From Marist Studies
20 December 1847 – Father Jean-Pierre Frémont to Father Claude Favier, Woodlark
Translated by Mary Williamson, June 2014
Based on the document sent APM OMM 208.
Sheet of paper forming four written pages and another sheet of four pages, three of which are written on, the last page remaining blank.
- For the Reverend Father Favier, Marist.
- My Reverend Father,
- I cannot express the pleasure that your gracious and pious letter gave me. I read and re-read it several times, each time with more enjoyment. It brought back to me names that are so dear to my memory: Puilata, la Favorite and also the people that it mentions! It brings me news so in keeping with what I want to hear: the growth of our small Society, the success of the enterprises that it undertakes for the glory of God and for the saving of souls. All that delighted and refreshed my soul and increased my happiness. It made me feel how delightful the fraternity of religious workers is; how powerful and ineffable the bonds of charity that unite them; how attentive Mary our good mother is to the consoling and enlightening her children and helping them to educate each other, no matter how great the distances that separate them. But you know all of this better than I do, my dear Father. The happy experiences that you have enjoyed, have already made you able to savour and appreciate them. Perhaps you have found my reply rather tardy. That is true; but allow me to give you the reasons: 1º The postal service is not yet very regular in our country. Your letter dated 24th October 1845 did not reach me till 11th February 1847; 2º Having not been able to pen a reply to send on the Arche d’Alliance, when she left for Sydney, because I was ill with the fever at the time, it was difficult to find another occasion.
- I presume that you are sufficiently up to date with the main things that have happened to us, from the time of our departure from France up until the visit of the Arche d’Alliance. You will have heard that our voyage was long and tedious because of the bad weather. You will also know of our prolonged stay in the town of Sydney, the reasons for this and what we did there and of our arrival at our curacy and the painful loss of Bishop Epalle, our getting established, our difficulties and our minor successes on the island of San Cristobal. So I will only tell you about what has happened to us since the visit of the Arche. That visit brought us some relief, some consolation and some enlightenment. At that time our medications to control the fever were lacking, so we were left without protection against the outbreaks. But the care that Dr Montargy, who was aboard the Arche, hastened to provide for us, the quinine that he administered and that he left for us, dealt with the fever. Our health, somewhat jaded, bounced back like the rising up of a young eagle. The conversations, the example of Mr Marceau, the captain, and the aims of his business enterprises contributed, not a little, towards informing and consoling us. But the thing that was our crowning joy, was to receive a vicar apostolic. The first audience with Bishop Collomb won our esteem and our affection and put us in a position to bless the way that providence had treated us.
- Mr Marceau wished to celebrate a solemn service, aboard his ship, for Bishop Epalle. Bishop Collomb officiated and delivered the funeral oration for our dear and venerable deceased .
- We could not help but admire the degree of order and religious spirit that reigned aboard this ship. What was touching for us, was to hear sung, every evening after prayers, the hymn Ave Maria Stella. The voices of all the crew, blending with the voice of their captain, filled the air with the praises of Mary. Oh, what pleasure for us to hear from our house, these religious anthems rising from these unholy shores, to float over the hills of San Cristobal and far away to the eternal mountains!
- Finally, on 18th February, after a delay of 8 days, the ship hoisted her sails to take Bishop Collomb to Sydney, where his bulls would be awaiting him and he would prepare himself for the impressive ceremony of consecration.
- Before leaving, Bishop Collomb encouraged us to divide up and try to establish another base. To comply with this suggestion, we set to work trying to find a site. We found it in the tribal area of the natives who had threatened us since our arrival on the island and who were called Piats. The area seemed healthy to us and exposed to the fresh air. The population was large and seemed kindly disposed towards accepting us amongst them. They said to us, those who told you we wanted to kill you were wicked and are our enemies. But come, we will give you land, trees, yams, bananas, coconuts etc. After being reassured, as much as was possible, that we had nothing to fear, I went to organise myself with Father Crey and Brothers Aristide and Opat. This was on 25th of the same month as our arrival. For the first fifteen days all went well. We rejoiced in the fact that we had some new progress to report to our Reverend Father Superior in our next letters. We were hoping that Bishop Collomb would find us very happy on his return from his consecration. A future full of hope and happy days seemed to stretch out before us. However, God was preparing yet more new trials for us and wanted us to drink once again from the chalice of his divine Son, for he does not want missionaries to lose the taste for this mysterious beverage.
