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2 Feb 1844 - Fr Joseph Chevron to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Tonga

Translated by Peter McConnell, May 2010

Very reverend father,
When Bishop Pompallier paid us a visit, I wrote you a few words in great haste however I need to take more time afraid that I will be again unexpectedly tied up. I will try to start to bring you up to date with how we are and what we need. You have, no doubt, received letters which we, Father Grange and I, have written to you by way of the schooner belonging to our dear colleagues, the Wesleyans. Our situation as regards the mission is roughly the same although the chiefs and the natives are increasingly well disposed to us. Medication distributed free of charge even to Protestant patients (who can obtain some from their missionaries only by paying for them), are a source of wonder. People daily make this comparison between our charity, the ease with which we approach the natives, the loving reception we offer them, and our care in adapting to their customs and the haughtiness of their missionaries who want to take the lion share and have not been able up until now to take the slightest trouble regarding the natives. This comparison daily reduces the power of the missionaries and increases the friendship of the natives towards us. In addition conversions are rare; with the more rabid Protestants none at all. On several occasions I have heard from the natives even the Protestant catechists that they recognize the truth but are kept back through fear of their chiefs and politeness. Here this fear of the chiefs is unbelievable; but it is an odd thing, not one of them dares to be converted before the chief is, and when the chief converts not one fails to follow his example. Yet nearly all claim that our religion is the true one and that their gods are lies. Many of them have no religious beliefs. Reverend father, here as everywhere else man is weak for the truth but zealous for lies. Here as elsewhere conversion is a miracle. Only a few people come to us, those cured by our medicine or rather those coming for our remedies because we are often forced to be quacks owing to the lack of medicine. Consequently sickness runs its course and cure is attributed to a little water with a few drops of perfume or eau de Cologne. I must say too that God has on several occasions blessed very manifestly our innocent medicine. If all those whom we cure were to convert, we would soon have the entire island. The few natives who do convert are precisely those whom we think of the least. Yet we hope that later on, when God has removed some obstacles, mass conversions will occur. But all that depends on the will of God, let it be done entirely and everywhere! People in Europe have a very wrong impression of the missions. Here men and women are children of Adam and Eve, like those in Europe and elsewhere, equally ignorant in religious matters, having the same passions, the same greed, only here religion is an unknown territory. It is difficult to make them understand matters dealing with God unless they bring it up and this reference already presumes that a conversion has at least begun. Another great obstacle is the language. It is just four years that I have been in these islands and I am scarcely beginning to make myself understood in a reasonable way; I do not hope to master the language in the future. The way they put their words together is totally different from the European way. Pronunciation which seems easy initially is really difficult because of the short and long vowels which give the same word completely different meanings. In addition there are aspirates which are tough, then there are staccato effects in the middle of words (an unknown aspect in European languages) which also change the meaning. However, I have read in copies of the Propagation of the Faith that after three months one could easily carry out the ministry. It has also been written that these islands have been crying out for missionaries! I do not think that such assertions have ever been so wide off the mark.
Here briefly is what we do: we read our office, study questions of theology concerning the church and Protestantism, welcome native visitors and accept their invitations. Studying theology should be much easier in Europe than here. Here we have to put within the grasp of the natives the most difficult questions on the Church manual, answer questions and objections from Protestant missionaries, then gauge the proofs which we will have to give in a discussion with the missionaries in which, I think, we will not be able to avoid what appears to us at least to be a waste of time. I think that I have never studied dogmatic theology and holy scripture as I have done since coming here. What takes most of the time are the visits from the natives; some visits are from patients, others from those wanting to chat or drink kava. If these visits were used for religious matters, then the trouble would not annoy us but at least three quarters of the time they have no other object but to mark the affection of the natives for us; few like to talk about religion. Speaking to them on such a topic, usually stops them from coming.
