From Marist Studies
19 August 1842 — Father Catherin Servant to Father Jean-Antoine Bissardon, Superior of the priests of St Irenaeus, missionaries of Lyons, Futuna
Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, June 2015
- Futuna 19 August 1842
- Letter From Father Servant to Father Bissardon, superior of the Carthusians in Lyons, for Father Bourdin, historian.
- Father Superior,
- Today I am about to fulfil a duty of gratitude which the distance between places cannot make me forget; I am presuming that by describing to you the state of this mission, I will be able, perhaps, to please you. This little corner of the world has been watered by the blood of a martyr!!!
- Reverend Father Chanel, before his death, had baptised about 50 people who had gone before him into heaven. He was about to conquer the island for the faith through the conversion of the king’s son; already a certain number of young people, scorning the practices of their superstitious cult, had had themselves inscribed in the ranks of the catechumens, but at that time when there were so many obstacles to the preaching of the gospel, the seeds of Christianity had been sown only imperceptibly and without fanfare. It was children who received them with extraordinary courage; I was told that a ten-year-old child, in order to escape the persecution From his parents and other pagans, went into the forest each day to pray to God, and hid the medal which Reverend Father Chanel had given him, and which he saw as a treasure.
- Such was the state of the mission in Futuna when the King formed the terrible plot to kill Reverend Father Chanel. I am not about to tell you here of the circumstances of his glorious death because I presume you already have knowledge of that.
- It seems that that king was quite treacherous; while outwardly seeming to be good, not only had he abandoned Father Chanel and didn’t want to give him food any more, but as well he had ordered his people to strip him of the fruits that the good Father grew with difficulty. But that crime was not the only one, because what has never been read in the annals of human cruelty, that king went so far as to eat his own mother. I have been told that according to the king’s command, not only had Father Chanel to be massacred, but, as well, all those who had embraced the faith; the king’s son, whom seduction and the fear of punishments had not shaken, was included in the condemnation to death, however he was spared.
- At that time a young man, very attached to Reverend Father Chanel, ran towards the place of execution to die with him: he couldn’t go on living, he said, because Father Chanel had died. The murderers told that young man to appear, but his relatives and friends stopped him from going on.
- Father Chanel’s death gave the king and the pagans a sense of triumph, but that triumph did not last long; a few days later death struck one of the most influential advisers of the king who had had a lot to do with Father Chanel’s death, and the king himself died after a long illness. Those deaths were seen by the natives as God’s vengeance. But what above all contributed to the conversion of Futuna were the apostolic efforts of a chief called Sam, a native distinguished by his outstanding qualities which endear him to all those who know him; but before getting to that, we need to go back a bit.
- For a long time there had been two factions on Futuna, the victors and the vanquished. These two groups made war on each other from time to time, and, especially, two years earlier, there had been a bloody war. Sam, who was the leader of the vanquished, had to maintain the war against the victors. In this struggle Sam showed heroic courage; not noticing that his men had fled, he resisted on his own, for two hours, the attack of 300 warriors, dodging the spear thrusts and fighting like a lion; then, noticing that he was alone on the battlefield, he ran to seek refuge on the heights of a mountain. Reverend Father Chanel went and visited him. At the first meeting, the good Father wept over him, embraced him, got him to understand that he owed his life to the Blessed Virgin, whose medal he had been wearing during the fight, suggested to him that he get off the island as soon as possible to escape the hatred of the victors, who inevitably would have killed him, because Sam was hated by the victors because of the scorn he had for the superstitions of Futuna, for the prodigious strength that Providence had given him, and the trust given him by the sailors whose ships willingly stopped off his territory. Sam followed Father Chanel’s advice, and embarked for Wallis, where he had the happiness to receive the blessing of instruction. Some time after, he came back to Futuna on board the corvette, the Allier, but, alas, his good Father was no longer there, he had mourned his death for three days. When he landed, he went with his wife into the house that Father Chanel had made with his own hands, to say evening prayer there. He met two children; one 10 years old and the other 12, he suggested to them to believe in God and to pray together, to renounce the superstitions of Futuna, to burn their tapous, to never give up their belief in spite of persecution; these children not only accepted everything, but as well they got their parents to embrace the religion, they took them by the hand to come to prayers, as well, they persuaded their young companions to recognise the true God, telling them that they experienced an interior light which led them to see that they possessed the truth. From that moment the whole island was moved. Sam ran night and day into various villages to instruct them; he was not short of difficulties to overcome; people attached to paganism, especially the priests and the old men threatened him with the anger of the gods, telling him that the gods would eat him; but he would reply: Let them come and eat me tonight, but tomorrow, if I am not eaten, you will believe in the great God. They all were quick to see that the story of the gods of Futuna was only a tissue of lies, and they were united in breaking up and burning the things involved in their superstitious cult, and in eating food forbidden by the strict law of tapu.
