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Father Petit-Jean to Father Colin, 9 August 1841 [extracts]

Translated by Michelle Maxwell, University of Waikato, 2008. Edited by William Jennings, University of Waikato.

If someone dies they come to ask me firstly for some beautiful cloth for a shroud, then some planks and some nails for the casket of the deceased, then they even request that our brother do the work. I am seldom able to supply these things. These people give great honours to the dead. Their love is big, they say. Once, I lent them tools to dig a grave; they did not want these instruments to be returned to profane or ordinary usage, but wanted them declared holy, tapu (pronounced tapou) and as such placed on the grave of the deceased to remain inviolable there for ever. You will easily understand that I did not refuse this proposition. In every burial to make a tool tapu by losing it such as a shovel or pickaxe, is impossible. In such cases, my Maori avoid a difficult situation and keep their tools, dig the grave with sticks and remove the earth with their hands. They like the graves to be displayed openly. Those who carry the dead to their burial site are tapu for some days; they do not work, etc. I saw a son bury his mother. Once the grave is dug, they fear particularly that it is deep enough before the coffin or casket is deposited there; so they leave a bunch of foliage or fern there so that no contact disturbs the earth where the body rests.

We are slowly destroying the custom where Maori scratch themselves with shells to mourn the dead or even to prove their love to some friend or relative they have not seen for some time. Apart from this, which we can only approve of, is that the mourning of these people is particularly touching. From the time the sick person dies until he is buried, there he is always surrounded by mourners of both sexes weeping for him. That is at least what I saw one day when I was called to give the religious burial to a Maori. I have perhaps never been present at a more painful scene. In the middle the dead man was enclosed and covered in his nicest clothes; at some distance the casket was being made; farther still a group was busy digging him a grave. Around the dead man several women were singing with sadness in their voices, they formed a true concert among them. They were songs of love, wailings that I could not understand, but the view of these people, their sad accents accompanied with shouting and abundant tears were more than able of softening me up. My heart was strongly moved; if I did not mourn the dead man henceforth free from the miseries of this life and that I thought was happy in the other, at least I mourned the common miseries of this group and all vain glory and affliction of these poor people. These mourners inspired me and others. Without having understood the song as a whole, it seems to me that the dominant feature of a verse was
La la la za za la (A A A C C A)
Or perhaps la sol la za la sol la (A G A C A G A) while other voices were in the C and even D above the others.
However I noticed a man standing alone faced with the most natural expressions of pain, sometimes clasping his hands, sometimes spreading them, raising them and lowering them in turn; sometimes his hands remained turned towards the deceased while he looked away; he wept a torrent of tears and exhausted himself in sobbing. All these cries succeeded silence which was interrupted by moans which started gloomy singing again. In this song, I understood that it was about the parents of the deceased; they were speaking it seems, of his father and his mother. My heart was deeply moved and my shaken imagination transported me to the times and places where Jeremiah and other prophets sitting or standing on ruins mourned the ill-fated Jerusalem.
Oh! That the customs of this people are interesting, but already the contact with the Europeans has greatly changed them. I am writing only facts that I witnessed. I do not know everything to give a whole description.

In my tribe close to my residence three women entered into a very lively dispute, it was getting worse and I needed to get involved to stop it. None of the women listened to me, and there was one woman who was persistently fuelling the dispute so I took my hand bell and rang it to silence the voices, the others laughed and joked about this peculiar action which had succeeded splendidly.
The New Zealanders’ greeting between people who have not seen each other for some time is in my opinion very interesting and I always enjoy seeing it. They shake hands but this is only the European way that has been introduced among New Zealanders. They call from a distance to the person they see arriving: ‘Haeremai e koro’, come young man (if it is not an old man). They often repeat this invitation. Nonetheless the hosts do not bother to get up and go to the front if they are sitting, and they remain in the same position. (A chief would not invite a slave to come to him and is approached only by those who are chiefs or from the chief’s family). The person who arrives bends down and the other person presents his face and they rub noses in a friendly silence.

