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2 June 1842 – Father Jean Forest to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Bay of Islands

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, January 2009

[Address]
Father Colin, Superior General of the Society of Mary, 4 Montée St Barthelemi – for him alone – Lyons, France
Bay of Islands, 2 June 1842, 3rd letter from New Zealand
Very Reverend Father
[1]
You will no doubt be astonished and surprised to see Father Epalle and Mr Perret arriving almost at the same time but separately. At the time Father left we urged Mr Perret to wait for a better time of year and a better ship. He yielded to our reasoning but not for long: because today, with Father Petit-Jean going to Sydney to borrow some money while waiting for help from France, he decided to leave with the Father in spite of all the representations we could make to him. Since his arrival in New Zealand, this good man has been very disappointed. He expected to be able to offer some service to the mission through his architectural knowledge, but how can building be done when there is not a cent available to buy a bit of bread? Besides, even if there was money, it would not be for a long time, I believe, that it would be necessary to build anything worthwhile in New Zealand in view of the sparseness of its population [scattered] here and there over its land mass.
[2]
When Father Epalle left, I really wanted to send you, Reverend Father, a more detailed letter about the mission than the one I wrote to you, but a serious illness I experienced at that time did not allow me to do so. Today, Mr Perret’s quick and sudden decision has not given me the time to write anything long and detailed; but I will give you briefly some knowledge I have been able to pick up about the mission, concerning its past, its present state and about its prospects for the future.
[3]
1) This mission was begun on a high note. Bishop Pompallier believed that these people would have to be won over through their senses. He wanted to travel over, as soon as possible, a great part of his diocese, and he believed he could not do it with dignity and appropriately without a certain display which could impress people. So he needed a ship. He needed a captain and eight or nine seamen for this ship. He had to feed and pay these people, maintain the ship and, taking everything into account, the least amount needed for that was at least one hundred francs a day. Since the ship was bought, it has nearly always been travelling. And consider what he has spent and what he is still spending. The Bishop believed that the only way he could win over these savages was through a lot of gifts. So he has taken the vast majority of the things which have come from France, to distribute them, during his journeys, to the savages who came to him, and there was no lack of them. The Bishop in this way gained the reputation of a rich and wealthy man, to the extent that in several places still, people believe that he is a relative of Louis Philippe [King of France 1830-1848]; the reputation of an extremely good man who refused nothing. The savages, who are a quite childlike people, would rush from all sides when they knew that the Bishop was to go by, and did that in the expectation of getting something; the Bishop, believing accordingly that everyone was coming to take his side, would refuse no request provided that the person said to him “I am epicopo”, which means “supporting the Bishop”. He went so far as to baptise a certain number after a few short instructions. When he had nothing more to give, he would borrow at rates of 12 to 15 percent for three months. When he could not give any more, he made promises to everyone about gifts and priests… This way of acting easily won for him a great multitude, and then it was easy to count by ten thousands the conversions that were made. They were easy then, but today things have really changed. The Bishop no longer goes and sees them. He has spent a long time in a little French colony at Akaroa, where he has experienced all sorts of trials, as Father Epalle will be able to inform you. That prolonged stay among the French has even turned against him the English, who have written against him. Now, for a long time, he has been in the tropical islands, from where, I believe, he dares not return, for fear that his ship will be taken from him and he will even be arrested for failure to pay his debts, which is doing great harm to the New Zealand mission. The common feeling is that the French Bishop is going back to France to take up another bishopric. Now the natives, not receiving these promised gifts, not seeing arrive those priests they were promised, have been as quick to return to their first state as they seemed quick to leave it. When I say their last state I am mistaken because they are no longer in their first state. That which they are in today is worse than their first. They have a sort of repugnance for the Bishop and his religion. They say they were deceived, and the majority have either fallen into a sort of indifference or have gone over to the Protestants. Finally, the net result of all this great expense and show demonstrates exactly the truth of the saying: “the mountain was a long time in travail, only to bring forth a mouse”. Everything has been reduced to three or four stations or establishments which support only a very small number of Catholic natives who provide only a very small amount of consolation. Everything I am telling you comes from the very words of all the confrères I have been able to question. All of them, except Father Epalle, have this view of the mission. Father Epalle has a more favourable view of it. It seems to me that he is being a bit too charitable in that. Because the facts which we have in front of us speak pretty loudly and clearly. I have been told that Mr Yvert had written to you about the foregoing matters,[1] but it is good that you know that Mr Yvert, being a good man and without malice, excuses everything, finds wrongdoing nowhere and gives greatest praise to the mission. It would perhaps be good to praise it if one were writing to strangers, but to a Father like yourself who must be aware of everything, no; it seems to me that I should proceed more simply and inform you of things as they really are. I believe that what Father Epalle tells you will be true but I am very much afraid that he will not tell you the whole truth and that he will not inform you enough about the state of things. I have heard that it had been said before I arrived that it wasn’t quite necessary to tell you everything so as not to tire you. In my case you will make an exception, but I am not afraid to carry tact that far. Everywhere, in similar circumstances, with these principles of refusing nothing so as to gain everyone’s esteem, pretty considerable sums of money have been lent which are almost all lost. Father Epalle must inform you about them. In line with this same principle a certain number of French people who were passing through these shores have been magnificently received; all sorts of people have been in the house who have pillaged, robbed, tricked us… Fairly considerable sums have been paid to have interpreters for the Fathers in the stations, and these interpreters or servants, often wicked people, have much more harmed the mission than they have served it. Some pieces of land have been bought which in my opinion and that of many others are of very little value; however they cost a great deal… I think I have given you some details about these matters in the letter which Father Epalle will pass on to you.
