Fr Auguste-Joseph Chouvet to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Bay of Islands, 29 June 1845
Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, October 2005
APM Z 29 June 1845
To Very Reverend Father Colin
New Zealand, Bay of Islands, 29 June 1845
A M D G
B[eata] V[irgines] M[aria] S[ine] L[abe] Concepta
Very Reverend Father
I delayed a long time from revealing to you my interior state. Truly, I would have written to you sooner, but I took it on myself to hold back my letters to you, for fear of saying things that were inappropriate. For me, it is a very great consolation to reveal myself to the best of Fathers. Nevertheless, I am afraid to afflict your heart by declaring to you everything that concerns me. But I believe I am also answering the demands of your charity by speaking to you, as openly as I can, confessing willingly as well whatever is guilty or blameworthy in me, [and] whatever there is that is perhaps excusable. How pleasant it is to unburden one’s heart into that of a Father who lives only for his children. I do not want to go into details about the mission. According to the Rule, these details must not be included in letters of spiritual direction, and may God not allow me to ever blame the administration in any way. I have always detested the spirit of criticism and insubordination. For the rest, if the good God brings me back to France, you will have the right to interrogate me, but it will be only at your orders that I will tell you from my heart and conscience what I have seen and heard. Without which I will always, I hope, remain silent about matters so delicate, as I have already very often resolved. Also, in the few letters that I have sent, I have never touched the wrong chord.
After having spent six months at the Bay of Islands, six months during which I exercised some sort of ministry, while teaching myself the language of the natives, I was then appointed to Opotiki, where I spent 19 months 100 leagues away from the Bay of Islands. It was from this post that the trouble with my legs led Bishop Pompallier to withdraw me from the month of March. My sight is, Very Reverend Father, extremely weak and poor, as I had pointed out to you in Lyons. It has got continuously worse in New Zealand. I am no longer, or to put it more correctly, I have never been fit for the journeys which are necessary in all the stations in this country, where there are, as you know, only mountains, rivers and forests. I would not be able to find a post suited to me, perhaps, except by staying with His Lordship, but you will be able to form your own opinion about that from what follows in this letter. On every journey I undertook, I clearly realised I was useless [incapable], although I always felt courageous, and I convinced myself that I could conscientiously dispense myself from them. Twenty times I resolved to stay at my house, because of the frequent falls I had, and the continually great dangers for me in the mountains and on the steep slopes. Apart from my sight being poor, while travelling in both winter and summer I always sweat in an astonishing way. Then the sweat runs into my eyes, making them sore, and also making my sight more difficult. Several times I almost broke my head, feet and hands in the forests and the mountains. But the boredom I experienced from staying as it were shut up, and even more the thought that perhaps I would do some good, forced me out again from my hole, and made me attempt the same journeys, and I would soon say, “Ah, that’s the last time you come here.”
It was at my post at Opotiki that a tragic event occurred that I would like to share with you. The missionary natives  did not want to give me, for erecting the wooden house that the Bishop wanted to build at Opotiki, a piece of land that the Bishop had bought at the time he visited me, and paid for very dearly in tobacco. The Epikopo [Catholic] natives themselves [p2] wanted a much higher price for the land, because the price would be shared among all without exception: missionaries [Anglicans], Catholics and devils. The missionaries, still envious, encouraged by having met only a weak opposition from the Catholics, told me that I had no other place to live in than the river, which they pointed out to me. Then they redoubled the efforts they had been making for a long time to drive me away. In this difficult situation I waited three months for the Bishop, who had left Opotiki after this purchase and the signing of the contract, to go further south with his ship, and who had promised to come back through Opotiki when he returned in two months. I was hoping to find strength and consolation from his second visit. But through the grace of God, who wanted, in his mercy, to humiliate me so I could more clearly see my baseness, my vileness, my weakness, I found there [in his visit] an incomparably heavier cross than every other I had met in my life, and in the presence of which all those others which were weighing on me were nothing. I do not want to hide my wrongdoing. I had lacked humility, patience and respect in regard to Bishop Pompallier, without, nevertheless, saying anything seriously wrong. I was certainly culpable. But as I can confess to you, without intending to excuse myself, he provoked me too much, not understanding more what I was telling him. When I wanted to apologise, he thought he was being even more offended. In truth, he pushed things too far. Although I