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21 January 1842 — Father Michel Borjon to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Maketu

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, November 2007


To Father Colin, Superior, Lyons, 4 Montée St Barthelemy, France. Department of Rhône


Maketu 21 January 1842
A M D G et D G H[1]


Very Reverend Father General
[1]
I have just received a letter from Father Epalle urging me to write my letters to Europe so as to send them, I think, through the Bishop who is getting ready to go to France. For me it is a great satisfaction to share with you the beginnings of my apostolate with the obstacles and trials which are inseparable from it. You will forgive me if I don’t give you a lot of details; because I am overwhelmed with work and study, having to learn the language which I hardly know, having to write a great number of Maori prayer books, and as well, having to study and go deeper into the subjects of discussions with the Protestants. When I saw today the date of the martyrdom of Reverend Father Chanel, a coincidence which struck me is that at that same end of April 1841, we were about to come in sight of the coasts of the New Holland [Australia]. I will leave to the Fathers who are better informed about this glorious martyrdom than I am, to describe its circumstances to you.
[2]
After a journey of five months and a half over the sea, and three weeks in Sydney, after having journeyed more than 7000 leagues[2] on board the Mary Grey and the Earl Duncan,[3] we arrived at last in our beloved New Zealand, and we filled with joy him who is so worthily our Bishop and our Superior. What happiness for us!
[3]
What happiness for his Lordship and all the confrères! What happiness for the good natives who came in haste to see the new priests and Brothers, asking whether there were bells and printing machines! A Mass was celebrated in thanksgiving for our arrival at a time when the mission had such a great need of help. The first days were taken up with organising matters, and then the priests began to write books of prayers and rules or advice for their respective missions; and after five weeks in Kororareka, where the Bishop lives, we boarded the Sancta Maria, the mission ship, being five priests, with the Bishop at our head, and about twenty Maori (New Zealanders), with the crew commanded by a Captain from Marseilles. Although we had been quite happy in our journey,[4] at least in our first ship, we were happy in a different way on our own ship. It was so beautiful and consoling to cross the seas on the brig bearing Mary’s name, flying the flag of the cross, and going to the conquest of souls! For us it was like a floating cenacle where we had the last time to prepare ourselves in the quiet of prayer for our apostolate. I found myself wonderfully edified by the piety of the good savages who regularly attended worship, morning and evening, in the hold which served them as a common cabin and we, on our part, had our religious exercises. I lived on board the Sancta Maria for a month during which I studied Maori and Scripture a little.
[4]
His Lordship, during this voyage, made a great number of visits to the tribes scattered along the coast; everywhere he was welcomed with love; he is a good father who appears in the bosom of his family – as soon as he appears there are repeated shouts of joy: Epikopo, epikopo, the Maori word which means “the Bishop, the Bishop”. These numerous visits have as a goal and a result the re-animating of the fervour of the natives, baptising the sick, blessing marriages and instructing some Europeans scattered among the savages for business reasons. I was a witness to the baptism of one of the greatest chiefs in New Zealand and certainly one of the most warlike; these are wonderful triumphs for religion; because these sorts of baptisms are soon known by everyone. On the 31st July we moored in the Thames off Auckland, the capital of New Zealand where the British governor lives. The population of European Catholics is estimated at about 200, and it is the place allocated to Father Baty to live in. The Governor received the Bishop and his priests well and has shown goodwill towards Catholic worship. To celebrate the beautiful feast of the Assumption, we stopped in a sort of Bay. There, his Lordship celebrated the holy sacrifice at which the priests received Holy Communion, after which he gave holy baptism and confirmation to four or five natives on the ship. On the 17th of July[5] we were in Tauranga Harbour, the residence of Father Pézant, successor to Father Viard. This kainga [village] is very fervent and gave the Bishop a fine reception. Triumphal arches made of greenery had been erected, a fine flag floated on top of a great pole, and a volley of many shots greeted his Lordship’s arrival; they were little examples of the receptions given to the great ones of the land; but they involved more simplicity, love and especially piety. At these celebrations of love people like to let tears of tenderness flow, and it is pleasant to see the happiness of these poor people who rejoice at the arrival of their Bishop. This tribe is an enemy of mine; there was a meeting between them to talk about peace, but it came to no conclusion; with the result that the two tribes avoid each other and are on the watch. On the 22nd of August at five o’clock in the evening we were off Maketu; that was the place where I was appointed to live, with Brother Justin. I disembarked with his Lordship and a chief and his wife who had been a month at Kororareka in order to bring back their priest from there. From the seashore you go up a river which goes in front of the mission establishment; which is very convenient for goods, because at high tide the water reaches the enclosure. Since that day I have habitually lived at Maketu.
