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Br Claude-Marie to Br Francois (2), Purakau on the Hokianga River, 26 July 1842

LO 35

Clisby, Letter 31.


This letter, written at the same time as the preceding, was intended for the eyes of Francois alone. It is an account of conscience of the type the missionaries were supposed to make to Colin as Superior General every 6 months. In fact, Claude-Marie had written a similar letter to Colin on 2 January (LO 27) and was to write a much more detailed one to him six months later (LO 36). Since the main problems raised affected the Brothers as such, it was only natural for him to turn to the Director General as well, as indeed the Rule required.[1]

Some problems the Brothers shared with the priests on mission, such as the difficulty of following a fixed rule of life and living in community. These had already contributed to the growing rift between the Marists and the Vicar Apostolic. The latter's policy of spreading his men as widely as possible and the poverty in which they were forced to live also caused another problem for the Brothers which was eventually to sour relations between the two branches of the Society, the brothers and the priests.

Whatever their employment on the mission, the Brothers had originally been sent out as catechists. The introduction to the Prospectus of 1840 listed as one of the aims of the Brothers of Mary, "serving as catechists in the foreign missions" (CSG1. 341) and this was repeated in the 1844 Prospectus (CSG1. 382). Moreover, this was the understanding in Rome. In his report to the Cardinals of the Congregation for Evangelisation meeting on 8 August 1842 to consider the establishment of a new (Marist) Vicariate of Central Oceania, Cardinal Mai remarked of the Brothers working in Oceania: "And since these latter serve as catechists, they are hardly less efficient than (the priests) in propagating the faith" (R. Wiltgen, The Founding of the Roman Catholic Church in Oceania 1825-1850. Canberra 1979) 240).

The reality was rather different, and if Elie-Regis found plenty of opportunity to work as catechist, the majority of his confreres did not. Their superiors on the mission did not even agree on their role. Epalle, for example, in a letter to Colin of 31 August 1840 (LO 16) recording the departures of Michel and Ammon, expressed his belief that the Brothers would be better employed helping improve the material life of the natives first, rather than directly aiding their spiritual development. Poverty, circumstances, and sometimes the whim of the local superior, forced many of them to spend the greater part of their time on work which could otherwise have been done by hired help. This led to their being regarded by outsiders, European and Maori alike, and even by some of the priests themselves, as simple servants. It appears to have been Pompallier who reinforced this impression by making the Brothers dress as laymen and by having them, at least at the procure, eat apart from the priests. This practice was probably intended to emphasize to outsiders they were not clerics; unfortunately it also obscured the fact they were religious. There were also differences in temperament to be considered and these as much as other things probably made Claude-Marie's position at Hokianga much more difficult than it might have been elsewhere. His superior, Fr Petit, seems to have been a harder man than most. Maxime Petit (1797-1858), a Marist from 1838, was a member of the second group to come to New Zealand and spent most of his missionary life in the north. Exacting on himself and others, he returned to France in 1852 and was one of those responsible for an enquiry initiated by Rome into Pompallier's administration of his new diocese of Auckland in 1853 (Simmons 135-6). Since Claude-Marie's last posting in the north was back to Hokianga, it seems he and Petit may have become reconciled by then. Antoine Garin (1810-1889), a priest from 1834 and a Marist from 1837, was appointed Provincial in 1841. In 1850 he became first parish priest of Nelson in the South Island, and it was with him that Claude Marie worked for the rest of his life in New Zealand.

These problems were not new ones. In his letter to the missionaries of 21 November 1840 Colin seems to have specific complaints in mind when he writes: "As for those who are your companions and who are by custom called Brothers, let this term retain its full meaning for you. Love them like brothers, regard them as children and be fathers to them. In our houses in Europe we are happy to have them at our tables, to foresee their needs, and ease their burdens sometimes by sharing them. More than once I have seen our fathers working in the kitchen, serving at table, washing the dishes to help out a brother who is indisposed. The Society is directed by the same spirit here and there. I am convinced that there as here the brothers are regarded as members of the same body..." (Lettres III 1840. ed G. Lessard. Projet d'édition des lettres écrites par Jean-Claude Colin sous son généralate 1836-1854. Hull. juin 1986. p64).

As the original of this letter is in the APM it appears Francois passed it on to Colin for his perusal afterwards, perhaps at the latter's request or simply to notify him of the problems. Avit makes a summary of the problems in the Annals (1-152; 2.217), including the first, however, under Attale's departure for the missions in 1839. The translation is taken from the text in LO which in its turn has been copied from the collection of photocopies in the AFM.

