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Fr Jean-Simon Bernard to Fr Colin, Tauranga June & 11 August 1844

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, September 2005. See Amelia's translation of the same letter

APM Z June 1844


Tauranga, Month of June 1844

Very Reverend Father

Four months have passed since Divine Providence entrusted me with the mission station at Tauranga, which had already been cultivated by Father Viard and Father Pézant. The Bishop left me there alone with Brother Luc, who was given me only to build a house made of planks. Up to now we have been living in a house made of grass and reeds which the rats and mice are destroying, and in which everything is a jumbled mess. I was expecting only to have to gather the fruits of ground which had already been cultivated for four years. Unfortunately I was mistaken here as elsewhere. Alas, how wrong was our belief when we left France, when we thought that we were going to New Zealand only to bring in a harvest. Why not tell it as it is? In any case, I will say what I think. Yes, the more I study the people of New Zealand, and in particular those at Tauranga, I am only aware of a people who are lazy, stolid, quite materialistic, indifferent to the service of God, and lacking in gratitude for benefits received. With tobacco and blankets you can get them to come to prayers as you wish for some time. If you tire of giving, they tire of praying and give up everything. I am in a pa or village here, which has about 400 people in it. Well, I hardly have ten people each day at prayers, hardly 30 or 40 on Sundays. I have about 20 adults baptised here, and I have little hope of baptising any [more] for a long time from now. The majority are indifferent and lazy. Those who have to walk 100 or 200 steps to come to the chapel find the distance is too long; that is to say they don’t want to come.[1] They have been successively Protestants, Catholics, Protestants. They still call themselves Catholics, but really they are nothing. They attend Catholic worship once a month perhaps, when it appeals to them. My predecessor had only sugar and rice as a remedy [for sickness]. Soon everyone proclaimed their efficacity. But instead of diminishing the number of sick people, the number only grew. [p2] Someone told me that they all came one after another – up to three or four from the same house when they were not known, to ask for sugar and rice for their sick person. Having in this way obtained a certain amount, they made [bombanie?] by sugaring their maize porridge. Since I have been here there have been fewer sick people, because I have been giving out less rice and sugar, but instead, some spoonfuls of wild chicory and rhubarb, which is not as pleasing to the taste. What especially keeps them away is getting them to make their own medicines, to boil water, to look for a pot, fire, and wood for that purpose, a bottle or something else, even an onion in their garden. It is asking too much of them. Often they go away and don’t ask for medicines any more. To please them, I would have to make them [the medicines] for them myself, or get them made, and take them to their homes. But if I send someone, or if I tell someone from the sick person’s home to come to my house to get a remedy it is rare not to be asked for a fee.

I still need a canoe to go from one village to another to visit them, and consequently two or three rowers. But whoever puts his hand to an oar asks to be paid, even if he is a member of the tribe to which I am going, but has not himself asked for a place in my canoe: only in this case am I freed from the obligation of paying them. But if I was relying on them to get back to my house, I would have to pay them, or, indeed, they would leave me there. Some of my confrères have been caught out. They were not able to get back home. So I have to pay to go and see them – [and] that is not all – I have to pay to sleep in their homes, among the lice and the fleas, almost naked on the ground, [to pay] for eating some potatoes which they hastily boil in pure water. For this they do not exactly ask a price [utu), but the always expect, or even ask for an aroha (offering made out of love), which amounts to a price even dearer than would normally be paid for it. In a word they treat us like other foreigners, without regard for the sacrifices we make for them. They see us as obliged to go and visit them, to clothe them, to heal them, to provide them with tobacco, because occasionally they offer Catholic worship. If they are refused one of these different things, the person responsible is seen by them as evil. Such is the way almost all the New Zealanders act. Yes, I think that there are not yet 50 real native believers in the whole of New Zealand. That is also the opinion of four or five of them who, I think, are beginning to have faith. They have told me that all of them were deceitful and tricksters, that almost all of them had ulterior motives in coming to [Christian] worship.

