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Fr Forest to Fr Epalle, Bay of Islands, 9 November 1842

Introduction and translation by Br Edward Clisby FMS

Clisby Letter 33


Jean Forest (1804-1884). ordained in 1830, joined the Marist aspirants at the Hermitage at the end of 1831, moving with them to Valbenoite the following year. He took his vows with the first group in 1836 and worked mainly as a parish missioner until his appointment in 1841 as Visitor to the Marist missions of Oceania. As he had been a fellow-seminarian of Pompallier's, as well as a colleague and friend, Colin obviously hoped he would be able to iron out some of the difficulties which had arisen between the bishop and the Society. He was superior of the 6th group of missionaries which left for New Zealand in November 1841. On the 6th April 1842 they arrived in Port Nicholson where they found an Irish Catholic population of about 200 (about a tenth of the town's population) anxious to have priests of their own. This was one of the issues the senior Marists had to deal with when the party reached the Bay of Islands in May, Pompallier being away in the tropics. Once Epalle and Petit-Jean had set out on their respective missions, Forest decided to implement the decision about Port Nicholson by proceding first to Auckland with Deodat, the brother destined for the new station, before going on to make a visitation of the southern stations. Deodat (Jean Villemagne 1816-1842) was one of Champagnat's last novices, having entered the Hermitage in August 1839. He probably remained there until leaving for Oceania a month after he had made his final profession. Port Nicholson was to be his first appointment away from the Bay of Islands. It was also to be his last anywhere. He and Borjon left Auckland on the schooner "Speculator" on the night of 31 July / 1 August 1842. The vessel was last seen leaving Mercury Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula on August 12 and had not arrived at Wellington by early November. It is believed to have gone down without any survivors on a reef off the East Cape, near where its windlass was found a year later. It was officially declared lost on the 17 December.

The third member of the proposed mission fortunately arrived too late to join them. Louis Rozet (1813-1884), another "Marist on trial", had been curate at St Martin-en-Cailloux, adjacent to the Hermitage, before joining the missionary group which sailed at the end of 1840. He had been working at Opotiki since shortly after his arrival in New Zealand. He was to remain on the mission until 1853 when he returned to France to make his novitiate in the Society, but after his profession in 1854 he did not return to the Pacific. Baty had been working on the coast south of him around the Mahia Peninsula. As the best Maori scholar among the Marists at this stage he had been recalled to Kororareka to prepare the text of Pompallier's catechism for printing. But when he arrived there he found the bishop had taken the draft with him, and had to wait until he returned towards the end of August. He was not the only one, of course, inconvenienced by Pompallier's absence. The whole mission was in a sad state, as this letter reveals only too clearly. In his later report to Rome, Pompallier writes that, on his return, he "found the New Zealand mission in great difficulties in money matters, and consequently in a state of spiritual languor. The funds which my administration were awaiting from Europe had been lost in London through the failure of the bank that was to transmit them to Oceania. Besides, as the means of communication in our far-off country were very irregular, the help that was sent after this bankruptcy did not arrive for a long time, and then at disjointed intervals" (Pomp. 81). His arrival restored the confidence of both missionaries and creditors to a large extent and the financial situation at least began to improve. Br Colomb, assigned to the Auckland mission with Petit-Jean, was able to bring Forest the latest news. But the latter was unable to start his visitation until the following year after Pompallier had ascertained he posed no threat to his authority. His experiences on the trip back to the Bay are probably rather typical of travel on little coastal traders at this time, although in this case crew and passengers obviously went out of their way to make the priest feel unwelcome.

Mary Goulter, in her book Sons of France (1958), quotes extensively in translation from this letter (pp 98-9),104-109), the original of which is in the APM. Extracts also feature in the booklet God Gives, God Takes Away published by the Marist Brothers in New Zealand in August 1992 to mark the 150th anniversary of the loss of Fr Borjon and Br Deodat.

