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23 December 1843. — Father Euloge-Marie Reignier to Father Feret, director of the seminary in Nantes, Rotorua

Translated by Mary Williamson, September 2017.

Two sheets of “Bath” paper, forming eight pages, seven of which are written on, the eighth having only Poupinel’s annotation.

[p.8] [in Poupinel’s handwriting]
copy of a letter from Father Reignier to / Mr Feret, director of the seminary in Nantes / Rotorua 23rd December 1843.

Ad majorem Dei Gloriam

New Zealand, Rotorua station, 23rd December 1843

Laudetur Jesus Christus

Sir and very dear spiritual Father,
Since I arrived in New Zealand more than a year and a half ago, I have waited in vain for some letters from France. I have heard of the arrival of Father Bernard and two other Fathers; no letters for me, they had been forgotten, such had been the blessed will of God; may he be blessed and adored forever! At last, I have come to experience a true and touching pleasure, the greatest of enlightenment, in the reading of fifteen or so letters from France. What beautiful sentiments of faith from our brothers in France! What saintly wishes! What wafts of holy prayers rise from that blessed land and draw the dew and benedictions from the sky onto this land where the true church of Jesus Christ could hardly count one of his children! One single item in these letters covers me with confusion and deeply humiliates me, that is the high-flown idea that people have of a missionary and the feelings of veneration that are expressed about a miserable soul…. Alas! I tremble when, under their gaze, I must appear before the tribunal of my God whose judgements are so different from those of men.
May a thousand acts of grace be bestowed upon you for such true and admirable characteristics of the apostolic spirit as you have described to me in your letter; you feel towards me as a father would; so I beg of you, beseech the God of mercy that, after having rid me of self-love and the spirit of Satan, he leaves me [1] .cleansed enough to receive the fullness of the spirit of Jesus Christ, his holy son, blessed forever through all the centuries and that he makes blossom and germinate the fruits of grace and holiness on these untamed beaches in the midst of my new children, so dear in Jesus Christ.
You press me to give you some details about the country that I live in and about my new position.
So what is this New Zealand, tossed into the middle of the ocean? Its size almost equals that of France; it is made up, as one can easily see on the map, of two main islands, separated by Cook’s Strait (name of the English navigator who first sailed around these islands). This strait resembles a funnel with the largest opening being twenty-five leagues; several smaller islands are grouped around New Zealand at various points. The soil is fertile, but not everywhere; the maritime coasts, the woods and numerous divers sites in the interior offer great riches for agriculture; but vast areas have only poor soil. The contours of the country are far from being flat; the traveller encounters a host of mountains of which many are crowned with forests. Fruits from the trees are not very remarkable; the karaka [2] slightly resembles an almond; eaten raw, it produces a sort of drunkenness; cooked, it gives quite an edible foodstuff; another tree, called tutu, [3] gives quite a pleasant liqueur; many other trees provide various types of fruits, but not worthy of being the equivalent of those of France. Vines prosper here and all the trees from France, but they have not spread very much; fishing is widespread at present all over New Zealand.
The many bays that the ocean forms are full of fish. The New Zealanders catch many fish; they know how to preserve fish for a very long time, by making it cook in the sun. A large number of English, American and French whalers comb the South Island, searching for whales, to throw deadly harpoons at them and enrich themselves with the spoils. In the interior of the island there are many marshes and rivers; the rivers do not have many fish; some though, have an abundance of eels, with a fine flavour. As for the lakes, I can speak about them knowledgeably, having lakes within my mission; they only have five or six types of fish, small fresh water crayfish, a type of mussel, some large fish as thick as two fingers, with an excellent flavour and several types of very abundant small fish. Within my mission I have fifteen to twenty lakes; the largest, having a circumference of forty to fifty leagues, greatly exceeds the lake of Grand’lieu, which I believe is only seven leagues around; This huge lake is called Lake Taupo; only two weeks ago I went around the entire circumference; in my trip I covered more than one hundred leagues.
What kind of craft do the New Zealanders use? Made from the simple trunk of a tree hollowed out, they call it a waka. In this they have no fear of crossing rivers or lakes and even sail out into the middle of the ocean; Nevertheless, with a storm approaching they hasten to regain the shore. The larger craft for sea-going are thirty to forty feet long, they are cleverly worked, carved, painted red, decorated with ornaments and surmounted with figures of warriors and plumes of bird’s feathers.
The birds in certain parts of the island are very numerous; Their plumage, apart from a few, is not very beautiful, nor very varied; the kingfisher, very little different from the French one, is found here on the banks of rivers. The many sea birds around the coast are not good for eating; in the interior wild ducks, pigeons, and black parakeets are the most common and the best that I have seen. The natives of the country have a very simple way of catching them; they hide under the branches and slide through the foliage a baton on the end of which a parakeet is attached; this bird calls to the others who, being too trusting, come too near to him and are seized in the savage’s hand.
I regard it as a great blessing for the country that there are no venomous reptiles. I have only seen one type of lizard who flees, as they do in France, at the sight of a man; if the snakes or other reptiles should multiply in this country, they would promptly cause the destruction of all the inhabitants, because they would find a host of hiding places and would be able to slide with great ease into the huts of the natives; as well, they would be feared by the missionaries when they were sleeping in the wilds, in the woods or on the edges of lakes or rivers. During my first expedition, my catechists showed me several lairs up in the mountains, where enormous snakes had devoured some New Zealanders; the natives waged war on them, set traps, tied them up in ropes, killed them then ate them; they found the flesh very good.
