From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

10 December 1846 — Father Pierre Verne to Father Giroust (Parish Priest), Futuna

Translated by Peter McConnell, October 2010

Letter of reverend Father Verne to Father Giroust,
Parish Priest, Reyrieux (Ain)

Futuna 10 Xbre 1846
My very dear friend and colleague,
I don’t know whether you received my last letter which I wrote you from Upolu (the archipelago of the Navigators) last October. I entrusted it to an American whaler who was not the most reliable. I am having this letter sent by way of Sydney. I am certain it will reach you. There is nothing new in our position except to say that only after three months sailing I have put pen to paper. We visited the various mission stations of central Oceania; that slowed us down. But finally I am almost at the door of my new parish. I am no more than 100 leagues away from it. It won’t be long now and tomorrow late in the morning we will set sail. As it is the night before leaving, we have plenty to do. I will scarcely know about the details of my trip. Yet here is our itinerary since my last letter.
On leaving Upolu we visited Savai’i which is15 leagues from Upolu. When we were landing a crowd of four to five hundred natives waited for us on the shore and were at a loss for words to say how much they wanted to see us. Those who are taking instructions accompanied us for three hours to go to where Father Violette , our colleague, lives. They carried torches in front of us because it was night time when we landed. The welcome which we received from the chiefs was the same as that of the chiefs of Upolu. They asked for missionaries and insisted. We crossed from Savai’i to Wallis.
The third day after leaving Savai’i we reached Wallis. There are so many things I should tell you about that little island which is so interesting and so blessed by heaven. But time does not allow me and besides the Annals contain so many descriptions of it.
No sooner had we landed at the parish of St Joseph than already the entire population gathered to welcome us. All the old chiefs came and kissed our hands and offered their root of kava as a sign of friendship. At the evening Angelus we took leave of Father Mathieu, the priest at St Joseph’s, and went down to the parish of Our Lady, three leagues away, where Bishop Bataillon was waiting anxiously for us. A crowd of natives accompanied us carrying torches to light the way. All the time we spent in Wallis has been festival time for the inhabitants. We stayed there a night and a half.
How edified and astounded we were seeing the piety of those worthy Islanders. At every hour of the day and night you are sure to find them worshiping in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Every morning they have prayers and Mass together during which their hymn singing never stops. At night fall or as the natives say (when the cricket sings) everybody comes in like manner to the front of the altars for evening prayers. After the prayers, the natives go home, but no sooner is the family together than in all the huts without exception they start to recite the rosary, followed by singing hymns and repeating their catechism. At that moment all you can hear in the whole island prayers of thanksgiving like a concert. So you can’t help but be moved, even to tears. Every Saturday in the year they recite the office of the archconfraternity of Our Lady of the Victories and sing litanies of the Most Holy Virgin. Every Saturday too they adorn the altars with vases of sweet smelling flowers and garlands of greenery.
On Sunday evenings, they give themselves over to innocent recreational activities. On two Sundays I attended a mock battle with spears and accompanied by local songs. There were 400 actors. The chorus of their song during the fight was as follows: Holy Virgin, make us die like martyrs.
I could compare the two parishes of Wallis only to two fervent communities where peace, innocence and joy reign at the same time. Religion is everything in Wallis. You live sit; you breathe only for it and its missionaries. In particular nothing equals the veneration they have for Bishop Bataillon.