Such is, Very Reverend Father, the state of spirits at the station I occupy. If I did not continually make efforts to abandon myself into the hands of Divine Providence, I would be plunged into the darkest despair. But I tell myself: it is God who called me here: his hour [p3], at which he intends to call the New Zealanders to fait, has not yet come. He wishes, no doubt, that we gain it [faith, it seems - translator’s note] ourselves by adding new merits to his. I hope that when we have amassed a certain amount of sacrifices, bouts of exhaustion, and difficulties for the salvation of these poor savages, God will allow himself to be moved. But I do not see, short of a great miracle of grace, how New Zealand can become truly Catholic. If these peoples do not gather themselves into a social unity, and if they still remain wanderers, I believe that humanly speaking we will never be able to convert them. Today they are here, tomorrow they will be five or six leagues[2] from here. They spend seven or eight months in their pa, then they scatter into the forests five or six leagues away to spend the winter, gathering potatoes or planting others there. Not one seems concerned about Sundays or feastdays, not even those baptised. Unfortunately they have before their eyes the example of the Europeans in this country – who are no more fervent than them, and whom they try to imitate. And as well, the Protestants who are numerous everywhere considerably hamper our work. They are now openly attacking us less often, but all these religious conflicts and the different ways of acting by the Europeans are succeeding in making these minds, already so cold in their native way, completely indifferent. Those who are indoctrinated with Protestantism have a bitterness in them; they often take every means they can to set up obstacles to our ministry.

Here is a striking example of this. About four months ago a fairly irresponsible Frenchman who spends his time sawing wood in various places (he is a deserter from a ship) had gone to Rotorua, two days from here, to saw wood for Father Reignier. On the way, having seen fire in the scrub, the fancy came to him to take a brand from it, and to go some steps further and light [another fire] with it. It is not known whether it was the effect of this fire or the other. Two Maori waka or canoes, and two Maori houses were burnt in a village in that part of the forest. They were workshops belonging to the Protestants. As it was a Catholic and a Frenchman who had lit the fire, that was enough for these good-for-nothings, they accused him of having been responsible, and therefore they accused Brother Euloge who was with him, and Father Reignier and Father Pézant. The [missionaries] were forbidden to travel that way from then on, unless the mission paid an enormous price. But they preferred that nothing be paid, and that the missionaries did not go that way, which is the only direct way. They threatened to plunder any goods we sent along that way. We intended to give them something to recompense them, but we did not want to seem to pay for a stranger to the mission. Finally, three weeks ago, I set out to go and see Father Reignier who was ill at Rotorua, and [p4] I also needed to go to confession. I set out with one of my natives on this prohibited way. As I was going to go quite close to the Protestant village to whom the burnt route belonged [ils surrit – sic: surent? – they realised] soon that I had to try to pass that way. One of them armed himself with an axe, took his dog with him, and went in pursuit of me. I had travelled for at least two hours when he caught up with me. I was getting ready to cross a mud-laden river. My native was searching the bed of the river for a place that would not be too deep for me. I had put a bag around my neck, [I had] my two hands encumbered with my shoes, my gaiters and my umbrella. This man confronted me with a wild look and asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to Rotorua. Straight away he came near and told me that I would not be going any further, that I had to go back to the village to come to an arrangement with them. It was near midday, and if I backtracked, I would no longer be able to complete my journey in two days, nor get back to my mission station for Sunday. I asked him why he was speaking to me like this, and said I was a new priest at Tauranga who had seen nothing, and that consequently I would not be going back, [and] that before getting back home on Saturday, I would willingly go and talk to them on my return. He did not want to hear anything. He seized my umbrella which I was holding at one end, and tried to take something from me which would force me to go back. On my part, I tried to hold on securely to everything I had, although I had both hands full. He pushed me, he threatened me with his raised axe a little to put fear into me. Then I offered him my neck and said to him: “Well, strike if you want to, strike me if you wish, but go back I certainly won’t.” I called at the same time to my timid native who was standing on the other side of the river, to think about what the outcome might be. He wasn’t listening to me, and was trembling all over, not so much for me as for himself. The axe was making him afraid. Not wanting to be harsh with him, I tried to persuade my “champion” by appealing to his feelings and with gentleness, but all that only annoyed him. By pushing me and shaking me, he made me fall to the ground, and his dog leaped on me from behind and tore my soutane. Then I shouted for help, and made great threats to him on the part of God and men. Finally, seeing he was getting nowhere, he crossed the river furiously, and climbed up onto the [path/felling site – chantier] which was elevated, and pretended to call for help to frighten me. Far from being intimidated by his shouts, I followed him into the river. My native did not come to help me. When I was in the middle I took a wrong step and was buried in the water and mud up to the [esselles? – armpits?]. While I was scolding my cowardly native, who was standing three steps from his bag on which was my cloak, the other [native], not knowing how to get off with the bag [comment s’y prendre court au sac], cut the tape with an axe blow, took my cloak and ran off. I was wet all over, I had neither cloak nor blanket to spend the night under the stars in the forest. It was all right; I went on my way threatening to have him put in prison [p5] as a robber and an assassin. He disappeared into the scrub and escaped. I went on going towards the burnt place. Fear clung to my cowardly native. He thought that the others were at their work village in that part of the forest, and that we were going to be killed because of that encounter. So he followed me trembling, and as I called him a coward, he was speaking like St Peter at the time of the Last Supper.[3] From time to time he said, “Oh well, it is all right. Let both of us be killed.” But he was not long in acting contrarily to what he said. When I wanted to have a meal, he was willing to have it only at the top of a rise, so as to be able to see the enemy approach and to take flight. When we came near some houses, fear seized him: he could see, he said, someone’s tracks, and wanted me to take another way through the scrub some steps away from the village. For my part, I armed myself with a Salve Regina [4] and a prayer to my guardian angel, that everything would turn to the greater glory of God, and I went on clearing the way for him. Fortunately we found no one. Three times we met in the forest Maoris who were going to Tauranga. He straight away told them of our adventure. They were Protestants. Then I told them: “He is a robber and an assassin (these word humiliated them very much). If my cloak has not been returned to my house when I return, I will write about it to the British governor to have [this man] put in prison; and if the British governor is not strong enough (because they do not fear the British very much) I will write about it to my own country, and soon the warship which is at Akaroa will be here to get it, punish him, and fine him for the injury he has done me.”[5] I added: “My nation is good with people who are not wicked, but it is brave and strong against the wicked.” One of them said to me, “If someone buys back your cloak, will you write?” I told him, “No, because I am a priest and I love you all. I will willingly pardon him.”