[5]
Here I loved to recall your favourite saying, “A house which suffers in its beginnings promises a great deal for the future.” Our entry to Maketu was associated with no solemnity, because all the chiefs and most of the population were in another kainga. We were told that our cottage had been for the use of pigs; it was only with difficulty that we could keep our lamp lit and cover ourselves at night so as not to be too cold. Our beds were the boxes and our altar which we set up each evening[6] and, after we salted a pig, the dogs tore through the walls[7] of our house in order to eat it.[8] Such has been our home for six weeks until the new house was habitable, and bit by bit we got to the point of each of us having our [own] little room and a sort of reception room for the natives. What wonderful opportunities to practise poverty: it is quite appropriate to begin the apostolic life just as the divine Saviour began his mortal life. I very much like to recall that incident from the life of St Francis of Assisi when, seeing a new cell that had been built for him, he wanted branches placed inside under the roof, so as to have the picture of holy poverty before his eyes; we always have this beloved picture in our sight here, because all the houses are made of raupo, a sort of giant bulrush that is found in this country, and lined on the interior with a sort of cane,[9] called kakao.[10] Built like this, our house has no need of windows, because everywhere daylight can be seen through the bunches of bulrushes which form the outer walls. Fortunately the country is not cold, and in the part that we live in, for five months at least, we have hardly had anything other than a perpetual spring; the weather is a bit warmer now than we have in summer.
[6]
The first month was particularly difficult for me because of the everyday importunity of the natives who were ceaselessly haunting me, some in order to get pipes, others tobacco, others needles, clothes, books etc etc. There was a procession of callers which began in the morning and ended only really late at night. The only way of escaping these demands was to go away to the shore, really happy to not be followed by any but a few seekers more desperate than the others. Alas! these poor people, half naked for lack of work and often of activity, imagine that the priest has stores of clothes etc, and that he should enrich them all, or at least clothe them. Another problem. The chief who had my house built was never happy although he had received a really considerable price for the work; he tormented me ceaselessly, and when the house was finished the ground on which it stood was found to belong to his brother-in-law, a new payment needed.
[7]
The Bishop, having stayed two days in Maketu, went and visited the tribes at Rotorua which are in my district; he found a lot of fervour among these tribes. He had two public discussions with the Protestant minister living in Rotorua; one of them lasted more than six hours, I believe. After a week he came back, then, having gone to Tauranga, I did not see him again.[11]
[8]
A month after, Father Baty and Father Rozet came to see me on their way to Opotiki, Father Rozet’s mission roughly 18 leagues [90 km] from Maketu on the sea coast. There are three of us on the coast, fairly close to each other. Father Rozet is at Opotiki, I am at Maketu, Father Pézant is at Tauranga, five or six leagues [25 or 30 km] from Maketu; Father Séon is a day and a half from Father Pézant in the middle of the forests. For myself, I see Father Pézant at least every month, we visit each other; as far as Father Rozet, who is further away, is concerned, I have seen him only once, but I am expecting him this week. If we do not have the consolation of being two priests together according to your desires, in view of the difficulty of the country, at least we see and mutually consult each other.
[9]
The kainga of Maketu where I live was formerly one of the cruellest and most warlike in New Zealand, but it seems to have lost a lot of its former ferocity; they like foreigners and are quite affable to me. I hope that grace will triumph over the hardness of their hearts, and that as a result those who appear to be the most savage will be fervent neophytes. It does not seem that there are many Protestants; those who are indifferent would be the greatest group although they call themselves epikopo (Catholics). Standing on the coast and on the bank of a fresh water river, Maketu is quite well situated; the little ships can anchor in the river and come right in front of my door. The houses are on a sort of rise which overlooks the sea; my house is made of wood, almost on its own. Food is pork, fish in abundance, potatoes, kumara (a sort of rape plant [rave] tasting like a cooked pear). On that basis health is maintained very well, and we don’t even think of the meat and bread of France; for drinking there is a little tea or water from the river. Up till now we have been in very good health, because here the air seems very healthy.