The Saturday after our arrival was marked by a very touching event. An island called Clarence or Toquelaï, two or three hundred leagues from Wallis was battered by a shocking hurricane which destroyed the coconut palms, the breadfruit trees and other food crops. Starvation became noticeable. A certain number of natives got into their canoes to go to the neighbouring island where they hoped to find food aplenty; but their canoes were assailed in the open sea by a violent storm which scattered them and engulfed them under the waves. Two of the canoes, after drifting for six weeks at the mercy of the winds were thrown onto the coast of Wallis. The poor men had during all that time eaten only a few coconuts and some fish which they were able to catch; also nothing compared with their gauntness and wretchedness. No sooner were they sighted at Wallis than people rushed to go to their canoes to help them land on shore. But they dared not trust them, fearing that they had fallen into the hands of cannibals who would not turn up an opportunity to eat them or at least to kill them. But by an extraordinary coincidence there was in Wallis a young woman from Clarence Island. She had settled there for some years; I don’t know the particulars. Like the others curiosity drew her to the shore near the unfortunate shipwrecked men. She was bowled over to hear the language of those wretches. But her surprise was even greater when looking at the men closely she recognized her old uncle, chief of Clarence Islands. She flew into his arms, squeezed him to her breast and showered him with tears. She invited him to come ashore and assured him that not only would they not kill him but shower him with goods. In fact, scarcely had he put foot on dry land at St Mary’s than from everywhere they were given clothes to wear. And taken in triumph to the church. In a moment twelve to fifteen hundred natives surrounded them and offered of courtesies in the most touching and hospitable way. The bishop, all the priests, the old king, all the population were there. While they were organizing a big kava ceremony the men greeted the new guests with a fifty rifle salute. Hearing the noise of that salute, the poor shipwrecked men fell to the ground thinking their days were numbered. The old chief of Clarence Island threw himself around the neck of the king of Wallis and held him firmly for a long time begging him not to have him killed. They embraced them thousands of times to reassure them, saying they were among friends and brothers who would do them no harm. Finally they recovered from their terror.
The following day, a Sunday, the bishop had to officiate pontifically at the occasion of our arrival. We decorated the church using the best items; we laid out all the precious things of the mission station.; we put up the cathedra. For their part the natives covered the sanctuary and the pillars of he nave with garlands of greenery and vases of flowers. A eight o’clock, they chanted the Mass with all the solemnity possible. The shipwrecked, whom the king had put near his throne stood still amazed when they saw that church beautifully decorated and all lit up, when they saw all those celebrants co-celebrating with the bishop, when they heard thousands of voices accompanied by musical instruments in singing the Mass. But at the moment of the consecration, when they saw everybody bowing down on the floor and then suddenly hearing the double salvo of guns from the Arche d’Alliance, they were frozen with fear. They threw themselves on the floor face down and did not want to stand up again. In the evening at the benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the guns were fired again; they thought they were doomed a third time.
The poor pagans touched us to tears of tenderness. Today they laugh at their needless fears and bless Providence thousands of times for calling them in such an extraordinary way to knowing the gospel. We are very keen to instruct them and in a eighteen months’ time, when they are baptized , the bishop will send them back to their island where they will be apostles, waiting for us to send them missionaries.
Finally I have to leave Wallis where for six weeks I have spent such happy days. Bishop Bataillon does not want to let me go to New Caledonia; he has such need of priests! We are leaving with Father Mugniéry; he is returning to Savai’i to be with Father Villien. For me I am leaving by the bishop’s schooner for an island 140 to 150 leagues away from Wallis. My temporary companion is Father Villien; he is destined for New Guinea but will stay with me until the Arche d’Alliance comes and takes him to his destination in five or six months’ time. I am taking away Brother Lucien too. In Wallis I found a catechist called Philippe, who speaks English, French and several Oceanic dialects. Father Mathieu of Wallis has sung his praises in the Annals dated January 1846, He will be of great help to me getting by right from the beginning, by using an interpreter. He is the one who asked to accompany me; I would not have thought of him making such a request seeing that he is married and has two little children. His wife is staying in Wallis and although she loves him dearly she has not shown a scrap of opposition because it is for the good of Catholicism. I will send him back in six months. I’m taking another catechist from Wallis called Léon. A crowd of other young men have asked the favour of accompanying us but I have still to recruit some en route; I have had to refuse them. You can see from how things turned out what religion is for the Islanders of Wallis.