The next morning it was known in Tauranga that I had been robbed and attacked by a Protestant. The chiefs came in anger to the mission house to tell Brother Luc that they were going to kill the assassin in punishment for his crime. At the same time my cloak, which had been given up, was brought back. He[6] told them not to kill him, that it was not right to kill so easily. Then they went to find his chief and ordered him to henceforth to leave the route free for the priests, and that it was not for them to judge the Europeans, but for the Europeans themselves. My poor thief and the whole village where the Protestant minister lives were covered in shame and confusion.

As for me, I went on through the forest until nightfall, and then I found lodging in the hostelry of the birds.[7] It’s a forest which takes eight or nine hours’ good walking to go through – it is a track over roots and tree trunks, [p6] through scrub and fallen branches. We lit a big fire under a little shelter [hangard] which we came across at night. I dried myself, I read my breviary in the light of a firebrand. We were forced to eat without drinking – we couldn’t find water – then I lay down near the fire. When cold awoke me, I revived the fire, then I lay down again without going very far. As I was wet through[8] on my return I picked up a good bout of rheumatism in my left arm, so that I have difficulty in lifting the arm. May God be blessed!

I came back the same way, and I met all my Protestants at their work village. I had four natives with me. They all came to hold out their hands in friendship and all appeared to be ashamed. I reprimanded them for what they had done and went on in peace. They told me that peace was made, they all blamed the robber, but the added that they did not want him to go to prison. In this way all the efforts of Satan, their father of darkness, redounded to the glory of religion and the confusion of Protestantism.