In the past the New Zealanders found the flesh of their dogs excellent food. These animals were of a special species and did not bark; they have been destroyed by the European dogs who were stronger than them or have disappeared from other causes. They also had, formerly, a particular species of rat which supplied them with good food. They now have a multitude of pigs; the first were brought in by the Europeans but they do not eat them very often, unless for solemn occasions such as feasts or reunions; they exchange them with the Europeans to acquire items of clothing that they greatly covet. Their usual food is fish, birds, potatoes, corn, pumpkin and melons (these last four vegetables were imported from Europe), kumera (a sweet root), taro, a sort of large root which is something like floury dough, the root of a particular sort of fern which they find agreeable, then some fruits that are not particularly plentiful; on the whole they do not season these foods; a basket filled with potatoes or other vegetables is placed on the ground in front of their huts; the natives sit on the ground in a circle around the basket, prayers are said, if they are Catholics; soon thanks to their speed of eating, the basket finds itself empty of all food. It has happened to me more than once, and to many other missionaries, to have to arm myself with a baton to protect my food from the approach of pigs or dogs who are too intrusive and too hungry.
They have a plant that is very precious, called phormium tenax, or in their language, muka, which provides them with fibre for their cordage and for their clothing. They have a particular fondness for European clothing. A large number of both men and women deck themselves out with a blanket which serves as clothing. Not having much with which to clothe themselves and fearing the cold at night, they have invented quite a bizarre type of construction for their houses; they call them hot houses; the very narrow door is only two or three feet high and to enter one has to prostrate oneself and slide in, sometimes with some difficulty; there is a single quite narrow window and no chimney; at nightfall a fire is lit in the middle of the house and they lie down where they will not be too troubled by the smoke; the house soon becomes almost as hot as an oven and this is maintained during the night; however, some have become more like European houses. The climate is moderate and healthy, the heat not as fiery as in France, the cold not as intense; during almost eight months of the year a third of the days are rainy; in the other four months hardly any rain falls; in the middle of winter, when the atmosphere is heavy with rain there is no ice; it is only when the sky is clear that the ground becomes covered with a white frost; but with the first rays of sunshine, it melts; I have never seen it cover the ground for a whole day. As you know, when you have daytime, we have nighttime and when you are in the cold of winter, we are in the heat of summer.
Their habit is to weep for their dead; they gather in groups around the deceased or at the site of the burial place; the air resounds with their crying and sobs; their faces are bathed in tears; the women make bloody incisions on their faces and arms as a sign of their pain. The same ritual takes place when relatives meet again after a long absence. Then, when their feelings of affection have been sufficiently poured out outside, they relate all that has happened to them in their travels, going into the smallest details, naming the trees in the shade of which they have eaten, where they have slept… Often they walk to and fro before the gathering, stamping their feet and making the dust fly, and enthusiastically narrating their adventures.
Now, something about the physique, the character and the customs of the New Zealanders. Their colouring varies from black to a shade of olive; they take pride in their physique; they are almost all tattooed. This operation is carried out using a shell or a pointed instrument, that is plunged into an extremely black powder, then inserted into the area to be tattooed, blood flows and the black powder settles into the wound and leaves a mark which is not removable. The pain usually does not last more then three or four days. They succeed in creating a host of very beautiful and very regular forms.
Their language is one of the richest to be found amongst the peoples of Oceania; it only has fourteen letters: a, e, i, o, u, g, h, k, m, n, p, r, t, w. The e is pronounced as in Latin, u as ou, w as ou, h is always strongly aspirated. Here is the first couplet of a hymn in honour of the Holy virgin, to the tune of the hymn Lucis creator optime.
For Mary today
mo Maria aianei
our hymns
o tatou waiata
how powerful we (might be, understood)
kia kaha ra tatou
How great may the love be
kia nui te aroha.
Their language is gentle and easy to understand.
The New Zealanders have a burning desire to learn; a large number know how to read and write; they have a great natural ability and a great desire to know everything; their questions are sometimes very searching, such as: What did God do before the Creation? What was the name of the wood in our Saviour’s cross? In the staff of Moses? They are great lovers of genealogy. Their clothes are still mainly dirty and are no strangers to vermin. The only routes they have are footpaths that lead from one place to another. Their freedom depends on the protection that they can provide for each other; they are divided into independent tribes, and formerly had a rampant passion for war, with a custom of eating their vanquished enemies. These frightening episodes were still happening when I came to New Zealand. They retain an implacable spirit of vengeance deep in their hearts. The licentiousness of their customs is such that they should be counted as savages. Polygamy is acceptable, especially among the chiefs. They have a great propensity for ridicule and insults. Their religion is a confused pantheism, which has no moral influence on them. They only pray to their divinities to appease them; the cause of their illnesses is, according to them, the anger of their gods, who enter into their bodies to torture them; their only remedies are supplications to their gods who are considered evil and nothing but demons. Poor people, who have remained so long ignorant of the supreme, kindly God and have not known how to give him the love of their hearts! They have never had churches dedicated to their gods and have only had, as a cult, some forms of prayers to placate their gods. They have a type of priest who they call on when they are sick and who act of doctors. When the body of a chief, who has been killed in battle, is to be eaten, the priests give the preliminary order to roast him and avidly eat the first mouthfuls of flesh, as being dedicated to their gods. Many priests exercise an almost royal power among their people. The people are slaves to thousands of superstitious customs, taboos on their houses and their land to such an extent that they no longer dare to eat in their houses nor cultivate their land; if they did it, they say, their evil gods would cause them to die.
