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20 July 1847 – Fr Catherin Servant to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Futuna

Translated by Mary Williamson, February 2011.

Based on the document sent, AP MOW Servant.

Two sheafs of paper forming eight written pages, the address carried through to the eighth page; the short form of address written at the bottom of the first page.

[ Address.]
To the Very Reverend Father Colin/ Superior General of the Society of Mary, Lyon, France.

[ p.1, at the bottom of the page ]
[ Short address]
Very Reverend Father Colin, Superior General of the Society of Mary.

Queen of the Martyrs, Futuna, 20th July 1847

To Reverend Father Colin,

Very reverend and dear Superior,
I wish to talk to you about our dear island of Futuna, letting you know the main things that have happened since the last despatch of letters. It is no longer a question of a mass baptism of Futunans; as you know for several years now the regenerative waters have moistened their brows; but there are still a few ears of corn, though small in number, that we have gleaned from time to time after the harvest. For example, lately I have received into the blessing of baptism a young woman who had been hesitant. As I had reason to believe that she showed signs of indecision about conversion, I had tested her frame of mind over a long period of time; but seeing that she had coped with the tests with acceptance, that she had left her village and her parents with the intention of presenting herself for baptism, I thought I could no longer delay in according her the blessing that she so greatly desired. The next day, (overwhelmed with joy), her parents presented me with the gift of two roasted pigs and two kava roots as well as a quantity of cooked vegetables. At almost the same time as the woman from Futuna received the blessing of new life, a Fijian woman at death’s door received the same blessing and there was only a short interval between the time of her baptism and her peaceful death.
During this time a French ship dropped anchor in the little cove of Sigave; the captain of this ship talked to us about the settlement of Protestants that he had just visited; he described them to us as hovering on the verge of heresy. May the true religion temper their convictions! May the charity of the true ministers of God also lift their souls, withered by sadness and sickened by harsh treatment, helping them to feel the overwhelming consolations of the true doctrine and the hope of an eternity of happiness, which one can only enjoy in the embrace of the true church.
It was at this time that the ocean currents washed up some debris from a shipwreck: the outriggers of two canoes and a Polynesian drum; as well there was an oar and a cask with several English words on it, which we could not read except for the word Mirren. Very sad news, these human catastrophes, which prove the nothingness of life here below and warn us not to be taken by surprise in a poor state of grace!
Whilst speaking of tragic shipwrecks, it happened that on 17th September 1846 our hearts were saddened by an unfortunate accident: fourteen young people from a village called Fikavi,[1] most of them remarkable for their intelligence and virtue and for whom we held great hopes, thought they saw a ship on the horizon; departing in haste, without food or water they went to sea in three frail canoes; the sea was calm at first, but out on the open ocean a violent storm blew up unexpectedly from the south and pushed them to the north, leaving them with no hope of seeing their homeland again. The day after their disappearance, which was a Saturday, our converts, having gathered for evening prayers, I delivered a sermon suited to the occasion; together we poured out our hearts and our tears. It can only be presumed, after the violence of the wind and the waves that the seas would have overwhelmed them. Who could describe the pain of their parents and the people of their village? For several days they wandered the shore, expressing their sorrow and shedding torrents of tears, for, being unable in any way to help these unfortunate young people, all they could do was weep for them. The islanders of Tua attributed the loss of these young people to their sins. Several days after this disastrous accident the entire population of Futuna gathered at Fikavi to observe the customary mourning procedures for such an occasion. A fine feast was prepared for the large gathering and was presided over by the two kings of Futuna. In pagan times it was the custom to burn the houses of shipwreck victims, cut down their banana palms and pull out their vegetables, to efface the memory, it was said, of those who were no longer present; according to them this devastation was a sign of affection. In any other country, people like to preserve the memory of their loved ones. But this is not the way on Futuna, where anything that might recall the memory of the departed is destroyed. We thought we should try to stamp out this custom, which could only be detrimental to the wellbeing of others.
This unfortunate event was followed by another, which seemed likely to amaze people and cause a stir in Futuna. On 23rd September, in the same year, a woman in the parish of Saint Joseph gave birth to triplets; Father Favier had the consolation of conferring the blessing of baptism on them, but two of these tiny beings lived only briefly. They survived only a single day before going to enjoy the happiness attained through the merits and blood of the Saviour.
