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29 November 1846 — Father Pierre Verne to Father Giroust (Parish Priest), Wallis

Translated by Peter McConnell, October 2010

[p. 1]

Letter of Fr Verne, missionary of the Society of Mary,
to Fr Giroust, Parish Priest of Reyrieux, Ain.

Wallis, 29 November 1846

My very dear friend,
It was on 27 August that we said goodbye to the good Fathers Armand and Dumonteil who welcomed us with so much kindness and with whom I spent such pleasant moments, goodbye to Tahiti and its shady charms. We travelled to the Navigators, the brig Anonyme accompanied us and held us back considerably, because we had to fit in with its speed. For two days we were pretty well all of us seasick. On 4 September we entered the 160 degrees longitude in that part of Oceania where the vicariate of Bishop Bataillon begins. So many thoughts came crowding into our minds at that moment when we were putting foot into the mission field! We all said Holy Mass to implore the protection of the Holy Virgin and of the guardian saints, protectors of Oceania.
On 5 September at 5 o’clock we saw Rose Island, the most eastern island of all the archipelago of the Navigator Islands; it has the shape of a breast which rises out of the middle of the ocean like a bouquet of greenery. It looks charming but I don’t think it is inhabited by anything else but birds, which you see in flocks. At sunset we passed Manu’a Island which we would have noticed earlier but for a sea mist and the sun which we were sailing into. There are three islands: Olosega and Ta’u separated by a strait two leagues wide and Ofu which is more to the west. The three islands look the same; the sea breaks a lot on their coastline, yet the breakers don’t seem to extend far. The islands are high and covered in bush; sometimes the coasts are low and it is only at a certain distance from the sea that the land starts to rise. Olosega, the largest of the three islands, has a circumference of six to seven leagues; its inhabitants greet us all along the coast by lighting big fires; we are really sorry not being able to talk to them, but we think it would be unwise, not knowing them, to land as night was falling. Nothing equals the fertility of those islands as much as we can judge at a thousand leagues away. While we were crossing the strait which separates Olosega and Ofu, I thought for a moment that I was sailing on the Saône facing Mont Cindre and the mountains of Couzon: same view, same terrain apart from the distance of 6000 leagues and the sight of coconut palms which you have to substitute for the vineyards of Mont d’Or.
On 7 September the Island of Cocos (Taputapu) came into view. It is famous for its Massacre Bay, where several of the companions of La Pérouse were massacred. It almost touches Tutuila, the third largest island in size of the Samoan archipelago. We tacked waiting for light and as soon as dawn began to appear we saw canoes of natives coming towards us; you could say they were flying over the waves. It was because of the huge number of canoes and the ability of the Islanders to paddle that Bougainville called those islands the archipelago of the Navigators. One of the natives hurled himself onto our ship pointed out the bay and offered to guide us there. That bay and harbour, which is at the end, are enclosed and surrounded by two mountains almost perpendicular and yet covered or almost bristling with trees right to the tops. That bay, whose entrance was easy seeing that we had a tail wind is called Pagopago by the natives and as they told us visited by French whalers. At the end of the bay, you notice half way up the slope the Protestant church, the house of the Protestant missionary and that of the Vice Consul who is a Protestant. Pritchard was responsible for the Protestant mission station. You can still see the school and the prison which has not been completed. About 300 huts are scattered on the beach on the water’s edge, in the shade of coconut trees, bananas , breadfruit trees and surrounded by plantations of sweet potatoes, yams, pineapples, taros, sugar cane, etc. Around the huts you can see fowls, ducks, pigs, dogs which prowl at leisure and which indicate the wellbeing of the natives. The forest is full of the songs of birds which reminded me of what I heard in the Sathony woods at the return of Spring.
As we had hoisted the flag of the Society of Oceania to the top of the main mast on board the Arche d’Alliance and the Anonyme, that unusual flag caused restlessness among the natives. So the English vice-consul came top speed in the name of the chiefs of the island demanding who we were and waning to know the reason for our stopping. He did not seem to be very pleased to see missionaries on board because he quickly had a tapu put on the ship, the passengers and the crew of the Arche d’Alliance.
