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Father Petit to Father Dupont?, Kororareka, August 1841

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, May 2005

APM Z208 ? August 1841

[According to Girard in Lettres d’Océanie, p684, this letter, which lacks a signature, is written in Father Petit’s handwriting. The addressee’s name is not certain, but perhaps is a Father Dupont? - translator’s note]

JMJ
Kororareka, August 1841
Very dear Father
[1]
God knows how many times, since receiving your first letter, my heart has told me to write to you. I have had several chances to do it, but when they came along, I could only have acknowledged to you having received your letter, and I wanted to write to you at great length. Knowing your charity, I am certain you would have found a way of favourably interpreting my silence, and on this occasion, your interpretation has been as true as charitable. For more than a year I have been almost constantly going from one tribe to another, and if a pain in a leg hadn’t kept me here for several days, I would not yet have had the pleasure of writing to you.
[2]
On arriving here after a six-week long journey, I found that you had written me a second letter which had been sent to Hokianga where I was to go if important reasons hadn’t changed my itinerary. So it will only be next week that I will have the benefit of reading what your kind heart has dictated to you. I am very grateful for your kind remembrance and for all the consoling news about the Society of Mary contained in your 1st letter. I beg you to keep me up to date with anything which can interest a child of this good and tender mother. For my part, I will be faithful in giving you details which may interest you, and if our correspondence has not been well supported from my end, I beg you to interpret my silence favourably.
[3]
You are expecting, I think, interesting details on the numbers of baptisms administered, on the fervour of the neophytes and catechumens etc, etc but seeing that the Bishop must have sent these details to the [Society of the] Propagation of the Faith and that you would not fail to have known about them, I will limit myself to telling you something about some of the journeys I have made for some months now. The Bishop’s aim in sending me was to make contact [p2] with the tribes who have turned, or show tendencies to turn to the Catholic faith, to be patient until he can, as they wish, send them a priest to instruct and baptise them. That is what our ministry has been limited to in respect of a great number of tribes and very few, if any, have been able to have a solid and continuous course of instruction: it is easy for your to guess the cause of this: messis quidem multa, operarii autem pauci.[1] So when will we be at the level of our needs? To judge in human terms, it will not be long, but it is the work of the Almighty whose mercies surpass all his works: he will hear favourably the prayers of so many fervent souls who combine almsgiving with prayer to gain for the 20 million souls who live in the innumerable islands of Oceania the means of knowing and loving Jesus and Mary.
[4]
Sent provisionally by the Bishop to the Hokianga to be with good Father Servant, I had to concern myself as well with the tribes in the Kaipara, where I had spent two months last year. I thought I should put in an appearance there near the end of February. So I went to Waima, a tribe in the Hokianga mission area, hoping to find a guide there, but no one was familiar with the route a European had pointed out to me, and they all said that without a guide I would certainly get lost in the forests I had to go through. So I resolved to retrace my steps to take another, better known way. Another contradiction: I had had the Catholics of Waima told that I would celebrate holy Mass with them that Sunday. The European Catholics and all the neophytes had gathered at the chief’s house where they waited for me a very long time – ie until one o’clock in the afternoon. I did not arrive until two o’clock because the wind was against us, and I had only two children for rowers. Apart from the deprivation of holy Mass for that day,[2] I could only see our neophytes, who each had gone back to their families, one at a time. In the course of the afternoon I was to see a woman who was, I was told, nearing her end. I found her in fact very ill, I helped her to prepare for confession for the next day. Here we have the precious advantage of being able to speak about death to our sick people in a matter of fact way because according to their customs the experts tell them the number of days they have left to live. On Monday I visited the neophytes I had been unable to see on Sunday. Providence also allowed me to see the main Protestant chiefs who made several important admissions to me, and in particular that our love for our followers is disinterested, a virtue that is