Text of the Letter

Very reverend and very dear Brother Director,
In writing to you I wanted to include in the letter an account of the state of my soul, and hope to receive from you a remedy for all my ills. Who better than you, responsible as you are for directing the dear brothers in France, can give good advice to the one who asks for it. I wait on your salutary counsel and, with God's grace, it will not remain without fruit.
Since I have been at Hokianga I have found myself under the direction of five different superiors and none of them has followed the same rule. Because of this I have had to change my order of prayer and spiritual exercises according to their instructions.
I have not had a fixed time for getting up. As soon as it is light I get up and, following my duty, get everyone else up. Prayer begins about a quarter of an hour later, followed by meditation in common for about thirty minutes. Every time I think about how I make meditation I groan inwardly because I experience such distractions and aridity as to prevent me concentrating on the subject of my meditation. No matter what efforts I make to keep my subject in mind, an instant later some other distraction comes, so that meditation is over without my having succeeded in recollecting myself even for a moment. I rarely make resolutions and those are not very affective, and no spiritual bouquet.[2] It worries me considerably to find myself already so old in religious life and so little advanced in prayer. I might be deluding myself but I believe that too many outside works may be partly the cause. What do you think?
After meditation comes Mass, when there is a priest here, and I have been told to say the little hours [of the office] during this so as to have more time for work. I often forget to make my particular examen, though sometimes I do that going to my tasks, but I almost always miss out reading the verses of the New Testament as the rule requires. I say my rosary in my free time, in the evening usually. As for office, it is recited most often during work as there is no time to say it otherwise. For two or three months I have left matins and lauds except on Sundays, following the practice of the Brothers at Kororareka. After office I always say the prayers you say according to custom.
There, my very dear Brother, are my exercises of piety, if only they were well said at the right time. But most often, and especially when I make them during work, I get distracted, and perform them with little attention or devotion.
I go to confession every eight or ten days and I go to communion only once or twice a week. I am extremely upset about that. I have a superior who frequently refuses me communion on the pretext he believes me disobedient, although I swear to you my conscience is quite clear on that account. This is a very great punishment for me since here communion is our only consolation.
I have a strong inclination to carress the native children and since they go around nearly naked I find pleasure in touching them on the shoulders, breast, face, etc, and this causes involuntary feelings and thoughts against the holy virtue. I had this bad habit in France of caressing the children by taking them by the hand. In coming here I thought I would lose it, but the opposite has happened.
We have a good Father Provincial in the reverend Father Garin. I have written to him five or six letters in which I have manifested my state, interior and exterior. I still continue to write to him every three months as the rule prescribes, and on his side he has had the goodness to offer me some very fatherly advice.
I am going to share with you my position, my sufferings, and my problems. From that you will see not only where I am, but, if I can say so, the situation in which almost all of us find ourselves, though I think my dear confreres are a little better off in more than one respect.
When I came on the mission my understanding was, that after learning the language, I would be employed as a catechist to instruct the good New Zealanders. Not a bit of it. A short time after, Monsignor Pompallier sent me to Hokianga, telling me I would be alright there and my occupations not too strenuous. This was true under good Fr Batty [sic], but he was replaced three months later by another priest whodid not get on well with me. I had to put my hand to the pick, the shovel, row the boat, etc. etc. and from that time to this I have not had a moments relaxation. If I want to write to someone it is only by the feeble light of a lamp, taking time from my sleep, that I can do it. From that also comes my lack of time to say my prayers or saying them during work, as I said earlier.
Despite that, I was still happy enough in those early days. But what depresses me now most is that, having worn myself out, I forget what I am told, or do not do it properly, or according to his wishes, and receive a sharp rebuke and am denied communion for a week. He tells me I am disobedient and deceitful, and leads me to believe I will be damned and that he himself will be my accuser on the Last Day.
Oh, very dear Brother, how deeply these thoughts have pierced my heart! How many tears they bring to my eyes! What fear they arouse in me! What? I ask myself. Can you have come so far only to lose yourself? I am so upset I have lost my appetite and experience severe migraines.
For about eight months I have been writing to the Bay of Islands to ask for a transfer, putting my reasons for this in the strongest terms and the most appropriate concerning my position. But all in vain. I was told in reply that if I should die under the weight of work, I would die a martyr of charity.
The Brothers here are regarded by the whites and by the natives as servants of the Fathers.[3] Here is some proof. One day an Englishman asked one of ours at the Bay of Islands what the word "frère" meant. He replied that it meant servants. Another time a priest said to me: "Brothers who want to come on the mission must consider that once they are here they will be hard-driven servants." That's very true. It has happened that I have not a moment even on a Sunday to go to confession, and assist at only one Mass for lack of time.
Observe my state, my very dear Brother. How often I recall the kind words our good Father Champagnat addressed me when I asked him to come. "My dear Brother," he said, "if you knew what conditions are like there, you wouldn't be so keen to go,” But I was far from expecting such a state of things. Yes, I avow to you, if I were in France now and knew what I know now, I certainly wouldn't want to come.
Another privation no less irksome is that we have had to leave off wearing our poor religious habit. We all thought we would put it on again on arrival here, but the habit of the world, lay dress, is what we wear now. Do you know what they did with this poor habit of Mary's, the habit I longed for so ardently when I was a novice and which I found a pleasure to wear once I had permission? It was torn up to make cloaks and trousers for the natives, according to dear Brother Colomb. The habit doesn't make the monk, it's true, but I am of the opinion that it helps strengthen the religious spirit of the one who has the good fortune to wear it, and often enough one falls into little faults which would not happen if one were wearing the holy habit.
In closing, however, I must admit that, though I have described to you some of my miseries, the memory of my sins, the pains and sufferings of our divine Master, the hope of a joy without limit or end - all these are motives more than strong enough to help me bear patiently with everything I have shared with you. If I have spoken of them to you it is not so much to complain as to let you see how things are, so that you send more good Brothers, strong, courageous, well used to all sorts of work, but especially good at farming, happy to suffer, patient, obedient, and, above all, humble and lovers of selfabnegation.
Pardon my temerity in making this little observation. Don't speak of my letter to anyone and send my reply sealed so that no-one else may read it.
Believe me to be your most humble child in Jesus and Mary
Brother Claude-Marie.


  1. Rule VII 2 (1837). The Rule required the Brothers to write to the Superior every 4 months, but this was obviously not expected of the Brothers in Oceania.
  2. A word or phrase or verse from Scripture summing up the subject for meditation, to be recalled as often as possible during the day to help maintain recollection.
  3. In his letter to Colin (2 January 1843) he elaborates on this theme: “To tell you plainly, my good Father, and in a few words, we are here in New Zealand as servants, and treated even worse than those in France .... The natives who witness these scenes only too often have a low opinion of us and give us the names - slave, cook, person of no standing."

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