The commander went on shore to offer the chiefs some words of friendship. He was received by the chiefs whom the consul and the minister joined. He asked that the people on board could land and that he himself had the facilities to exchange goods. It was easy for him to see that everybody showed a lot of distrust; they would have liked to get rid of him; but the Arche d’Alliance had all the appearance of a warship, so they were more reserved. So he gave us permission to take the air of Taputapu, to enjoy the shade and to walk in is lovely pathways. But thanks to the tapu which had been cast on our ship and the terrible Papists when we landed, the natives fled further away that they noticed us or passed quickly by casting a sideward glance as if they had escaped a great danger; they turned around only when they were far away. Only the bad ones dared to greet us and come and shake our hands; and they were not a little surprised to find us so different from the horrible monsters others wanted to frighten them of. Yet those poor fellows flocked on another ship, the Midas, but it was neither tapu nor papist, it was an American whaler.
As for the question of the exchange of goods, it was pleasing to see the minister and the English consul trembling that the Arche d’Alliance might stay for some days in that bay, telling Commander Marceau time and time again that there was no coconut oil at Tutuila, that they were wasting their time looking for any but that they could exchange material and other merchandise for food which grew in the country.. And so that we would not have any excuse for deferring our departure, provisions poured in, that to the obliging care taken by the consul who felt, he said, the strongest feeling of friendship for Marceau. Only they still wanted the merchandise of the Arche d’Alliance to be carried into the common house so that he and the minister could act as interpreters for Marceau and the natives. In that way they dared to act in the interests of the natives and also in our interest, for, they said, the natives would not fail to tire us with their obtrusiveness and their indiscretion if they allowed them to climb on board. It appears, the commander said to them, that you have reserved for me alone the honour and the benefits of the tapu. Yet the subordinate of Mr Pritchard came almost every day to offer us his services, to assure us of his friendship and to ask us when we would weigh anchor; He expressed to us in the most affectionate terms his wishes for a bon voyage. Poor fellows! How guilty we are to have come and disturbed their peace!
You see, dear friend, with what coldness we were received, at least in principle; but little by little our natives were tamed and they reached the point that some begged Marceau to go to them to buy coconut oil; a longer stay by the Arche d’Alliance who have collapsed the prejudices they held against us. On Our Lady’s birthday, one of our sailors who couldn’t swim, fell into the sea by himself and without help. One of the natives, who spotted him from the shore, came to snatch him from death, hauled him into his canoe and took him to his hut where he gave him all kinds of help. The poor sailor, seeing himself swallowed up under the waves never stopped recommending himself to the Holy Virgin whose medal and scapular he always wore. His trust was not in vain; you could say that the Holy Virgin saved him miraculously through the hands of a native; but what brings more honour to that worthy native is the fact that he never wanted to receive any reward. Yet forced to accept a pair of trousers, he received it only by giving us a small pig, five pineapples and some shellfish, alleging all the time that he had done nothing else but his duty by snatching from death our poor sailor.
If I judge the inhabitants of Tutuila and those of the other islands of the archipelago of the Navigators by what I have been able to see of them during the six weeks of our stay in that place, the Samoans would have a gentle nature, generous and hospitable; in the exchanges we could only applaud their almost scrupulous honesty. Right from the first day of our arrival at Tutuila, the main chief had us told not to be afraid in his island and that we would find there only friendly faces. As for their physique, the inhabitants are well built, being a little taller than the French; their skin is not more coppery than Europeans who are sun burnt; their hair is woolly and curly, which they dye red or white resembling real sheep fleece. Their clothing is most peculiar; it consists of a scarf of leaves or else a belt of grasses and nothing else for the men; in that way you would believe that you were seeing the river gods of the fable; the women add to the belt of leaves a long mat almost like a chasuble.