Text of the Letter

Sir, and very dear Confrere,
I am very pleased to send you some news of interest to you about what has been happening in the Bay of Islands or elsewhere in New Zealand since you left for France, even if it is a bit rushed.
Fr Petit-Jean, as it was agreed, went to Sydney a few days after your departure. Our plight was already well known in the city. It aroused the compassion of many good people who were only too willing to help us if they had the means, but it made little impression on the rich, who needed a lot of coaxing to provide us with three hundred pounds sterling and supplies worth a hundred. As well as that, the Father almost filled a ship with all sorts of animals, a little like Noah's ark. He brought back two cows, a good number of sheep, pigeons, bees, and I don't know what else. He also bought 20 sacks of flour at a very reasonable price, a great quantity of sugar, leather, saplings of all kinds. I can't tell you everything he brought back, since I had been in Auckland more than two months when he arrived.
I went there in the first place to see Frs Borjon and Rozet who were supposed to pass through on their way to Nicholson, and at the same time to provide any services I could to the numerous Catholic Europeans who were there without a priest. I arrived there a fortnight before those priests, luckily for them, for they arrived without a penny in their pockets and owing their fares as well. The money (30 pounds sterling) they had been sent for their passage had been stolen on board the "Blame You", the ship to which it had been entrusted. Fr Borjon arrived first, owing his captain a pound. I paid him from the money given me for my voyage to Tauranga and Opotiki. Three or four days later, we found a little ship leaving for Nicholson. This was a favourable opportunity to send on their way Fr Borjon and Br Deodat whom I had brought with me to accompany the priests. We asked the price of passage - 16 pounds sterling for the two, we were told. But what to do? We had only five pounds. I thought of all the families in Auckland who could or would be willing to lend us money. I could think of only one, a French lady married to an English Protestant. I approached her and told her of our predicament and she lent us 3 pounds. Three and the five I had made eight, enough for one fare. But what about the other? We thought of getting the Catholics of Nicholson to pay it. We put this proposal to the captain who found it agreeable. The father and the brother left quite happily, trusting entirely in divine Providence, for they had only three shillings for their needs on arrival. I recommended they send us news as soon as they could, but three months have passed and we have heard nothing, though several ships have arrived from that place since their departure. I was still waiting when I read in the Auckland Gazette that the "Eleanora" (that was the name of their little ship)[1] had not yet reached Nicholson, its destination, and that there were fears for its safety. Imagine how I felt then, especially when I learned the ship had a bad reputation and the captain a scarcely better. But a fortnight ago we heard it had been seen in the port of Nelson, which is not far distant from Nicholson. This news reassured us somewhat but not entirely, for the crossing from one place to the other is a dangerous one. It is necessary to cross Cook Strait, a hazard to sailors. We have heard nothing more. Have they arrived or haven't they? Could they have completely vanished en route? What would they have suffered if they escaped death? As soon as we have happier news we will let you know.
Fr Borjon had hardly left Auckland than Fr Rozet and Fr Baty arrived, the last two no more fortunate than the first. Fr Rozet had had all sorts of problems getting to Auckland. The natives he had employed to convey his belongings from his house to the ship abandoned him and his luggage on a little island because he couldn't pay them as much as they wanted. The poor Father might have perished there in misery if divine Providence had not sent some Protestant missionaries along. Moved to compassion at the sight of this poor abandoned unfortunate, they took him in their boat and carried him to his ship. See how ungrateful we wretches are who are overwhelmed with all sorts of favours! The captain of the vessel, seeing he had no money, got him to write a note for 10 pounds sterling payable at Kororareka. Fr Baty was a little luckier than the others in having enough to pay his passage, but he hadn't a penny more to live on or to get to the Bay of Islands where they were impatiently waiting for him to print the Maori book.
