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31 December 1845 — Fr Xavier Montrouzier to his brother Fr Gabriel Montrouzier, San Cristobal

Translated by Peter McConnell, October 2010

Jesus Mary Joseph – All through Mary!

My dear brother,
There is no point hiding from you a piece of news which the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith won’t be slow in publishing. After all, if at first you feel that it is upsetting, I am sure that reflecting on it for a short time it will become comforting. Bishop Epalle has been taken away from us by his death, but that was only to go and intercede for us in heaven. He was the first apostle of the Solomon Islands and also the first martyr. Here are the details of the incident and what happened previously to it.
Having left New Caledonia on 24 October and having escaped on the evening of 25 October the extreme danger of being shipwrecked, we arrived on 1 December off the coast of San Cristobal. It is the first island in the Solomon archipelago and we dropped anchor on 3 December. The people, the terrain, everything would have been quite suitable for us. But there was not sufficient there to occupy eight missionaries. We left that country sad of heart; we had found there nothing of the ferocity which the natives of those islands are accused of. We pushed ever onwards. The bishop wanted to establish a mission station at Isabelle, the centre of the archipelago. We got there on 12 December and straightaway we were surrounded by canoes whose paddlers invited us to go to their place. They pointed out to us a spot which we thought was dangerous and they kept on saying the word mate-mate which in all the languages of Oceania means something ominous. We ignored that warning, thinking that they were probably enemies of the tribe they were pointing to or else even that perhaps they wanted to warn us against an unhealthy climate. We dropped anchor opposite a spot about two leagues away, near Astrolabe Harbour, in the Mille Vaisseaux Bay.
The bishop immediately called us together to appoint a committee of two priests and a brother to go and reconnoitre the island. He wanted to go with them. Reverend Fathers Frémont and Chaurain were appointed with Brother Prosper. They all set off immediately, whereas we had been told to give a friendly welcome to the natives who were coming on board and to learn the most words as possible and to make plenty of observations. That is how the committee acted in its expeditions. It took with it the second officer of the ship and four sailors. It went unarmed, but that did not prevent the captain from getting his men to take some rifles and some swords. It left between eight and nine o’clock I the morning and returned rather late in the evening. On Friday and Saturday we noticed several aspects which gave little satisfaction. There were no villages and pretty well no chance of building a small cabin with a garden because the jungle was too thick and the land too mountainous. On Sunday we rested. On Monday we started searching again and we were rather lucky to find a river and a favourable spot. Yet we noticed straightaway several things which were not encouraging. We saw several necklaces made of human teeth, and one of the natives wearing one showed us the spot where he had killed and cut up his enemy. We were also offered a child in exchange for an axe and several of us thought we understood that the offering was as a highly prized dish. On Monday evening all those details were brought back to a gathering we had; but nobody was scared. The bishop said, I see clearly that by starting with Isabelle Island, we are attacking the worst element; but that does not matter. We will strike the evil at its base. It was agreed that we should continue our reconnoitring. We stopped at the tribe which had been pointed out to us as an enemy tribe but we still thought that it was called such only by its enemies.
On Tuesday they left at the usual time. The bishop felt tired. “If I listened to my body”, he said,” I would exempt myself from the heavy work.” The weather had changed; he took his black hat instead of his straw hat, asking the precaution of removing the braid, no doubt he feared that I would excite greed among the natives. The night before he had torn his black trousers. He wore another pair in black and white checks. As he was leaving he said, ”I’ll try not to be late.” He was not mistaken. At eleven o’clock he was on the deck, bathed in blood, struck five times by an axe, pierced by two spears and bruised all over his body. Father Frémont received two blows of a club which cracked his skull and the third victim received one blow and we, in tears around our bishop, gave him the last sacraments and we asked heaven not to abandon us.
Here is how things occurred. The second officer asked the bishop where he was going. He said he was going to the enemy tribe. When they arrived the committee was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm of the natives approaching the long boat. Nevertheless the bishop and the others disembarked. Contrary to what they normally did, the sailors left their weapons on the boat. A native offered the third man some fruit. They gave him in exchange a piece if iron which he took to the chief who looked a it disdainfully. So the third man gave an axe. The chief took it, still disdainfully, and shook it fiercely and angrily. There were between 40 and 60 natives on the beach. Not one was smiling. They all had weapons, their clubs, their spears, their shields, their attitude was threatening. Brother Prosper then noticed an axe. He cried out: “Look, those people are ready to fight”. The bishop said, “That’s true”. The sailors should have had their weapons. At that moment the bishop was struck from behind. He stayed still. He received a second blow. He fell down and everybody was attacked and fled. The second officer, seriously wounded was one of the first to get back to the boat and fired his rifle. The natives fled, except for three who stayed stubbornly around the bishop. They were busy, one in striking him and the other two tearing off his clothes and taking his hat, his snuffbox and a knife I had lent him. It was then that Father Chaurain on returning to the boat, without thinking of the danger, thought of nothing else but saving the body of the bishop. He jumped into the water, reached the shore and flew to the help of the bishop. He would have been killed had it not been for a second rifle being fired from the boat and sending all the wretched natives to flight. So he lifted up the body which he found dragged in the sand and covered in blood, and realizing that he was too weak to carry him called for help. Father Frémont and Brother Prosper went and helped him lift up the precious load and when all had come back to the longboat, they left hurriedly from that scene of treachery and cruelty.