I have spoken to you about medicine. I believe it is the only way we are to combat the missionaries. If we had had any, I believe we would have made more progress but we are often obliged to turn a deaf ear. The most useful medicine is calomel, used for curing ulcers which almost half the population is covered with. This medicine, introduced by the Protestants, has become necessary; we have always been quite successful in using it. So 1) plenty of calomel. We use it too for children who have worms, an illness more common here than in Europe because of the fruit. 2) purgative oil is also used as a remedy for worms; we have access to ricin here and have tried been unsuccessful in extracting oil from it without success. If we were told how to extract the oil, it would be a great benefit for the mission. The oil which is brought from France becomes quite old on the journey. Therefore try to find a way to extract this oil. 3) Sulphuric acid (blue stone) used here to cure very common eye infections and to cauterize wounds. 4) Opium and laudanum 5) Rhubarb 6) Titanium droxide or alum or a lotion to dry ulcers when using calomel; small and large syringes, lancets, olive oil, silver nitrate cream, Epsom salts and such like. Ointments for boils. Do take care in putting into bottles or pots everything that can be spoilt by humidity. We would need some books on common medicines. Camphor, I can’t remember the names of many things but the things I have mentioned above are those that we use the most. Enemas. One thing which replaces leeches here are moxybustions. It would be great were we to have such items and at each mission station a small supply of spring loaded lancets. I do not know what it is called, but you will find it without any trouble. This instrument would be as useful for us as for the natives.
(February 3) I don’t know whether I have told you, but as needs be I am repeating it here right now, that the mission depends on medicine. Here the natives have brought from Fiji a lot of medicine which are astonishingly good for the natives. Furthermore they have their pagan priests whose sole job is to cure the sick with their prayers, which obliges us to compete and to surpass them all. I believe that if we do not have any medicine here (except for a miracle), we should stay home or sail away. These medicines such as garden seeds (and even flowers) which can really be used here) as well as everything which more or less is affected by humidity must be put in a bottle or varnished earthenware. Little fials and glasses (and their stoppers) are extremely useful here and in particular to keep wine when you uncork a bottle. Knowing how to bleed is very precious here among the brothers. Some knowledge about treatment given to patients is as necessary for the brothers as for the priests. The main ailments are ulcers, scrofula, and internal ailments which result from them. All kinds of rheumatics, hot and cold bloody fluxes, and eye infections. The brothers always administer the medication; the priests give consultations only when the brothers are not capable of doing so. A common ailment here and even among the Europeans is elephantiasis. (Brother Joseph suffered from it) It would be good if some of the brothers knew how to deal with it, a treatment which is not too difficult. I think that brother Joseph learnt it from experience; I think that knowing how to deal with it will in the future be useful for more than one priest. Here is pretty well a medical manual, but it is good, I think, that you should have all these notes in France. For the health of the priests and the brothers, it would be good to have flannel sleeveless jackets. We can’t do without them here.
It is time to refer a little to matters concerning the sacristy. Here more than elsewhere we need a visible aspects of our religion. We try to keep our church the cleanest we can and the most decorated. From time to time we conduct funeral services. On those days we have large attendances and we are able to say a few words to the pagans and heretics, but we need copes, etc, and adornments a little more beautiful for feast days; some pictures have an extraordinary effect. We have a small statue of Our Lady which has attracted the whole island.; some statues and pictures would be greatly useful. Generally everything that can contribute visually to the church is here a way of supplementing in a small way those things we lack, for example: silk material, and even pure cotton, ribbons, altar candle sticks, artificial flowers, thurible, holy water font, monstrance, etc, etc, bells, etc, even a carpet. In the islands where there are Protestant missionaries, the natives are drawn to compare our churches with the homes of the missionaries where luxury objects are certainly not lacking and it would be for them a bad mark to see us inferior to those gentlemen. I must say that in the various settlements that are built on the same island, we must have all the same things at least the most visible.
