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3rd of September 1850 – letter from Father Xavier Montrouzier to his parents

Translated by Mark Hangartner, April 2010.

From the document sent, APM ONC 208 Montrouzier (to his family)

Sheet of 4 written pages.

J(esus), M(ary) and J(oseph), All for Mary
Mr Montrouzier, landowner, St Félix de Lodez (Hérault)
Woodlark, station of Our Lady of Sorrows, 3rd of September 1850.
My dear parents,
Your letters are a real balm for wounds in my heart. I feel for your pain. I myself sometimes feel very sad living so far away from you. But how I rejoice when I think that every annoyance of nature enriches you, that you know how to use it to become less and less attached to passing things, that you may yearn only for the eternal kingdom! So persevere, my dearest parents, be resolved. Life is short, the joy of the heavenly homeland everlasting. And so, understand once for all time, that we have in heaven a father who watches over us, not a hair on your head will be lost unless by His will, and his tenderness matches his power. This fundamental truth which our faith teaches, is confirmed by our own experience every hour of the day. So you were greatly afraid for me at first when I left the household of Mgr Douarre to go with my true superior. The events of New Caledonia did happen and you have seen that God brought me to St Cristobal that was perhaps to save me from even greater dangers. I could list numerous examples of providential watching over His children. I limit myself to telling you that since we have been on this mission, we have never found ourselves without consolation or comfort. When we had the fever, we had an abundance of food. I finish where I began; confidence, letting go, trusting solely to the arms of providence.
I must admit, however, that more than once, without lacking in confidence or trust in God, I allowed myself to have anxious thoughts about you. Above all when I heard from a sailor on a whaling boat about the various political upheavals of 1849. How often I feared for you and for France! How often I pictured Europe in flames and France the prey of civil unrest and all that goes with that! These thoughts tired me, but were not useless as they lead me to prayer and to pray for you. I won’t recount the number of masses I have offered on your behalf, but I can assure that I never approach the holy altar without thinking of you and all those for whom I ought to pray.
The fever has left us. It is over a year since we have suffered from it. Praise god! Generally one is a more able to labour for the salvation of souls when in good health than when confined to one’s bed. However it was a sweet consolation for me that when taken by fever I could tell myself that assuredly I am here by the will of God. Now that am well I can no longer make that declaration.
In material terms we are also doing well and almost as well as in Europe. We have a large garden, next to our house and protected by a palisade to avoid thefts which are sadly too frequent here where the ten commandments are as yet unknown, it provides a great harvest of excellent marrows and very good bananas. Large taros with a delicate flavour, nice yams, some wild fruit some of which is quite good to eat, aia or malacca apple, the maagoi or mango, fish, sea turtles, pigeons, sultan chickens, pheasants, and sago add to our resources, and form, as you can see, a good menu selection, and one which pleases those with the most refined tastes. And yet we have not become narrowly focused on a life of ease. Our accommodation is big, comfortable, each has his own room, which the bedrooms aren’t large, it’s true, they are big enough to accommodate visitors since, to avoid giving opportunities to thieves, we have decided not allow natives to visit, but rather to speak with them outside the house. We have ordinary beds, but the mattresses are still quite soft. The refectory is also used as an exercise room, a nice little chapel, about ten square feet in size, furnished with paintings, with stations of the cross, with two statues, one of these is a statue of the Holy Virgin bought with money sent me by my good cousin Bourquenod, benches, a credence table, well all that we need, completes our little palace, so that we certainly have our food and lodgings.