Here is another matter in which I have crossed swords with the Protestants. Six weeks ago a Protestant was very ill in my pa or village. I was called to give him some medicine. Seeing that I could not cure him, I concerned myself more with medicine of the Spirit than of the body. I spoke to him a little about religion, about God, and the need to be baptised in order to be saved. On a second visit, I asked him if he wanted to be baptised. He replied, “No”, and all those around him said the same thing. They added on his behalf: “The Protestant minister urged him on another occasion to let himself be baptised, and he did not want it. So leave him be.” I went away heavy-hearted. The next morning I offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass in honour of Mary for the salvation of this soul, a slave of the devil. I besought the Blessed Virgin in a special way, then I went to see my sick man. I spoke to him again about the principal truths. I asked him if he believed in them. He told me and indicated to me that he did. I asked him again if he wanted to be baptised. He told me straight away that he certainly did. But two or three devils around him, seeing that he was granting me what I requested, promptly spoke up and told me that they did not want it [to happen], that I had to leave. I answered them firmly in a few words. I was afraid that the sick man who heard everything would take back his consent. When I wanted to speak to him about the truths of religion, they shouted over my voice that it was not necessary to baptise him. Unfortunately I did not have any water on me. I asked them for some. They refused me any. Then I left, seemingly unhappy, saying I was going to come back. They told me not to come back. I put off my return till evening. I turned again to Mary, then I prepared a very mild medicine. It was a flash of well sugared red wine. I took baptismal water with me. I gave him first some of my medicine in a spoon. He found it very good. Seeing that he seemed happy with my medicine, I told him again that I was going to baptise him, [and] that he had to show his sorrow for his sins. The principal [p7] devil arrived at that moment. I was not able to speak to him at great length: he seemed to approve of my words, but he spoke no more. When they saw that I was going to baptise him they threw themselves on me to prevent the water flowing over his forehead. They could not prevent me. It was already done. I then soundly rebuked them in a few words and I left. Everyone was arriving. I was afraid that arguments might make my poor neophyte apostatise. I do not know if the baptism was truly valid. I put it all into God’s hands. I prefer to risk the validity of a sacrament to the salvation of a soul which has in infinite value. As soon as I had finished, that devil who tried so hard to prevent me from baptising him changed his way of speaking a little. He followed me for a few steps and said to me, “I am not angry with you, but I did not want to let this chief be baptised because Brown (he is their Protestant minister) would get angry with me. That is why I shouted against you.” At last the sick man died and they buried him according to the Maori rite and with Protestant prayers. They were all Protestants and they did not wish to allow me to bury him. I quite willingly gave up the body when I could have the soul.[9]

So, Very Reverend Father, that is what the work of your sons comes down to: struggling continually against the Protestants or the pagans, snatching from them as by force some souls who perhaps only come half way, and travelling through forests, and deserted places to have worship offered by about ten lazy people who repeat in a sleepy way two or three expressions from the Catechism which they are made to repeat ad nauseam. When I look into myself for ways of efficaciously evangelising these people, I almost fall into despair. I find no human means that can succeed. Indeed, where do you begin to teach them? Should it be through the old people? But they are fixed in their old pagan ideas, and do not think of anything more than their pipes and sleeping. When you speak to them about God or about baptism, they offer you their pipe, saying: “My pipe is out, don’t you have a little plug of tobacco to give him [sic: me] to chew?” They cannot listen to two successive words concerning the matter of their salvation. Will it be through the young unmarried people? They only think of running here and there, getting themselves tattooed to please [other] young people, and singing awfully licentious songs. A baptised chief told me one day, “I don’t want to have my young people baptised if they do not get married after that. All the young people who are not married give in to fornication. Really, they think of nothing but pleasure and amusement.” However they are the ones who learn best. Will it be through the young women, that pious sex in France? From the age of 14 years, they give themselves to all the Europeans, to all the ships which arrive, for a little tobacco. They seem to be besotted with materialist ideas. They come to prayer only from time to time. They are still more carefree than the men, and seem to have few ideas. Will it be through the children, as in Europe? But it is impossible to keep them near you. They are taken up with playing from morning till evening, running from one place to another totally naked, being unable to pay attention for more than two minutes. [p8]I have tried to get them to come to school and catechism. But in vain. My predecessor wanted to bring them together to teach them the catechism. After three or four attempts they asked him for a reward to come to his catechism class, and finally did not come at all. The children here are completely free – the parents never do anything for them. They never beat them or allow anyone else to beat them. Will it be the married men of mature appearance [d’image mûr]. But they think only about war, about their waka (canoes) and their potatoes. However, they are still the ones on whom one must most rely.

