by Father Petit, had taken steps to stop the war and when I arrived at Herekino where the warriors were gathered, the news of the peace arrived at the same time. This news was received with transports of joy; the two warring parties reunited. The number of men, women and children could be estimated at about 1200. To conclude the peace negotiations there were fanfares, war dances and the firing of muskets. When the peacemaking was concluded, I went to see a Wangape tribe called Pawera. There a large number of young people had gathered and spontaneously and loudly stated their weaknesses with unbelievable naivety, so as to put me in the position of being able to judge whether they were worthy of receiving baptism. Their attitude clearly spoke in their favour, and not only the natives of Pawera but also a large number of other natives from diverse tribes would have already been baptised, if there were not so many difficulties in communicating with them. Circumstances did not allow me to remain any longer with the good natives of Pawera. I then returned to Hokianga. As I was walking along the shore, bad weather surprised me and obliged me to spend a day and night in a vast cave in an enormous rock with a certain number of natives. Chatting to an old man, I learned that at another time under this same rock, some victorious warriors had withdrawn and in one single battle they had cut the throats of a thousand of their countrymen and eaten them! This same cavern, formerly the hideout of wild beasts in human form, is nowadays a peaceful place where we offer up prayers and where the song of songs rings out.
- Returning to Hokianga, I did not have time to take a long rest. The duties of the holy ministry called me to see several tribes and amongst them, that of Waima. There I was very impressed by the conduct of our neophytes. They wanted me to pass almost the whole night listening to them express their religious sentiments. The chief, Mathias, who is a fine old man, first took the floor and he said, amongst other things, that he was aware of only two duties to fulfil namely that of observing God’s law and that of attending to the care of his body, that keeping the commandments was not a burden for him, that he would not cease to be faithful until such time as his body was reduced to dust, that if ever he committed some fault he begged the folk of his tribe to alert him and to not copy his behaviour, that the prayers of heretics were bitter and sour to the taste, that those of the Catholic church were delightful and would bring him peace and joy. Then, seizing with one hand the pillar that supported the roof of the house where we were: Here, he said, with fire, is an example of the strength of the feelings of Mathias. When he had finished, each person took turn about to speak and to express in a vigorous manner his attachment to the Catholic faith, some deploring the blindness of their ancestors who had left them inheritors of untrue beliefs, others expressing the feelings of piety and fervour with which they were imbued and others sharing the pain they felt when seeing the relentlessness of the heretics. The zealousness of these good neophytes has not slowed down. Last Sunday, at a large gathering of natives, which took place here, the neophytes of Waima formed a holy alliance with the natives of Teihutai to stay on guard against the seductions and attacks of the heretics and to faithfully practice God’s law and set a good example. These enlightening events have already produced a fine impression on the spirit of the less advanced tribes. Oh God! Must we await some examples of enlightenment from a savage people?
- The number of those baptised is as yet only two hundred souls and no doubt it would be much larger if the distance between places, the relentlessness of the heretics and the bad examples of the Europeans had not put obstacles in the way of God’s work. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts of hell, it is to be hoped that soon a good number of natives will receive the blessing of baptism.
- In finishing, dear and respected Father, I beg you not to forget, in the holy sacrifices of mass, he who is all yours in the blessed hearts of Jesus and Mary.
- missionary apostolic.
- The materials used for the construction: raupo (typha orientalis), a sort of rush; nikau (rhopalostylis sapida) a sort of palm.
- it is necessary to distinguish Wairua, a river that flows into the Wairoa and this latter, more important water course, that flows into the sea on the North-West Coast of the North Island. In the following paragraph the author announces his arrival at Wairoa. In § 3, he spoke of a visit to “ some ill people of a tribe called Wairoa.” It is possible that the author mixed the two names.
- Maui, hero of Polynesian mythology, caught with his large fish hook several islands, among which were those of the Maori, and pulled them up from the bottom of the sea (cf. Handy, p. 118, 314: Sorrenson, p. 25).
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