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19 January 1842. — Father Jean-Baptiste Épalle to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Bay of Islands

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, October 2015

Bay of Islands 19 January 1842

Reverend Father General

Very Reverend and dear Father,
A martyr in the Society of Mary, what a reason for joy! But it’s not me, unfortunately! I am not writing to you simply to inform you of this happy news. I suppose that is the subject of Father Bataillon’s letter which I am sending on to you. I have just added to it perhaps a few details which were given us by an American who was on the island of Futuna, details which Father Bataillon did not give us. I will not speak in any way about what Father Bataillon tells us, because I suppose that he repeats it to you.
Father Chanel had been on his own for three days, Brother Marie Nizier was on the other side of the island and Father Chevron with Brother Attale had left Futuna to go to Wallis in December. On Sunday morning, the angel of peace and gentleness, after having offered probably for the last time the spotless victim for whom he was, in three days’ time, going to spill his own blood, went to see the eldest son of the King,[1] whom grace was pursuing already and to which he showed himself not to be deaf. The soil had been prepared, it was still ready, and the divine sowing bore fruit. Et ego se exultatus fuero a terra, Omnia traham ad me ipsum.[2] Every day this prophecy is fulfilled, the cross is always the standard which has the greatest number of soldiers following it, the missionary rarely breaks[3] the bread of the divine word without speaking about the cross, that instrument of redemption of the savage as well as of civilised people. The young prince seized the one which hung from good Father Chanel’s neck and hung it on himself as if to say that definitively he was embracing the religion of Jesus Christ crucified. After this conquest the future martyr returned from there to his home near the King’s house. On Monday morning the fervent catechumen, accompanied by six natives, three of whom had recently arrived from Wallis to settle in Futuna, went to the house of the American from whom we got these details.
The three natives from Wallis who had been converted by Father Bataillon were wearing crosses hung from their necks and for that reason were threatened by the people of Futuna who did not want to see strange gods brought into their island. In short, these seven natives carried with them tapu fruit which, therefore, it was not permissible to touch. To show their contempt for the gods of Futuna, they asked the American to cook them for them. During the meal the young prince’s mother arrived. She begged her son not to eat a tapu fruit, and encouraged the others not to break such a sacred law. They replied that they had reasons to act in this way, but she would not understand them, and so it was useless for them to give them to her. This woman left, quite angry, and went to tell the King what had just happened. On Tuesday morning the King himself came to the American’s house, where he thought he would find his son but he was at his home. There was a search for him. A conversation began between the father and the son about tapu – it lasted about an hour. Finally, the two princes separated. On Wednesday, very early in the morning, the time came. Already the angels have sung praises, one of the main chiefs followed by twelve people goes to the King’s son’s home, still calling at the same American’s home, where he said loudly that Petero (the name of Father Chanel) and the young prince must be got rid of. The fact is that they had no intention of killing that young man, but only to wound him, to frighten him. Indeed they went and attacked him and, having wounded him twice, they went off scared by a shot from a gun fired by one of the catechumens who was part of the plan. From there, the assassins went towards the village where lived the man who was to be the victim of their furious blindness.
You know the rest tanquam ovis ad occisionem ductus est; et sicut agnus coram fordente se, sine voce, sic no aperuit os suum In humilitate judicium ejus sublatum est. Generationem ejus quis enarrabit.[4] Another thing bringing us closer, and not less interesting, is that his murderers went away saying they had shed innocent blood, and the King, like another Pilate, proclaimed his innocence: non invenio in eo causam,[5] he has done nothing but good, he said, trans[…] benefaciendo.[6] After being wounded, the King’s son, who had learned of the plan to massacre [in the margin and crosswise] Father Chanel, dressed in white with his companions (their clothing was made of tapa cloth) and all prepared to go and receive, with their missionary, the palm of martyrdom, but their friends held them back by force.