Sadly man does not live by bread alone. Physical pains tire one certainly, but these are nothing when compared with spiritual ones. Well and truly God has given us a cross to bear. He has tried us with recent trials. Our natives have finally declared themselves. They have told us plainly “We don’t want your religion”. For all that we are not disconcerted, we are not even surprised by what they have said. Our dear savages are alas so far from the kingdom of god, so of the flesh, so materialistic, that our way of life, our doctrine, everything about us must seem like folly.We have continued with our catechism classes, we have from time to time visited villages, and, although generally we are greeted with suspicion or at least with indifference, we have been able to tear a number of souls from the devil’s grip. Now we do have thirty little angels in heaven. We continue, with God’s help, to work and to wait until that moment when grace arrives, and then we will find that annoying though these setbacks and delays are, and crucifying they have been for our wellbeing, they are nothing when put alongside the joy arising from the conversion of a single soul, the rebirth of a whole people. For the rest, don’t think we need always be running around and preaching. Natives are keen observers and for them the good conduct of a missionary makes a more lasting impression than much talking. Many instances have convinced me that this is true. Here are two taken at random:
I was with Br Gennade making a circuit of the island and prudently we had not taken provisions with us. Unusually prudent! You may say, to run the risk of death by starvation. And yet that is how it is. Here is the key to this enigma. We have tribesmen with us to lead our boat. But if we have provisions with that means we will stay whether we like it or not at the first stop until all has been consumed. The tribesmen will only set off again when they need to look for food. So with almost empty stomachs we arrive at a place called Surok, for which the best description is half starved, and that is where we looked around us to find something to eat. We needed to cross a swamp, with mud up to our thighs, climb a steep hill and extract from our heavy bags not money but weapons. We went to several huts, we rummaged in granaries and finally we found a little sago which my guides ate hungrily, but which I didn’t touch feeling ill. That night was spent [page 3] gathering food for us and at daybreak we were served a splendid meal. There was taro, sago, and sugar cane. We were overwhelmed. It was very good, but we’d left several of our guides guarding the boat on the riverbank. They had gone to bed without supper and were in danger of getting a late and meagre breakfast if they were relying on their fellow tribesmen. We had them in mind, we took their share and hurried down the hill to carry something to relieve their hunger. Br Gennade even got angry with a native who had no scruples about taking from their share while we were going there. This mindfulness which was drawn from our basic humanity, delighted them. They loudly proclaimed their admiration for our treatment of them in every village which we passed through afterwards, they never tired of retelling it to other tribesmen.
Another time, outsiders came to see us. A native from the region explained to them as they were looking around ad when he came to describe our way of working he told them “As for women, none ever go into the house and when a missionary addresses them he always lowers his gaze.”
The natives habit of observing everything and their wisdom in weighing things up, gives me great hope. This also consoles me in this kind of inaction to which we are reduced. I am persuaded that our stay alone amongst savages will prove beneficial for them.
I have already given you, in an earlier letter, some idea of the religion of our peoples. Here are some further observations. Geren, Tudav and Marita are the three major deities of Moiu, but these are not the only ones. There is another with some good traits, whom though you see him not, you hear him. Who is it? Guess, you who have him in France as at Woodlark. You hear him often, but you other Europeans, you don’t have enough spirit to uncover him. Ah well, we people from Moui, we can introduce him to you. The wind blows, listen. The whistling can be heard in the riggings and in the branches. That is Tukuai speaking or crying. Tukuai remains a rather insignificant god; stays in the hollows of trees, eating honey left there by wild bees. But he doesn’t move out from there. – Barum is crueller; he kills men without mercy and, when he takes against someone, with no bother he gets himself into the body of a pig or dog, makes it jump in a more or less unusual manner to frighten his enemy and make him lose his balance. But what is most odd, for this turns upside down all the theories of scientists about proportionality of brains and mental capacity. The turtle has a tiny brain, hardly the size of a hazelnut. Ah well, beware of thinking it is stupid. If a tribesman is brave enough to eat one during the season for planting yams, all the turtles of the area will gather the following night to unearth the seeds which then dry out and die. Take note these are sea turtles. And crayfish also know how to get their own back, don’t you know? Well this can still be seen on Moiu. If you eat lobsters, you can be sure the carapace will put itself on your armpits, and when you go wild pig hunting they will break noisily and the pig will escape. – there are lots of other superstitions too numerous to list. Also never throw a lump of coal in the sea lest there be a flood over the countryside. One must never, when crossing a swamp, say the word viligov (crocodile), if you don’t want to see one turn up. Never say the name of dead people, etc.