more appreciated among them as it is rare. On Tuesday I left again to get back to St Joseph’s (our mission station) while visiting our followers along the river. I hadn’t gone a league[3] when I met seven neophytes from Wirinake [4] (a Hokianga tribe) who were leaving for Kaipara where the chief had a brother who was ill. I thanked providence for giving me the means of making this journey. I agreed to their desire to wait until the next day before leaving. At the moment of our departure (Ash Wednesday)[5] we heard rifle shots which signalled the death of the woman to whom I had ministered the previous day. Among my companions on the journey was a chief from the Bay of Islands area (one of those whom we call [p3] noho noa,[6] that is to say, who remain indifferent without turning to the Catholics or the Protestants; the latter call them tewara, that is devils, a corruption of the English word devils). This chief, either seriously or to be contrary, took the side of the Protestants, which gave me a chance to inform him about many truths which he had never heard of. He finished by promising me to become a Catholic if a priest was sent to his tribe to instruct him. I gave him a letter for Father Epalle at the Bay of Islands where he was heading. I learnt since that multiple concerns had up till now prevented (him) from going there. So how sad it is for us that our small number doesn’t allow us to do a tenth part of the good that it is possible for us to do. I am not talking about the whole mission[7] but only New Zealand! O the depth of the providence of God who without ceasing to be just and infinitely merciful lavishes, so to speak, the help of religion on so many souls who abuse it, while so many others are deprived of it…! On the first day of our walk we came, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, to a tribe whose chief knew me. We had to spend the night there to avoid offending him, as well as my travelling companions. The chief made clear to me his desire to have a priest settled with his tribe, and he added that he would take no step towards religion unless the Bishop sent him a priest. In the evening several people took part in the prayer we offered before having our meal, and all listened very attentively to the little instruction I gave afterwards. The next day after prayers and a breakfast, we plunged into the forest to continue on our route; if you were tempted to be scandalised at having lunch on the first day of Lent,[8] I would urge you to come and make some journeys in New Zealand through the forests and the plains of ferns which totally cover New Zealand and where sometimes one is forced to clear a track. We arrived in the evening on the upper reaches of the Mangakahia River where we found several Protestant tribes; we were earnestly asked to spend the night there. I didn’t see any reason to object, but my guides urged me not to accept. They told me afterward that the Protestant custom was to make repeated requests in the evening to urge travellers to stay with them, and that the following day they would have to be paid for the potatoes, the work involved in peeling them, the wood and water needed to cook them, the place one occupied in the house during the night etc etc. To be fair, I must say I have found many exceptions to this rule. We were, however, obliged to stay with a Protestant native who gained the preference of my guides only because, being alone with his wife and some children, his demands were not too much to be feared. As he seemed friendly enough to me, I questioned him about religion. This infallible judge on the meaning of the Bible told me and suggested that there are three Gods. The next day we set out again in spite of the rain, but soon it forced us to stop and kept us all day with another Protestant tribe. I consoled myself at this delay by refuting many calumnies which our adversaries have poured forth through the whole country against us and the holy Church.
[5]
On Saturday, aware that we had still a full day’s walk, we made haste to leave. The chief who was accompanying me, having learnt that his sick brother was at Wangari [sic – perhaps Whangarei], [p4] a river on the east coast[9] took it upon himself to point out the route, thinking it was near the place I had to go to. Perceiving that we were going away from a point which I believed I certainly recognised, I pointed this out several times, which led me to being called ignorant. Finally they agreed I was right, which came a bit late. The chief found himself in a difficult position; on one hand, he did not want to leave me to go alone through the forests I still had to go through, and on the other, he wanted to see his brother. If his brother’s sickness had been of a sort to require my ministry, I would have gone with them but as it was only a sore foot nearly healed, and I wanted to come back as soon as possible, I convinced them to push on their way without worrying about me, because without knowing the way, I knew roughly the direction[10] of the tribe which I wanted to visit and I had a little compass. So I left, after having received from their generosity three peaches and some karaka (berries) – the interior of a fruit shaped like an olive but a bit bigger.