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January 1846 - Letter from Pierre Rougeyron to Claude-Joseph Favier

Translated by Natalie Keen, March 2010

From source APM ONC 208 Rougeyron

Two leaves and a leaflet, forming 10 written pages

[in an unknown hand]
F(ather)Rougeyron to F(ather) Favier

N(ew) Caledonia this January 1846[1]
My very Reverend Father
I received very welcome news of you on 18 November 1845 from His Lordship, Monseigneur Epalle who honoured us by spending 8 to 10 days with us. We were overjoyed to receive such a precious visit: we saw friends, we embraced brothers. We had been on our own for so long! So much time during which we felt abandoned by the rest of mankind! Allow me, my Reverend Father, this humble confession: at the sight of this group of apostles around His Lordship, I committed a sin of envy. Oh my God! I said to myself, would that they were meant for our island, it needs them so badly and they would do so much good there. But no, I mustn’t think of that, our dear Caledonia is forgotten, abandoned; such were the feelings which troubled my soul. But I was wrong: that’s not the case at all. Our dear Caledonia is not abandoned. Every day you pray for her, your kind letter tells me so.
Before we parted, we wanted to celebrate a service together. The day of the Presentation of the Holy Virgin was the day decided upon. Monseigneur d’Amata[2] officiated in our little household chapel. Two priests assisted him – Reverend Fathers Montrouzier and Verguet. Monseigneur de Sion with the other priests and brothers sang in chorus hymns in honour of our Blessed Mother. As for me, kneeling, beside our two devoted catechumens whom we had allowed to see the imposing ceremony from afar, I felt I had been carried into one of our beautiful churches in Europe. I imagined I was present at one of your solemn high ceremonies. The singing of those beautiful hymns, the devout gathering, our two catechists in veritable ecstasy, the memory of our dearly-loved Society which afforded us such happiness, and above all the holy sacrifice of the Mass moved me to tears. Oh, there are in life very tender moments one would not exchange for all the pleasures in the world. But alas! Such is the way of things here below. Two days after they left us, we found ourselves alone once more with no hope of seeing one another again except in Heaven where we have agreed to meet to sing again and forever the praises of our Divine Mother.
My Reverend Father, I’ve learned with some surprise that your duties had changed and that one fine day you had found yourself chief business administrator for our esteemed Order. And so in your capacity as manager and mine as chief kitchen-boy (for I am doing the cooking with no Brother Blaize here), I’m going to tell you a bit about what we did in the early months of our time in New Caledonia.
The ship which brought us had hardly dropped anchor before we were on land. To describe the various feelings which moved our soul at the sight of this new country of adoption which we had come to find from so far away, is no easy task; our eyes were looking for another France. Alas! they found nothing but mountains reaching to the sky, dry, and people, I might almost say, like animals. When we saw one hut higher than the others, we imagined that it belonged to the protestants. Father Viard who knew only very little of the language of some Wallis Islanders living in Caledonia, thought he understood that that some English ministers were living not far from there; but no, we were the only whites in the island. We sincerely thanked Providence for this.
Escorted by several hundred natives all armed with spears and clubs, we made our way towards the chief’s hut. During the journey which lasted about half an hour, we all found ourselves – I don’t know how – isolated from one another; nothing would have been easier than to batter us to death. Amazed and astounded, these natives couldn’t stop looking at us. Often they made us stop to enable them to more easily take a good look at us. We were indeed odd creatures in the land. It was more than 60 years since any ship had appeared in this part of the island. Mostly they weren’t prepared just to look ; they wanted to touch us too to make sure we were human like them. One took a hand, another an arm; yet another tapped what was in our shoes; another again crept up behind and lifted up our trousers calf-high. There he stopped, quite proud of his discovery and went to tell the others that we had legs and calves like them. The ones who had just heard such news, unable to contain their curiosity, came along in their turn. These became even more bothersome; they asked if they could touch us. Once permission was given, they were so happy to take advantage of it that we couldn’t get our legs free from their encompassing hands, impossible to walk. They undoubtedly found this bit of the calf to their liking for we noticed them clicking their teeth as a sign of delight. They pursed their lips and gulped. It seemed to me I could hear them saying to one another: oh! How good this bit would be well-roasted! How tender it is! Large! Rich! Chubby!
On the way, we came across a tree with thick foliage which beckoned us to take a rest in its shade; we sat down there for a few moments. That is where Monseigneur prostrated himself on the ground, his eyes bathed in tears. His prayer was short but it must have been fervent. This devoted prelate had so much to ask of Heaven on this pagan soil.