For Father-General only
Reverend Father, overwhelmed by the weight of my tasks, I wanted to end on the preceding page, what I had to tell you concerning our dear martyr although my burdened soul had found consolation in dictating to my pen some of the thoughts that fill it. But I wanted to leave you easily able to separate these two sheets, to leave you a subject that was incomplete in case you wanted to give someone knowledge of the first sheet. O Father, I will not tell you about how wretched we are. I wouldn’t know how, I couldn’t. Many letters have been written with the aim of making our so beloved mission known, and everyone very much understands here, and I in particular, that they have not had the hoped-for effect. God’s intentions are certainly therefore to test us strongly from some part which the cause of these trials can come from. But after all, you say, what are these sufferings? Are you hungry? Yes, Father, the Catholic missionaries in New Zealand are hungry, because the mission is reduced to the last stage of wretchedness, and the people of this town coming to berth, informed by eye witnesses, repeatedly said: the Bishop’s priests have nothing to eat. They don’t say that about us who are in Kororareka. People willingly lend us money, but for three months only, then, if we default on repayment, charge interest at 10, 12 or 15 per cent. You can certainly imagine that we content ourselves with what is strictly necessary, and for a long time every day I have been seriously checking to see if there isn’t anything more we can save on, not in number and quality, but in quantity. Father Rozet writes to me that he is suffering badly from a diet of pork and potatoes, he is asking for a few pounds of flour and rice. I tell him that he is the only one in abundance and nothing more. Father Borjon has been robbed, everything has been taken from him. His district is huge and hard to serve; he is continually travelling through swamps, mud often above his knees and water up to his waist. Having got to a tribe after a day like that, he eats some kumara, that is to say less than some cooked potatoes, then he has to keep a conversation going part of the night to introduce himself to these people. That is a rather difficult life. He also asks me for some worthwhile food, and I reply: I have nothing. The same tasks, the same food for Father Pèzant, for Father Séon, for Father Servant. The same request, the same response from me. How painful is it to the soul, Reverend Father, the procurator’s responsibility in such a situation. In the 18 months and more that I have been in administration, the mission has had nothing. The sum of money brought by Father Pèzant was exactly the price of the vessel and was handed over immediately. That was 24 thousand francs [almost £1000]. The 10 thousand francs brought by Father Séon was insignificant against the costs of sailing the ship, with the Bishop arriving from a voyage of over 6 months and getting ready for another which has lasted since the 23rd July. A ship is a bottomless pit which endlessly demands money. So don’t be surprised at the drafts which have been drawn on you by way of four or more probably five bills of exchange adding up to a sum of 2152 pounds sterling, 6 shillings 7 pence (53808 fr, 20 centimes). That is all that has been drawn on you up to today and I think I can tell you that you have no reason to see these things recur, but in every case never think that those sorts of amounts are going to put us in luxury, because, being loans, and loans requiring interest payments, they will satisfy only immediate needs. We haven’t recovered a centime of the loss of the last allocation. Have we anything to hope for? I know nothing about that. If, at least, the1841 allocation would come to us as soon as possible? God be blessed forever!