So, up until now, what progress has civilisation and religion made amongst these peoples? I will not undertake to discuss this with you here, my dear Father, for fear of indefinitely prolonging my letter; at another time, I hope to fulfil your wishes; I am ashamed that I only have the time write to you at speed, because of the multitude of my tasks. Just a word on my new position. My mission extends from the sea as far as the interior, a distance of about fifty leagues. In the interior there are some very curious phenomena: There are springs, streams and enormous chasms with warm, hot and boiling waters springing from fiery crucibles; in certain springs, the water is thrown up continually in jets six to seven feet high; in others it is calm for a while, then suddenly explodes up again. The springs of warm, cloudy water provide very healthy bathing. One sees pools of hot water in the hills and on the highest mountains; a hill with a pool of hot water on its summit, the water of a cloudy blue, presents a magnificent sight to the eye; the water, gently overflowing, bathes the contours of the hill, forming some sixty large stages of galleries, chiselled as if by the hand of man into marbled turrets in all sorts of colours; there is no more imposing sight. The beauty and magnificence of the facades of the palace of Versailles have nothing to approach it. Some of the mountains are covered in snow all year round; one very famous one has slopes covered in snow of an almost blinding white and at its peak a river of fiery or volcanic water. These chasms of boiling water are called by the natives the gates of hell, of the home of Satan; it is a very appropriate spectacle to make those who contemplate it realise the horrible suffering within the devil’s home.
I cannot tell you anything much about the progress of religion in the burgeoning mission which I have begun to take charge of. It consists of four to five thousand souls, but beyond, the thousands and thousands of savages of whom I cannot take care, have no other priest; many of my savages are left in ignorance, because they cannot be visited. In all Catholic countries, group prayer takes place every morning; in the evening it is followed by a recitation of the catechism, a hymn, then a prayer to the Holy Virgin. When I visit the dwellings of my disciples, part of the day and the night are devoted to conversations and religious instruction, either for the adults or the children. In the first mission where I stayed, with a colleague, to learn the basics of the language, we baptised nearly 150 people in little more than a year; in the new mission that I have started in, I have accorded the blessing of holy baptism to about thirty people. Already many children in the two missions where I have stayed have died and these little angels have gone to heaven to forever enjoy the company of God. In a fortnight, I am preparing to carry out the ceremony of baptism for about forty adults. In the mission neighbouring mine, the faithful have the pleasure of receiving the Holy Eucharist. What a moving spectacle to see some of these lips, that have been soiled by devouring human flesh, being purified by the touch of the blood of the lamb without stain! In my very new mission, I have not yet been able to offer the joy of the holy communion to my children. Our novices need to become knowledgeable about the controversies, so as to stand up to the fury of the Protestants who wage a bitter war against them. I have beside me a local catechist well versed in controversy; he has distinguished himself by numerous victories over natives seduced by the wrong ideas. Two heretical ministers live within the circle of my mission; [4] it is amazing that, with all their wealth, they have not gained more converts; they rush to New Zealand to install themselves everywhere; and unfortunately in many areas there are no priests to thwart their efforts; souls are lost, because of a lack of evangelical workers. The Marist priests have only been in New Zealand for five years and the ministers of wrongful Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians etc. have been here for around thirty years; [5] They disseminated lies about the Catholic church everywhere, calling it a murderous church of assassins and adulterers, a church that had come to take away the lands of the natives, a church of people who worshipped images as their gods. Now most of them are more moderate, as they have been outwitted during conferences that they have conducted with the Catholic missionaries, in the presence of the New Zealanders. Despite their efforts and thanks to the mercy of God, I can count in my mission more Catholics than there are wrong thinking partisans; however most still remain attached to their superstitions. May the holy Virgin, who has crushed heresies, come to our aid. The lack of missionaries and resources harms us greatly.
I can certainly not describe my dwelling to you. At the moment I have nowhere to rest my head. However people are busy at the moment setting up my establishment, or rather erecting a thatched cottage. At the centre of my mission, in one of the large villages, where the springs of boiling water serve as cooking ovens for the natives, they put their potatoes and other vegetables into the water; in a few moments their meal is prepared.
At the sight of so many poor people who are still hovering in the shadow of death and at the sight of the heretics and the corruption of the Europeans, who would not feel their heart stirred by a thousand sentiments like those of Saint Paul in Athens? Despite the privations of the missionary life, in spite of the obstacles that one often meets with the infidels, when trying to make civilised men and devoted christians of them, I do not miss France. The parishes where I previously practiced my ministry, Riaillé and Saint Herblain, [6] have not suffered from my absence; no fewer souls are saved, they have been saved in greater numbers, and more successfully; but here the souls saved by my ministry would not be saved without my presence.
I am so much more eager for your letters because I receive them less often. So kindly send, by your fervent prayers, the benedictions of heaven on a poor priest wandering in the wilds, in the deserts of the new world or sheltered by the simple shacks of the savages, speaking to them in a foreign language about the joys of heaven, the goodness of Jesus and Mary.
Your deeply devoted and grateful child in Jesus and Mary,
Reignier, missionary apostolic.
Post Script. A word about Father Bernard: He is at the episcopal residence, concurrently working on several duties, visitor to the Catholics of the mission in the Bay of Islands, doctor, pharmacist and economist; I have not yet had the pleasure of embracing and congratulating this dear and excellent colleague. [7]. You still raise my hopes that one day I will see some new Brothers arrive here. God be praised! Father Bataillon a Marist priest, has just been named vicar apostolic to the islands of Oceania to the North of New Zealand; his coadjutor, Bishop Douarre, has arrived from France with a large number of Marist priests from the diocese of Clermont. [8]