Sometimes it seems that they stand as if embracing, nose to nose, and they immediately start crying, or at least they sing a song of love. It is a concert with two parts and is performed by the two friends. When they have satisfied their friendship they part and wipe true tears. This greeting, which lasts for a quarter and even a half hour, is known as hongi because it is done with the nose and the act of smelling is called hongi in Maori, even though the nose in Maori is ihu.

One day I admired the way in which an 18-month-old child was being taught this greeting by everyone. Each of them said on their turn, haere mai, come, and the child went around the circle rubbing noses with everyone in turn with a seriousness which amazed me and made me laugh with excitement. When New Zealanders give and receive this greeting it is done in silence and with a friendly manner. In one of my journeys my guide had hurt his foot. He didn’t fail to tell me that in the nearest village they would hasten to offer us food with special attentiveness. It seemed that they have special consideration for those who have hurt themselves while walking. I noted some small details as they occurred to me. I met a great chief to whom I spoke to about holy baptism. I indirectly mentioned to him the idea of baptism, to know his thoughts and his entire response was, “See, I have two wives”. ‘Be happy with one’, I said to him: Kia Kotahi it’s one or the other. Then showing me his finger which he held extremely curved he said: ‘when my back is like this, bowed by old age, then it will be time for baptism’. Alas, a poor sinner, the language of passion inspires the same language everywhere.

The tribe where I live is all Christian; they have all received the holy baptism. However there is one woman who has resisted grace and holds firmly on to her old superstitious beliefs. Nonetheless I must tell you how she bore witness to the truth of our holy religion. Having seen a protestant family come to my house this woman came on her own accord, with all her children whom she introduced to the guests: ‘Here’, she said, ‘are my children’ and she said the name of each of them. Note well, she added, these are the Bishop’s names. These are the names of the take the tree, the church that is the tree.

For more than a year I have had with me a young man who gives me solace. I christened him Boniface, in memory of the day when he came to my house. He has known the joy of first communion and since then he appears extremely happy. Sometimes he calls me and says: E hoane papita e toku ariki, Jean Baptiste my priest, e hari tonu toku ngakau, my heart is full of perpetual joy. But nothing equals the zeal of a Maori woman married to a European who is my closest neighbour. She has not missed a single mass. She is as punctual as a nun and goes to church when she hears the first sound of the bell. Her husband assured me that Catherine is not satisfied with ordinary prayers but in her own home she devotes herself with enthusiasm to reading all the same texts with abundant tears.

There is a naïve Catholic European who wanted to marry a New Zealander. He sought me and asked if he could be married the English way, as he called it retaining the freedom to leave his wife according to the law of England, which allows divorce. I told him that I could marry him only in the Catholic way, if I can say such a thing, that is irrevocably and with ties that only death could destroy, in accordance with divine law, and that no human strength could work against it. He agreed and I arranged for him and his wife to receive the sacrament of marriage.

Boniface converted his mother by his passionate prayers and by his respectful opinions, for he wrote a letter filled with feelings to encourage her to covert to baptism so she could live happy. The woman came to me asking to be baptised. I bestowed on her the sacrament of baptism and then she had a good conscience and felt the absolute pledge to die rather than soil the baptismal innocence. On returning to her family, Monique, the name she was baptised with, suffered some condemnation. She was even tempted into evil, but she responded with a noble assurance: ‘Leave me, I have received the holy baptism, I am full of the words of God – Ka nui te kupu ote atua ki rota i a hau. She even preferred to spend the night outside the door of the house, to be more at peace.

The Anglicans first inspired the people of New Zealand with an exaggerated idea of the holiness of Sunday. It seems that they claimed to prove in this way that theirs was the true church. Just recently I heard a Protestant woman show a more than Jewish respect for Sunday, ‘Oh sir’, she said to me, ‘if I could I would not cook on Sunday, but I would prepare all my food on Saturday for my family and me’. I have needed to broaden the conscience of a great number of our neophytes. One Sunday I was passing near a woman who was breaking a piece of wood to put on the fire. Suddenly recalling that it was Sunday she scolded herself for this action by saying Wareware, I forgot.

