From Marist Studies
2 Jan 1845 Bishopp Jean-Baptiste Epalle to the Central Committee of the Propagation of the Faith at Lyon
Translated by Peter McConnell, May 2010
This letter is one sheet folded into four pages. The note Poupinel on the copy shows the date it was sent as being January 2 1845.
- Report to the members of the Central Committee of the Propagation of the Faith at Lyon concerning the mission of Melanesia and Micronesia.
- Before leaving Europe I need to speak to you about the mission which Rome had just put me in charge of: firstly to give you an overview of the mission; secondly to tell you the fears that I have about the mission; and thirdly to tell you, if you will allow me to do so, the best ways to reassure me.
- Firstly this mission consists of two vicariates, that of Micronesia and that of Melanesia. The former is between 180 and 125 degrees longitude and between 13 degrees latitude north and the equator. This gives a length of 1375 leagues by a width of 325 leagues. It would be impossible for name to give you the names of the islands which it includes.
- The latter is between 160 and 125 degrees longitude east and between the equator and 15 degrees meridian line. That gives it a length of 875 leagues by a width of 375 leagues and includes at least 400 islands. Gentlemen, I will draw your attention only to this last point. The Society of Mary has only most reluctantly accepted the responsibility for the vicariate of Micronesia and with Rome promising to discharge it of that responsibility or rather still on the condition of sending at least two priests into the Caroline archipelago, to Ascension Island, because of a special need which would take too long to explain here, and which has motivated the temporary union of the two vicariates. Moreover Micronesia according to the meaning of its name contains only very small islands, and accordingly, despite their number, they would not interest traders or governments.
- Gentlemen, the same does not go for Melanesia. The huge land masses that it comprises are separated, so to speak, only by straits. From Christoval which is on the south-east point as far as Guilolo on the nor’west point, that is to say an area of 8.5 leagues the biggest stretch from one island to another would not be more than 26 to 27 leagues. So, although the vicariate of Melanesia includes a lot of seas, the land masses are still quite numerous, huge enough when combined to create a small continent. The mission is centred in New Guinea because of its position. It alone has an area of 40,000 square leagues, in other words it is a third larger than France. Gentlemen, you are aware that New Guinea could not fail to have many natives, since the half explored coastlines alone have revealed a population of 700,000 according to what travellers have estimated. I am not talking about the Solomon Archipelago which has a surface area of 2200 square leagues, nor of New Britain which has 3200 leagues, nor New Ireland, nor Louisiade, nor Waigeu which has at least a population of 100,000, nor of Tanimbar, Serang, Guilolo nor the Arus, which are much greater still. Indeed, gentlemen, this is a huge field for missionary work and at the same time for your enthusiasm and which would not have escaped the greed of commercial concerns and the ambition of nations, had people sooner known the importance of the area and had they not been put off by the fierceness of the natives, which has probably been exaggerated. For the mission of Melanesia is not only interesting from the point of view of its expanse. The countries I am going to evangelize are pristine lands and their vigorous vegetation indicates how fertile the soil must be. Today Europe knows that. Catholicism will be the first to get there, that’s true, but greed will follow it and, drawing after it or rather with it the lack of Christian ethics and heresy which will serve as rights of passage. Greed will not be slow in subjecting these beautiful countries to its contagious influence. No sooner have we arrived on those beaches, than we will see ourselves surrounded by opponents and we will perhaps have the sorrow of causing a division and serving as forerunners of enemies of the faith. For that is what ought to be the object of our greatest concern.
- Secondly, gentlemen, we must worry that lies and incredulity don’t precede us into several of these countries which are so interesting. It is true to say that several of these races are still uncivilized natives, but who have not misused the Lord’s graces. They have not the sad habit of a refined corruption such as is found in our European societies. They have not yet learnt to be suspicious of everything. Already, gentlemen, I am convinced, several trading companies have seen this new vicariate; they are going to rush there. One of them appears to have quite religious intentions but I don’t not know the other companies. An annoying experience has taught me to be on my guard generally concerning the influence that our navigators have on the island inhabitants. I should even add that one of them operates under the name of the Cosmopolitan Society, but actually almost exclusively comprises English, Dutch and French, who, they say, have but one goal, namely that of introducing into these countries trade and civilization. But you know, gentlemen, what we should expect from men mostly born Protestants or who are Catholics only in name. Now, I could imagine no greater danger for my mission. Although I setting out before those who could harm the interests of faith in these countries, I predict that I will be unable at first to cope with all the problems having with me only a small number of fellow workers. Heresy and lack of religious ethics will simultaneously assault the various parts of Melanesia; I won’t be able to defend them. I will have to repair the bad and edify the good. If I arrive late, that will be a double burden and my success will be reduced by half. If the missionaries arrive too late, heir stations will be assaulted. Gentlemen, do reflect before God on the dangers to our mission that I have just drawn your attention to. They are huge and perhaps we could see them coming.
- Indeed, gentlemen, it seems to me that even if you were to give me the job of establishing some central mission stations rather near to one another to be more viable. If you were to do it rather promptly I would be able first to forestall the bad impression that I fear our natives would get from our Europeans, and secondly to combat the temptations that heresy won’t fail to throw against our holy religion. Now, after making a serious study of these countries, I think that they include three spots which as soon as we have them will make it easy for us to have the rest because of their location. They are: New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Archipelago of New Britain and New Ireland. So four mission stations with four priests each and as many brothers in New Guinea, another mission in the Solomons in all 28 priests and 28 brothers, minus those who are leaving with me, that is seven priests and six brothers, would give me the means of properly founding our mission. Gentlemen, I am proposing mission stations of eight persons because I repeat, it is a matter of having central points. I am asking you for a rather considerable number of brothers because being the first to arrive we will be able to acquire for little money lands which when cultivated right from the outset will put us, I hope, soon in a state of no longer being a burden on you. The plan I am describing to you, gentlemen, I have furthermore submitted to the reverend father Colin. He approves of it and he fully agreed and promised to send the necessary personnel, since God at the present time is inspiring many vocations to the apostolate. It is for you, gentlemen, to make a final decision. Don’t tell me that I am too ambitious! I would of course like to see already embraced in the church all those children that she has given us access to. Yet, like you, I am not unaware that we must know our limitations. But consider carefully that I am not here outlining for you a plan of attack. My goal is only to advise methods of defence. Then, that that is my idea, that a place well established is enough to ensure the conquest of an island and even the material future of the mission; so we have to get a move on. Moreover I don’t want to outstrip the views of providence, and I will see in my regard evidence of them in your decisions. Gentlemen, in conclusion with all the power of my convictions, give me sufficient resources which I am seeking to meet the expense of the journey. I believe that there will be glory for God and saving of money for you. It is better to prevent an illness by taking small measures than treating it when it has broken out. I limit myself to these viewpoints. I could speak to your hearts; I resist that action. I know that your hearts are certainly in the right place. That is my position honestly put to you. Once the facts are known, you will certainly act in support of them, and so you will gain new rights in recognizing them.
- Gentlemen, I offer you the assurance of my perfect consideration and of my limitless devotion,
- Jean-Baptiste, Bishop of Sion
- Apostolic vicar for Melanesia and Micronesia.