I want to disabuse you on one thing – could I take a week of your time to disabuse you of everything! You think that the natives are a great help to us and quite devoted. I have not yet seen a native in our service who earned his living. Meanwhile they have to be fed (and note that according to what travellers say there is no country in the world where food is dearer than in New Zealand), they have to be paid expensively and it is only by wasting your time by dint of urging, arousing and shouting that you will get some little work from a canoe, in which, most often, they are going to slack off as much as they please, until you are obliged to take the oars to let them sleep; their work is worthless. Their exorbitantly demanding attitude comes from: 1° that certain Europeans, at the beginning, wanting to settle in the middle of them so as to buy their lands, gave them, for the least service, up to the equivalent of 100 francs or more. That led the natives to say: It is good for us to have this stranger among us, and they would give him forests, and immense areas of land for an axe, a blanket and a few sticks of tobacco; 2° from the fact that they see European workers earning a lot, and they cannot understand why they cannot ask for 25 or 30 francs [12 or 24 shillings] a day, like a European; and 3° because they don’t know the value of money. According to them, simply because someone is a European, they have as much as they want, and not to give them something, even free, is to be tough and shows that you are a thief. Devotedness? They haven’t a clue as to what it is. They have become accustomed to doing nothing for nothing. All that I am saying here in no way diminishes the fine characteristics that can be observed among the New Zealanders. I am aware of a great number myself, but a few traces of generosity shown by a miser do not nullify his avarice. Besides, I am describing the New Zealander here only on one aspect. It must be added however that it’s under this same aspect that we have observed them. They are capable people. Instruction will make of them what it demands. They should not be compared with French country people – they are of another cut altogether, with much more confidence, easiness, openness. The good to be done in New Zealand is huge, and the attitudes of its people make it certain to be achieved, but it demands huge resources; you have to follow them in their wandering journeys among their various encampments; you have to ceaselessly follow the coasts, go up and down rivers, but all that demands spending that unfortunately is hardly imagined in France. Right now you have the missionaries – at least several of them held back in their houses because they haven’t a cent to give to a rower to even go to visit the sick, because it can’t be assumed that even people belonging to the same tribe as the sick person want to be involved in that without a hope of being rewarded. There is no shortage of good will on the part of the missionary, Reverend Father, time and time again when he has been able to get a native he had taken an oar with him to hasten to the help of a sick person, to go and evangelise a tribe; time and time again two priests, alone in a canoe, have travelled the rivers for that same reason, but when a man is alone the venture is impossible and even with two it involves some difficulty. It doesn’t conform to the attitudes of the Europeans among whom we live, it doesn’t conform to the attitudes of the New Zealander who takes note only of chiefs, and acting in this way involves losing one’s claim to nobility and consideration.
So what is to be done? Ask for alms? The rule foresees that, and we have done it, we have asked for them – not from the natives. Right now and for a long time to come there is no probability of expecting anything from them; but from the Europeans, from those good and devoted Irish Catholics, ready to deprive themselves of everything, even life itself, for their clergy; but one cannot deprive oneself of what one doesn’t have – the colony is in a state of most frightful misery and depression. At Christmas I had to visit the Hokianga mission and do some baptisms. Father Servant who is in charge of that mission had no food to give us for our journey which takes two days. Leaving his table we went and asked to have lunch with an Irish family. On the second day, having arrived, at 1pm, at Waimate, a European village and particularly inhabited by Anglican missionaries who have very fine houses there; as we needed to eat and had no food I sent my pupil from Liverpool,[7] about whom I have spoken to you in my earlier letters, to knock on doors. He did very well at this and firstly went to the splendid house of the principal missionary: he asked for bread, because people there grow wheat, he was given a fist-sized piece. He was thought to be on his own – he didn’t explain; he went to the other houses without finding anything, but he was told to go behind the mountain.[8] I was tired of waiting. We ate what was given us by the providence which gives the birds their food, the broom and lilies of the field their splendid clothing. There were four of us. In short, we came to have supper at the Bay of Islands between 9 and 10 in the evening.
Very Reverend Father, make haste to get us out of this bad situation. The mission has the finest prospects, if it is supported by the material resources unfortunately needed to bring about good. Some steps have been taken to create some resources, but they would need a great number of Brothers, at least intelligent and strong. That is another matter which people have been terribly wrong about – thinking that everything in New Zealand was good. Since people don’t know what to do about it, we need some skilful people to train workers. Paying such a great amount to bring out a subject who cannot earn his living in the mission tears me apart. For example, what do you want us to do with a Brother Colomb who is really an expense to the mission, a Brother Claude-Marie who, with all his virtue, is not what we need – he doesn’t know how to do anything and can do nothing, and Brother Pierre-Marie who is in poor health? Send us men like Brother Augustin, Brother Attale, good farmers, good carpenters, it’s really necessary, from time to time a good tailor, and always, men well-formed for religious life. Allow me to tell you, Father, you have too favourable an idea of overseas countries. A human being is a human being everywhere. Sailors have a saying: the sea has a demoralising effect: you have to take something from this. I can tell you however that the spiritual side is healthy among the members of the Society who are in the mission. Father Garin carries out his responsibilities boldly but also gently. We act as one: he warns, he reprimands, he exhorts and I rebuke, and for more formality he is present and also to warn me, because in those rare cases I would perhaps quench the smoking wick.