On 11 September we tried to leave the bay of Pagopago, a difficult operation because of contrary winds; but we but we struck the coral and we had to postpone our departure to another time. It was on the 15 October that we definitively weighed anchor to leave; the English consul, who was relieved by our departure, did not fail to send to the commander, according to the promise he had made, a dozen natives to help us get through the break in the coral reef. Those men were very friendly; for more than four hours, they heaved at the capstan, hauled up the ropes and carried out all the manoeuvres that they were assigned accompanying their indefatigable work with all patriotic songs which their heads were full of. At half past twelve they left and we sailed on the Pacific Ocean. There are still no Catholic missionaries in all the islands which we have seen up until now. May Our Lord and our good Mother answer our prayer we make or these worthy natives by sending them soon priests. Other than at Tutuila they told us they wanted to have some; should we forget that they are our children since they belong to the mission stations entrusted to the Marist Society? We left on those coasts medals of the Holy Virgin.
On 16 September at six o’clock we were opposite Upolu, 30 leagues from Tutuila, that beautiful island 17 leagues long and its population is estimated as 40,000. I couldn’t do better than compare it to the banks of the Saône from Macon to Lyon; same mountains, same valleys, same countryside. By the beauty of its sites by its inconceivable fertility, it is at least the equal of Tahiti. A year ago, one of our colleagues, Father Roudaire got established on this island at the port of Apia and the Arche d’Alliance had hardly moored when that worthy priest was on board and embraced us all crying with joy. Companions had come to share his joy and his labours. Being the only Catholic missionary he had to struggle against ten Protestant missionaries; but Our Lady of Victories, patroness of the mission stations of his archipelago had taken in hand its defence and he could take pleasure at seeing the fruits of salvations which the protection of Mary had already produced and especially the great expectations that the mission station offered for the future.
Before telling you of the welcome which we were given, I should tell you news had come some time before from Tahiti to Apia that there would soon be at Upolu the arrival of a French ship loaded with missionaries.. Now the Anonyme, which the commander had detached to buy some oil had had arrived a day before us, and on its arrival the Protestants celebrated the disappointment which the friends of Father Roudaire felt, and they mocked them in innumerable ways. The following day, when the Arche d’Alliance appeared, the roles changed. There was great joy at Mulinu’u where Father Roudaire lives and his opponents were reduced to silence. In vain they tried to prevent the natives visiting us; hardly had the Arche d’Alliance moored than already the Islanders besieged us on all sides; there were more than twenty canoes in a line. Those worthy natives shook our hands with the most spirited affection and did nothing more urgently than to inform us, while making the sign of the cross that they prayed for the Catholic missionary. Then they really wanted to know how many there were of us, whether we would stay with hem, what our names were, and a host of other questions of that kind. Most wore around their necks a rosary, cross and medal of the Holy Virgin. Among them was a young instructor from Wallis and one of the chiefs, They followed the priest out of affection and to help him in the apostolic work. Among the visitors on board the Arche d’Alliance were also several chiefs of Upolu who were most insistent on coming and asking for missionaries; they filled the mess, the poop, the forecastle; everything stimulated their awe. When I went into my cabin, I found one of them stretched out on the bed; we did not have to be afraid that they would touch anything or that if they touched something there they would immediately put it back in the same place. At night time they said goodbye, then they leapt into their canoes and returned home, singing songs in our honour throughout the journey.
During the night and the following morning the natives prepared a solemn reception which they wanted to do for the commander and the Papists. In front of Father Roudaire’s hut is a very lovely square, shaded by coconut palms. It was there that they put their presents in order. These included: bananas, pineapples, coconuts and a dozen pigs greater or lesser in size depending on the hierarchical sanding of the chief offering them. The chiefs invited Father Roudaire to come and join them; it was then that we arrived following Commander Marceau, and after the presents were offered came the kava ceremony. It has been so often described that I will pass over details in silence limiting myself to telling you that we needed as much kava of Upolu as what we would harvest in our vineyards.