See, Very Reverend Father, if we have consolations here. Our main work is wearing ourselves out on the tracks and on the rivers, without hope of a great harvest. To be able to achieve something worthwhile with this savage people, two things are needed: 1) that, through the effect of grace, they abandon their nonchalance; 2) that they gather together as people, which will not be easily brought about. Fiat voluntas Dei![10] What is painful is being alone among these poor children, not even having a Brother to ease the burden. You certainly promised to send us some Brothers, but we have been waiting a year and a half and no one has come to help us. Sit nomen benedictum.[11] So will God not allow us at least a server for Mass? We don’t have one here. These people here cannot read Latin. What impression can the most awe-inspiring sacrifice make on the senses of these big children if it is celebrated in a beggarly way? No one to even give them an example of the positioning of the body [l’exemple du maintièn des corps]. Usually they remain kneeling through the whole Mass. In spite of the small amount of spiritual work we have, I personally do not have time to open a book. When I am in the house they all come, one after another to chat or to ask for tobacco. They would stay there all day if allowed to. I have to lock myself in to say my prayers. As well, you need to spend the whole day in distributing medicines or making them yourself. In that matter, everything has to be done in the house. When you come back from a journey in the scrub or the forest, it is rare that you don’t have to arm yourself with needle and thread. Good heavens! What a ministry we have! Non mea voluntas sed tua fiat.[12]

August 11. Alas, if only we had some consolation in other respects, but unfortunately a poor ignorant native is more listened to that we. If these people never content, complain, we are the ones who are wrong. I came back yesterday from taking the Bishop to the Waikato, to Father Pézant’s place; that is to say four days’ travel from here, across forests, rivers, numerous swamps, and slippery mountains. He[13] stopped a while at my station, baptising en masse, provided that people knew a few words about the principal truths. He baptised about 50 in the various villages of my mission area. I do not know how now to watch over this scattered flock, ignorant and who love only tobacco. However, I cannot go straight back and visit them. After three or four days’ rest and putting some order into my registers, my house and my clothes, which are all torn, [p9] I am going to go and visit a little island about seven leagues [35 km] away in the sea. There are there 40 or 60 natives who offer Catholic worship. But I first need to kill my lice and to stock up on my supplies. For 15 days I have slept sometimes on Maori mats, on planks covered with a blanket (at my confrère’s house), or in the open air. I spent a very cold night that way with His Lordship – it was a hard frost, [and] we had only a blanket for shelter, after leaving a swamp where a native who was carrying me fell with me into the water and mud. On the way back I spent another [night] at the foot of a mountain, covered by a little shelter made of fern, in the midst of continual rain, with all my clothes wet through. At last I left it, some blisters on my feet, and bit exhausted, my umbrella half torn in the fern, and umbrella rib broken by the wind, my gaiters in tatters, and my soutane, which needs replacing. Although I tell you that my umbrella is broken, do not think that it is a useless piece of equipment in New Zealand. On the contrary, I find it of great help. With it, having pulled my soutane up to beneath my arms, I can use it to keep a good part of it[14] dry when spending the night in the open. Without that, it would not be possible to wear it, being wet from one end to the other.

You see as well, Very Reverend Father, the problems we have in carrying out our spiritual exercises. We are fortunate if for all [2? words missing – page torn] than meditations strictly speaking, [done] while plunging into swamps or [missing words – torn - climbing?] steep hills, with natives who have no understanding of religious silence. You see that we have great need of the help of your prayers, and Mary’s protection, to sustain us.

As time is short and I cannot write many letters right now, I am taking the liberty of asking you to commend me to the good prayers of Fathers Maîtrepierre, Favier, Girard, etc etc to whom I offer my humble respects. With very deep respect, Very Reverend Father, I am you most humble servant and unworthy son in Jesus Christ,

J S Bernard miss[ionary] apost[olic]


  1. I think in fairness to the New Zealanders (Maori) of whom Father Bernard speaks so disparagingly, we need to ask ourselves whether the attitude of many of today’s New Zealanders is significantly different. Religion, faith, do not seem to bring material benefits, so why bother about them? - translator’s note
  2. 25 or 30 km - translator’s note
  3. Matt 26:30-35, in which we read how Peter claimed that even if all the others deserted Jesus, He would never do so.
  4. Hail, Holy queen – a prayer to Our Lady - translator’s note
  5. Gunboat diplomacy! - translator’s note
  6. Brother Luc, presumably - translator’s note
  7. ie, he slept in the forest - translator’s note
  8. Comme j’etais tout mouillé – this statement seems to contradict his earlier one about having dried himself – but maybe he means “had been wet through” - translator’s note
  9. Attaboy! - translator’s note
  10. May God’s will be done
  11. May the name of the Lord be blessed
  12. Not my will, but yours be done – Matt 26:39
  13. the Bishop - translator’s note
  14. the soutane, presumably - translator’s note