[4]
2) Finally, the mission right now is in a pitiable state in both temporal and spiritual aspects. Under the first aspect it has almost nothing that is worthwhile. There is only one adequate house, at the Bay of Islands. All the other stations lack one. There are no churches, only one poor little chapel at the Bay of Islands, able to hold 40 people very close together; that is all; as well, this chapel stands in the middle of a muddy farmyard, which does not appeal at all to English people who are so touchy about this sort of thing. However that chapel serves hardly anyone but them; there is, at the Bay of Islands, only a very small number of natives. I have seen about twenty of them in all. As well they do not live at the Bay of Islands but three leagues away and come rarely. The number of European Catholics at the Bay of Islands is perhaps twenty or thirty. There is everything that the station at the Bay possesses, in spiritual and temporal terms. It is however, the main station.
[5]
I forgot to say, however, that at the Bay of Islands they have a garden which produces a bit, but it was hugely expensive to clear. Even now its soil is very bad. It is no more than a muddy and yellow piece of land. It costs a great deal to maintain. Up till now a foreigner has been employed as a gardener, and is paid an enormous wage. Here the daily rate is at least 8 shillings (10 francs), often 12 and even 14… This gardener’s wife washes the clothes, but in the English manner; that is to say, washing is not done, but everything is washed with soap. In that way, the clothes are ruined in very little time.
[6]
There is no cemetery. The Catholics who have died since the beginning of the mission have been buried here and there in different bits of ground. What amuses the Protestants very much is that when a Catholic is about to die, everyone wonders, where is that person going to be buried? The poor Irish Catholics are ashamed and complain about this situation. They see us as lacking concern for religious ceremony; they complain, saying that we are not using the money they have given for a church and a cemetery. It is true that a collection was taken up, a fairly generous one in view of the district’s resources. This collection, taken up even in Sydney, amounted to a fairly good sum, of which part has been paid (I have seen it with my own eyes, on the list). But I don’t know what this money was used for. On the religious side of things the Protestants who are alongside us are very far ahead of us. They have a large and very pretty church, and a beautiful bell tower. This church is sited on a large piece of land, very tidy, like a beautiful flower garden. It is well surrounded by a beautiful wooden fence painted with oil. Inside this area is their cemetery, with gravestones almost as beautiful as those at Loyasse,[2] made of wood – all that singularly flatters the Protestants and makes a butt of ridicule of the poor Catholics, who made such a to-do and who have ended up without a cemetery in which to bury their dead. What has been, and still is, the cause of all our mission’s difficulties? Bad, very bad, administration. Everyone is agreed on that. Everyone, Catholics and Protestants, says that the French priests are good priests but that they are real children in temporal matters, and since I have been here I have groaned a great deal on seeing the sad state of things. There is no organisation, no organisation; everything is decided without proper consideration. Someone says: we have to do this, the others say, let’s do that. The next day another will say: no, we must act like that; let us do… nothing but change. What is to be done, undone, changed, changed again… there have always been, at the Bay of Islands, a great number of people doing I cannot tell what. The day we arrived there we counted 21 or 22 of them. Meanwhile it is the place where it is most expensive to live.