So there we were, three priests in Auckland, with nothing to live on or get us elsewhere. We were without Brothers and had to do our own cooking, fetch the wood, having nothing to buy anything with, go and find our own water. And how to do that in a town where all eyes are on you? To spare ourselves embarrassment we found it necessary to go and gather some wood in a remote place during the day and then bring it back at night, the same with the water we needed. We might still have been able to avoid that if we had had some food supplies, but all we had were a few potatoes and a little pork. These provisions could not last long and we discussed what we would do then; would it really come to begging? We began a little novena in honour of the Blessed Virgin. The first day we had only just said our Masses when a good Catholic named Dominic[2] from Wangaroa called in. He had just arrived in Auckland and something had prompted him to come and ask us what commissions there were to be done for the Bay of Islands. At the same time he offered to take us to the Bay of Islands free any time the opportunity arose. He made all these offers without our having asked anything at all. We could not help weeping with joy and thanking divine Providence for the help sent. We had tried all human means possible. Fr Rozet had sacrificed a gold watch in order to pay his passage. He had sent it to a watchmaker to be sold but no one had offered to buy it.
I had been by myself for a fortnight when at last Br Colomb arrived. He brought me the news that Monsignor Pompalier [sic] had been back from the tropics since the 25th of August. He had brought three or four natives with him. The Catholic faith and the gospel were making rapid progress in the islands and Wallis and Futuna were completely converted. Fr Chevron had been left on Tongatabu, a very large island, and Fr Grange would soon be joining him there. Br Augustin was leaving at the same time to replace Br Joseph, who had contracted a painful affliction of the legs. The father and the brother would be carried to their destinations by His Lordship's schooner which was on its way to Valparaiso to be sold, and then Captain Michel would return home to France.
A few days later I had the following letter from Fr Baty:
“My dear Confrere, His Lordship has asked me to give you this message: As soon as Fr Petit-Jean arrives, if you have the money on you, proceed with your voyage to Tauranga. If you haven't sufficient for that but you have enough to pay your fare to the Bay of Islands, take a ship for here. If you haven't any funds, take Dominic's little schooner if you can for Wangaroa and then make your way here. If you are unable to follow any of these courses, I believe it is still Monsignor's intention that you come here."
If I have the money on me, he says, I can sail to Tauranga! But don't they understand my situation? Fr Baty wrote the letter and he had long enough to see for himself how badly off I was. Didn't he tell Monsignor anything about it? Where could I have got the money since he left? Truly, could they be adding insult to injury or were they serious? I am not going to go into that. In the last resort I had here as elsewhere to trust to divine Providence. It would not abandon me even if it allowed me to be humiliated a bit and to find a good opportunity for expiating my sins by a little suffering.
When Fr Petit-Jean arrived to replace me, without bringing me any funds, I had to go. But how? I had no money. I had no choice. The little ship belonging to the good Catholic who had rescued my confreres from their difficulty happened to be in port and was about to sail. But her owner was not here, and the captain, a Protestant, would not take kindly to taking on a Catholic priest as passenger, especially for nothing. However, he was the man I had to approach and humbly beg for a passage. I went and found him. Curtly and coldly he informed me he was not going to the Bay of Islands. I did not respond, although I knew the contrary. I waited another day, thinking to find our captain better disposed. But quite the opposite. He declared angrily he had made it quite clear he was not going to the Bay. The time for departure was close and I knew for certain he was going to the Bay. What could I do? I resorted to a little deceit. I used a third person to ask a place for a passenger without giving a name. It was immediately granted. But what a shock for our captain when the new passenger put in an appearance! He got out of it as best he could by saying the circumstances had changed and that now he was going to the Bay of Islands. I went on board the 18th October a little before sunset. The boat was to leave the same night. I found no one there except one passenger lying on a grubby bunk and so full of wine he could scarcely stutter a word or two. I looked for somewhere to settle down. There was no shortage of room because, although the vessel was a small one (only about 12 to 15 tons), it was completely empty. All it carried were some potatoes in Maori baskets. However, I could hardly find a single spot even remotely clean - everywhere there were traces of dogs, for they had several of them. Finally I crawled as best I could to the highest part of the boat hoping I would have a bit of privacy there. My place was not a comfortable one. Some beams left by the ship's carpenter had to serve me both as bolster and bed. Still, I consoled myself with the thought that it was not for long, and that a night and a day would suffice us to reach our destination. The night was already advanced and still no one had appeared when finally I heard some noise as people started clambering aboard from the dinghy. They made hard work of it although it was easy enough to do. It was our captain with five passengers, all in various states of drunkenness. I hid myself as best I could in my little corner and didn't make a sound. Someone asked if the “priest" had arrived and the drunk on the bunk said yes. Then the jokes began. I leave it to you to imagine the kind of wit drunks are capable of. This worthy party tumbled down around me on the baskets of potatoes which were at my feet. They all had their pipes and soon I was enveloped in a foul-smelling cloud. When I did not rise to any of their remarks they finally went to sleep and we spent the night in port instead of getting under way. The night was a long one. I had bruised hips and an aching back.
