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28 July 1846 — Fr Pierre Rougeyron to Fr Jean Cholleton, New Caledonia

Translated by Peter McConnell, September 2010

New Caledonia, 28 July 1846

Very Reverend Father,
The wise pieces of advice that you gave me in particular at La Favourite have not been forgotten. They remind me too that I owe you at least a short letter, as a sign of gratitude.
You think, Reverend Father, that assigned to one of the thousands of islands in Oceania, at the end of the world, we are like latter day Pacômes living in peace and solitude; change your views! We live in as it were a camp where our house has become a type of fort. Day and night we hear only the sound of weapons and of a trumpet. The latter we have used as a signal to gather for our religious practices. This is an enigma for us. I intend explaining it to you.
A ship appeared on the horizon on 3 July 1846. It is not necessary to tell you how delighted we were especially when we distinguished the tricolore flying. It is the image of our country and the memory of our country which always makes the heart of French missionaries beat. Not having any pilot to send in these whereabouts, possibly the most dangerous in existence because of the numerous coral outcrops which surround New Caledonia on all sides, bishop Douarre decided to go in front of the ship to guide it through the gap in the coral reef to reach the harbour. His lordship consequently set out with Reverend Father Junillon who happened to be on our island at that time.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when the ship was spotted. The bishop was unable to leave the house before dark despite his diligence. There were at least two leagues to cover before reaching the spot where the ship seemed to be stationary. We rowed flat out. The bishop himself and Father Junillon rowed like sailors until two in the morning but despite so much effort they could not get there being dragged away by a fierce current. However, they were able to get close enough to ascertain that the ship had run onto the coral reef. Therefore thrown back by the current, the bishop returned to tell us the sad news which we had already learnt only so recently from the natives. What was to be done? A ship which is wrecked what help can be brought---what will become of the poor shipwrecked people in a country which is so poor and at the same time amidst such a barbarous people? That was our predicament. Without hesitating we decided to fly to the help of those poor wretches as they were. Struggling against exhaustion the bishop, not able to go back, gave me and Father Montrouzier that task. So here we were travelling with a little piece of bread in our pockets. We worked so hard that we reached our goal in rather a short time. Reverend Father, it is impossible for me to describe the sight which I saw with my own eyes. We would need another pen than mine to recreate that sorry picture.
It was night time. A dull and clear sound could be heard in the distance. I arrived; there was a gloomy silence. Great Scott! What was I seeing, three hundred men scattered here and there on the shoreline. I walked through those groups of men shattered by the deepest grief and asked immediately to speak to the commander. A venerable old man, whose hair was already white, came forward. It was Mr Le Conte, commander of the Seine. His eye was dry but his spirits seemed sunk in sadness. After hurriedly exchanging words here and there this worthy commander asked permission to go and have a little food, not having eaten for 24 hours. I followed him. Alas! My heart was still numb with sadness. This respectable old man who had turned grey in the service of his country for 28 years, I saw him, yes, I saw him go and ask for it, seeking a piece of biscuit to satisfy his pressing hunger. During that time my eyes strayed over the others. In one place were naval officers lying here and there on the bare ground; in another place were sailors in clusters around their gear; elsewhere there was a crowd of natives roaming around them to pillage the little that they had saved from the shipwreck; farther afield you could see boats on the shore and the wretched ship abandoned to the breakers. As there was such a large number of natives around those poor wretched individuals and as night fall was particularly worrying for them, I fired into the air a few shorts and then chased the natives away. Furthermore I left Father Montrouzier with the commander to keep him company and to watch over the security of the crew from a tribe, the worst of all those which surrounded us, and I, after resting for half an hour, set out again to travel three leagues to warn Bishop Douarre of the accident. He got up and walked all night carrying some bottles of wine to lift the spirits of those gentlemen. He got there and the first thing that he did was to go to the abandoned ship to rescue two men who had been forgotten on the ship, but we must say that those two wretches were drunk, one of them claimed that they wanted to have the consolation of having a good meal before dying. At every moment, waiting to be submerged in the waves or whatever, they spent the night getting plastered by good food and wine. Seeing that the commander was not interested in saving his gear, the bishop went into his cabin and with his permission quickly took many things, among which was the portrait of His Majesty Louis-Philippe, given to Le Conte by the Prince de Joinville, and the portrait of the wife of the commander. Emboldened by the bishop’s example everybody agreed to remove some of his effects, but time was racing, water was flooding in and we could see the ship sinking and foundering little by little. The pumps could not keep up; there were streams of water everywhere. The commander, his second in command and all the officers forgot their private interests in this circumstance thinking only of the general interest and removing the most necessary objects such as some rifles, a few biscuits and some fishing nets. What we did for this wretched crew, we would have done for any other, whatever country they belonged to. The Catholic missionary is a man of all countries, his love embraces all men following the example of his divine master. We urged the commander to come with his crew to be with us where they would be safe from the natives and where we could share with them the little food we had.