The commander invited the chiefs to dine with us; it was the first time that they had eaten with Europeans, they also marvelled at the honour which we gave them. They agreed also that the French kava was better than the Samoan kava. At night time I went ashore with them in the company of Father Roudaire; during the passage they never stopped repeating a song in our honour. Here is the chorus: Samoans, let’s be Catholics; let’s love France, let’s be with the missionaries. The women and children waited for us on the beach. After the prayer which was made in the house of a main chief, everybody came to sit around us. They repeated at least a hundred times our names and now everywhere we meet them, they come up to us shaking our hands and calling us by our Christian names. That delightful evening ended with the singing of hymns based on the melodies of France; I thought I was back there again while listening to that crowd of young natives singing, men and children repeating by heart our hymns so touchingly and with the most perfect harmony. When leaving and passing in front of the hut, they did not forget to use or names, Pekolo (Peter), Kalolo (Charles).
The following morning I gave a Christian burial for a little angel whom Father Roudaire had baptized three days before. Throughout the whole night those taking instructions had, according to custom, sung and prayed beside the little deceased child. After the burial one of the chiefs sent to the missionary a little pig well roasted with breadfruit and a basket of taros; I knew that Father Roudaire had for a year never asked an Islander for anything, that he lived from day to day, having neither flour, nor any kind of provisions and that still there never passed a day without he, the brother and those giving instructions not receiving their food, obvious proof of the care of Providence on those who give themselves entirely to it
His hut is also very simple; it is an oval enclosure made from stakes of about two inches in diameter and places roughly three inches from one another. The roof which comes down to almost here feet above the ground is covered with the leaves of sugar cane. The largest part of this hut serves as a chapel; cloth hung behind the altar separate the place set aside for prayer from where the priest lives. A mat made from coconut palm forms the flooring, the roof replaces the ceiling. The furnishing is no more select than the living quarters: a sort of table in front of some dozens of books on shelves of a bookcase made up from various pieces, a trunk, the remains of cases, two geographical maps hang on the inner walls of the enclosure., and a chair with a backrest; that is all. He gave me his chair to sit on. Two fresh coconut palms, all shining green allowed light through the mat which covered the dirt floor and took the place of vases of flowers which others put on the windowsills and mantelpiece of their home. Despite this penury, one lives peacefully and happily. In this hut, when it is a question of going to sleep, you roll out a new mat on the floor, a soutane made into a packet serves as a pillow and sleep is not long in coming.
On Sunday 20 September, feast of Our Lady of the Seven Dolours, the natives were invited on board. The Arche d’Alliance was decked out with bunting as on days of the greatest solemnity; 23 flags flew on the ship; we put up awnings the whole length of the ship and under the awnings we erected an altar. With its double row of columns and its floating drapery, it resembled a pretty temporary altar on Corpus Christi. The natives covered the bridge and the poop; eight of the chiefs were present in full regalia that is to say one had a shirt, another a pair of trousers, this one an old frockcoat, that one a waistcoat. Besides they did us honour by gathering during Holy Mass. We warned them that we were going to fire the large cannons so that they would not be frightened. In fact at the Sanctus the artillerymen got their pieces ready and at the moment of the elevation a salvo of nine cannons shook the vessel; the Anonyme responded with a similar discharge. It was repeated again by the two ships at the blessing of the Holy Sacrament which occurred directly after Mass. It ended up shocking our poor natives who could no longer express to us their surprise and admiration. Also one of the main chiefs hastily asked for one of the big cannons to defend his religion, should somebody attack him. Think how his request made us laugh. After Mass the commander gave clothes to the eight chiefs who had attended the ceremony. May the stay of the Arche d’Alliance at Upolu bring good for the religion, dispersing the prejudices which these people have been infected with against us and winning them to us through benefits. The natives look upon our ship as theirs since it brings missionaries to them.