We sailed for Futuna --- In my life I have often wanted to see that happy island, watered with the blood of a martyr. Who has been my brother in arms and perhaps yours too. Twenty leagues away we started to make out the tops of the high mountains of Alofi (a neighbouring island of Futuna and a dependent of it) six leagues away. Absolute calm. The natives noticed our schooner while the crew fished two large sharks which were seven or eight feet long; eight young men from Futuna, strong and powerful came to us in a canoe which was nothing else but a tree trunk hollowed out the way they do it in that country. I embraced them and gave them something to eat; then, I suggested that they take me to the shore in their canoe. That is what they wanted too. I left Father Villien who was seasick and I got on board their canoe. They made the sign of the cross, they untied their long hair. I noticed that they all had their crosses and their rosaries around their necks, as in Wallis, and there I was for four hours sitting on the wide ocean on a tree trunk which they made fly over the waves at an incredible rate. The thought of being afraid did not occur to me, so preoccupied was I by the joy of seeing Futuna. At seven at night I embraced Father Servant, and he told me that fourteen young men of Futuna, all catechists, very religious and from the main families of Futuna set sail two months previously to go and meet a ship, just as they did for me. But they were assailed by a dreadful storm and were not seen again, leaving all the island grieving. I spent a week in Futuna.
What a joy it was to be able to open my heart on the tomb of the reverend Father Chanel, that dear co-disciple who reigns today in heaven. What a pleasure to celebrate holy Mass with the blood stained soutane and the priestly accoutrements with which he celebrated Mass the very day of his martyrdom. His tomb is right inside the church; a cross has been raised beside the altar, at the foot of the sanctuary on the very spot where he received the blow which sent him to heaven. That cross which is six foot high is surrounded by a wreath of garlands and flowers which the natives carefully renew every Sunday. We spent a week in Futuna, half in the parish of Our Lady of the Martyrs where the body of father Chanel lies and half in the parish of St Joseph which Father Favier looks after. It would be quite impossible for me to tell you the fine welcome we received from the people of Futuna. Scarcely had we arrived than all the parish knew about it already. They fired rifles; they organized a solemn kava ceremony; they did what they always did for all the missionaries.
I don’t think there is any parish on earth which traces better the customs of the church in its first years. Everybody is fervently Catholic without exception instead of rousing them to piety, the missionaries have nothing else to do than restrain them so that they don’t go too far. Every morning there is common prayer and the Mass during which they sing hymns. After Mass kava and then they go to work. Every evening there is prayer at church and the singing of hymns, then kava in the courtyard of the mission station. After the kava, instruction lasts thirty minutes. The old people, the women, the young people, the pious one, the little boys and girls and finally the quite small children, all have theirs in private huts and that occurs every day in the year. Catechism lessons occur all at the same time and led by twenty young people who are the most distinguished for their knowledge and their piety and by as many young persons who are models of virtue. Those who were older knew the four parts. A large number replied very well to all the objections made against Catholicism by which others try to embarrass them. Finally in the large catechisms, they know most of the stories of the First Testament. After catechism comes the rosary; they finish with two couplets from a song in honour of the Holy Virgin. After rosary there is a class for singing or chanting, alternatively one day for men and the next for women after which comes the last kava ceremony. I really regret not having time to write to you a little bit about the kava ceremony, which occurs at any moment and which is performed more strangely in Futuna than elsewhere. That will be for another time.
You see, my dear colleague, that the custom of Oceania are quite different from those of France. I have already told you, it is the world in reverse. In France the priest’s house is one of peace and quiet; in Oceania the missionary’s house is the common house; it is not empty from morning until ten or eleven at night. In France you hardly dare to talk about religion; here religion is everything; people are happy with nothing but it. They can’t do without the presence of the priest; he is the soul of everything; he has to preside over everything and decide everything. In France people are Christian only nominally and by constraint; here on the contrary the people find no happiness except in the practice of religious exercises. How wonderful it is to see those former cannibals of Futuna who have become now more gentle than lambs confessing publicly and begging the missionaries not to stop them doing it! Those fierce warriors who used to drink out of human skulls ready now to pour their blood out for God a thousand times and for the missionary. Those young people who were formerly dissolute now have to be forced into marriage. It is no less wonderful to see the young men arguing for the honour of accompanying the missionary when visiting pagan natives or else coming to be right next to the missionary and live there more saintly in the practice of their duties and to devote themselves to serve the missionary. At Wallis there were forty young men and about twenty in Futuna who live in a community near the missionaries. It is like his family. They accompany him in his chores, look after his food, without any ulterior motive, and they do it faithfully and with an incredible affection. While I am writing to you the natives don’t stop coming visiting. It is an endless procession since this morning; they bring their presents.