- On 18th March, after some days of listlessness, Father Crey was taken from us in a death that was gentle and peaceful and, we hope, precious in God’s eyes. He passed away in my arms, leaving me alone with the two Brothers. He proved himself loyal to his duties right up until his last moments. The day before the last day of his life, being no longer able to hold his bible, nor support himself, he still wished to try to say his prayers, but was not able to manage. The few weeks he spent with us were sufficient for us to recognise the fine spirit that animated him. His gentleness, his patience, his acceptance, were especially impressive during the few days of his illness where, lacking medicines and assistance, of which we were totally deprived in our new home, he uttered no complaint and showed no sign of unhappiness. So we are in a position of hoping that God, content with his sacrifice and his willing spirit, has called him to himself, to reward him.
- Father Thomassin came to replace him. Together we consoled ourselves over the loss of our dear colleague with the thought that he had become our intercessor in heaven. The natives willingly listened to us speaking of our religion. Several were already pressing us to teach them to pray with us: we want to pray to Jehovah, they said, he is good, we no longer wish to steal or eat men. It is wicked people who do these things. but they go to the fiery place and us, we want to go to the great house of Jehovah. Thus our hopes grew from day to day, then on 20th of the following month a deplorable event plunged us again into fresh mourning. The natives of our valley told us that they had heard war cries in the mountains and soon I received the sad news that Fathers Paget and Jacquet, along with Brother Hyacinthe had been massacred by the savages from the mountain near to our first house. This news, as you can imagine, was a lightning blow for us. Mr Montrouzier sent me a note, via a native, expressing his extreme anxiety: he remained alone with Brothers Genade and Charles; he feared an attack from the savages and begged me to rush to his aid. I immediately hurried to board one of the native canoes, with Brother Optat and we returned, as fast as possible, to Makira  (this is the name of our house), putting our fate in the hands of Providence, as I was not without fear of a surprise on the part of the murderers. Finally, rowing hard, we arrived at our establishment, to find the house surrounded by natives. They were from our friendly tribe. The mountain dwellers had already told them about their criminal victory and had entreated them to exterminate those who remained in the house, so as to get rid of all of us. But they refused, saying that we were good men…. when we arrived on the shore, several came to me, appearing troubled and indignant. Prémont  they said, the men from the mountains are wicked men. They have killed Father Paget, Father Jacquet and Hyacinthe. But us, we are good men; we have not harmed you. We have told the men at Makira not to go into the mountains or they would be killed. They went there and they were killed. But if you want to come into the mountains, with Thomassin, Gennade and Charles, we will go and kill these wicked people, we will burn their house, we will chop down their coconut palms, etc. To this outburst we replied: Yes, you are good men, we are your friends and you are our friends. But I do not want to go into the mountains. As for us, we do not like killing men. The great chief of our country (the King), will send a vessel with many men and he will punish the evil doers. Very well they replied; but do not fail to approach the vessel to say that we are good, or they will kill all of us. After that they urged me not to return to the enemy’s territory and to get the two who were still there to return, or otherwise they would also be killed. That was indeed the course of action that we were thinking of and we gathered together at Makira to await the return of Bishop Collomb. From then on, we had no dealings, except with our tribe and its allies.
- With this new state of affairs, God has again subjected us to many anxieties and frightening situations. On 5th June, the mountain dwellers fired their arrows at Brother Charles, who was working in the garden, but did not strike him. From then on we realised that it was dangerous to move away from the house. On 22nd of the same month, a new alert. It was around 7 o’clock in the evening. The moon was shining. We were all gathered in the house to begin our spiritual readings, when the dog’s barking warned us of the presence of savages. We fired a pistol shot as we opened the door, to frighten them. In fact we did not see them, but we noticed a fire that they had lit in a corner of our house. Mary, whose protection we ask, delivered us from danger. In a moment the fire went out. These men here, said our friends, have rifles that kill a fire, there is no way of burning them. Next we made it seem that we were readying a war-like defence. We made various holes in our house. At night we lit two lanterns, which we hung outside on ropes and we took turns to stand guard every night. The natives who were our friends and who saw this setup, did not fail to go and tell the mountain dwellers that our house was surrounded by guns. They said that the lighted lanterns were night guns that we could operate from the house with a string and that would kill anyone in the surrounding area. They added that we did not sleep at all and were resolved to kill all those who might come to attack us. Well, the scheme worked. God used this plan to frighten our enemies . We did not see them again. This state of affairs made us wish fervently for the arrival of a ship. At this juncture, we were deprived of our main protector, with the death of the great war chief of our friendly tribe.