I have told you that nothing equals the beauty of the island and the fertility of is soil. It is completely surrounded by reefs so the sea by breaking the fury of the waves against them, creates a peaceful lake around Upolu; the beach is sandy and it goes up immediately to the shore, which is all covered in coconut palms and breadfruit. You could say there are sometimes huge paths specially marked out, sometimes rooms as it were of greenery; huts are scattered about in their cool shade. Nothing is simpler than their architecture; a palisade of reeds, bamboo or stakes serve for the walls; mats cover the ground replacing floor boards and serve at the same time as beds, chairs and tables. The wind, which whistles at ease through the palisade causes draughts. Yet there are in every hut one or two doors two and a half feet high. That kind of construction is wonderfully suited to a country where an eternal Spring reigns where trees never lose their foliage, where you sleep in the open air or at least under the slightest shelter better than you do in the most brilliant homes of France. Here they don’t know what locks and bolts are; all the huts without exception are open and there is never the slightest case of robbery.
Behind the huts are plantations of pawpaw, bananas and other trees which form English style gardens crossed by a myriad of little tracks. After the plantations come the fields of yam, sugar cane, taro, kumara, pineapples irrigated with pretty rivers; and their fertility is such that an Islander does not need to work one hour a week to feed himself and his family. Finally behind these plains come the mountains or rather hills covered in grapefruit trees, chestnuts, ash, hibiscus, pandanus and other trees which I do not know, intermingles with vines which float at ease in the winds or climb on the tree canopy and carpet them with flowers and with heir greenery. These forests are alive with blackbirds, pigeons, nightingales, parakeets, hummingbirds, woodpeckers. As is the case in Tupu-ila there is a perpetual song of birds.
That is in brief what the country is like. If now I were going to talk to you about the natives, I would not finish and I would show myself up by writing many inaccurate things. It is not possible to study a native race in so short a time; it is frequently only after a long tome that you reach the point of discovering this real character and all the vices which are for it the result of being deprived of the benefits of Catholicism. The Samoans appeared to me as good as natives could be. They are pleasant; more than 50 times they have carried us on their backs in crossing streams rough tracks or on leaving the ship. They are cheerful and often they have shown us that they have a sense of humour. By instinct and by sentiment they are poets; while paddling their canoes they improvise and sing stanzas which often lack neither feeling not taste; during our stay their improvisations have always had the goal of praising Commander Marceau, the missionaries and the glory of France. Also, the men, women and children like to sing during the day, but especially the night in their family, all the hymns that they learn off by heart. They are honest, polite in their language and manners, following the custom of their country; it is in that way that they have visitors sit on their best mats, that they offer them kava and are attentive to get them what can give them pleasure. If you need a coconut, a pineapple, all you need to do is to make a sign; often they even foresee your need. When we were waiting on the shore for a dinghy which had to come and collect us and transport us to the ship, they came to give us fruit, invite us to dinner, make us sit on the very best mats. In each village there is instead of an inn, a large public hut where all the strangers and travellers can stay for three days; one person is charged with feeding them for nothing, both the food and the utensils, to watch out that they are short of nothing, in a word that they are treated as if they were at home. Their clothing is the same as in Tutuila, the same stature, the same appearance, the same hair, the same facial features.
It is impossible not to become interested in them because every time they meet us, they come up to us holding out their hands and calling us by our names; other times they come and sit down beside us and ask us the most naïve questions about our journey, our country and anything that strikes them. They don’t fail to ask whether France is bigger than Samoa, whether our country is really far from the sea, whether there are many inhabitants in France, whether there are guns, rifles, missionaries, coconuts, breadfruit, etc Whether it took a long time travelling to Samoa-- When we told them that it took ten moons by ship sailing over the water, that there were thousands of priests and missionaries in France, as many men as there were in the bush (that was a little exaggerated), that there were no coconut palms, but instead there was plenty of wheat, wine, fruit, they were astonished and did not broach the subject again. They were also amazed to see a nice painting, a watch, a clock,-
But that is enough, without saying too much. May you enjoy these little details, and also the charitable people of our parish who are interested in the work of the Propagation of the Faith. While finishing these details concerning Upolu, may I say a word about the remarkable tyranny that the Protestant ministers, be they Non-Conformists or Methodists, practise in these islands. You would not believe it. The Islanders who have embraced Protestantism cannot cook their meat and other foodstuffs on Sundays; there are thrashings, forced labour, fines in money or foodstuffs, the slightest infringement on the precept of keeping holy the Sabbath day, interpreted according to the Protestant ministers is seized on for punishment. So many dollars for the minister, so much money for the bible society, so much for Queen Victoria, so many gallons of oil in return for which the minister gives the sinner pardon and remission of all his offenses, even the greatest ones, like having greeted a Papist, having sold him something or having bought something from him, having not shown respect to the minister by addressing him when standing up, or what is more unforgivable, speaking to the minister’s wife. The more oil the sinner brings, the more contrite he is, and I will not add as well, the greater the minister’s joy.