At daybreak I stepped as carefully as possible over my sleeping drunks and went up on deck to breathe some fresh air. The smell of tobacco and wine had made me quite dizzy. I had all the time I needed to say my breviary and make my prayer before our honourable company woke. But the sun was already high and I was getting impatient when two of them, hawking and spitting, appeared on deck in their shirts. They came right over to me and stood, one on each side, to satisfy the call of nature, discussing at the same time the events of the night before. I made what allowances I could for them, although they weren't asking for any, for they didn't really have anywhere else to go. This sort of little coaster doesn't have any provision for that. They called the others and presently the whole company were afoot, but they took a long time getting dressed - they were all stiff. At last, they gave some thought to leaving; it was almost halfpast eight. But before going very far they had to take on ballast. We headed for a little island nearby. On the way they lit a fire to cook breakfast and boiled some water into which they put something I couldn't say for sure was tea. Then they took an old tin mug which was also used to feed the dogs and a little pig and wiped it very carefully with a dirty old handkerchief in front of me, doubtless to allay any fears I might have about its cleanliness. Then they put in some "brown" sugar and poured warm water over it. Then they took an old and long knife which all used in common and which I labelled the "omnibus" [for all purposes], stirred this highly agreeable potion, tasted it, and then poured it all into the pot. The sauce having been prepared, someone retrieved the old handkerchief they had left in the mug and poured me a generous amount of this beverage. I was never able to work out what it was, but it was not exactly delectable, and you had to be very thirsty to drink it. Then I was presented with a biscuit with a little very dirty fat from the bottom of a plate where the pork had been put the day before. The rest of the band poured into a big kettle the famous tea mentioned above, supplied themselves with biscuits which they smeared with the fat and set to with good spirit. As you can imagine, my breakfast was soon over. We reached the island and went looking for rocks to ballast the ship. At the same time our captain took his gun and went off pig hunting. Four o'clock in the afternoon arrived, but no captain. Our cook had prepared dinner. He had boiled a piece of pork in seawater for a long time. It was so dirty you couldn't tell what it was. Then, in the same water, he cooked some potatoes. That was dinner. The meal was served on an old tin plate which had been lying in a corner of the deck and which I had assumed was used for relieving oneself. This time it was not the old handkerchief which was used to clean it but our cook's coarse vest and shorts. The deck was the table and everyone sprawled around this famous plate and the pot of potatoes. They brought the old knife with its burnt black haft and its long worn blade, but we used Maori forks - four fingers and thumb. Each one in turn took the knife in one hand and the huge piece of pork in the other, and cut off slabs which, without exaggeration, must have weighed a good pound each. At length it came to my turn. I was embarrassed. They handed me the big knife. I didn't dare use my hands like the others. I looked for a piece of wood to use as a fork. How they laughed at my squeamishness. At last I hacked off a little bit and moved back to try and eat it. But how hard it was to swallow. There were long strips I couldn't manage. I fell back on the potatoes and biscuits but I needed water to wash them down. There was only the famous mug of tea. I asked for it and they made a show of hurrying to pass it to me, again wiping it ceremoniously with the handkerchief. Night came and with it our captain, emptyhanded. Supper was exactly the same as breakfast, the same helping, the same utensils. After each meal everyone had a smoke. It was the custom. The captain decided we would spend the night beside our island. Everyone went below deck to smoke their pipes. As for me, I stayed up on deck as long as I could, but finally I had to go below like the others. How embarrassing it was! There was no light, everywhere I stepped I trod on legs and arms and got cursed. At last I reached my poor little corner. I placed my hand on something soft. I thought it was some rotten potatoes and sniffed to see if I was not mistaken. No, I was not mistaken. They were indeed rotten. But too rotten - if you take my meaning. Here was an example of the good manners and propriety of sailors who have received all the fine education this type of boat can provide. To be brief, I reached my bed believing myself out of danger when suddenly a warm and pleasant rain fell on my bed and on my fingers. I enquired if it were possible that the mug of tea on deck had spilled over. I was told it was someone spilling his own tea. For the moment I couldn't contain myself and complained of the lack of consideration. Someone replied, "Certainly, it is not good." But in the meantime my bed was damp and my soutane too. I had no thought of undressing if I wanted to preserve even a little of my priestly modesty. O sad night! Only thunder without lightning - and the smell of tea and old pork did not spread a nice incense.