want to accuse myself only, I recognised from the start, on his return, that he had a heart prejudiced against me. I told him what had happened. Then he got the natives together to question them. As they put all the blame on me, telling him that I was the one who had not wanted the house to be put on the site that had been bought, the Bishop then turned to me and told me, “So you see it was you, yourself, who did not want the house to be built in this place.” Then I said to him only, “Bishop, if you put more trust in the natives than in me, and if you put the blame on me in front of them, it is useless for me to speak.” “But you are young,” he exclaimed, “you have no experience! Etc etc.” However, I brought forward a chief who had been baptised, and whom I had been educating for a year, an open and sincere man, perhaps the only one I recognised, who could really be trusted. I questioned him like this in the presence of the Bishop and the natives. “Gregory, tell us honestly, am I the one who is wrong?” He replied with dignity, “No. It is those who told you that this piece of purchased land was tapu, who told you the price given by the Bishop, and said to you that this price was only tobacco, and that once the tobacco had been smoked, nothing was left of it, while the land would remain with you.” “Well,” I said to His Lordship, “what do you think of that?” The Bishop was a bit disconcerted, but he in no way changed his offhand manner (may God forgive me for that expression) towards me, to the point that after a few hours I was overwhelmed with sadness. Yes, I was completely downcast by the thought that I was at war with a Bishop. He spoke to me roughly even in front of the Brothers. Finally, being unable to do anything more, at the time he was most worked up against me, then, alone with him in my room or, rather, my cellar, I said to him, “I do not care about it any more, my Lord, you are messing me about too much." That was the worst thing I said to him. I certainly don’t think I said anything else approaching that. No doubt it was unworthy. But to repeat, I experienced more than my weakness could put up with from a Bishop. Then he said the Mass for the natives, and was unwilling for me to assist him, even having the natives’ prayers during the holy sacrifice led by a native. I then walked some steps from the house, sad, gloomy, melancholic. Afterwards I asked him in the bitterness of my sorrow, whether he saw me as suspended [interdit]. He replied that he left that to my conscience. You can imagine, Very Reverend Father, what a situation my poor soul was then in, I [p3] who can claim to you without pride, to have always had high respect for my Superiors, the venerable Sulpicians at the Seminary, and my Archbishop in the sacred ministry. He then said to me, to test me, “Do you want to come back to the Bay with me?” I took him at his word and said, “Very willingly, my lord.” Then he added, “At least, if you asked me to forgive you.” It was at this emotionally highly charged time that he said to ask his pardon. However, by the grace of God I did not hesitate, and answered him, troubled as I was, “Yes, I ask your pardon, as much as God demands it of me.” “You do not ask it wonderfully well,” he said. “However, it is something. Well, stay on here. Work where Providence has placed you, until I think of replacing you.”
I made another effort on my own behalf, asking him to hear my confession the night before his departure and the day of this dispute. But since this terrible event, how many sad days, how many sad months I have spent, thinking only that I had been at war with a Bishop, a thought which followed me everywhere. How often I then would exclaim, as if instinctively, “God, have pity on me! Mary, pray for me!” How much I then wanted to go back to France, how desperately I wanted to throw myself at your feet, Reverend Father, and express my sorrow to you, to find some relief in your tenderness in spite of the misdeeds I had then committed. But perhaps I am still, in this account, blameworthy. Because it bears an impression of accusation against a Bishop. Besides, I am truly blameworthy. I did not humble accept from the beginning what God sent me, for my good, through the means of the Bishop. As well, I have an excessively quick-tempered character.
However, so as not to be exposed to a similar relapse, I have been wanting to go back to France. Because I am still in danger from Bishop Pompallier through my lack of humility, and my excessive sensitiveness. I fear him like the lightning and I shake when I talk to him. (It is an offence in his eyes to put forward an opinion other than his own, even on what one has seen.) Because he has never seemed to me to go back on his first ideas, true or false, once he has thought of them. However he has declared several times to me in particular that he acts towards those he esteems, as he did towards me. When I do not reproach a priest, he would add, it is a bad sign. I must say, Very Reverend Father, that this compliment seems suspect to me. I think it is only a pretext on his part – salva reverentia. Yes, since that terrible business, I have always both day and night remembered my error, although I felt I had submitted to Providence. It was only after Father Forest assured me that the Bishop had dealt with other people much more harshly than me, and after I had been convinced by evidence from others, that I have been a bit more at peace.
