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Fr Jean Forest to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, c. 22 May 1842

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, November 2008

2nd letter from New Zealand

Very Reverend Father
On the 3rd April last I had the honour of writing to you from Cook[1] Strait, that is, from 174º east longitude and the 40th and five or six leagues south latitude. That was the first occasion that we met[2] since our departure from the port of Falmouth where we spent about three weeks waiting for a more favourable wind. As you can see our journey was very quick. It didn’t take us even three and a half months. In that letter I gave you some details about our voyage, about what I had learned about New Zealand and seemed most likely to interest you. I hope that that letter will get to you before this one.
We got to Port Nicholson on the 6th of the same month at 9 o’clock in the morning. Hardly had we dropped anchor when we saw five boats coming towards us, three large and two small. In the first of the large ones was the harbor[3] master. He addressed himself to the ship’s captain, then to us. He addressed me, speaking French. He told me who he was and said he was completely at my service. I realised straightaway that it was for him and his brother that Lord Petre had given me two letters of recommendation. Hardly had this first person left me when I saw coming toward me, graciously and smiling, two other gentlemen from the second and third boats. They offered me their hands as a sign of friendship, and did the same for my two confrères who were beside me. They asked us if we were coming to live at Nicholson. When we gave them a doubtful reply, they seemed a bit disconcerted. But, at least, they added, won’t you be able to stay here a few days? There are a lot of children who have not been baptised, sick people, marriages to perform… We promised them that we would stay as long as we could.
In fact Providence served us admirably in this matter. We had five days to stay in this little town of two thousand people, we were told. During that time we did a good number of baptisms, we heard some people’s confessions, we performed a marriage, we performed all the Sunday duties, we visited a great number of Catholic families. Ah, Reverend Father, I find it impossible to express to you here the joy of those good Irish Catholics. They wept for joy when they came to the ceremonies. When we went to their homes we saw them from a distance coming towards us shedding tears and telling us that it had been a long time since they had seen priests. They kissed our hands, led us into their little houses made entirely of planks. They begged us to bless them, to bless their children. Then they led us back a long way.
At some time or another I couldn’t stop myself from shedding tears on seeing two good old people, a husband and wife, who having fallen at my feet, one asked for my right hand and the other the left, and enclosing them between theirs, wet them with their tears, then, in that attitude, raising their tear-filled eyes towards me, said to me: Father, stay here; Father, stay here – how long a time it is since we have seen any priests. Those two old people were Irish. The two other boats that I mentioned were savages who had come to ask us for something – for biscuits.
The Irish Catholics at Port Nicholson are roughly 200 in number. They have a piece of land on which to build a church, a house for the priest, a school building, and to make a cemetery. During a visit from Bishop Pompallier a sizeable collection was taken up to build the church and the priest’s house but nothing yet has been done. A young man there, a zealous Catholic and doctor for the settlement,[4] enjoying widespread trust, showed us a document which had been given him by Bishop Pompallier, of which the gist is roughly as follows: We F[rançois] Pompallier, Bishop of M[aronea], grant all the powers which can be given to a layman in spiritual matters. We authorise him to preside at Sunday prayers, to lead prayers in the presence of the sick, to bless the dead with holy water, to lead them to the cemetery while reciting the prayers prescribed by the Church. This document seemed a bit strange[5] to us, especially to Father Grange.