Up until now, thank God, we have not been short of hosts but providence provides and we must help it. I think that if flour for hosts could be sent directly from France well and truly hermetically sealed in tin boxes, it would be very advantageous. The flour which was sent from the Bay of Islands was no good. However we were able to use a little of the flour from the centre of the bag to make some hosts for a year; fortunately because the barrel which Bishop Pompallier left us is entirely tainted. That is what we are exposed to. We also need some sieves for the flour which is often full of weevils in this country. It would not be a waste of time sending blue bags at least for the altar linen because it remains fresh for a longer time. It is difficult to keep shoes nice and clean here; it would be desirable that each priest had for Mass small lightweight shoes, even ones made of material.
As far as clothing is concerned, I am making an essential comment, which, I believe, has been made several times, but up until now quite in vain, and that is, it must not be forgotten, that we are here in the tropics. With 25-27 degrees centigrade, we are obliged to do jobs with the sun beating down perpendicularly on our heads. So we need clothes that are light weight but substantial, well made and not too fitting and the same goes particularly for our trousers. Don’t forget flannel sleeveless jackets! It is absolutely necessary that nails are not put in the shoes nor copper ones in leather because of the salt water, which, if precautions are not taken, ruins our shoes within a fortnight.
We live here among the English. I think we could do some good with some of them if we had some religious and expository works written in English such as Cobbett’s Letters and other such works. In my opinion I cannot stress this point too much. We should have some books to lend and even if the case may be to give away. There are no islands in the Pacific where there are no English speakers.
Here we live on charity, as you know. I think that for the good of the mission that situation will not be able to continue for a long time. Therefore we need items we can offer in exchange, because money is useless in this place. Objects for exchange are mainly tools, such as spades, small and large axes, saws (English ones as much as possible, that means a strong blade with a handle at the end) drills, gimlets, cabinet maker chisels of different sizes, planes, files, knives (large butcher knives, small knives are good only for children, scissors, razors, pruning shears. Nails, needles, pipes, tobacco, medium weight fabric and calico, emery stone for sharpening tools, millstones, some glass beads (especially blue ones), gros grains; some slates for the natives. Cast iron pots are very useful. One remark I must make is that the English have brought here only good and solid tools, and the natives laugh when they see the knives and other tools coming from France. They have been spoilt, but what can be done? It is a matter of superceding the Protestant missionaries and I firmly believe that, if they lose their footing here, their missions are pretty well finished in Oceania. So as for items for exchange or for giving to the natives, send nothing that is not good and strong. We need too garden seeds, but sent in bottles, because that is the only way to protect them from humidity.
Reverend father, I think I have told you that we still had few catechumens. I think that the number of neophytes and catechumens reaches 300, that is plenty. For so long the missionaries here have had to use as well everything that was good among the natives. Today the pagans are only those who have resisted grace. That is where our role is. In addition the prejudices and obstacles given the heretics by their missionaries are an obstacle for us in dealing with them. Yet one thought still gives us hope. That is the litany to the Virgin Mary: Gaude, Maria virgo, omnes haereses sola interemisti in universo mundo. [Be glad, Virgin Mary, you alone have destroyed the heretics in the whole world] Both sides stand their grounds; religion becomes for them a matter of taking sides. But, thank God, we are not asked to be successful but asked to work. That is what belongs to us; and that depends on God. We have a one and only catechist and he has been flat on the bed for four or five months, close to death. We have less sickness now than when I last wrote to you. We are not very robust but speaking for myself I am astounded that I am still capable of carrying out the jobs that we do. I don’t think that I can keep my strength in a purely natural way.