[7]
It seems to me that one single priest would do for this station. Another could live there but would be involved visiting the surrounding tribes. One could, in the same way, very much reduce the number of Brothers. In my view, four or five at the most would do: a tailor, a cook who would at the same time be a cobbler, a gardener, a carpenter, and one at the printery with Mr Yvert. That is all. I have urged Father Petit-Jean to send away an Englishman who rarely gave lessons; the gardener is going to leave, his wife will not be responsible for the washing, but I can only advise. I do not wish to, and anyway I cannot do anything more, because my position is most false. I can do nothing. I cannot visit the stations. We do not have a cent. However, to visit the closest stations I would need one hundred and fifty francs; you always have to go by sea; when you can go by land, you need guides; you have to cross very dangerous torrents and it costs a lot for that. Another consideration: the Bishop will never allow me to travel through his diocese as a Visitor – he would be afraid of losing his authority. That is the opinion of all the confrères. As you can see, I will be in the most awkward situation until you withdraw me from it, either by recalling me or giving me another task or indeed, things take another turn. Otherwise I will be a real pain in the neck (if I can so express it) in the Bishop’s sight. My status as a Visitor will give him much reason for offence and quite probably he will not be able to put up with me, he who has made a law for all his priests never to write to you without [his] having seen their letters, he who has positively told the priests that they were responsible only to him and Rome and not to you, that they could, if they wanted to, see themselves as seculars, that he gave them permission to do that. I am only repeating to you here what several others have told me. How would he see me, I who do not believe myself completely responsible to him but holding my whole mission from you? Apart from those things already mentioned, I hope to have no difficulty with the Bishop because I hope that things will not remain in this state for long.
[8]
What hope for the future has the mission? The natives offer only very little hope 1) because this race is disappearing from sight. All the young women are taken away and sold to the Europeans in the place, whether they are sailors or landowners. It is such a common thing that no attention is paid to it. In this way the young Maori women, for a few bits of clothing, for some money, go onto whalers’ and traders’ vessels, and go from one to another of all the whites, who are all pretty well worthless and corrupt. These young women are very happy to leave their impoverished state in order to be well dressed and well fed, etc… Truly they are unaware of their sad fate or do not wish to become aware of it. 2) Because the unmentionable and other diseases of the Europeans have infected them and carry them off in great numbers. 3) The clothing they have adopted is causing the death of a good number of them. They clothe themselves in big woollen blankets which make them sweat, then they catch sicknesses which lead to their deaths. 4) Finally the sterility of their women because of their bad life with the Europeans. Besides, these people are very lazy. They insist on doing no more than planting a few potatoes. You cannot get them to do anything more. They don’t want to do anything without pay. So for going to get a bit of water they will ask you for six or seven pennies… to row for a few hours, seven or eight shillings… nothing for nothing, nothing for nothing. They are pretty well ruined by the Europeans.
[9]
If however it was possible to get together the few children left to them or those born there, and bring them up, and educate them, it would perhaps be possible to make some little good out of them. But to do that you would need to have people and money. You would need to have some little hospitals for the sick. If at least in the main places people had some of these establishments, I think a good number of these children would be saved… and a great service would be done. But a good number of good Brothers, cultivating the soil, would be needed to support these houses and for the other establishments. I can see no other way of getting us out of debt than farming, but farming demands many, many men. Three Brothers in each station would not be too many: one for the garden, another for the kitchen, and to look after a cow and a few pigs you could have, another to go with the priests on their journeys, because if you want to do good it will be absolutely necessary to continually visit these tribes scattered here and there over the land. A poor lone priest, in these forests, on these frightful tracks, in these torrents, is at great risk to his life. Several of our priests have almost perished. Thus Father Chanel would still probably be living if he had not been abandoned like that… Never should a priest be on his own, you have often told us, but here perhaps more so than elsewhere, in view of the physical and moral dangers which are found. A few truly devoted women, such as our good women religious, would do the greatest good in the main centres, especially among the Europeans, who soon will be the sole masters of New Zealand. These good Sisters could have all the young women to train them for work and teach them – good Brothers for the little boys – in this way, by taking over young people, perhaps something good could be achieved. But if we do not take over the young people, I see all our works as almost useless. Someone will perhaps tell me that Sisters could harm us. Not as much as one might imagine, especially if these women were truly devoted, with good sense, because here, like anywhere else, people judge a tree by its fruit… and for every badly disposed person who could complain, a thousand would bless them because of the services they would do for the sick. In all of New Zealand there is not a school in the least properly set up; the Protestants have very little concern about that; they hardly need them to succeed. The Catholic mission has only a little school for boys at the Bay of Islands. This school is still very neglected, taught now by some, at other times by others. In my view it is the capital issue. We need to capture young people if we want to achieve anything. But, I will be told in reply – how are these religious women to be maintained? To