The following day some came by sea in their boats; others came over land; in the evening from the other side itself. We saw our house turned into a barracks. But as it could give shelter to only very few people, our church which we had only just completed served as a shop and as a dormitory. That building was still insufficient; some went to stay in the huts of the natives and others slept in the open air. They were served a frugal meal, then the evening trumpet was sounded and they went to rest a little watched by some sentries who changed every half hour. You will agree, Reverend Father, it was novel for your servant who stayed almost three years hearing only the chirping of birds or what is a little less harmonious the chatting of natives, not to say anything more.
How were we to feed almost three hundred men? We, poor missionaries, who had spent 21 months not knowing in the morning what we would eat in the evening, and in the evening what we would eat in the morning. Providence, providence, I can’t say enough how wonderful you are. Always, yes, always, you have watched over us like a tender mother. We had nothing, and we always had something when our needs were urgent. May my right hand wither, may my tongue stick to my palate, if ever I am so wretched as to deny your maternal hand. Today we feed this crowd of men better than we were able to feed ourselves when there were only five of us. It was not the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves of bread, but there was something providential, which I consider as a miracle more striking than that in the Gospel. The officers and the sailors recognized it. That is a fact. Bishop Epalle was murdered and then the vessel which was used by the mission station of San Christoval of course came to New Caledonia to give us those sad tidings. As that vessel was going to Sydney to get some provisions, Bishop Douarre wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to purchase some beasts which we considered as an enormous resource for the mission station, but a sudden change occurred and instead of buying a large number of animals he bought a huge stock of flour. That was a fortunate and inspired decision which allowed us even today to feed quite a large crew, which would have most certainly died of starvation in New Caledonia. It is the poorest island in foodstuffs, which exists under the sun, as the commander and all the officers agree. They have visited pretty well all the surface of the globe. Do you want me to tell you what they were counting on doing, those unfortunate shipwrecked men, if they had not met us? They saw no other action to take than hunting our poor natives and seizing the little resources they had which, we can well imagine, would not have extended their wretched lives for very long and still to realize their goal it would have been necessary to kill those unfortunates as well as seizing their plantations. But let’s be in agreement that had matters reached that extreme situation the life of all the crew would have been in the greatest danger. Therefore may God be blessed! So we are able to say that we have saved the lives of thousands of men, who after all are our brothers. We are on rations but the little bread that we forgo in favour of wretches will bring us good luck. One will practise towards us the same act of charity what we have done and the pennies of the Propaganda of the Faith will not be lost.
Reverend Father, you have been amazed along with us by the marvellous care of Divine Providence, but I have not told the whole story. How long will that crew stay on our island without seeing any ship that can bring it help? Because of its geographical position and its scarcity of food, New Caledonia sees ships only very rarely. We were a year and a half without seeing any. Well, the Lord who is a good father and does not want his children to perish allowed a ship to be at that moment in one of the harbours of the island. Reverend Father Montrouzier with an officer of the ship’s crew went to find the captain who was English. After formal niceties, the captain agreed to go to Sydney to inform the French consul of the disaster; at the same time he took on board 50 men who were quite a burden for us, be it because they were sick or for another reason. Now that I am writing to you everything is fine. Everybody is happy. We are expecting several ships in a fortnight’s time. May heaven grant that we are not to wait forever! We have still supplies for more than one month.
