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20 January 1844 — Father Louis-Maxime Petit to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Hokianga

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, May 2007


St Joseph’s Mission Station, Hokianga
20 January 1844

Very Reverend Father Superior
It is not often that I have the pleasure of giving you news about myself; the opportunities are pretty few nowadays and often I am not aware of them until it is too late to take advantage of them. I hope that in future, having fewer long journeys to undertake, I will be more faithful in writing to you in line with my duty and my wishes.
Since last August I no longer have had the care of the tribes at Whangape and Ahipara, which are two short days’ walk northwest of Hokianga. A little after that time I made my seventh and probably last journey to Mangakahia and Kaipara which since then have become Father Garin’s responsibility, so that I have only the Hokianga, of which Father Lampila has some tribes in the lower end of the river. While not having a great population, the mission territory that is left to me is still too extensive for one solitary priest -- I mean, to instruct in a solid way; because, apart from the difficulties caused by bad weather especially in winter, which make visits difficult and often impossible in a small boat and on a choppy sea or river; our tribes are between three and nine leagues [15 and 45 km] from the station and as well, these diverse tribes are mostly divided into several parts, which means that only a small number of people can be seen at once. When the sea is only hard for us to brave, it is an impossible obstacle for them on their dugout trees. The books which the Bishop has had printed and distributed very much facilitate instruction; people had asked for and received them very eagerly and they are read and learned from with zeal; but they have to be explained. Visiting the sick also takes up a lot of time. Our natives, without wanting to do so, exaggerate sicknesses. There are never any slight illnesses among them so that we often make three or four useless or almost useless journeys for fear of neglecting a necessary one. Often, however, instead of the sick person for whom we had set out and who had no need of help, we come across another or a child to be baptised whom divine providence had foreseen, which compensates a hundred times over for all the little difficulties which are met with in the exercise of the ministry.
At a time when we had hardly enough to get ourselves the necessaries of life, a good Catholic Irishman who was aware of our poverty, made me an offer to grind for us a bit of wheat he had. I excused him from the trouble of grinding it and received it as it was. Forced to stay in the house for lack of oarsmen to take me to the tribes, I set to work and sowed this wheat. Father Grange came to Hokianga at this juncture and spent some time working like a Trojan from morning to night. Our main aim was to get ourselves a basis for survival if our state of penury continued, and, if it came to an end, to enable us to be able to give relief to our poor newly baptised who are in a state of great poverty as a result of the necessities they have created for themselves as a result of taking up European habits, and principally that of smoking the pipe which is a source of many evils for body and soul. This hunger for tobacco as it is called, is excessively demanding among them. They all smoke, from the age of three or four years on, the women like the men. The greater part of the supplies which they sell to the whites are to sustain their pipes, which forces them at certain seasons to eat fern root, and so, although working almost the whole year, they are barely clothed. The young men go to work for the whites, where they obtain some, but the fathers and mothers of families can hardly do so, and the young women, especially, cannot... and here as in France it is this last class of people whose poverty provides the greatest danger; we have from time to time fine examples of firmness and courage, but as what is violent does not usually last long, I am trying by every means in my power to put the natives of our mission station in a certain ease relative to their situation, and I hope to succeed in that by growing tobacco and especially wheat, with the help of providence, which up till now has favoured this enterprise. The 50 or 60 pounds of wheat which I had sowed produced more than 2000. I was expecting to keep a part for ourselves and another to give seed to our natives, but the Bishop advised me to keep for ourselves only what we needed for seed, and to give all the rest to the natives. Which I did with a very real pleasure, in the hope of seeing instead our people rise out of their poverty. I gave about three or four pounds of it to each person who agreed to sow some, advising them to sow it very sparsely and in good soil, which they have generally done. I had only intended to procure seed for them for this year, but the numerous families will have some to sell or to eat. Now those who did not sow any of it are asking me for some, and although, in order to commit them to accept some last year, I had told them that after having worked the first year for them, I would work the second for myself; I will give some to all those who ask for it, even the dupes of our Wesleyan adversaries, though it might mean depriving ourselves of bread, which will not be the case, in view of the allocation which the Bishop has informed me of for this year, and because our harvest will be at least double that of last year, without it having distracted me from a harvest quite otherwise important, that of souls. Because the allocations from the procure, without putting us into a situation of comfort which we ought not to desire, have allowed us to have two and sometimes three natives either to go on journeys or to work under the direction of Brother Florentin. According to the plans of our natives and every appearance, they will have wheat next year not only to feed themselves and supply the white people on the river, but also to sell some to the ships which have come from outside. The upshot is that there is every reason to hope that our disciples will soon be out of that state of poverty from which Solomon begged God to preserve him[1] and that they will have an additional proof of our affection for them, even in what concerns their temporal well-being.
But the momentum which has been given will not last very long if you do not give us the means of sustaining it. It is great to have wheat, but a mill is needed to convert it into flour. The procure has allowed me to buy a hand-powered one which I got going in the wind. It will do for this year because there will be only a little wheat to grind; but it will be worn out for the first harvest which will happen in January 1845 and quite inadequate for the amount of wheat to grind. The Bishop had at first thought of bringing from England some of those little mills so that each tribe might have one of them, but after reflection, it seemed to him better to have only one good one, at our place, where each tribe would come and have its grain milled, which would obtain for us the great advantage of seeing most of our fellow men more often, or at least finding out more often everything we need to know about them. This situation provides other advantages which I cannot detail to you. As this mill would be an extraordinary expense, that is, outside the expenses and the usual allocations to each station, the Bishop's administration cannot spend this amount on a