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Father Petit-Jean to Father Colin, 11 Dec 1841 [extracts]

Translated by Holly Wasson, University of Waikato, 2008. Edited by William Jennings, University of Waikato

I have also to inform you of a tragic event which came to pass on one of the islands of our bay (Bay of Islands). On Saturday 20 November five people were killed. The only house there was burnt to the ground. The culprit has been caught and here are some details: an elderly manservant of this house had his head split with an axe while sleeping outdoors. A widow and a small child, along with another young girl that she was caring for, were killed in the house; their bodies roasted by the flames. Another boy of this same widow, around six or seven years old, was caught while running away and in spite of his cries and tears he was thrown onto the rocks from a great height; the sea then swallowed him up, without his body ever being found. This catastrophe has plunged the Europeans into shock and consternation. We are also seized by horror and compassion for this unfortunate widow. We openly share the bereavement, especially since the husband of this woman, named Roberton, had shown a particular kindness for the Catholic mission. These crimes were carried out at around 3’o clock in the morning; the fire immediately following the murders. Three weeks earlier, having just visited native tribes, surprised by the night and unable to reach Kororareka, I went to this island in my boat and accepted the hospitality at the home of this kind lady. I remember that we had a brief conversation. She confessed that she was of the sect of the Quaker’s. I asked her if her children were baptised and she replied in the affirmative. She had recently received the news of the death of her father-in-law. Who can possibly contemplate the troubles, leading to complete destruction; that have fallen upon this family? Mr Roberton had six brothers. They all drowned before him and he himself suffered the same fate in the Bay of Islands; and now at about the anniversary of her husband’s death, his widow has been killed with all of his children, and the house, near completion, by Mr Roberton has been reduced to ashes. The island is becoming a deserted place that people are afraid of and horrified by. I can not help make the following reflection. The ungodly world sees only fate here; those who are ignorant use the same language without understanding it. But the children of God, the people of morality know that everything that happens in this world only does so by the will of God, whose justice or mercy is in everything. We can see when he tests those who he loves. A doctor from Kororareka testified or certified that beneath this woman was found an open Bible, hardly damaged, and concluded that this person, having died with a Bible in her hand, died the most beautiful death possible. This doctor told me that he noted the chapter that she was occupied in reading immediately before her murder. As for myself, my hopes in the mercy of God on this widow are founded on other considerations, my very reverend father. I will confess to you frankly that I was desperately worried to learn if the murderer was a Catholic or a Protestant. It is remarkable that none of the witnesses heard by the Kororareka jury, determining the circumstances of the murder, mentioned the New Testament covered in blood found on the murderer, that the jury itself has not said a word, while it is certain that they have received the book from the hands of the Natives.
As you know, commonly speaking, the Protestants and others blame the Catholic Church for crimes committed by its ministers or even its members. It is exactly in this sense that the Protestant missionaries have aimed their attacks against the Holy Roman Catholic Church during the debate; there, they made sure to recapitulate all of their old slander; thus it was said that the Roman Church was a cruel church, whose customs involved the use of thousands of tortures, thousands of humiliations against the dead and the living, that it had slaughtered peoples, that it had bled them with a knife, that it had burnt and sawn. And thankfully the good Lord permitted that the murderer is not a Catholic. He is a young man of around 19 years of age, a protestant Maori. I have heard that he had spent two or three days on the island to do some work for the woman immediately before carrying out his attack. The urge to pillage or the desire for some petty vengeance are perhaps obvious motives that have provoked him to kill, but it seemed to me, to have been decided by his natural ferocity. It seems that this monster has not been encouraged by anyone.
Our intention is not in any way to make the protestant missionaries responsible. Since when have masters answered for the conduct of their disciples? Only I will take a lesson from this unfortunate circumstance, an opinion that I will direct to all the Protestants who think similarly. It was not necessary to hastily throw the Bible or the New Testament into the hands of newcomers, but to prepare them to receive this prestigious book by the reading other books more basic, more intelligible, less valuable and that one fears less of seeing profaned. Thus, during this public mourning, I say it with sorrow and with a profound shame, one finds covered in blood the Maori gospel of the murderer. Although this young man had paid his ministers the sum of 5 francs, I have difficulty believing that a sordid interest had been the underlying motive for him to procure this New Testament. I repeat it, it is an injustice to blame the protestant missionaries for the conduct of this disciple, and we push it away from our thoughts.