On 11th April we took a vessel which was going to Auckland where, we had been told, we would find Father Baty. This port is located roughly four or five leagues[6] above 37 degrees south longitude[7] and 174[8] 10 leagues[9] east longitude. It usually takes only six to eight days to travel from Port Nicholson to the latter,[10] but we, not so fortunate, took sixteen, and we experienced two great dangers. The first occurred the day after our departure from Nicholson. On the 12th there began a terrible storm which lasted 24 hours. During this whole time, it could be said, we found ourselves continually buried in the waves. Without letup we had mountains of water alongside, without exaggerating, 60 to 80 feet. The second danger, greater than the first, occurred quite close to Auckland. That port is located among rocks which you must be well aware of to avoid being wrecked. Our captain, who had never made this voyage, calculated that he would approach the rocks during the day, but during the night a very favourable and strong wind pushed us along so quickly that two hours after midnight the seamen suddenly caught sight of an enormous rock only a short distance[11] in front of the ship. A shout was uttered immediately, everyone came running, the sails were changed but to no effect. The rocks came down sheer, deep enough for us not to have touched anything. If there had been, as is usually the case, a shelf of these rocks just above the water or only seven or eight feet below it, we would have been lost. But our problems were not at an end. The captain did not recognize his route; a very thick fog made the night very dark, a very strong wind carried the ship along. What was to be done? At last he decided to keep going on, but the further he travelled the more he got confused, the more reefs we came across. Finally the wind stopped for a while, and the vessel was brought to a halt until daylight. For a long time we tried to reconnoiter, but it was impossible. It was only at midday that the sun appeared. The latitude was then observed and it was seen that we were well off the right course. We had to go back out to sea where we spent six more days because of contrary winds. Finally we got to Auckland on 28th April at about ten o’clock in the morning. There, as at Port Nicholson, we carried out the sacred ministry. There, as at Port Nicholson, the government has given a piece of land, though very small, for building a church, a school. A little wooden house has already been built there for the clergyman who will go there. Father Baty has been appointed. It is claimed that the Catholics there number roughly 400. The population is roughly about the same as at Port Nicholson. When I speak about population, I am thinking only of Europeans. The natives are fairly numerous in the areas around both these places.
We set out again from Auckland on the 3rd May and we arrived at the Bay of Islands on the vigil of the Ascension at half past ten in the morning. There we found Father Epalle,[12] the Bishop’s pro-vicar, Father Garin, Provincial, Father Petit-Jean, among whose tasks at the Bay of Islands is that of being a parish priest in his parish: he gives instructions to the natives and the Europeans. Father Comte[13] had recently arrived from Akaroa where he had left Father Tripe who is still on his own. Father Epalle will give you details about this station which has very much harmed the rest of the mission. Bishop Pompallier was dragged in the mud there (if I can use that expression) as much as he could have been. But, people said, it was his fault, really. At the Bay of Islands we found M Yvert busy with the printery which will not really get going for about six months; M Perret acting a bit as a doctor and getting very bored, asking desperately to be able to return to France, and Brother Augustin studying theology and running a little school: he has two children of Catholic people living there. Three or four Brothers busy with two workmen building a fairly big house in pisé, not very strongly built and which could, I think, really have been done without at the present time. The Bishop has been absent a long time; he is in the tropical islands, not daring any more to come back to the Bay of Islands, for fear of being arrested and his ship being confiscated. The mission is in the most awful destitution; it is in such a critical state that if the creditors were wicked men they could bring about its collapse at any moment. Our poor Fathers have suffered a great deal, and I know some of them who have gone, like the savages, to ask for pieces of biscuit from passing foreign ships. It is a very sad situation while the Bishop and his ship cost roughly a hundred francs in expenses a day. It has not been seen as appropriate to inform me how much the debts amount to. I know they are enormous. Interest rates[14] run at 14 to 15 per cent.
(a)According to what I have been able to find out up to now, these debts arise from 1) very bad administration which has occurred. Here is what the English say on the matter (because through the bank which has been considerably involved, all the business affairs of the mission are known). The Catholic priests are good men, trained in religious matters, but they are real children in things concerning temporal administration. Indeed, according to all the information I have gathered, there is not one who is capable of administration. The most skilful is, it is said, Father Epalle. Still, he would need support.(f)
[Comments by Father Forest]
(a) It is still renewed. As this debt is placed with a bank every 3 months, it is necessary to either pay or borrow the interest in money, and pay interest on the interest.
(f) There is nothing yet, I believe, that is really solid and well based.