The honour of carrying the minister’s palanquin on their backs and the stones to build his house, which he takes pains to have made beautiful and comfortable, is reserved for the chiefs. I still have shoulders bruised all over, a chief told me, but you Papists , you don’t build your houses out of stones. Another, when asking to be made a Catholic, said to Father Roudaire: I am fed up with making oil for them. The Protestant ministers too are beginning to notice that the natives are perhaps not far from escaping from them and they try in every way possible to tighten the screws, to quench their thirst in the sweat of those unfortunate natives. Their number one goal is to distance them from us and to prevent them having contact with us. They have repeated in all manner of speaking that there are no monsters like Papists, they have two horns and a tail, they are all black and come to grab their lands after devouring them. But let’s wait even for some time! Iniquity will be confounded and Our Lord will exercise his justice. I have the feeling the royal prophet predicted their malice and chastisement in Psalm 51 quid gloriaris in malitia, qui potens es in iniquitate? Tota die injustitiam cogitavit lingua tua-- Propterea Deus destruet te in finem, evellet te et emigrabit te de tabernaculo tuo--- Ecce homo qui praevaluit in vanitate sua [= You who are powerful, why do you boast in malice and iniquity? All day long you think unjust things and put them into words. On that account God will finally destroy you. He will seize you and snatch you from your home. This is the man who trusted in his nothingness!] Also may the rest of the psalm be realized in us for the glory of God and the salvation of the Samoans.
Already our colleagues are pleased to see the natives turning towards them and being on their guard against what the ministers are saying. One of the ministers was forcefully insisting that a chief, who had come out in favour of Catholicism, to abandon the priests. He said to him  : They took your names to send them to France and the French will come and seize your lands, as they have done in Tahiti. The chief replied: All those who have come here, were asking names, not only of men, but also of trees, plants, pigs, is that also to take away their lands. They sent message after message to a chief to reproach him for his conduct vis-à-vis the Papists whom he favoured. He ended up saying: You are boring me with all your messages. That makes seven of them. Let nobody be so bold as to send me an eighth one. I forbid him to come to me and if he so dares I will split his head open. He accompanied these words with a gesture which made his intentions manifest, and accordingly they did not insist any more. Another was entreated to repel the Papists; He said, do you see that, while pointing to figures tattooed indelibly on his body, can you take that away? Well, Silipete (Gilbert, that’s the name of father Roudaire) has his name on my heart and you will not take it away.
When the Arche d’Alliance arrived, a chief asked how many missionaries there were on board. Eight, we told him. He replied, How would we be able to establish Catholicism in Samoa with eight missionaries. Also there were eight men but only two for Samoa, namely Fathers Mériais and Padel whom we were leaving provisionally as companions for Fathers Roudaire and Violette, waiting for the imminent arrival of Bishop Bataillon, who would arrange everything. So henceforth Upolu and Savai’i would each have two missionaries, but what can two missionaries do there when there should be forty? How can two missionaries respond to the sole needs of Upolu, that is to say with a population of 40,000? To baptize little children who are sick and distribute the bread of divine word to all those people who seem so keen to know the true religion. I told you that there were in Upolu ten Protestant ministers; there are too 80 catechists, no less zealous than their masters in proselytizing the natives. You can judge from that that whatever the kind disposition of several chiefs and the good dispositions of a small group of Catholics, the struggle will be long and our missionaries will be successful only by dint of their ardour, their sweat, their patience and their prayers, and also in proportion to their number. The situation in Savai’i is the same.