I can’t tell you, my dear brother, the impression I had seeing the longboat returning more than three hours after its departure. Mr Blemy, the third mate, had a bloodstained handkerchief around his head. Father Frémont also had around his head a rag red with blood. He bishop was lying down, immobile, on the knees of us priests and of our dear brother; his shirt was quite red; his head was nothing else but a wound but his face had not changed. The ship’s doctor then examined he wounds; he said they were fatal and so we busied ourselves administering to his dear martyr the last rights. You could have no idea of the feelings wee had what we felt at that time. As far as I am concerned, I can tell you that I have never felt my faith so roused at that moment. I was overcome with the thought of our becoming orphans, without a guide, without support in the middle of unknown islands with the enormous task of founding a mission. But I was in a way proud of having a martyr in our midst, happy in being able to gather up his blood with towels and material which our good mother had given me.
The bishop remained suffering for several days. Constantly surrounded by priests and brothers, lying on the deck of the ship, deprived of so many things that he would not have lacked in France, he took his last breath on Friday 19 October at four in the afternoon a moment before I returned from St George Island where Father Verguet, some brothers and I had gone to wash some clothing---.
We gave the bishop’s body all the honours which were deserved by his personality and the glory which he had just gained by shedding his blood for the cause of Jesus Christ. We dressed him in is pontifical robes; we put him on show and we shared with one another time to recite prayers around him. The following day, a Saturday, at four in the morning, we celebrated Holy Mass on the deck and we went to a solitary place on St George Island to lay the immortal remains of the first apostle-martyr of Melanesia, taking appropriate precautions to be able perhaps one day to recognize the place and recover his bones. While all this was happening, the crew showed tangible signs of their affection and we even had to use all our authority to stop them going and taking revenge on our behalf.
That is in a few words the account of our misfortune. I would need pages and pages were I to give you an account of the consequences. Let it be enough to tell you that we are in a country where everything has to be done for the temporal and spiritual welfare and you will judge from that whether we needed to be guided by somebody who had experience of mission stations. Pray God to lead us himself!
I won’t insult you thinking that you are worried on our account. First of all, I think you wouldn’t pity me if you knew that a blow from a club would send me to heaven. Then I assure you that I do not feel holy enough to get that great grace. Finally I will inform you that we left Isabelle to return to San Cristobal. The loss of he bishop has changed out position too much for us to lead an adventurous life which we should have begun. Left to ourselves, we had to, in particular, look after the security of the mission station.
My dear brother, you now know a little more what the life of a missionary is, a life of dangers. No doubt I would soon be able to show you it in a new light, a life of pain. But try not to think I am more unhappy at that prospect. It is true, I find less happiness, less interested in material things, but the thought of heaven consoles me more and the certainty that I have in serving, albeit poorly, a generous master who requires me to pass through many wretched times. So, my dear brother, I see the poor natives so materialistic, no nasty, so bad that their fate touches me beyond all expression and that I have the feeling that it would be kind to work at making them better, were I obliged in doing that to die in the midst of the most atrocious torments.
At the moment that I am writing to you, we are opposite San Cristobal. But before arriving there, we saw the east coast of Guadalcanal and I assure you that the population of that island would really require a score of missionaries. I don’t give up hope of going there one day to preach Jesus Christ and to save souls there. Nearby is Sabo, having a similar population in proportion to its size and Sesarga whose inhabitants are so numerous and so warlike that while sailing by our captain thought it wise in the circumstances to have the crew under arms. It seems that the natives have attempted on several occasions to stop the whalers. A little farther away is Malayta where we are also sure of finding a sizable population. Who are the courageous men who will come and devote themselves to saving so many souls? Who are they who, inspired by the thought of faith, will contribute according to their capability to the so0lace of these people? We have the reward of seeing here the cross of the Saviour arriving before the greed of navigators. But how few we priests are! Our chief has fallen in the field of honour. Our provincial has been wounded. All that does not increase our numbers. Then, what a lot of expense we incur to establish ourselves here. We were put into an exceptional position in the sense that we did not know when we left Europe where we would rest our heads, what place we would eke out a miserable existence, not having lovely dishes, not having plenty to eat, but only some yams and some taro. We have had to look carefully for a little place near some native villages where we could build a paltry cabin and establish a garden which would keep us alive. That makes it necessary to keep a ship for a long time and living on board costs plenty and exhausts our resources. I hope God will come to our aid.
Bye bye, my dear brother. Don’t forget me in your prayers. At Holy Mass while you offer the precious chalice, pray to Our Lord to sprinkle a drop of his adorable blood on [--- ] great crimes weighing on them. Wars have often made us forget our duties [---] a monstrous vice is so ingrained here. We have never approached a land without somebody suggesting evil. It would be necessary for nothing less than all the power of grace to convert these people. Pray and get others to pray! While thinking of the flock, don’t forget the shepherds! Alas! I admit I don’t feel I am getting better in the mission field, and self-centredness always tracks me down, attacks me and subjugates me. Finally at every occasion and by every means, try to be useful for our mission stations.
Show this letter to the family; don’t hide anything. But do explain to the members of the family that I am safe. Our good parents’ imagination makes them see enemies always on my heels whereas I go in safety among my dear natives.
I am writing to the little congregation of the seminary. Before sending it, you will see this letter which has some details which I haven’t had time to repeat in writing to you.
Goodbye, I embrace heart and soul and beg you to embrace our good parents for me.
Your good brother in Jesus and Mary
Xavier Montrouzier
Apostolic missionary
South-east coast St Cristobal, 31 December 1845.
Remember me to Father Reynès and to the Bourguenod and Devieux families --- If by chance you have some funds destined for the Propaganda of the faith, buy me a copy or two of the Theology of Pérocheau and the publication of the bible in eight volumes in size 24. This latter work in small size would be very useful for me because I see that I will be frequently on the move, on land and sea and so large books are very cumbersome. Bye bye.