But it is not so of our natives. The protestant missionaries by false reasoning have spoilt the judgement of this people in the matter of religion. They repeated unceasingly that in our church one kills, one burns, one bleeds; this language has even been repeated with complacency by some reputed, honourable Europeans in assemblies of very numerous Maori. But the Maori people not having seen with their own eyes these past facts or distant facts, attributed in great number to the Roman Church, observed very attentively what happened in on their land and under their eyes; in a short space of time there have been 3 or 4 different murders committed against Europeans or Maori in Bay of Islands by Maori missionaries; and now, some weeks after the debate among the disciples of the Lord, the most horrible assassination that one had witnessed and known of in these recent times has occurred. Here is what a Catholic chief named Rewa told me: the murderer is not of our church, we Catholics, we live, we console each other… If the murderer had belonged to the bishop, we would have been sick, inconsolable, if the murderer had been one of the members of this church that bleeds, that burns, the Catholic Church would have been hurt. Since it did not happen that way, and the bad action having been committed by a member of the church that is innocent of everything, that has never spilled blood; it is up to them to redeem themselves from embarrassment, to them the shame, he added. They said in the debate that the Roman Church kills and burns and in less than a month since this speech, one of their own in a single day, in a single action, cut throats, burned, killed. I have heard with my own ears the wife of a Maori speak with great ignorance and also superstition, in keeping with the pantheon of gods devised by them. I heard her say: be wary of the God of the protestant missionaries; it is a God who kills. It is a fact that several Maori have given back their books to the Protestants.
I am going, by way of questions; propose a reflection on this tragic accident. Is it not the case that God allows to pass, an event or even crimes; that greatly affect whole populations, as punishment of an earlier offence? Yes, without a doubt. But, this crime was committed recently at Kororareka. Which crime does one speak of? To derisively call the Virgin an idol. That, of a bloody irony and insult against the medals of the Virgin and the noble sign of the cross, when in during the debate this wanderer that I will not describe, shaking the crosses and medals, knelt down before them. God usually takes vengeance in this world to glory his outraged mother and the cross of Jesus Christ falls again with all its weight on those who are vile and contemptuous.
We will be able to record in the annals of New Zealand that the atrocious crime that I have just related was committed on 20th November, a Saturday, the day consecrated to the Virgin, the day before the presentation of Mary, the first feast since the debate. The crime of a member of a religious group is always a deep shame for that group, especially in the case of a horrible atrocity. We fear therefore, we Catholics, of being from now on humiliated on this ground by some infamy of a new boldness directed at Catholics among us. But rather, we hope that heaven, satisfied by such expiations, will not ask another price for our crimes and will spare us from such terrible lessons.
White or Maori, Protestant or Catholic, if the common link of a shared faith is rejected, let us at least have charity and compassion for each other. And let us prepare to learn of the truth, in humbling ourselves deeply to the hand of the Lord who considers us profoundly. When, in some part of the world, incidents happen similar to the one we have just seen, each person interprets in his own manner according to the beliefs by which he is motivated. Ignorance, passion, truth and faith dictate different judgements. [40] The thoughts and the reflections that I have ventured, I believe I formed them according to thoughts of faith. If I was wrong, I beg forgiveness from God and man and declare that I had no other intention apart from edifying myself and all those among the hands of which were able to fall, by setting an example of the usual appropriateness of the legitimate ministers of the Roman Catholic Church. My very reverend father, although I am aware of your concern to pray for us all, always I commend myself to you in such a way, so that I am not an obstacle to the conversion of souls and to the building of the Society of Mary. My great consolation is to pray the Lord that he soothe the sorrow so vast and so bitter and that everyday increases more. I am with a very deep respect, my very reverend father,
your submissive and respectful child
Jean Baptiste Petit-Jean
Marist priest, missionary, apostle
Please give news of me to my brother-in-law, Auguste Paillasson.