After I had declared myself quite frankly to the Bishop, he admitted that there were, in my case, a number of reasons which led him to be interested in my approaching departure. He then showed me more esteem and consideration than I deserved. He even offered several times to get a British vessel to take me when I left. I always refused this idea, so as not to be a cause of expense to the mission, knowing that sooner or later I could have for my use the French corvette Le Rhin on which I left Toulon in 1842, a corvette which has finished its tour of duty [campagne]. I know I will be on the cross throughout the whole voyage, from hearing the incredible multitude of blasphemies and base expressions which pour forth in order to deliberately attack God. But that is not enough of a reason for me to bring about a considerable expense for the mission. Besides, through the grace of God, it is through hearing these disgusting things that I am more moved to bless the Lord’s name, and to more effectively unite myself with him in prayer.
Although I am not leaving in haste to see my homeland again, I am leaving willingly and at peace with myself, not being able to carry on an active life here, without which, because of my weakness in virtue perhaps more than because of my temperament, I am getting bored and am even ill, and not being worthy to approach His Lordship, although I truly esteem him and warmly love, him, I am calmly and patiently waiting for Le Rhin at the Bay of Islands, from where it left on the 29th May this year to visit the mission in Tongatabu [sic- Tongatapu], Wallis, New Caledonia, and then to reprovision itself in Sydney before returning to the Bay of Islands to receive the Bishop’s orders, and to go with me to Akaroa, its station in the island of Tawai pounamu [sic – Te Wai Pounamu], to wait for its imminent replacement. It should be here in about two months. Perhaps I will stay at Akaroa until the end of the year. It is in God’s hands. While waiting I will carry out the sacred ministry among some French Europeans.
Through the grace of God and the protection of Mary, my soul has always been unmoved by the sight of nakedness which I have seen displayed more than a thousand times in both sexes. It seems that God in a special way removed temptations of the flesh from me, knowing me to be too weak and too poorly hardened to overcome them. I admit that simply for your consolation.
It was because of my physical, moral and spiritual condition that I did not renew my vows after a year of novitiate. So I am no longer a Marist religious. I am bound only by the usual vows taken outside a religious order. On one hand, it is very sad for me not to belong irrevocably to a Society which bears the name of her who is, after Jesus, all our hope; but on the other hand, as I told you simply in Lyons, I do not yet feel a sufficient inclination, a strong enough attraction, to belong to a religious body. So I have not thought it prudent to take religious vows after a year of testing, as the Sacred Council of Trent requires. Anyway, what seems remarkable, [is that] I am in no way saddened by having left for the missions. I clearly see what has resulted from my venture; if not a greater and more evident fervour, at least a greater knowledge of myself, especially of my nothingness and my poverty. I am not hiding anything from you, as I will not hide anything from you in Lyons, if the good God brings me back there, as I want to get there, as far as possible, before any other place on earth.
It is in an awareness of my wretchedness I clearly see what has resulted from my venture; if not a greater and more evident fervour, at least a greater knowledge of myself, especially of my nothingness and my poverty. I am not hiding anything from you, as I will not hide anything from you in Lyons, if the good God brings me back there, as I want to get there, as far as possible, before any other place on earth.
It is in an awareness of my wretchedness and the lack of comfort of the voyage, which I will probably have begun when you receive this letter, that I specially commend myself to your prayers, and go so far as to ask you to have people pray for me.
- I am, with deepest veneration, and limitless confidence and filial self-abandonment,
- Very Reverend Father,
- Your most humble and obedient
- Chouvet, priest.
- Your most humble and obedient
- Very Reverend Father,
I put my entire fate into your hands, after Jesus and Mary. Whether I definitively enter the Society or not, whether I do it sooner or later, I feel inclined to obey you always, and never to amass any treasure on earth.
I think it best to prepare for my departure with this letter. I am a little afraid that this letter will influence a decision you will make concerning New Zealand. But I know I am too inconsequential a person for people to think and act on the basis of my opinions. Besides this is only a letter concerning spiritual direction. May it have no influence on your decision-making. I am writing to you only.
- Mary, pray for me.
- about 500 kms
- He most likely means Anglican Maori, who were commonly known as mihinare – ‘missionaries’ because they had been evangelised by the first Christian missionaries - translator’s note
- pagans - translator’s note
- vous m’en frissez trop au nez – I think fissez relates to modern fichez - translator’s note
- mais encore une fois j’en avois plu que ma foiblesse n’en pouvoit porter de la part d’un Èvèque
- When he had been a priest in France before coming to New Zealand - translator’s note
- with due respect
- These would be to be obedient to his Bishop, to remain celibate, etc - translator’s note