When we arrived at the chief’s place, he had us sit down under a clump of coconut palms and offered us coconuts to drink; this we accepted happily for we were weary with fatigue and the heat. After exchanging a few words, as much as we could, through Father Viard, we gave them a few mirrors. Their surprise was unbounded; they saw their faces, they noticed others of their own accord; how many times did they try to catch those people whom they believed to be hiding behind the mirror. We told the chief that we wanted to stay on his land and that we would therefore like him to point out an area on which we could build our hut. This he did willingly as he was happy to see us living in his country.
Since the ship was not due to remain in long, the sailors along with our two brothers built a hut without delay. It was a sort of chicken coop. The walls were made of climbing plants through which you could easily pass your hand. The roof was covered in local straw. Since we had provisions for only about one month, the government ship took pity on us. They left us enough flour for three or four months. They would have liked to give us more but they were on low rations at that moment. They gave us hope that in five to six months, another government ship would come bringing us our crates which had remained in France when we left.
When the time arranged for the departure arrived, the lighter Bucephale set sail and left the port of Ballade, taking leave of Monseigneur with seven cannon shots. Thrown onto wild shores, among a foreign people, the only whites in a large island 80 leagues long and 20 wide, without help what was going to become of us after the departure of the protecting ship, what fate was in store for us? If I hadn’t been a missionary, and a Marist missionary at that, I would have let myself become discouraged, but at this very moment, Mary rekindled our faith, and our life’s sacrifice was renewed. However, oh human weakness! huge tears flowed in my eyes when I saw the masts of our mother country’s ship disappear over the horizon. At 7,000 leagues from France, one still loves France and all that reminds one of France.
The natives, we have no doubts, were stopped by an invisible hand. Notwithstanding our presence, they wanted to come into the house. They scaled the walls, day and night, they made holes in the roof. On several occasions, we found dead coals near the house; this wasn’t much of a surprise because on many occasions they threatened to set fire to our house. However, nothing came of that. They chased us with slingshots in the fields and even right into our house. More than 10 pigs, which we didn’t dare to touch in an effort to increase their number in this island with no resources, were pierced through and through with their spears. Well! We were threatened several times with this deadly weapon; who is it who held back the arm of these natives who were ready to strike us, who is it who put out burning coals on our roof? Who is it who, in a word stopped lawless men, men without leaders to punish them, with no religion, without human feelings, with no forethought etc from looting and massacring us. God, yes God alone, with whom Mary interceded on our fate. We would be the most ungrateful of men if we did not recognise this blessing from heaven. But we will not be so, oh carer of my God! No, while others might fail to appreciate you, as for us, we shall call upon you more than ever. We will praise you, we will bless you and all our sorrow will be in knowing that there are men who refuse to believe in your motherly care. Oh! if they knew what we know, they would believe, but let them first try to give themselves into the hands of providence and they will see, and they will believe and they will find a remedy for their ills. God sees everything. God is all powerful.
My Reverend Father, you might think that my first concerns have been to chase after souls. Alas! No. We would have liked this to be so but it was impossible. Not knowing the language the genius of which is most certainly among the most difficult to grasp, we would have appeared before them as no more than dumb beings: so what did we do? Having no material resources, we set about securing our food by the sweat of our brow. Monseigneur Douarre set aside his bishop’s insignia; first, he gave us the example of work like other virtues, from that moment and right up till this day, he forgot that he was a bishop so that he could mix with the brothers, or rather he remembered that he had the burden of the bishopric; father in time of need, he wanted to secure a few morsels of bread for his hungry children. From that moment, nothing was any trouble to him, the most difficult and most humiliating work were his share. The episcopate has some glory about it in the outside world, that is in our civilized lands, but in the missions, especially those just setting up, the title has about it dedication and generosity of spirit which accepts this heavy mitre. One has to have been in the missions fully to understand what I have said and what I am not saying.
So there we have Monseigneur d’Amatha and we priests and brothers who have each put on a shirt, for we had soutanes only for Sundays and soutanelles only for our journeys in the island; and so we had to handle them carefully. As a defence against attacks by the natives, we built a large fence around our dwelling and it was forbidden to cross it. Anyone who disregarded the instruction was chased with lashes of the whip by brother Jean[3] who was responsible for making these sorties. If anyone threatened to come further, the brother with an angry look took from his pocket a tap which these idiots thought was a pistol; although this tap in bad repair had no handle, it was all that was needed to put them to flight; so frightened were they that their legs even gave out! And yet a few more daring ones stood up to our fearsome tap, even though they believed they would die from it.