As the commander decided to set up a trading station in Apia, the Arche d’Alliance stayed a month in that bay. On 17 October we got ready to go to Savai’i, called Pola by the French geographers. We were all sad in leaving the worthy inhabitants of Upolu, who had shown us so many signs of affection. When sailing past Savai’i we visited Father Violette whose house was two and a half leagues at least away from the nearest mooring site, because the reefs make the island pretty well unapproachable. We landed and here were 15 of us to visit him. He made us soup, but there were only two spoons to offer us. Remembering that there was still a little tea and brown sugar, he served us a cup of tea, and we were able to sleep peacefully. At dawn the next day Brother Jacques was at work preparing our breakfast; he made some girdle scones which we found excellent, being hungry; then the chiefs of the village sent us a partly roasted small pig; that saved our bacon.
On 20 October the Arche d’Alliance set sail; this time it was for Wallis. How my heart beat with pleasure thinking that I was going to that happy island, which I thought of so often when I was in France! I am going to see Bishop Bataillon, that worthy and saintly bishop, modest in his apostolic life. A few days more and my fate will be decided. I will learn whether we are going to New Caledonia or whether we will say here. Although that should worry me, it has not yet struck me, devoting myself entirely to learning the local language where I will be sent. On 23 October we sighted Wallis; the ship could not enter port until 25 October, but we landed on 24 October. There are so many things that I should tell you about concerning this island so interesting and so blessed by heaven. But time does not permit and then the Annals have a lot of information about it. Scarcely had we landed in the parish of St Joseph where Father Mathieu lives that already the entire population gathered to welcome us. All the old chiefs came and kissed our hands and offered us their root of kava as a sign of friendship. At the evening Angelus we left Father Mathieu and went down to Notre Dame three leagues away. Bishop Bataillon was waiting anxiously for us. We made the journey with candles; a crowd of Christians escorted us with flaming torches.
The five weeks that the Arche d’Alliance spent at Wallis was a festival time for us and the inhabitants. How proud we were and confused by seeing the piety of those worthy Islanders. At every hour of the day and night, you are certain to find them worshipping in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Every morning, there is common prayer and gathering for Holy Mass during which singing hymns never stops. As night falls, in the parlance of the natives, when the cricket sings, they come together again at the foot of the altar for evening prayers. Then the faithful go home. But no sooner are they gathered in their huts than they recite the rosary, followed by singing songs and repeating their catechism. At that moment, all you hear in the entire island are prayers of thanksgiving sounding like a concert, during which it is impossible not to be moved and touched to the point of shedding tears. Every Saturday throughout the year they decorate the altars with sweet smelling flowers and garlands of greenery; on those days too they recite the office of the archconfraternity of Our Lady of Victories, and they sing the litanies of the Most Holy Virgin. On Sunday evenings they become involved in interesting recreation: twice I have been present when they pretend to have a fight; the champions numbered 400 and were armed with spears. The chorus of their patriotic songs throughout the struggle were like this: Holy Virgin, make us die like martyrs! I couldn’t compare the two parishes of Wallis better than to two fervent communities where peace, happiness and innocence reign. Catholicism is everything in Wallis: you live it, you don’t do anything other than breathe it. I am not able to tell you how much veneration they have for Bishop Bataillon.