Not long after this, during October, our little group of people from Tua who were still hesitating became greatly troubled; our lectures and above all the sudden death of a woman and the memory of the shipwreck victims upset them greatly. They arrived at our establishment to make the retreat that we expect of our new converts. We require them to make this retreat to prepare them as best we can for the most holy of sacraments. Although our islanders receive every support and catechism training in their respective villages, we know from experience that it is only with difficulty that they can achieve a suitable level of instruction; that is why we have formed the habit of getting them together and keeping them with us for a shorter or longer period of time depending of their capacity for learning. Then when their hearts are trained and their minds sufficiently enlightened, they give us some grounds for consolation.
Some time after that, in December, we were visited by the Etoile du Matin. This schooner brought two missionaries whose aim was to evangelise on the island of Rotuma.[2] We joyfully embraced these new colleagues and the Sigavians wished to celebrate their arrival with a Futunan feast. The Etoile du Matin soon set sail and the Fathers of Rotuma carried with them our best wishes for the success of the new mission that they were going to establish. Four Rotumians from amongst our converts, who were well versed in the truths of religion, went with them. We hope that they will be a great help to them in accompanying them and assisting them to smooth out the difficulties in establishing a new mission.
After they had left, a horrifying death caused a stir amongst the Futunans: an old chief who, on principle, had always resisted our advances and who had sometimes opposed the success of the mission amongst the islanders of his valley had finally decided to present himself at the next instruction. He was prompted by the fear of dying without being baptised or was perhaps troubled by seeing himself as almost the only person amongst his compatriots who was not baptised. This old man is the same one that I mentioned at the end of the long account of this mission that I sent last year to the Society of Mary. Stricken by a grave illness he reunited a married couple that he had determinedly and unjustly forced to divorce; at the time of this illness he promised me that he would prepare himself for baptism as soon as he regained strength; but he recuperated and did not keep his promise, putting off, from day to day, his preparation for baptism, like old sinners who, used to treating salvation as of secondary importance, wait till the very last moment to make their peace with God and then find themselves caught unprepared by death. On 21st December the old man went to bed, vigorous and healthy, but the next day he was found dead, bathed in his own blood. The news of this terrible death was brought to me immediately and I indicated that I would nave nothing to do with the deceased. Three of his close relatives who had not yet been baptised, his brother and two women of the same family, buried the body of the old man; but not a single baptised person attended the burial. As well, contrary to Futunan custom, no one visited the relatives of the deceased. Frightened by such a death, the three who had hesitated to receive instruction and be baptised came immediately to stay near to our settlement to receive their instruction and be baptised.
At this same time, we celebrated Christmas with all the ceremony of the preceding years, whilst adding the blessing of the Holy Sacrament as evening closed in. This new ceremony delighted our converts who called it “formidable”; the sight of a monstrance shining in the middle of a grand display of lights, with smoke rising from the incense and above all, the presence of a God hidden within this Eucharistic display, abundantly blessing these people, formerly so sinful. What motifs and available to be touched!
Three days ago we were visited by the Arche d’Alliance which was taking two missionaries to the Solomon Islands, a land soaked with the blood of our first disciples.[3] What a pleasure for us to see new colleagues arrive in the area, to augment the small number of evangelising workers! These new arrivals, generously sent to us by our Bishop, provide great support. This help had us blessing the kindly folk of the charity that spreads its largesse even to the remote corners of Oceania. Amongst the goods that we received, there were all sorts of things to stimulate the curiosity of our islanders. For example, the sweet sounds of a harmonium charmed the ears of the Futunans, who cannot stop praising the inventor of such an instrument. They also could not get enough of gazing at two beautiful pictures given by Commander Marceau, one for each of our two churches; the first few days they crowded around to express their admiration; the old ladies beat their breasts as a sign of amazement, as was their custom and uttered cries of admiration. But who would be able to describe the arrival of two donkeys in Futuna? What peals of laughter! What a rush to gaze at them! They asked me question upon question, they wanted to know amongst other things, whether they were vicious, whether they would bite, whether they were good to eat and whether they were bad-tempered. One old man, in a burst of enthusiasm, said that never, ever had their ancestors seen anything like it; they were very unfortunate to have died without seeing such a thing. But having the donkeys was not enough; they would have to clear a passable track, because on Futuna, the hilly, steep and stony