We did have, as I believe I told you, a little flour; this was a plus in a land without resources, but it needed preparation to become bread. Clearly there was need for an oven, and how were we going to make this oven with no bricks, stones or lime? You can’t build an oven without these materials; these materials existed on the island, but you had to go more than a league away to look for them which was beyond our physical strength. A small boat was called for. Brother Jean made one for us. As soon as it was finished , we switched occupation; from the woodcutters we had been, we became sailors. We weren’t bad rowers for beginners! Monseigneur especially took the prize. And so we spent more than a month dragging both stone and earth for our oven. You might think, my Reverend Father, that this was the end of our preparations. Alas! yes, if we had been in a civilized country. If there had been a few brick merchants in Caledonia, we would not have needed to make them. But these were lacking with everything else. As it was, having the clay at our disposal, we set about making bricks. Once made, we had to dry them; once they were dry, we had to cook them again both day and night. Oh! in a civilized country you will never imagine the trouble one has to go to in primitive lands to achieve the smallest results.
Our bricks and stones were ready but we didn’t have any lime because this clay didn’t adhere sufficiently well. Where were we to find lime? No lime-kilns[4] in New Caledonia. At low tide, we steered our frail barque towards the many coral reefs which fringe the island, and there we gathered our supply, not without difficulty however, as we often had to dive to remove these pieces. A few days of this sort of fatigue duty gave us enough lime for the time being. The subsequent cooking of this coral and letting it slake was work for some other week. The time had finally arrived to see the setting up of this oven forever extolled in our archives.[5] It made its appearance thanks to brother Jean. This Herculean task was completed, it is true; but other problems cropped up. What will we knead the bread in? We had nothing but a very small pot; where will we find leaven? There was no use going to look for some at the neighbour’s place. Finally who is to play the baker’s boy? Brother Jean solved the first difficulty by making a kneading trough. I solved the second by mixing flour with vinegar and leaving this dough to turn sour. Monseigneur finally solved the third by taking it on himself to make the bread. The day we made our first batch was truly a day for celebration. We were going to eat bread, nothing more to be said. It wasn’t cooked until night-time after our supper, but as our supper wasn’t much of a problem for our stomachs, we couldn’t help but break off a good piece of crust; although it was a bit burnt, Father Viard and I found it so delicious, I believe, that we committed a sin of gluttony as we ate it.
From that moment on, our table was better supplied, we worked with more enthusiasm. In a short time, we had gathered up other materials to make a well for we had no water in our vicinity. At only 12 feet down, we found water , to our great satisfaction. We didn’t act in the same way as our sailors who had dug a well, as a matter of fact, but because they were not at all keen on constructing it, the earth collapsed and the well filled in. We constructed ours and it was strong. The water, although a little brackish, wasn’t bad; all the same it wasn’t up to the standard of the water in Puylata, but we were already used to making do with what was good, without wanting the very best.
A garden was essential for us. Brother Blaize on whom we were relying, had just had a fall which kept him out of action at the house. Monseigneur and your servant again took up another trade; a spade and a pickaxe on our shoulders, we went off every day to clear our garden which was a forest. This garden cost us lots of sweat and toil and wasn’t much use to us. Our seeds, probably too old or well and truly spoiled by the sea mostly didn’t germinate, and those which did kept us waiting, some for 6 months, others 10 months and others again 15 months before they gave us other seeds to replenish them. You see, my Reverend Father, that we don’t do what we want to do and that those fine castles which we build in our imagination rarely materialize.
Our first concerns, as you see, were for essential things. After that came useful things. For six months, we lived in a sort of menagerie with our pigs, our hens and a sheep. Came time to separate us from these companions. And so stalls were a necessity. Once these were finished, we finally thought about accommodating ourselves in a more proper manner. Small bamboo cells were built in our barn (for it was the right shape for them). In this way, we wanted to afford ourselves some material comfort but at the same time we well knew the cost. To get our bamboos, we made several trips up high mountains, at the risk of our lives.
It was high time to take a bit of rest. Six months had just gone by in work which was beyond our strength. We were longing for it, this rest. Our strength was exhausted, but Man proposes and God disposes.[6] Our small dwelling, only six months old, was threatening to fall down, the wood having rotted. Good God! What shall we do? What is to become of us? To undertake a new building project at a time when we had just finished our last piece of bread, to undertake new work, even harder at a time when the fish was still circulating in our veins, for we had just been poisoned eating a fish, seemed to us an impossibility. The Lord gave us strength. The building was begun a league away from our dwelling. What trouble it cost us. Every day after a few yams for breakfast, we went to gather up stone. Evening didn’t come too soon for us to make our second meal and take a bit of a rest. We all had our jobs in this undertaking. Monseigneur played the apprentice or, to put it more plainly, carried the mortar to Brother Jean. Father Viard brought food to the workers. As for me, I had the hardest job, I was cook, kitchen-boy, guard, anything you like. My job as guard which you might see as the easiest was the one which was the most tiring for me. Over several days it so happened that I had to defend myself alone and defend the house against more than a thousand natives. But Providence was keeping watch with me or rather was keeping watch alone for nothing untoward eventuated. Their intention was to steal, not to harm me any other way.