The second source of misfortune has been the Bishop. The Bishop with his generous and too generous heart has never been able to refuse anything to anyone; no longer having any money he has often borrowed considerable amounts at 14 to 15[15] to get himself clothing for the savages he was going to visit. He wanted to win over all hearts to himself. He made great promises which could not be fulfilled and today people are abandoning him in crowds. Here is how the great number of conversions which we were told about in the letters were usually brought about: the Bishop, with a certain amount of clothing, would travel through the tribes, even the most distant; then all the savages, who are real children, came thronging to him to get a dress, a handkerchief… they all said: I am for the Bishop. On hearing these words, the Bishop thought conversions had been made. They instructed them[16] for a few days and then gave baptism to several, then leaving them while promising them priests, but when the priests did not arrive in great numbers, a great number of these savages aligned themselves with the Protestants, saying that the Catholic Bishop was a liar. As well, there was a general desire to gather in everyone and nothing solid was achieved. Only two or three stations are known to have a few solidly Catholic Maoris. There is only one savage who has made his first communion.
The 3rd course of the calamity has been the Bishop’s ship which according to the most conservative calculation costs a hundred francs a day. The vessel is not at all needed for New Zealand. At every moment you can find ships for every direction you want to go. Besides, that ship remarkably upsets the whole house, as Father Epalle will be able to tell you.
A 4th source of destitution are certain land purchases made at an inopportune time and at moments of distress when no money was available. One cost 15,000 francs,[17] another one hundred and sixty and a few English pouts… a third, whose price I do not know, all three at the Bay of Islands. It was the purchase of an organ which cost twelve hundred francs, at a time when it was thought that one would be coming from France… And a host of other similar things.
The fifth source of destitution has been money lent to various people and money lost.[18] I could go on. Father Epalle, I believe, will bring you up to date on everything. I believe he is fair enough in how he sees things. Only he has a better idea of the mission than all the other confrères. The Bishop has had terrible conflicts with several confrères. He wanted to send a certain number back to France. He has not a high opinion of the Society and if I have properly understood the thought of some confrères, he tends to secularise the Fathers who are in his mission. He told them formally in a meeting that they were free to give up all communication with the Society, that they depended only on Rome and himself, that you had no rights over them, that you could not call them back to yourself. Fortunately this suggestion outraged them all, excepting one who is not yet truly a Marist. Otherwise the Bishop generally has a great reputation among all the foreigners. He is fairly and it could be said even well liked; how unfortunate it is that such destitution exists.
As for myself, Reverend Father, in everyone’s opinion, I am in the most contradictory position possible. For the following reasons, it will be quite impossible for me to carry out the responsibility you have given me. Being in his present mind, the Bishop will never allow me to go and visit the confrères whom he has forbidden to write to you without their letters going through him. Then I know that he cannot begin to tolerate anyone, even his priests, carrying out the least inspection in his diocese. He has a remarkable fear of losing what he calls his authority. God, he said in a letter he wrote in Sydney, God has given me authority over souls, I have the duty to preserve them. So you understand that this role as a Visitor is going to be a bolt of lightning for him which he will not put up with, and I am pretty certain that he will refuse me the faculties necessary for it. So I will be reduced to either doing nothing, or agreeing to take up a posting like the others. But to get out of that I am going to try to start out before he comes back and I will stay as long as I can with each confrère. Only I will be careful to write to him as politely as I can when I find he has returned to the Bay of Islands. 2) Another reason is that it is certain that he will refuse me the money I will need for these journeys which are very expensive. For just the journey to Port Nicholson I need at least twenty pounds sterling without including expenses for food etc… Anyway, may God be blessed, I am happy because I know I am doing God’s will in fulfilling your desires, but I hope that as soon as you have read this letter you will get me out of the difficulty I am in, either by calling me back to France or by giving me another job. I believe that my health would not support the sort of life that one is obliged to live among the tribes.
This letter was begun a fortnight ago. I thought I could rewrite it, but a serious illness I began to experience about twelve days ago does not allow me to do so. I am forced to omit many things. It is impossible for me to write. I hope that there will be an improvement soon. In the meantime I commend myself to your prayers and to those of all my beloved and very dear confrères in France to whom I would very much like to write. But I will do it later if the good God restores me to health. I very much want my parents not to find out about my situation. I cannot myself write the letter you were expecting from me to present to Propaganda, but Father Epalle, in front of me and all the other confrères, is writing it in my name.
I have the honour to be, Very Reverend Father, the most unworthy of your children, but, however, your entirely devoted servant
Marist priest


  1. Written “Kooc”
  2. another ship – seems to be implied - translator’s note
  3. Letter of 3 April 1842, Doc 140
  4. John Patrick Fitzgerald, a doctor, 27 years old in 1842, was leader of the Catholic community in Wellington up till the arrival of the Capuchin priest, Father O’Reily, in January 1843. He continued to support the Church in the town until his departure in 1854 [Dictionary of NZ Biography Vol I pp 1128-129 – see also Doc 1223 [7] – C Girard
  5. curieuse
  6. 20 or 25 km
  7. sic – latitude
  8. degrees – understood
  9. 50 km
  10. destination – understood
  11. à deux ou trois pas
  12. Written “Epale”
  13. Written “Compte”
  14. revenus
  15. per cent – understood
  16. They presumably means the Bishop and his assistants - translator’s note
  17. £600 sterling
  18. perdu – wasted?