Bishop Bataillon has given as a present to Fathers Servant and Favier a female ass and an ass’s foal; the natives who have never seen any celebrated them for three days just as they celebrated the arrival of a horse in Wallis. They called them big dogs; the first day they did not dare approach them thinking that they would eat human beings; today they are well used to them. It is to show their gratitude to Bishop Bataillon that they send him eighteen pigs and a huge amount of yams, taros, bananas; they offered us some too for our mission station, as well as a large number of mats or material which they make. I think that in five or six months I will have an opportunity, I will have some items that I am collecting sent to you. I will send them by the Arche d’Alliance. I will warn you by letter.
I will finish his letter so that I can prepare for the departure; but I remember that I have not yet told you where I am going to stay. Look at your map of Oceania by twelve degrees longitude and find a pretty little island called Rotuma which has 6,000 inhabitants and is still buried in the shadows of paganism. Here is the field that divine Providence has assigned me. Although they are pagans, the Rotumans are eagerly waiting for Catholic missionaries. The king has just refused two months ago heretical ministers who wanted to settle there, telling them that they wanted to become Catholics. Everything augurs well for us in this mission station which the bishop has put under the patronage of Our Lady of Peace. Above all please do not forget this mission station in your good prayers and to recommend it to those of my dear compatriots of Sathony. Besides the two catechists from Wallis whom I have spoken to you about, I am bringing four from Futuna. They have been living on that island for two years. They came to be instructed and to be baptized. But their true country is Rotuma. One of the catechists called Jean is chief of a bay in Rotuma; and one of the women called Vitaline is also a chieftainess from another district of the same island. They are all models of piety.
Now, my dear colleague, there you are up to date with everything. You know the land I am going to break in. You also know the companions who will share my work. I almost did not bring with me as a catechist Pierre Sami, the king of Futuna whom you have often heard about in the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, but some considerations and some household matters prevented me from doing that.
In my next letter I will tell you about my struggles and my joys if Providence deigns to bless the mission station of Rotuma somewhat. Please greet on my behalf all my family, Father Salignat and all the persons whom you know that I have mentioned in my previous letters. Also kindly pass this letter to dear Father Laurent, parish priest at Curzieu, if that is not too much trouble. I don’t have time to write to him today. I greet him and embrace too all my colleagues should they be mentioned in my last letter and whose name and memory are ever present in my mind. I recommend Rotuma to their good prayers.
I have baptized only little Philomène and that was at Wallis; but there are at Rotuma some little children who are waiting for the grace of baptism. In four or five days time I will start for good and all my new career, after thirteen months of travelling. I still beg Father Laurent to remember me to the persons of Virieux whom he knows and who are interested in my mission station. I finish by recommending Rotuma to your good parishioners. For the next year and a half I would need twelve to fifteen hundred rosary beads to be worn around the neck. It is all the jewellery and wealth of our natives.
If you think it appropriate to talk about it to Mrs Gallisu, I am sure she will be ready for such a good deed. If Providence should give you the wherewithal, do send me an assignment of dresses and blouses made of calico, long and wide. The Rotumans wear only leaves for their clothing. I beg Misses Rousset from Virieux le Grand and Miss Claire de Roussillon to show her interest in Rotuma in the same way. I am waiting to hear from them to answer them and recommend myself to their good prayers. I greet and embrace all my sisters and all my family.
Should Providence give you he means to send me a small consignment, I beg you to put the articles in a good pine case well nailed together and to my address. Finally, my very dear colleague, excuse my abusing your patience for so long. Write to me at every opportunity and send your letters by way of the Marist priests at Lyon.
Verne, S.M.