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Fr Jean-Baptiste Petit-Jean to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Bay of Islands, 18 May 1842

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, October 2008

Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us

To Reverend Father Superior, for him or for his assistant

Bay of Islands, 18 May 1842
Reverend Father
It must seem to everyone of the least importance that you know the Oceania mission perfectly, and in particular that of New Zealand. It seems to me to be part of my duty to write you a few lines about this matter; perhaps they will be of some use, if the good God is so good as to help me. One could write volumes about this. I will be succinct. Without trying to be exact and definite about things, I will content myself with speaking in a general way, and, on the basis of a few features put forward in the form of principles, you could come to some more or less fair consequences. The mission certainly has fine aspects. Some remarkably intelligent natives who learn to read from each other very easily. Doctrine spreads among them with unbelievable rapidity – a talkative people, a travelling people, hungry for knowledge, reading, keen on prayer, persevering in religious practice, desperate to get priests, enthusiastic and admiring enough to be swayed in special circumstances, gathering together for prayer because of the subjection to their respective chiefs which they maintain at least in each tribe. The leading chiefs generally leave the minor chiefs of each tribe free in their beliefs. In a great number of these Maori, especially in those who have not been too much harmed by the Europeans, there is goodness, innocence. The New Zealanders are lovable, they are interesting.
I am leaving this beautiful picture which has appeared to you. Here is its dark side. The New Zealanders make it a point of honour to have foreigners live among them, and especially a priest. He is also a temporal resource. Have not a great number of Maoris wanted the priest in order to get clothes? Didn’t the New Zealanders hide that when they wanted to, without making it obvious? I see a priest, the one most desired, I see him, robbed, plundered by some of his own people; I see in another mission a chief who had also made the journey from Kororareka to get a priest, then, unhappy with some of the clothes he had, take them and chop them up. It’s the result of childish anger, I know. I see this same chief flooring our Brother Elie-Régis who is the most peaceful of men. I see those from my mission without any gratitude after having disdainfully received clothes. In various places in the mission area at Hokianga, at Whangaroa goods have been given in advance for pigs, for potatoes, and nothing was received in return. Often I have been called to go into tribal areas to evangelise, or to visit a sick person and equally often no one wanted to go with me or to row. I sought their sick, no one came and told me about them. The clothing given, the welcomes given to the Maori have done good; but evil has been mingled with it: ambition, time wasted in waiting,[1] promises not kept, hypocrites, unfairness in the distribution.[2]
Father Rozet writes that the number of his Catholics has fallen, that there have been defections, that he now counts no more than thirty of them. At Maketu a Catholic European tells me that there are about 5000 Protestants and 1000 Catholics and nonetheless, he added, they have received many good things. However Father Baty writes from Mahia, much further south, that people do not, in those places, argue with the Bishop over his estimate of the number of his disciples. God be praised. In the northern area, to the contrary, Father Epalle assured me that it was said, “The Bishop has lied about it.” The places where there are the greatest numbers of British Catholics are Nicholson[3] and Auckland. Our Fathers who come from there speak of 250 at Nichol[4] and 300 at the Thames.[5] You meet Irish families who are moved and weep when they have the happiness of seeing priests. Generally the Europeans will speak well about the Catholic missionary ministers, but they will not speak favourably about our mission, its condition. The commanding officers of French warships will speak in bad terms to the Ministry[6] about the progress of the Catholic faith; they do not know the true situation. That is unfortunate.
The number of baptised is small. We are happy when they allow all their children and their sick to be baptised. There is no real desire for baptism. I see a bit of vanity in the young people who were baptised in the beginning, at least in my Whangaroa mission area. They would like a new name. These first young people to be baptised, at least in my mission area, do not give a good example; two of them have even gone over to the heretics. The practice of confession is almost unknown. There are not, I believe, ten Maoris who have made their first communion. For most, it has been too soon. The Catholics because of complacency or fear often are afraid to proclaim their faith in front of their countrymen, especially if the latter are Protestants: personally I wouldn’t dare to ask one of our newly baptised to witness to his faith in front of these heretical Maori. Although the English missionaries have taken or bought from them almost all their good land, the Maori, in love with their wealth, fear and love their masters to whom long experience has taught the art of governing these peoples. Add to that the fact that the English, never allowing familiarity, get themselves pretty much obeyed. I believe that the number of Catholics is well below that of the heretics. If you had to refer to the census made a year ago, and maintain the proportion for the new settlements, we would be frightened by the inferiority of our number. The heretical tribes are so out of stubbornness. I do not believe I have seen in my mission district a single converted heretic, on the other hand several have left us. Among them everything holds together and is bound by means of their chiefs. Elsewhere than in my district it has been possible for things to be otherwise and certainly the Bishop on his visits has brought back some heretical tribes. I wouldn’t know to what extent that has taken place. The New Zealanders are free, arrogant and sometimes insolent, putting little value on visits; they see these visits as a liability and often take advantage of them to make complaints. Among the whole population of my mission at Whangaroa and at Mangonui I have perhaps about a fifth of the population who are Catholics.[7]