Many of the tribes who have turned to various separate communions eat potatoes without peeling them on Sunday. The food served on Sunday, being holy must not be served again on another day of the week (i.e. not served as leftovers). A Protestant, whose wife had recently died, invited me to bury her. He was almost certain that she was not Catholic. I was also certain that she had not been baptised. I said to him, ‘my friend, you think that my prayers will be of some assistance to your wife after death and yet you think that I could not do anything for her salvation while she lived. The duty of a minister of charity would have made me fly to her sickbed instantly. Now that she is gone I cannot offer the honour and the assistance of my ministry’. One can only consider the circumstances of the ignorance of some and the misfortune of others.

The people of my mission considered me for a while as a miracle worker. One day while I was guided as if by the hand of God towards a sick man not only in danger, but who was dying. His forehead was already covered with sweat of death. I quickly bestowed on him the sacraments of the Church. He was Maori and aside from the obvious I knew he was already dying. The other Maori told me sadly: ‘You will not leave from here until our sick man has died.’ I had hardly finished the prayers of the sacraments when the sick man regained the use of his senses; furthermore he survived for another two days. In fact it surprised me and still impresses me when I think of it. The natives were so struck by it that they told everyone in the Bay of Islands that I had worked the miracle of resurrection of a dead man, which I denied, by explaining what had actually happened.

This was another unique sign of the divine goodness that wants to save all men. I was at my residence when I learnt from some Maori, who had come to sell us supplies, that a baby in their tribe was sick. I did not hesitate to go on their boat to save this baby. I was of course well received. This tribe says our prayers enthusiastically, it is called Mata nehunehu. However these people might have adopted our prayers, but have not abandoned their own superstitions.

I asked the father of this baby if I could baptise his daughter, he sent me away until the following day. At that moment I feared for the goodwill of the father, but the hope of seeing my request granted convinced me to stay. The next day the difficulty was much greater. This father claimed that his daughter, if baptised, would die the same day. He added that he would not be free to mourn for her after her death in the Maori way. I answered him with all the enthusiasm that could inspire me. I told him as gently as I could that he was not good towards his daughter, that the soul of this child, if it was not purified by the waters of baptism, would never be introduced to the home of the Holy Spirit where happiness is, that she would suffer forever and that he, the father, was the architect of his misfortune and was therefore very cruel towards his daughter. Nothing could shake this father. ‘Mourn for her as you wish’, I said to him, ‘I will leave you her body for you to do as you want, what I ask is that you let me save her soul’.

My God, what worry, what anxiety! To have before one’s eyes a child who only has a few days to live, to have all the means of salvation for her and to be unable to do anything because of the blindness of this poor father. What should be done? I prayed, I asked in turn the holy angels, Saint François Xavier, to the holy leaders, to Saint Joseph and especially to Mary so that the soul of this baby would be given to me.

They offered me food, they brought it to me and I refused it I cannot eat, I said to them: ‘my heart is sad and it is dark’, Ka nui pouri taku ngakau, my heart is in great darkness, because you will not let me baptise this child. The father moved, holding his child enveloped in his cloak. I followed him as a dog follows his master and sat down next to him. I was still hopeful, although I had no means of baptising this child in secret. The Virgin Mary to whom I dedicated this soul made it easy.

It was morning. The sky was lightly overcast. A few drops of rain fell. At my feet was a leaf from a tree that had enough rain in it for the sacrament. I took it holding it up and I said to the father, ‘Baptism is not something to fear. It is almost nothing. If you let me baptise your child I would act in this way by saying these words’. I then allowed a few droplets of water to fall on the face of the child and I rapidly spoke the words of the sacrament of baptism. At the time I did not pronounce her name but I had thought a half minute earlier to call her Antoinette, a name which is very dear to me in French. The father noticed nothing and did not become annoyed. I obtained a full success for the glory of God and for the salvation of this baby Antoinette who now is in heaven, with her stainless dress prays for our mission, for the Church and for the dear associates the propagation of the faith. In fact this baby had been declared tapu by a great chief of New Zealand and this circumstance was a big obstacle to overcome.

The Maori are very stubborn in their ways, so that heaven is intended only for foreigners and that they have a home after death inside the earth, all together with their fathers.