Despite the embarrassment in which we found ourselves, Bishop Douarre took advantage of Bishop Bataillon’s schooner to go and visit our very dear colleagues at San Christoval. He has just left with Reverend Father Junillon. His enthusiasm is as indefatigable as his courage. Nothing could stop him accomplishing that duty. They are Marists in danger, he constantly said in reply, and you would not want me to deprive them of help---
So here I am alone with Reverend Fathers Grange and Montrouzier with our dear Brothers Jean, Blaise, Bertrand and Auguste with Prosper. I have just received news from the Wallis Islands and from Tonga where everything is all right. What shall I say to you about the progress of the mission station? It is at a standstill since the event that I have just been telling you about and even for a long time, because we need hands and funds to create other settlements in this huge country and to be able to surge ahead generally. We would like even more to realize this plan. We haven’t any Protestants at the moment and we are afraid that they may come at any moment. You know of course that France had really taken possession of our island and that the flag has been raised. Today it flutters no more. The ship, the Seine, which was shipwrecked was given orders to come to New Caledonia to take it away. For us to be completely happy, no European country should take possession of it. That’s what we are really frightened of.
Our little child convert Louis Tadinanis is still delightful. He edifies everybody by his piety, his virtues and his intelligence. His aunt too is very fervent and very keen. Recently she went away for 15 hours on business. She used the opportunity to speak about religion to those who were with her. She impressed them so much that they are angry with us for not going quickly to baptize them and to stop them from going to hell. That poor woman told me she couldn’t sleep at night, because she was asked so many questions. Pray a lot, Reverend Father, and get others to pray so that we can distribute widely as it were the bread of words.
My friendship and my respects to all the dear colleagues who are with you. I am, etc
My very dear father, you will allow me to put pen to paper to give you some news which will not fail to please you. Bishop Douarre and Reverend Father Junillon who have been to San Christoval to visit the missionaries have returned. The news is good. Our dear colleagues whom we honoured as being already martyrs are still alive, but it is feared that they will not be for long. With the exception of Father Jacquet, they all suffer from fever. You could say that they are walking skeletons. Their sickness has been caused by the unhealthiness of the air. All the country which is mountainous is covered in dense jungle which stops air from circulating and the soil is damp.
The mission station offers some hope; it can’t be otherwise after that soil has been watered with the blood of a martyr, of the first bishop, an apostle of that land. Already our missionaries are in demand in various places; they are beginning to be recognized and esteemed. The bishop for the first time together with Father Junillon went to visit the enemy tribe living on the other side of the mountains. His Lordship was very well received. Henceforth ships will be able to visit that island in total safety, thanks to the missionaries.
Our shipwrecked men are happy with their small rations which we supply them with and we too are perfectly happy with them. It seems that Divine Providence was waiting for them in New Caledonia to bring them back to the fold. Several first communions have been made by elderly men who would probably never have dared to do it in France. Others have received the sacrament of Confirmation and a large number have gone to Confession. For several, prejudices against the catholic religion have disappeared and they have started to like it and bless its ministers.
New Caledonia is going along its own sweet way. Yesterday, on the beautiful feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the bishop conducted a solemn baptism. A woman whom we have instructed for more than a year was baptized in the presence of all the crew of the Seine. Mr Le Conte, the commander was godfather and his wife, the godmother. She made her first communion, received the sacrament of Confirmation on the same day and besides received a nuptial blessing. Her husband who is still a pagan was most reluctant in coming forward. At every question the bishop put to him, he smiled. We hope that his wife, a fervent Christian, will later on make him share the happiness which she enjoys now.
After tomorrow the bishop is going to be away again for some days; he is going 15 leagues from here to buy some land to found a settlement as soon as we get reinforcements from France.
My dear father, that is the such interesting news I have to tell you. Do ignore my scribble and the spelling of a poor missionary who is trying to identify with natives in order to win them better for our good master; but notice only the wish that I have of pleasing you.
It is with these feelings that I have the honour of being,