[11] This fruit is not attractive enough for a European to eat it out of greed. After having plunged into the forest, I thought I had found the way, but soon I perceived it was a track formed by wild pigs with which the forests swarm; these animals are quite harmless. I had recourse to my compass and it helped me a lot, only it didn’t show me all the turns I had to make to avoid wrong steps. I was anxious to arrive before nightfall to be able to say holy Mass on Sunday; I walked for a time in spite of the darkness, but noticing that I was stumbling at each step and fearing to fall over some cliff, I made up my mind to spend the night in the forest where I succeeded in lighting a big fire, after which I took my rest. The next day, near dawn, I hastened to gather together[12] the rags of my soutane to be able to appear decently in front of the natives. It was distressing for me to do this on a Sunday, but I was in a situation of necessity. Not yet having lost hope of saying Mass, I left in haste and, at the moment when it was furthest from my thoughts, I heard the little bell which called our catechumens to prayer, and ten minutes later I was among them, on both sides there was real joy. Even those who had not yet turned to the faith showed a lot of pleasure at seeing me again. My first concern was to get them to go down the river to the chief’s house where the requisites for Mass were. We found him in a village before getting to his house. I stopped there and the trunk containing the Mass requisites was found – and about 50 to 100 people attended Mass. Almost an hour was up before I finished Mass and an instruction. After a frugal meal I conversed with them until the evening; they showed themselves upset because, they said, the Bishop had deceived them by promising them a priest. I tried to show them that if he had not kept his promise, it was not because of a lack of desire on his part, but because of a lack of a sufficient number of priests.
[6]
In the evening I went down the river with the leading chief. The next day I was to see a tribe which has not yet turned to the faith. The chief seemed to see me with pleasure, but the moment of [p5] grace has not yet come. On Tuesday I went back with the chief to the tribe where most of my catechumens live. On Wednesday evening my guides for the return trip to Hokianga, where I wanted to be on Sunday, arrived from Wangari. When I spoke about my departure, all said it would have been better not to come than to stay such a short time. In vain I said that I had a lot to do in Hokianga, that I had visited them mainly for fear that some of them were ill so I could give them the help of religion, that since they were all in good health I had to get back as soon as possible to the mission specially entrusted to me. They did not want to listen to anything and finally the chief told me that he had no boat to take me that day to the mouth of the river. So I was obliged to stay.[13] Providence so wished it as well, because the next day the chief’s sister arrived with part of her tribe, which is of a considerable size, and up till then had seen no other missionaries but the ministers of error. During the three days I spent with this tribe I applied myself to proclaiming to these newcomers the principal truths of religion. They showed me the desire to have a priest live with them, to instruct them, and I promised them I would do my best to persuade the Bishop to send them one. Some disciples of the Protestants also came and visited this tribe; their chief attacked the Catholic faith in an ironic way; after having replied to his attacks in the same way, I turned onto the offensive. Not knowing what to reply he said: Kati tou mangai e wakama ahau, which is to say, word for word: enough your mouth, I am ashamed. He attacked me no more, and we were as friends, but he showed no desire to leave the way of error which he is in. The young people who accompanied him began, on Sunday, to be interested in seeing the ceremonies of the Mass, and at the moment when I was getting ready to leave, they accosted me to ask me explanations about what they had heard me say about the origins of Protestantism. As I began to see in them a certain simplicity and good faith, I put back a little my departure time and I gave them in summary form, the story of the founding of Christianity by J[esus] C[hrist] and his apostles, to whom he promised to be with them until the end of the world,[14] that is to say, with them and their legitimate successors… after having given them the main proofs of the Catholic faith, I spoke to them about the claimed reform of Luther and company, who were completely lacking in authorisation. They seemed to hear with interest everything I told them. May God deign to enlighten them and touch their hearts.