The Saturday which followed our arrival was marked by a very touching event. An island called Toquelai or Clarence, between 200 and 300 leagues from Wallis was devastated by a hurricane which destroyed the coconut palms, he breadfruit trees and other crops. The lack of food began to be felt. A certain number of the natives set sail for a neighbouring island where they hoped to find food in plenty; but their canoes were struck in the open sea by a violent storm which scattered them and engulfed them under the waves. Two of the canoes, after drifting for a month and a half at the will of the wind, were thrown onto the coast of Wallis. The poor shipwrecked men had had for all that time only a few coconuts to eat and some fish which they caught; in addition nothing could compare with the leanness and wretchedness of the men. No sooner did the Wallisians see them than they rushed to get to their canoes to help them land on the beach; but the others did not dare to trust the Wallisians, fearing that they would fall into the hands of cannibals who wouldn’t fail to consume them. As the most providential of circumstances, there was at Wallis a young woman from Clarence Island, who had settled at Wallis for some years. I don’t know the particulars. Drawn by curiosity like the others she went to the beach and she was bowled over to hear the language of the poor strangers; but her shock was replaced by joy when suddenly as she looked at the men carefully, she recognized among them her old uncle, chief of Clarence Island. She flew into his arms, pressed him to her chest, showered him with tears and invited him to land, assuring him that not only would they not kill them but they would shower them with goods. In fact they had no sooner put their feet on dry land at St Mary’s than from all directions they brought clothes to wear and they led them in triumph to the church. In a split moment between 1200 and 1500 natives gathered around them and showed them every care and hospitality. It was touching. The bishop, all the priests, the old king, the whole population served them and pleased them. While they were organizing a big kava ceremony in their honour, the men greeted the new guests by firing fifty rifles. At the noise of the firing, the poor shipwrecked men fell to the ground and thought their last day had come; the old chief of Clarence Island threw himself around the neck of the king of Wallis and held him for a long time, begging him to spare his life. They were embraced thousands of times to calm their fears; they were assured that they were with friends and brothers who would do them no harm. At last they recovered from their fear.
The following day it was Sunday the feast of All Saints. The bishop had to officiate pontifically on the occasion of our arrival. They decorated the church with its best equipment; we spread out all the finery of the mission station; we put out the cathedra. The faithful for their part covered the sanctuary with garlands of greenery and with vases of flowers. At eight o’clock Mass was sung with all possible solemnity. On seeing that church freshly decorated and all shining with lights, on seeing the celebrants accompanying the bishop, on hearing thousands of those voices accompanied by musical instruments, the shipwrecked men, whom the king had gathered near his throne, stayed without moving in astonishment. But at the moment of consecration, when the crowd was gathered together and bowing down in silence, a double salvo of guns suddenly roared out from the Arche d’Alliance. They were frozen in terror; they threw themselves immediately with their faces to the floor and did not want to get up again. In the evening there was benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. They were gripped by the same fear a third time. The poor pagans, they had us weeping in tenderness. Today they laugh at their naïve fear and bless Providence a thousand times for calling them in such an extraordinary way to the knowledge of the Gospel. When they are trained and baptized, the bishop will send them back to their island where they will be apostles waiting for the time when missionaries will be sent to them.
Finally I have to leave this fervent Christian community where I have spent such happy days. I am leaving on the mission station’s schooner for Rotuma, between 140 and 150 leagues away from Wallis. We have been expected in that island for a long time. As a temporary companion I have Father Villien, who is soon to go to Melanesia, and Brother Lucien. A catechist from Wallis, called Philippe, who speaks French, English and several Oceanic dialects, will be a great help for me, by serving me as an interpreter. He is the one who asked to follow me; I would never have thought of him making such a request, given that he is married and has some little children. His wife will stay in Wallis and although she is sincerely devoted to him, she did not place the slightest opposition to his departure because it was for the best for Catholicism. I will send him back in five or six months. I am taking with me a second catechist called Léon. A crowd of other young men asked the favour to accompany us, but we had to refuse them. You can imagine by these facts how generous and devoted the youth of Wallis is.
The Arche d’Alliance is also about to set sail; one of these days I will return to the Navigators bringing Bishop Bataillon. In my next letter I will speak to you about our mission station, which we are going to put under the patronage of Our Lady of Peace. Be so kind as not to forget it in your prayers and to recommend it to those of my dear compatriots of Sathony. Bye bye, your friend,
Verne S.M.