I have a feeling, Reverend Father, that I can hear you saying to me: but this house, have you finished it? Well, yes indeed. We have finished it and today it is standing upright and we are living in it. Moreover we have cleared for new gardens, having abandoned the first. We haven’t lost anything in the changeover.
We have suffered, my Reverend Father, I am telling you the truth, for I have made the resolution to tell both the good and the bad when I write so that the lot of the missionary might be fully understood; we have suffered, I tell you, my Reverend Father, but what are our sufferings, our troubles, compared with those of our noble brothers in China! Alas! I blush to have recounted to you these small troubles endured at the start of our mission. If I didn’t believe I was giving you much pleasure by recounting all these details, I would burn my letter because I am afraid you might regard as heroism what thousands of people in the world are doing and what I would probably have done had I remained there.
A word on the general aspects of our mission and I’ll sign off. Had we been in France, I would have wished, following the example of Saint Francis Xavier, to bring with me no more than my breviary and my crucifix. But I think very differently now in Caledonia. If we had acted as in many other islands, today we would most certainly no longer be in this world. We gave away all we had to buy our provisions and in spite of that, we were hungry more than once. I leave you to judge what would have happened to us if we had had nothing to buy with. In the other islands, the chiefs feed foreigners. Here, besides the fact that the chiefs have no authority, they are hungry for three parts of the year. There are no animals at all on the island, no Europeans. There are only natives who, for two or three months of the year, live on yams, the rest of the time they fish, that is to say they swim to catch the fish, which we couldn’t do like them without danger. Moreover, they exist over several months on the bark of trees, which cannot sustain us.
Now we have abundant supplies. We have bread, wine and a little salt pork and a few vegetables. We want for nothing of this world’s goods for after 20 months, we have had a ship.[7] In terms of the spiritual, the mission is beginning to gain a foothold. While we devoted ourselves to the material works, we were learning the language, and this in my opinion is one of the best means, for there are words which the natives never say to you if circumstances don’t demand and these various circumstances occur almost always in different work projects. Our Caledonians, without being ardent are at least less disinterested. A large number want to take instruction, several are already instructed and are asking to be baptized. We have a few catechists who give us great hopes. In a few days, we shall have a church, they’ve got it in hand.
[23] (in the margin and written crosswise)
My Reverend Father, I am not forgetting our solemn agreement. Every day I pray for you. Pray hard for me and for those in my care. If they convert, I will have them pray for you. I can’t write a letter to everyone but please do not forget to give my earnest regards to Reverend Father Maitre-pierre and to Reverend Father Cholleton, not forgetting all those who make up your close family in our esteemed Order. Yours very truly in Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Apostolic Marist Missionary
[24] (p.6, in the margin and written crosswise)
Reverend Father Provincial[8] and Father Dubreuil have just visited us. Today we have plenty as once we had need, and excellent Father the Bursar was indeed the one we needed. He is a master in experience. Nothing equals his efficiency and his fatherly concern. I cannot give you any news at all of Monseigneur Epalle. We haven’t heard anything at all of him since he left Caledonia.


  1. Date added in later
  2. Bishop Douarre
  3. Brother Jean Taragnat (cf.doc.304, §14; 407, §5, n. 1; 470, §6; 498, §2; and his two letters, doc.557 and 1320)
  4. Should perhaps read: chauffours
  5. (author’s note at the bottom of the page) A few days after we had finished transporting our materials, our small craft was stolen.
  6. Homo proponit sed Deus disponit (cf. De Imitatione Christi libri quatuor, 1, 19, 2). See also: Pr 16.9: Cor hominis disponit viam suam, sed Domini est dirigere gressus eius. (The heart of man designs his way, but it is the Lord who strengthens his steps)
  7. This ship is undoubtedly the one on which Calinon and Dubreul arrive (cf. below, §24).
  8. The author seems to be referring to Philippe Calinon, provincial of Central Oceania (cf. doc. 344, §1, n. 1; 372, §2, n. 2; 436, §12); but remember too that Jean-Pierre Fremont is called “provincial” of Melanesia (cf. doc. 448, §12).