Diseases are multiplying. Venereal disease (my excuses for this word) is common on the coasts. Death ceaselessly cuts swathes through the population, especially in the northern part. There are few marriages, the women nearly all take up with the whites. Nothing is to be expected from the natives in terms of material resources. A fine Christian community in the Hokianga. Wangaroa is not to be compared with it, it is not the best part.
The Bishop has many talents for captivating the natives; he has the qualities of skilled missionaries, it seems to me; from a distance he had a brilliant reputation for skillfulness, for confidence, for luck[8] and even for nobility. But he has not appeared to be careful with his words, promising too much, too adventurous[9] in business matters, relying on the future, squandering his remittances,[10] putting down few solid foundations, easily misled, flattered and surprised, or at least, complying with everyone because he wanted to make use of everything and gain everything; gigantic in his undertakings, like wanting to build a church in brick, to buy a ship and to have it ready for him wherever he was, while it was possible to travel as a passenger, especially around New Zealand; letting gold and silver flow through his hands extremely easily. He had no budget. Arising out of that, poorly set up stations, poorly equipped, and, especially those in the tropics, which have been almost abandoned. In the whole extent of New Zealand we do not have a single chapel built in wood, not of any other durable material, except at Kororareka where we have a structure seven to eight feet wide and 25 long, temporary, which for painting alone has cost, people say, 25 pounds.
Reverend Father, nothing is easier than criticism and, I know, I am too harsh. I am indeed liable to be humiliated… I willingly admit that these remarks are not mine, they come from other people, they are born of experience. The general public see very clearly that we are newcomers and almost childlike in business matters. So as to punish us, or to test us, or rather to save us, Providence has allowed, has sent events in which the imprint of the finger of God is clearly seen. Everything in the designated time is in line with the intentions of heaven. It is fortunate if the Bishop did not have difficult dealings with his priests in the tropics and at Hokianga and Akaroa.
Our great reputation is what is going to humiliate us. The Protestant Bishop is going to arrive. The heretics are making a last effort, and we, we are weaker than ever, we are like an army which has spent part of its ammunition on a fireworks display. We do not have a single book drawn up for printing. Morale is low. We are getting used to everything, we are going to beg for loans. Debt is crushing. We arrange drafts on France at great loss. We pay 15 per cent interest with interest on the interest every three months. Consider whether we should, whether it is not urgent that we constitute New Zealand as a separate mission, especially in the presence of an Anglican Bishop. Things which have to be believed and be seen as miraculous call us to other islands. However for the glory of Mary we have to courageously keep going with the New Zealand mission. The Bishop has the people’s trust and he gains sympathy for that.
Concerning finances. We do not have enough. The new priests have been scandalised by what was thrown away, small things not picked up. Money to be spent – college (there are not many European children, not many rich people, the colony will not perhaps grow as quickly as might have been thought. In Port Nicholson five or six thousand souls, in Auckland two or three thousand, a government in debt, a people in poverty). Farming – printing books – training, if possible, Maori catechists and indigenous priests. Apart from that, carrying out the sacred ministry as a travelling apostle rather than as a resident parish priest. See the Annals of the [Society for] the Propagation [of the Faith], January 1841, page 63, 2nd paragraph.[11] The little Maori girls, until Sisters come, could perhaps find a shelter in the homes of the good Europeans who would then employ them as servant girls. I humbly ask for your prayers and your blessing. Your unworthy child, J[ean-] B[aptiste] Petit-Jean, M[arist] pr[iest] m[issionary] ap[ostolic].
The British Catholics say in fact that they would like British priests and, up till now, no advantage has been taken of their good dispositions to get a chapel. While wanting to do everything, we have done little. We are however loved by these good people.
At the end of the letter, I have some reason to wonder whether people have been really frank in telling the whole truth, and whether those who went to France, Bishops or priests, were really inclined to expose everything in its reality.[12] No doubt for pure and charitable intentions, and in matters which were not important,[13] I believe that the Bishop has done everything with good intentions,[14] events have deceived him. I am moved by his difficulties which are ours.
Putting our difficulties to one side, it can still be believed, I think, that the New Zealanders have admirable dispositions for the faith. Their bad qualities and other things are not insurmountable obstacles and must only serve to encourage us.
I decided to write this letter after our Fathers’ arrival.


  1. attente trompée
  2. of clothes, presumably - translator’s note
  3. Wellington
  4. sic – meaning Port Nicholson which became Wellington
  5. ‘The Thames’ was sometimes used at this time to describe the general Auckland area - translator’s note
  6. of the Navy - translator’s note
  7. j’ai peut-être me cinguième de la population de catholiques
  8. fortune
  9. assez peu timide
  10. of money
  11. The reference is to a letter from Father Hoecken, a Jesuit missionary near an Indian tribe in the USA – to the paragraph beginning: “Experience has led me to believe that there is a great difference between a local ministry and a wandering apostolate.”
  12. tout à nud
  13. dans des choses qu’il n’étoit pas necessaire
  14. but? – omitted