that, as to everything else, I will say in reply that one or two good administrators should be appointed, given all the authority that they can need, given some small amount of money to begin with, beginning in a small way, and I say they will succeed. It seems to me that if all the necessary personnel were available, that is to say, a good number of farmer-Brothers, and some of these good women, great benefits could result from little expenditure. I am convinced that a hospital in each main place, such ass Auckland, Port Nicolson, Nelson, New Plymouth and even the Bay of Islands, would be much used by the English, even Protestants, and seafarers, who would not be reluctant to make some sacrifice to find help for their sick people. Since I have been at the Bay of Islands I have already seen poor ill seamen who did not know what would become of them and who would have paid a great deal to someone who would have wanted to take care of them. Apart from that, if the Catholic mission does not provide these sorts of establishments, the Protestants will have them later, and as a result we will find it impossible to do the good work that could be done. I am sharing my ideas with you, Reverend Father, in a simple way. May God make of them whatever will most conform to his greater glory. Beyond that, Father Epalle will inform you about a lot of things which escape me right now and which time would otherwise not allow me to tell you about. But what I ask you for, in the name of all my confrères, is a good administrator, who is independent of the Bishop, who will handle the money destined for the priests. We all implore you that the money for our temporal needs be not included with the money for the Bishop’s temporal needs. All the confrères implore you for this, and entreat the Holy See for this, because you understand that if, after having suffered as people have suffered because of this administration, the same situation goes on, all your religious will abandon the mission. I can tell you what I am sure about on the above matters. It is in fact really terrible to not have a bite to eat while others use up a hundred francs a day. All the confrères ask you as a favour that there be no longer a ship for the New Zealand mission, unless other funds are found than those allocated for the missions.
[10]
Finally I eagerly await news from you telling me what role I will have in the future. I am very happy here in spite of my false position because I am convinced that I am where God wants me to be. I am now fairly well.
[11]
All your children who are here offer you their respect.
[12]
Further, women religious would take care of our clothing, which is vanishing from sight. Everything is wearing out without being mended. I am not afraid to say here what Father Grange said, when considering the poor state of the mission. If it is in a wretched state, it is almost entirely the fault of the administrators. Because when everything is considered, what is needed to live on can easily be got here. You can easily get wheat, a cow, pigs, sheep, goats, a good garden, wine; but planting has to be done and should have been done in the beginning. Speaking about vines, several plants of those which earlier had been given me have been preserved. We hope that in two or three years they will give us wine. I really want to thank the good Sister of the Holy Faith who procured them for me and the gardener who gave them to us.
[13]
If you allow me to do so, before ending my letter I will offer you a few ideas which have come to my mind. I believe that Bishop Pompallier will have a lot of difficulty accepting the measures which could be taken for the good of the mission, such as having an administration independent of the Bishop. He will never, perhaps, bear some part of what the Propagation of the Faith allocates him being awarded to the missionaries by you or another person. The experience of the past is a strong enough proof of what is likely to happen in the future, and however, as it is impossible that without the two conditions the mission goes on with the priests which are there, then it seems to me that if Rome saw it appropriate to provide Bishop Pompallier with secular priests, that would be, I believe, what would suit him very much for several reasons: 1) because the Society of Mary is a bit on his mind; 2) because secular priests could perhaps be stationed on their own without Brothers etc, which could not suit us for good and wise reason; 3) because the French, no matter how good they may be, will never suit the English well: the English Catholics are not slow to tell us that they love us, but that they prefer their priests because they are much more familiar with their customs, their ways of doing things, their way of speaking. Then there is still a great antipathy between these two nations which extends even to small things. Every day we have a proof of this at the Bay of Islands. We have two Englishmen, a young Latin student, and the other teaching English. Well, if anyone says the least thing which can even slightly harm their nation, they get angry and take off. British priests would have much more influence with their government and their people. A New Zealand which has become a British colony and soon will be entirely inhabited by British people would always look upon French people with difficulty, as foreigners among its inhabitants. Besides, this mission will always be very expensive for us in spite of the good administration that can be had, because of transportation, voyages which are extremely costly and very dangerous. British priests would have more mobility, they could get a passage from one place to another on their government’s ships. There are almost always some on these coasts. Besides, this government which would protect them could get free passages for them even on merchant ships. We can hardly ever, I believe, expect similar assistance, for the sole reason that we are French and that we want to impose our authority on English people. The clergy of Sydney said this formally to Mr Perret or to one of our Fathers who was asking them for funds to help our mission succeed. He was told in reply: “You will get everything [you need] to succeed, but there is an important fact that harms your cause, that is, being French.” Frenchmen will never do well with English people – they are of quite a different type. Already several of our missionaries have such a hostility towards the English that they cannot put up with them.