  1. Read: rende
  2. Maori word, karaka = a species of tree (corynocarpus loevigatus).
  3. Maori word, tutu = a sort of shrub (coriaria arborea).
  4. Thomas Chapman (cf. doc. 129, § 7, n. 5) and Seymour Mills Spencer, named in October 1843 as assistant to Chapman (cf. Edgcumbe, p. 2). It would not be very likely that the second of these “ministers of heresy” would be John Alexander Wilson, protestant minister at Opotiki, as another catholic station has been there since December 1839 (cf. doc. 300, § 1, n. 1) and so Opotiki was outside of the “circle” of Reignier’s mission.
  5. The Church Missionary Society began the protestant mission in New Zealand with the landing of the lay missionaries, William Hall and Thomas Kendall, in June 1814, but not a single Maori was converted before the arrival, in August 1823, of Henry Williams and his family, in the Bay of Islands. Thanks to the efforts of this man, several baptisms took place in 1829-30 in Paihia (cf. Dictionary of NZ Biography, vol. 1, p. 272, 592).
  6. Riaillé, country town in a canton and Saint-Herblain, a commune in the Loire-Atlantique (diocese of Nantes).
  7. Jean-Simon Bernard, like Euloge Reignier, is from the diocese in Nantes.
  8. Of the eighth group of missionaries, the following are from Puy-de-Dôme (diocese of Clermont): Bishop Guillaume Douarre, Fathers Pierre Rougeyron and Gilbert Roudaire and the four Brothers, Jean Tatagnat, Jean Raynaud, Blaise Marmoiton and Annet Pérol.