ground made walking difficult. Some of the islanders, supervised by Father Favier, began to put their hands to the task working on an area in the Saint Joseph parish. Then the landowners of different valleys of the parish of Notre Dame also began to map out a track, so that we formed a passable path that in other circumstances we would have had difficulty in achieving. During this project we made a new discovery: while we were working away, the islanders pointed out, to our great surprise, a wooden cavern where one could shelter from the rain; we went for the first time into the heart of a huge tree called gatae[4] and found a shelter completely formed by nature. This tree had reached an extraordinary size and had huge roots, which reached out for a great distance all around its circumference. Its trunk as well as its branches were completely hollow; it struck me as similar to arrogant people who seek to make themselves famous without having any merit; they have the same impressive appearance as the gatae but they are empty inside.
At this same time, a new year, the year 1847 was beginning. But before I go into detail, it would not be untimely to take a look at where the mission in Futuna stands. The population was gradually growing and was at that point 1062 souls. The parish of the Queen of Martyrs had 562 souls and that of Saint Joseph 500, not counting a few islanders from the neighbouring archipelagos, who had settled there at the end of the preceding year. Of all the inhabitants of Saint Joseph parish there was only one man who was not yet baptised, but he had gone into retreat to prepare himself and has since been baptised; of all those who have been baptised, only three have not yet made their first communion. Concerning the inhabitants of the Queen of Martyrs parish, there only remained one of Rev. Fr Chanel’s devotees who was not yet baptised; he was putting it off, he said, so as not to risk losing his baptismal grace. He wanted to be baptised during a serious illness or when he was in danger of dying, so as to go directly to heaven; in the meantime, he follows all the instruction given to the new converts and does not cause any concern. As well, three Futunans and a Hawaiian went into retreat to prepare themselves to receive the blessing of baptism, which took place on the eve of Easter. A few new converts, only eight of them, have not yet taken their first communion.
The new converts had the habit of taking the sacrament each month and the children made their confession every six weeks or every two months. They said their morning and evening prayers together as well as reciting the rosary, unless they were excused because they were working in their fields, which were some distance away. After evening prayers the natives from each valley gathered in a house to receive instruction from their respective catechism teacher. The duty of the catechist was to repeat the principal truths by way of questions. But by the end of last year we had established a different method of teaching. After having tested each neophyte, we separated out those who were more intelligent, so as to give them a more advanced training; this dividing up stimulated the older islanders to wish to emulate the young people and they found it advantageous to hear these truths repeated. The teachers of the catechism themselves, both men and women, were given special instruction by us each Sunday. We also paid special attention to the infants, requiring fathers to bring their sons along as often as possible and we asked the mothers to be especially vigilant with their daughters and grandchildren. Experience has taught us that continual surveillance is essential when starting a mission. As well, we introduced the habit of having a public teaching session for children each Sunday. We also expected a modest dress from our converts. The missionaries who visited us at this time were surprised at the modesty and reserve of the Futunans.
In fact, their moral standards were such that there was no longer talk of fornication, adultery or theft; the vice that the apostle refuses to name was forbidden. Several ship’s captains expressed their surprise at finding that forgotten belongings, even things which might excite the covetousness of the islanders, were faithfully returned to them. Some of them, having agreed on a trading price, left their merchandise in the hands of the Futunans to carry out the trading while they passed their time chatting or taking a walk. As well, the Futunans give to death the name of happiness, “maruia”,[5] in their view of their faith nothing is comparable to a good death. They do not have the habit of fighting or quarrelling, but if there is a brawl they have the laudable habit of restraining the combatants. What is more, the anger of the Futunans does not last long; it is rare to see hate, grudges or enmity persist among them.
However, the rivalry between the two groups of Futunans, which dates from time immemorial, has drawn our attention; we have had to work tirelessly to try and extinguish it; if we have not completely wiped it out, at least it is damped down and does not present an obstacle to the carrying out of our Christian duty. Whatever the outcome, it will only be after a long time and probably when a new generation has replaced the present one, that this ancient rivalry will disappear forever.