[7]
I left about an hour after midday to go and see some Irish Catholics at the mouth of the river where I baptised a carpenter’s child. I promised them before leaving them that if the Bishop did not send them a priest soon, Father Servant or I would ensure for them the means of fulfilling their Easter duties. To take advantage of the falling tide we left at two o’clock on Monday morning and got to the track to Hokianga at eight o’clock. While the natives were getting our breakfast ready, I went off to see a Protestant missionary from the upper end of the river who is a confirmed Methodist. After the customary greeting and some polite words, he told me that near his station was a quite strange Irish Catholic, who refused to be present at his preaching and preferred to pray with his family on Sunday and, furthermore, he had preferred to baptise his own child in danger of death rather than let him baptise it. As I [p6] found in all that nothing strange, but, on the contrary, a sign of attachment to the true faith and right living, I ended up in a discussion which lasted almost three hours, in which I had to refute or explain, one after another, accusation of adoring images, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, of concealing Sacred Scripture from the faithful, of keeping them in ignorance to prevent them from turning to Protestantism, of having persecuted and hunted down the Protestants in Catholic countries, of having set up the Inquisition. Then came the wife of St Peter [cf Matt 8:14 - translator’s note], cited in opposition to the law of priestly celibacy. After answering all these accusations, I recalled to him the story of the so-called Reformation, the wars which the disciples of Luther, Zuingle[15] and Calvin waged against the Catholics, and the just satisfaction drawn from these, not by priests or Bishops, but by the Christian rulers entrusted with watching over the security of their states. After having denied that Luther was their first founder, he admitted it. I asked him where the church of Jesus Christ was before Luther. He replied that it was in the mountains, but could not tell me which mountains. I asked him from whom Luther had received his mission. He replied that he had found it in the Bible, that in comparing the teaching of the Bible with that of the Catholic Church, he had found that the latter had fallen into error in several essential matters, for example the cult of images, the prayers we address to the saints, the sacraments and in particular the Mass. I asked him first, at what time the Mass and other errors were first found in the church. He replied: a long time ago. I asked him to point out the exact time[16] and author of these changes; but he decided it was more convenient to talk about something else, as is the usual and favourite tactic of these gentlemen. I added – a long time ago, no doubt; that is, since the Apostles who celebrated the sacred mysteries in the catacombs to avoid persecution. Tell me, I said to him, whom must we put our trust in: all the Bishops, priests and faithful who in all times and places believed these dogmas, or Luther, a dissolute man[17] who saw only abuses in them? He answered: I know very well that you base your teachings mainly on history. I replied that the teachings of the Catholic Church, although mainly based on holy Scriptures, were corroborated by history in that it shows us the way in which Holy Scripture had been interpreted since the beginning of the Church.

[Letter incomplete?]

Notes

  1. The harvest is great, but the labourers are few – Matt 9:37 and Lk 10:2
  2. At that time Mass was allowed to be celebrated only in the morning - translator’s note
  3. about five kilometres - translator’s note
  4. sic - Whirinaki today - translator’s note
  5. 24 February in 1841 – Girard’s footnote
  6. literally remaining indefinite - translator’s note
  7. which included all of Western Oceania at this time - translator’s note
  8. At this time in Europe only two meals a day were allowed in Lent; one substantial and one ‘collation’ - translator’s note
  9. Whangarei is an alternative name for the Hatea River which flows into Whangarei harbour - translator’s note
  10. l’air du vent
  11. The karaka berry was a valued food source for the Maori and seeds were often deliberately planted to form an orchard. The seed is poisonous, but cooking removes the poison - translator’s note.
  12. réunir – stitch together, presumably - translator’s note
  13. de me rendre
  14. And I will be with you all days, till the end of time – Matt 28:20 - translator’s note
  15. sic – Zwinglie, a Swiss reformer 1481-1531 - translator’s note
  16. l’epoque fixe
  17. homme vicieux