[10]
Here, as the population is scattered in kainga or villages which vary from ten people to three or four hundred, the missionary has a main place of residence, but he is obliged, for half the time at least, to visit his other tribes in the mission district. From what I have been able to see, my mission may extend for about 40 leagues [200km], over which 15 to 20 kainga are scattered, more or less distant. To visit them in the one journey would take me a month, at least. These journeys lasting a fortnight, or three weeks are the hardest thing for me here. Like the good shepherd in the gospel, you have to cross the mountains to look for the lost sheep;[12] forests, swamps, rivers and lakes abound in this district and make journeys difficult. Among the tribes you usually have to live like the savages, contenting yourself with potatoes, kumara; sometimes you have fish and freshwater crayfish which abound in certain rivers. The usual bed is the ground covered with some rushes and a mat on which you stretch out without fuss, your soutane on your back and boots on your feet. If night overtakes you on the way, a big fire is lit, you make a sort of bed in the fern, and wrap yourself in your cloak without any fear of snakes or wild animals, because there are none of them in this country. But if these journeys are somewhat painful to nature, they are beautiful in the sight of faith: they are truly apostolic, and what happy fruits [they provide] for souls and oneself. There it is that you fight heresy and paganism head on, and learn the truths of salvation. In the midst of the storms of heresy many beautiful souls and whole populations are found who abhor heresy and remind the missionary of the beautiful pages which he formerly read about in the annals. They are sometimes so avid for religious instruction that in the light of great fires we stay awake until 10, 11 o’clock at night catechising, speaking about religion, and often even later. In Rotorua, a fervent and numerous tribe, I have been followed by about thirty young people and men, for about four days, into neighbouring tribes, and that so they can be better informed and be edified. I have seen them more than once arguing forcefully against the Protestant Maoris. After these journeys you return with pleasure to your place of residence, where you are received with new cordiality. There you restore your physical and spiritual energy; you study the language, theology, write prayer books, because we do not yet have a printed catechism, teaching goes on morning and evening at prayers, and in this way you lead something like the life of a pastor in a parish. In the five months I have been in my mission I have baptised roughly 50 people, some of whom were sick adults. I do not know the approximate number of catechumens, two of my baptised children have died.
[11]
Forgive me, Very Reverend Father, if there is not all the desirable detail and precision in my letter; I have right now a number of visits and other matters [to deal with] and the departure of the ship from Maketu is pressing on me. You shouldn’t always take note of the date of letters to work out the time they take to get to France; because in my case, being 100 leagues [500 km] from Kororareka, to where I send my letters, they can suffer delay in this way.
[12]
I am finishing, Very Reverend Father General, by asking the help of your prayers for me and my flock, and your fatherly blessing.
Your very humble and obedient servant
M(ichel) F(rançois) X(avier) Borjon
Mis(sionary) ap(ostolic)
[13]
P S Kindly allow me to present my respects to Reverend Father Vice-Superior, to Reverend Father Director, to Reverend Father Maîtrepierre, to Father Girard, to Father Forest, to Father Chartignier and to Father Lagniet to whom I would really like to write for the seminary, but I do not know if I will have the time.

Notes

  1. Ad majorem Dei Gloriam et Dei genetricis honorem – to the greater glory of God and the honour of the Mother of God
  2. about 35,000 km
  3. sic – no doubt Earl Durham -- translator’s note
  4. out to New Zealand, he seems to mean -- translator’s note
  5. should be 17th of August – Pézant says that Pompallier arrived in Tauranga with “some priests” on the 17th of August 1841 – doc 814 [6]. Also the ship left Kororareka on 23rd of July – doc 103 [4]. Editor’s footnote
  6. Nis litgs, c’étoit les quaisses et notre autel que nous arrangions…
  7. les claies
  8. The walls were only made of bulrushes – see below - translator’s note
  9. canelle
  10. sic – kakaho
  11. presumably étant allé à Tauranga refers to the Bishop, not Borjon - translator’s note
  12. cf Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:3-7 - translator’s note