It was already the third day since our departure. It was Wednesday and we were still in sight of Auckland. I waited impatiently for daybreak. But a strong wind had arisen in the wrong quarter for the Bay of Islands. We waited till midday but the wind was still increasing, so we decided to seek shelter. We anchored in a pretty bay about three leagues north of Auckland. There we spent the night in as much comfort as the preceding one. The next morning the wind had changed a little but we were out of wood, and we had to get some before we got under way. The captain went off by himself with an axe. Two hours passed and he had not returned. Breakfast was waiting. At nine o'clock he arrived. We had to go ashore, carry the wood onto the ship, and then have breakfast, and all that took time. It was halfpast ten when we hauled in the anchor and set sail. The conditions were very good and we made good progress that day and all the night. On Friday morning a head wind arose and became very strong. We sheltered in a bay and stayed there Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Monday morning the wind turned in our favour. But we were out of provisions and we still had a long way to go. The captain claimed he had no money and had to take up a little collection. Everyone gave him something, but when he came to me I hung my head and told him to advance something for me and I would repay him at the Bay of Islands. I didn't have a penny. He said nothing but left and went to a little house where a poor European was living and asked for a little pork. The man gave him a few pounds of pork which the dogs had got in the bush and dragged about for some time. It was still covered with mud, blood, and the toothmarks of the dogs, and the hide was still on it. That was what we had to live on until our arrival. Everyone was happy except me. "Plenty pork now," they said, "plenty pork." I expected them to clean it up a bit. Not at all. They put it in the pot just as it was, and took it out later with the old knife. But this time I couldn't touch it. I made do with the potatoes for the rest of the voyage and a little biscuit.
We took on more passengers at this place. A young Maori girl who was staying in the European's house came on board. She carried under her clothes, that is her covering, a little pig and a dog. As well she had a big box full of cloth. Up till then I had put up with a lot but I had been patient. But the scandalous conduct of the whole company with this poor young girl wore me down to the point where I had to remonstrate with the captain for keeping the poor creature on the bed night and day. You can work out for yourself what a priest should think and say in such circumstances. To crown my misfortunes my diet was affecting me badly, and my needs became so pressing I was forced to follow the example of the others and take my pants down, with as much modesty as possible, before everyone on the edge of the deck. At last, on Wednesday at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, we arrived at the Bay of Islands. They hardly recognised me there, such were the effects of the trials I had endured.
This is what we have been reduced to! Make haste, make haste to come to our aid. If I had had a little money I wouldn't have taken that boat. There were others larger and quite comfortable coming to the Bay.
I will end now. It is two o'clock in the morning. His Lordship asked me yesterday evening to write this little account to show you, as well as the Father Superior and the Propagation of the Faith, what a state we have been brought to.
Pay no attention to the numerous mistakes you will find here. I have neither the time nor the courage to correct them. The ship which is carrying this to you is leaving in the morning. Goodbye, my dear friend. Pray for us and get others to pray for us too. On our side we will persevere from day to day.
I have the honour of being your devoted servant,


  1. In a letter to Colin in October Forest gives the vessel’s name as "Speculator" and all the evidence suggests that is the correct name. But Forest, as he admits, was writing this letter in haste and did not have time to check for errors. This one had a long life, being taken up by Fr A. Monfat in his history of the Church in New Zealand, published in 1896 and influencing subsequent histories until Fr M. Mulcahy laid it to rest in 1982. As for the "Eleanora" (or "Eleanor"), she may well have been the little ship of Forest's own nightmare voyage which left such an indelible mark on his memory.
  2. qv Letter 25

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