- Such were the attitudes of the natives when we arrived at Futuna. Our Bishop gathered the first fruits of the harvest, and on 9th June 1842 he left Father Roulleaux and myself to gather in the remainder. At that same time Sam was elected as king by the unanimous votes of the old men of both factions. What happiness for Futuna!
- We began to exercise the sacred ministry by baptising little children, and in the first visit that I made to the two islands, I baptised all the children that I could find. Among those little creatures were the children of the assassin king and the murderers of Father Chanel. It was a consolation for us to see that none of them died without baptism. The sick also shared in our care. Through good Brother Marie-Nizier we were able to instruct them and baptise them. Among the sick was the wife of the assassin king, who was accused of having greatly contributed to the death of Reverend Father Chanel by the hatred she bore him and the bad advice she gave to her husband, but, O divine mercy, in her last illness, she asked me to instruct her and to baptise her, and she died some days later, having obtained that grace. This journey brought me the honour of burying the remains of idolatry in Futuna. For in the middle of a public space there was still standing a sacred stone in which the people of the island believed that the divinity was specially present. Two young men, happening by chance to go past, one a neophyte and one a catechumen, were employed to pull out and break up this sacred stone among outbursts of laughter from the onlookers.
- When I saw the various places where good Father Chanel had been, how oppressed I was! What feelings I experienced! Here he was forced to work with his own hands to live! There, on tracks scattered with sharp stones, he walked barefoot to save money. There he worked at building his house with bamboos. There he walked and rested! I still have the stick he used in his journeys, the little dog, his faithful companion which he caressed and which seemed to recognise his beloved master in the similarity of our clothing, a bloodstained soutane which he was wearing on the day of his glorious martyrdom. But nothing arouses my feelings more than seeing the places where he began to pour out his blood, where he fell under the blow of the murderer’s axe, and where his body was buried. Nowadays the grave of the apostle of Futuna is often visited. At daybreak many natives kneel at the foot of the cross which the Bishop had erected at the place where rest some remains of the body of Reverend Father Chanel. Father Superior, what is our consolation to consider that the martyr intercedes for us in heaven!.... We are harvesting what he sowed in his difficulties and sufferings. On the 17th July we were able to baptise 30 adults, among whom was the king’s minister. The king was his godfather. An American who lives here shared in the same blessing. He had found, in some books that we had lent him, the true Church of Jesus Christ; but of all the ceremonies, the one that most consoled us up to now, was that of the baptism of 60 catechumens on the day of the Assumption. At the Mass, I gave an instruction appropriate to the occasion; the natives heard with delight the story of her whom they call their good mother (tsi) Cinana Malie. Finally I got to the ceremony of baptism; the king was again the godfather; one of his relatives was among those who were to be baptised. The 60 catechumens, ranked in order, gave a fine example of modesty and recollection. When they had all together replied that they were renouncing Satan, his pomps and works, I spoke to them about the blessedness they shared in renouncing the father of lies, and of the obligation they were taking on, to be faithful to God forever. I explained to them as well that the chrism was the symbol of the innocence in which they must now persevere, and that the blessed candle represented the charity that must always burn in their hearts; that moving ceremony brought tears of joy to several of our good natives. I hope that in a few months, when the people of Futuna have been instructed enough, they will all receive the grace of baptism.
- In finishing, Father Superior, I beg you to commend me to our divine Master and to Mary our good mother.
- I am etc...
- Servant, missionary apostolic.
- Jean-Antoine Bourdin (1803 – 1883), a Marist priest. In summer 1833 Peter Chanel and he accompanied Jean-Claude Colin to Rome, where he presented the plan for the Society of Mary to the Holy See. During the summer of 1843 Father Colin made him responsible for carrying out, in the diocese of Belley, preliminary research for the writing of a life of Father Chanel, in view of which Father Mayet had already got together some material, but which the Superior–General wanted to see written by the former colleague and friend of the martyr.(cf OM 4, p 204).
- The author refers back to this baptism of sixty adults in a letter to Colin (cf doc 225 )