So, at the beginning of the year 1847,the Futunans comprise one of the most amazing of human societies; without laws, courts or trials, the Futunans live peacefully and happily with only the influence of religion; yet it is only five years since religion was established amongst them. May this state of happiness and peace last forever! Where would one be able to observe a true civilisation without Christianity? Yes, religion alone is capable of creating a society of happy people.
This year began with an edifying event. Having made a fifteen-day retreat, Philippe Meitald, after having received sufficient instruction in the principal truths of religion, took his first communion on 17th January. (He was the son of Niuliki, the king who assassinated Rev. Fr Chanel). His people were overjoyed. After the Holy Mass, while their king offered his thanksgiving, the young people, in order to show their happiness, fired their guns. A few days after his first communion, without previously informing us, Philippe showed his gratitude to us by personally overseeing the repair work being carried out on our home; all the valleys under his jurisdiction wanted to follow his example by contributing to these same works.
Shortly afterwards, the holy week and especially the holy day of Easter presented us with some edifying events, which it is impossible to keep silent about. On the Holy Saturday I conferred the blessing of baptism on three Futunans and one Hawaiian and the following day these four new converts took communion, bringing the number of neophytes to 218, not counting those who had taken communion the preceding Sunday.
The parish of St Joseph also gave us cause for encouragement; 130 neophytes presented themselves at the Holy Table, not counting those who had had the good fortune to take communion on the preceding Sundays. After the morning prayers and astounded by the beauty of the singing and rituals, a Fijian chief asked to receive the blessing of baptism; this was delayed until such time as he had completed his instruction. It is said that Fijians are not easily converted, but those who live on Futuna, no doubt encouraged by the good example of the Futunans, seem to give some thought to saving their souls; we knew that, finding themselves left out in the village, they would not fail to join in the communal prayers.
Besides the Fijians, we also have a family of Tongans whose chief is a close relative of “Tui Tonga”. This man, who seems to be of outstanding intelligence for a Polynesian of his age, in searching for the truth, gave up heresy to embrace the Catholic faith. He was converted in Fiji where he was living for several years; the missionaries there count him as one of their first conversions. According to the Tongan’s story, which agrees exactly with what the Futunans had already told us, the Tongan people, having already conquered the people of neighbouring islands, come to make war on Futuna (14 Tui Tongas have reigned since that time); but in conflict with the Futunans they were roundly defeated. The Tongans, according to Gregoire, still keep a Futunan kava root, which the defeated warriors, when fleeing, had carried back to Tonga; it was kept as a souvenir of their defeat. In defeating the Tongans, the Futunans saved the life of the son of Tui Tonga; as a gesture of gratitude Tui Tonga gave Futunans the right to pillage any Tongan canoes that might land on Futuna. From that time on the Futunans have taken advantage of this right and exercised it against any canoes that have visited them, right up until the time of their conversion to Christianity. The Tongans, it is said, regard the Futunans as “ poor’ fighters, because they do not know when to retreat on a battle field; thus no other attacker has been able to overthrow them.
Accustomed, from their childhood, to the most demanding labour, often climbing up and down very steep mountainsides with heavy loads, in places where outsiders would have difficulty in standing upright, the Futunans, compared with their island neighbours, are formidable warriors. They have extraordinary strength; at a kava evening our young people wanted to test themselves against our beast of burden; two average men could not lift it, but another one amongst them, stronger than his companions, grabbed the poor donkey and carried it around on his shoulders, amidst shouts of laughter from the spectators; nevertheless he is not the Hercules of Futuna; it is said that there are others who are even stronger.
At this point, it would not be inappropriate to say that on Futuna amusements are always part of life; we have only tried to discourage those games that are dangerous but with legitimate games we are always encouraging them; the two sexes have separate amusements. However the young people, who love to chat and laugh are not enthusiastic about games that are too tiring because of the demanding and almost never-ending work which they have to carry out. It is not the same for the infants; they amuse themselves with games that, on the whole, are similar to those of our European children.
I conclude, very Reverend and dear Superior, in asking you to pray for me and in expressing my deep respect and great affection for you. Thus I am and will always be,
Your very humble, devoted and obedient servant,
Louis Catherin Servant,
Missionary apostolic and Prefect of the
Mission on Futuna.


  1. Village on the north coast of Futuna, in the Alo district.
  2. Pierre Verne, Grégoire Villien and Brother Lucien Manhaudier (cf. doc. 579, 1; 605, 2; 609, 3).
  3. Jean-Georges Collomb, Cyprien Crey and Brother Optat (Pierre Bergillon) (cf. doc. 605, ∫ 3-8; 609, ∫ 5-8).
  4. Futunan word gatae = name of a thorny and brittle tree
  5. Futunan word “maluia” = respectful fear, deference, respect, condescension

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