- The lack of success of their various plans launched against their enemies made these friends very ill-humoured. The enemies of salvation profited from this to turn them against us. They began to say that our God was turning against them and that we were the cause of their misfortune. The day of the Assumption, a young man from the tribe came to say to us: There are a lot of foreigners in our land and everyone says it is your God who is mistreating us and he will make us all die and we want to tell you to leave when the ship comes. We did not have much trouble calming them, but the non-arrival of the ship, combined with the state of confinement to which we were condemned made our friends very cool towards us.
- At last on 28th August, a ship was seen out to sea. Soon we could recognise the French flag. I sent a letter on board, addressed to Bishop Collomb, to inform him of our woes. The next day, early in the morning, I went on board to explain to him, in person, our position. The disasters in New Caledonia had left the captain and his crew very cautious, to the point that they were afraid to lower their anchor in port (Santa Maria). However, on the assurance that I offered, that they had nothing to fear, they entered port that same day, much to our great satisfaction. You can imagine that the conversation with Bishop Collomb, though very welcome, was very sad, when from their side and ours we informed each other of such deplorable happenings. The question then, was to decide if our situation on San Cristobal was tenable. Everyone decided that it was no longer safe in the area where we were settled. The Vicar Apostolic informed us of the positive information he had received about the small island of Woodlark  and after having prayed and deliberated, it was decided that we would all move to this island, until such time as providence gave us the means to go elsewhere. Captain Rabalan, who commanded the ship Anonyme, (the name of the ship on which Bishop Collomb arrived) exhibited all the energy and courage necessary to extricate us from any danger we might face when the natives realised we were going to leave. But, thank Heaven, the entire process of moving out was carried out without any signs of hostility.
- In short, we sailed for Woodlark on 3rd September and on 8th we sighted land. After several days of exploration, sailing around the coast, we dropped anchor in a bay on 11th. But we found that the anchorage was not sure, so we had to raise anchor on 15th, to go and find another port. Finally, on the same day, we discovered a suitable harbour. A large number of natives approached us, bringing us provisions and inviting us to visit their homes. One of them, even more than the others, seemed to feel sympathetic towards us. He spoke a few words of English. We tried to make him understand that we wished to come and live with them. He seemed happy and offered to show us around and indeed he was very helpful to us. The next day and the day after, we visited them and the result of our visits was that we were convinced that we could not hope to find a better place to establish ourselves. The natives hastened to erect a temporary house for us. On 27th we began to bring our belongings ashore and from that day on we slept ashore in the house the natives had made for us. During this time, the ship’s carpenter, assisted by some sailors, was working on constructing us a more solid timber house.
- Finally, at the time at which I am finishing this letter, we are installed, like grand lords in a fine wooden house whose walls allow the air to circulate freely and through which one can see, from inside, what is happening outside and the reverse. Nevertheless, this house is a marvel in the eyes of the natives. They are prepared to undertake long journeys to see it.
- We are studying the language; we try to teach the natives some prayers; several children already know the Ave Maria. They seem to have the ability to learn by heart. We are also beginning to teach them to read and all of this seems to interest them. We do not know what the future holds. Our hopes are in God.
- I commend myself and our mission to your prayers and holy sacrifices. I am your brother in Jesus Christ and Mary,
- Pro-vicar apostolic,
- Woodlark, Port of the Nativity 20th December 1847.
- Jean-Georges Collomb, Marist missionary, titular bishop of Antiphelles, vicar apostolic of Melanesia and Micronesia
- Makira is the native name for the island of San Cristobal (cf. Pacific Islands, vol.3, p.689).
- no doubt this is what they called Father Frémont
- Woodlark Island or Murua ( native name used at the time) (cf. doc.625, ∫10, n.4)
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