single establishment; but he is strongly encouraging me to urge charitable people to provide for this good work. That is why I am writing to M Fresquet in Bordeaux who charitably invited me to write to him to ask for what I could want for the well-being of the mission; but as it could happen that in spite of his good will and his zeal he might not be able to get me what I asked him for, in that case I would ask you to do what is necessary, by means which your zeal will suggest to you, to bring about this good work which will powerfully help the success of the mission. Very Reverend Father, I wish you could hear the complaints that our followers make about their poverty and the demands that they would make of you to relieve them; your kind heart would not be able to resist them. How would it be if I gave you details of the faults which are committed as a result of this distressing situation? When I reproach someone for a fault they have committed, the usual response is this one: Me pehea, te Kopeke; te hia kai tupeka” - How can I put up with the cold, the hunger for tobacco? Or indeed this one: "It was my father, my brother, or my chief who sent me to get an item of clothing, tobacco or something else." It only needs a noha noa chief, that is, one who has not turned to any religion, to bring disorder into a tribe. And when they are reproached for handing over their daughters or their slaves to Satan, the replies are always the same: I didn't have any clothing, I didn't have any tobacco. Several people are preventing their daughters from marrying, only in order to keep this resource for themselves, which is a cause of disorder for both sexes. Yes, Very Reverend Father, I believe that most of the sins committed by our natives are a result of their poverty. I am not claiming that they will be faultless when Providence has given me the means of withdrawing them from this situation, but at least I will have done what depends on me and I am convinced that the number of faults will be greatly diminished and that a good number of souls will partly owe their eternal salvation to this act of charity.
Another very weighty reason, it seems to me, is the saving that could result from it for the administration of the mission, because by this means it could get flour very cheaply for the other stations, which without that will not have any or will often find it very expensive. I have seen it at about 16 to 20 sols a pound; now it is 5 sols, which had never been seen here and probably will not last.[2] Supposing even that lasted, more than half would be gained by buying wheat from the natives to mill it, which would give the double advantage of saving money and at the same time providing for our natives, by this purchase of wheat, what they need to clothe themselves, which would be better, it seems to me, than enriching the merchants. At this point I am getting beyond my competence, but the invitations you have given me to tell you what I think give me permission, and I will add that I would like the administration to concern itself more with the future of the mission without relying only on the allocations from the Propagation of the Faith which up to now has made great sacrifices for the Oceania missions and is no doubt of a mind to continue them, but (with) its zeal extending to all the missions of the globe and adjusting itself according to the needs, no doubt, but especially according to the importance and the results of each mission; couldn't it happen that some huge countries such as China, Japan and others, opening themselves to the Gospel, might absorb a great part of the funds of this divine work which could and ought to help our mission only according to its results; and given the dispersion of our people over a great extent of country, the good that the mission will do will never be proportionate to our needs of men and money. Supposing even that the allocations continue to grow in proportion to the (number of) new subjects that you send, how many other good works could be carried on such as setting up schools for the natives and the poor children of Europeans, houses to train catechists, colleges even, and so many other charitable good works both for the body and soul. Would it be distrusting Providence to take precautions against a second bank failure[3] which could occasion the ruin of the mission whose enemies, amply provided with every human means, have as well a great political skill at taking advantage of circumstances to harm the good of Catholicism and favour error? I am not claiming that we could get to doing without the Propagation of the Faith, but only to being able to lighten its responsibilities and to contribute with it to the solid and durable well-being of Catholicism in New Zealand. It is not, either, a matter of great enterprises which demand great responsibilities or great expenses, but quite simply of creating in each establishment a little farmyard, a garden and enough production of wheat and potatoes for the consumption of the station and for that a Brother who has some competence and courage would do, and would direct the natives whom we are obliged to have, to accompany us on our journeys. In that way we would save the weekly donation of the poor widow associated with the Propagation of the Faith. We could get from our natives the wheat seed which we would teach them to grow; which would give them better food and the means to buy themselves some clothes. Who knows as well, if, as a result, opening their eyes to the charity of the priest in their regard, our newly baptised would be moved, of their own accord, to encourage, through gratitude, those who had brought them spiritual and temporal advantages. That good work would be favourably viewed by the British government, which in a newspaper it has printed in the New Zealand language recommends wheat growing to the natives as a way of getting clothes for themselves and prosperity for the colony. If, because of a lack of Brothers or land, this could not be put into practice in all the mission stations, two or three of the best situated stations could be chosen to supply the others. If we were a bit better off materially, we could take in some poor children to whom we would give a more worthwhile education and from whom could be trained, as a result, catechists and even candidates for the priesthood.
I beg you to commend me and the Hokianga mission to the prayers and practical charity of the members of the Society of Mary. I am still forced to put to another opportunity writing to good Father Mayet and several people who wrote to me a long while ago; particularly Mme the Superior General of the Sisters of Marie-Therèse, the Superior of the Sisters at the prison at Rhoane and M Monavon. Kindly, please, ask one of our confrères to remember me favourably to these people and to present them with my humble respected. Kindly, as well, excuse my indiscretions and accept
Very Reverend Father Superior
the respects of your very humble and obedient servant,
Petit, missionary apostolic.
P S Kindly, please, read the letter which I enclose here for M Fresquet, and send it on if you judge it appropriate to do so.


  1. 1 Kings 8: 35-40
  2. According to an article on the Internet, a sol was a coin worth 1/20 of a livre, or a little more than a franc. 16 to 20 sols would be about 20 to 25 francs, or about 16 to 20 shillings -- which seems remarkably high for a pound of flour -- translator’s note.
  3. Father Petit no doubt has in mind here the failure of Wright’s bank in 1840 in England which cost the Society of Mary a considerable amount of mission money -- translator’s note