I forgot to say that a shoemaker, with leather, is something pretty well indispensable. For the rest, I think we are, however, getting close to the eve of a departure for France. But if a departure must take place which nothing stops, I have a lot to tell Father Poupinel, but my notes are not yet in order. Here is what seems decided about the voyage to Europe.
The Bishop left on 23rd July 1841, assuring me that he would be back in 3 months to set out again for the tropics. In the middle of November [29] he was still only at Akaroa, the site of the French base. As I so supposed, I sent him there the news of Father Chanel’s death, by way of the Heroine which had first called at the Bay of Islands. So there were three French frigates in Akaroa harbour; the Allier having just arrived as well. On getting this news, the Bishop, who had already, with Father Viard, set himself up in the Aube to leave for France, asked for a frigate to accompany him to Wallis and Futuna. The request having been granted him, he left immediately for those islands, from where we are waiting for him to come every day; because, according to all the arrangements, he must be in Akaroa about the middle of February, the time when the Aube must leave. I have some hope of dissuading him from making this journey himself. I would find myself in the most awful position for reasons unknown to his Lordship when he made this decision.
I am going to finish with a fairly interesting matter. A Scottish Presbyterian.[9] But I see my paper is running out, and I’ve just been told that a ship is going to leave for Sydney. I would however like to write to several people. I will tell my story to Father Girard if I can. It will show you why I am going to send Father Servant to the tropical islands if the Bishop hasn’t got back in a few days from now. Here is how I see things: Father Servant is becoming more and more deaf, and even in all his senses growing weaker, so for taste he willingly takes vinegar for salad dressing. You can well imagine that like this he is hardly fit to manage a mission station. He asks a lot to be sent to the tropics, hoping that they will be better for his health. So I am sending him to Wallis where Fathers Bataillon and Chevron are. If the state of that mission allows it, Father Bataillon will go to Ascension or Ponape. If the state of the mission doesn’t allow it, it will be Father Chevron.
Some Greek New Testaments and some Spanish books of piety containing an examination of conscience for confession would be very useful here. About the letters Father Garin has told you of, I am more embarrassed than he. I have seen some letters which present to you as great administrative faults everything which was only the writer’s opinion, I allowed myself to detain this letter which was addressed to you because I saw it as liable to give you wrong understandings and so able to harm the mission. But the ship is under sail. I will explain things at greater length without much delay.
I appeal for, as a right, the help of your special prayers.
Your most respectful and truly loving son, in Jesus and Mary,
Épalle, provicar apostolic, apologises for such a scribble.


  1. Meitala, son of King Niuliki, became in his turn King of Alo (of Tua) after the deposition of Sam Keletaona (Cf Frimigacci p153-4)
  2. John 12:32: “And I, when I have been raised from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”
  3. Rond should be read as rompt [breaks]
  4. Acts 8:32-33. “Like a sheep led to the slaughter, like a lamb dumb before its shearer, he opens not his mouth. He has been humiliated and has no one to defend him. Who will ever talk about his descendants?”
  5. Jn 19:6. “As for me I find no case against him.” (Cf Luke 23:4, 23;22; John 18:38m 19:4)
  6. Cf Mt 27:23. “Why?” the governor asked. “What evil has he done?” (Cf Mark 15:14)
  7. Henry Garnett
  8. Likely to be Ahuahu, an extinct volcanic cone near Waimate and Lake Omapere - translator’s note – lived in the area 2 years
  9. James Hall (Cf Doc 107 [11] f/n 24)

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