As for their moral wellbeing, it conforms to the tenets of their beliefs. The devil who beguiles our natives with his lies, soils their hearts with all the filth of his passions. What a sewer! Daily I discover the depths of their wounds: pride, covetousness, anger, terrible vice. Alas I dare not go into details, for these are my children. If I describe their misery, it is that you may pray for them. Ask me no more about it. Let us bless God from whom we have received the gift of faith. Even with faith we may be miserable, but without it what would become of us? And have no doubt those drawn into error find it very hard to get out of it.
The blindness of our natives is unbelievable and shows just how hard it is to uproot the prejudices which came with their mother’s milk. They are witnesses a thousand times over of the uselessness of their own priests’ prayers. The two most recent ceremonies have been a real mystery. The witch-doctor purified the village, and expelled forever sickness, famine, and all plagues, and each time back sickness and hunger, and the poor witch-doctor himself was afflicted receiving due punishment for his obstinacy. Well even that did not open the eyes of our natives. For the least illness they call the priest who has no remedy available, but is happy to pull up the gibai and leave the patient to look after himself with his illness, while he enjoys a nice meal. But what is this gibai? Let me tell you. No one is sick unless he is bewitched, for nothing happens without a reason, say our natives, in this instance, all the while they deny this principle when discussing Creation. However, the sorcerer, to cast his spells, uses a stone or a broken spear, or any other object, on which he pours his venom and without being seen he pokes it into his enemy’s body. This is called buagau. The witch-doctor is able to pull out these unwanted guests from a human body. He chews ginger, spits it out, makes faces, recites long prayers, stretches his arms over the patient’s affected area, tightly holding a piece of wood, a stone or some other thing, lets it drop and everyone cries out: the gibai has left him. Then the patient gathers his strength to say the required reply: Say aboen, it is well, I am healed. In this way the devil makes fun of our tribesmen.
I thank you for the money and boxes you have sent me. The brandy never arrived, it must have been drunk during the journey. Don’t send any more. We are getting on well now. The linen arrived, but we don’t need it. Sadly we have too much owing to the deaths of so many of our co-workers. – I can say with a good conscience, I don’t want for anything. But if you want to send me something, choose inexpensive items, small mirrors, small knives of ordinary quality. Tribesmen have little appreciation of what is well made and lasting. But for a little knife or mirror costing a few pennies we can get a good lot of bananas which serves for three meals. For anything else, I say again, we lack nothing and perhaps it is because we don’t suffer enough that our work has not been crowned with success.
There is no news, apart from what I have told you. I will save it up for a long letter to Henri who certainly deserves one. He sent me a really long account keeping me up to date with the what is happening in Europe. So I have passed this on to my co-workers who have greatly appreciated it. As for Gabriel, to tell the truth I couldn’t read part of his last letter. The paper was too thin, the ink too light. I can’t reproach you for that. Please give hugs from me to my little sisters, and from me ask them to stay prayerful and devout. Tell them that only virtue will bring happiness and change thorns into roses. Don’t worry yourself if Ernest is less open spirited than the others. Many have lost their way for having too much natural talent, and most scholars are unhappy if they have not learned humility. I greet him with all my heart and bless him with my very soul. Finally for you, I will be with you every day through the sacred heart of Jesus and of Mary. Yes there is a place we are well looked after. There the troubles of the world cannot touch us, and from there we always return refreshed. Would that I were more faithful in going to that place. Our troubles, huge though they are, would be lessened. Still even in this earthly toil we may taste the joys of heaven. Farewell, I greet you all warmly. Your loving son,
Xavier Montrouzier
Pro-vicar of the Society of Mary.