(February 9) The day before yesterday we went to the Protestants’ village. If it had not been said in the Gospel, beati qui lugent---[Blessèd are those who weep ---] I will say that the saddest job in the world is being a missionary. Being forced to argue with natives who have mulled over for a long time the objections which have been explained to them and natives who are unable and even do not want to understand replies. Then it is most upsetting for them to go off claiming to have won the argument even after having their arguments knocked down and their being reduced to silence or to saying nonsense. Yet we must either go through that or be restrained in a small fortified village divided into three parts. Two parts do not want to hear about religion out of jealousy of the chief whom we visited and the other third listen to us only partially. The strong are so jealous of one another that is enough for one to do something for the other to do the opposite. The same goes for the different chiefs in the same fort. Nobody can join with his neighbour, even in feelings out of fear of appearing dependent. In the case of Protestants their hatred for us unites them. If it were only the people, we would soon convert them, but the chiefs who are pretty well all catechists finished up by forbidding communication with us. Furthermore the devil is active among the pagans and even physically. For ages we thought all those possessions and apparitions were only cheating but it then appeared to us that they were quite real and definite. One of our fine neophytes has been tormented for perhaps more than ten or fifteen years by the visit of two women in very strange circumstances. To chase them away he has even fired a rifle at them; all has been in vain. He became a Protestant, still to no avail. But when he joined us the women stopped appearing to him. The whole island knows about this. The devils on one side and the Protestants on the other, they’re tough enemies. Pray for us. We can scarcely see, humanly speaking, even of the light of hope, but we will still continue our labours in the conviction that the only thing we are required to do is work, success is the domain of God. With that in mind we still have may consolations from our little group of neophytes who are good Christians. They all behave properly. We hope that God will always take special care of them.
I am frightened of forgetting to speak to you about a small indisposition which happened to me two or three times, one which makes me fearful of a future illness. It is a type of asthma or breathing difficulty; it has affected me especially during the night. So I am quite out of breath and experience great difficulty in breathing. That condition comes only after I am very tired and especially after eating and drinking things not easily digested. What I am telling you in these words are by way of a warning. I hope that he who has kept me will keep me still. Only I wanted to beg you, if you think it opportune, to send me something which can either stop or reduce the illness were it to occur again. It would be quite upsetting if I were obliged in the future to temporarily end my services but I hope that it is only an unnecessary warning. The hand of God guards us in a way that is too obvious to think otherwise.
(April 27) On March 7 we celebrated a solemn baptism for 40 people. The number of postulants was very large, but we thought we should delay the baptism of some of them. The seventeenth day of the same month we celebrated the first communion for 24 people. 42 received Holy Communion on that day. The devil is angry; the pagans became quite cold towards us. They leave us to one side. They hardly ever visit us any more, but everything is in the hands of providence. The devil even tries to sow darnel among the good seed. At such a time we are not very able to carry out our tasks; everything is in the care of God and of Our Lady.
(July 24) Because my head is filled with a thousand different things as a result of an extra load of jobs since the arrival of Bishop Bataillon, I will finally end this letter. The Bishop, as he will tell you for sure, arrived here on the twelfth with the Father Provincial and with two priests. We tried to put a priest in the main fort of the pagans, but what we had foreseen and told the Bishop happened. We have been pushed out from everywhere so as a result we have only for the moment the settlement of Pea. Yet we hope soon to have another place elsewhere. We baptized 26 people and confirmed 100. We enrolled 46 catechumens last Sunday. Yet all that is progressing slowly. I even think that after the departure of the Bishop there will be a cooling off, but, very reverend father, in that matter as in all the rest, we are in the hands of the good God and under the protection of the Virgin Mary. It is not to succeed that we labour but really to carry out God’s will. Bishop Bataillon has appointed me pro-vicar. I really feel how incapable I am of this task. The fear alone of annoying him too much, the hope of soon leaving the place to another and the confidence in the intelligence of my colleagues here have alone been able to make me overcome the aversion I felt.
What I learn from our priests convinces me that France has been given a very good idea of the attitude of the natives in this mission. Please believe that all the advice given in my letter are accurate. Despite all the difficulties we still have high hopes, relying only on the power of God and the intercession of the Virgin Mary; For him there are neither big nor small difficulties.
Should I dare ask you to offer my regards to all the priests?
Please receive the assurance of the profound respect with which I have the pleasure of being, very reverend father, your very obedient servant
Joseph Chevron