[14]
That being the case, I say that if Bishop Pompallier was to receive English or other priests, he would be entirely the leader they would wish for; perhaps he would get on with them better (perhaps worse), but the priests of the Society being led by one or two Bishops who are good or very good Marists, who cling to the Society from the bottom of their hearts, could work all together, united with one heart and souls [cf Acts 4:32] in the islands of the tropics where there is, incontestably, much more good to be done than in New Zealand. The natives have not as yet been spoiled as they have here. The costs would not be as considerable, nor the dangers so great. New Guinea, it is said, offers a vast field for the zeal of a host of missionaries. It has a great number of inhabitants among whom one could, it is said, do better than among those of New Zealand. While you deal with these major and important matters, we will pray here to the good God, that He gives you the necessary graces, especially in the choice of administrators.
[15]
In the light of all information, it seems to me that you will not be able to find here, in the mission, the men you will need for that. Because we must not pretend that the administration will not have to contend with the Bishop, and it will have to be sturdy in maintaining its efforts.
[16]
It would be very desirable to have, for that purpose, an oldish man who can impose himself a bit and who is not afraid to speak to the Bishop while still maintaining the deepest respect for His Lordship. I have asked several men if Father Epalle would be the suitable man. Generally I have been told that Father Epalle is indeed the one who up till now had best succeeded, he is even well liked here by the English, but that he was not able to stand up to the Bishop who viewed him as a child, and that he is a bit too young for that role.
[17]
Finally, good Father, please excuse me, but I am not afraid to speak to you in total simplicity because I know you will be well enough able to pick out what could be good in what I am telling you and to leave aside what is bad.
[18]
We are all in great expectation of an immediate change.
[19]
I am honoured to be, Very Reverend Father,
Your very humble and totally devoted, although very unworthy servant,
Forest
M(issionary) apost(olic)
[20]
PS. I forgot to tell you that we have Father Chanel’s body here. Since Father Epalle’s departure a French vessel called Jonas has anchored in the Bay of Islands. It had on board a fine doctor, a good Catholic, I believe. This doctor came to see us. We spoke to him about this body which was still in the barrel into which it had been put to bring here. We expressed to him our desire to put it in a more decent and becoming place. He made himself available to do that. We exposed the body, but we really found the bones all stripped of flesh. A little chest was made out of tin, and was well lined with cloth, then his remains were placed in it in as decent a state as possible. We took care to make a written account of everything that was done, and, if some day people wanted to have these remains in France, they would be sent, well preserved, I hope, with all possible decency. This tin chest is still wrapped in a piece of cloth. As well, it has been placed in a box made of good wood, and it will be kept in a worthy place.
[21]
2nd PS. As you see, this letter should have come to you through Mr Perret, who had decided on his departure for France and was getting ready to leave with Father Petit-Jean for Sydney, when suddenly he changed his mind and seemed to be completely decided to settle here in order to serve the mission. His health is not very good, but anyway I think it is as good as when he was in France. His greatest problem is in his imagination: I do believe he will soon commit himself by vows. Father Reignier has made his.[3] Everyone is very close, which surprises me in view of all the difficulties we are having. In this respect the good God is giving us a very great grace.
[22]
I am sending my letter to you, to Valparaiso. I hope that it will find Father Epalle still there, and that he will carry it on to you. Please always have prayers said for your children beyond the seas. They do not forget you.


Notes

  1. Cf Docs 152 and 170
  2. The cemetery at Lyons, on the western slope of Fourvière hill.
  3. Father Euloge Reignier made his vows on Pentecost Sunday, 15 May 1842, at the Bay of Islands (cf Doc 173 [3])