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16 January 1851 — Father Jean-Simon Bernard to Jeanne Bernard, his sister, Akaroa

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, June 2009

[For the life of Jeanne Bernard, see her biography by Canon Grancis Trochu: La Mère Marie-Thérèse, foundatrice des Soeurs Franciscaines de St-Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu au Diocèse ne Nantes (1804-84). In it there are numerous extracts from letters from Father Bernard.]

[According to Father Girard’s editorial comment, the letter’s date of 16 January 1851 is most likely when it was finished (see [25]). No other date is given. But internal evidence adverted to by Professor Peter Tremewan of Canterbury University, New Zealand shows it was most likely begun early in December 1850. A whaling ship mentioned made a call to Akaroa then – and in [22] he speaks of a promise to return in January to a place where he had done some baptisms.]

G(loria) J(esu) L(aus) M(ariae) [Glory to Jesus, praise to Mary]


My very dear sister
It is a long time, it is true, since I have written you any formal letters, and written directly, but it is also quite a long time since I have received any from you. The reason that prevented me from writing to you is that while writing from time to time to other people who could inform you about the little interesting news about New Zealand, I thought that it was useless to multiply letters to say the same thing. I also could not excuse myself from addressing to these old friends a few words from my hand in recognition of my gratitude and my affection. I would have had more right to receive some from you. It was last August that I received a letter from your venerable parish priest, Father Gandon,[1] dated 7 July 1849, that is, 13 months after it had been written. It contained a quite small note in your handwriting which showed me you were still living in spite of all the illnesses that you suffer from. If you are still living, do not forget that I have only one blood sister in the world, and that it is always a very real pleasure to receive her letters. Make use of ships which are coming to New Zealand, but it would be better to make use of ships going to England, because every month a ship leaves London for this country. That way we would get more promptly and safely all the letters you send us. The parish priest’s letter informs me about a long letter written at the same time by Father Bosceret.[2] I have not yet received it.
I have been thinking a long time of writing to you, and two reasons have held me up until now. Firstly I was waiting to receive what I was informed about in your last letters, so I could thank my benefactors, and secondly, I was waiting for my new posting so I could inform you about it. I have only received from Nantes by way of Lyons a pair of stockings, seven shirts and four flower vases made of gilt porcelain. Please, on my behalf, thank the charitable people who gave me these gifts, and assure them that I have not forgotten them in my prayers. Everything else I was told about has not got to me either because it was thought inappropriate to send them to me, like ruined flowers etc, or because it was lost on the way. If you now have any boxes to send me it would be safer to send them to Le Havre to a reliable person who would use a whaling ship promising to come to New Zealand. Because right now, as you can see by the date of this letter, I am no longer in Tauranga, but 150 leagues [750 km] further away, in Akaroa, the dying little colony of French people. We have had here for a week a French whaling ship which left Le Havre on the 23rd May last.[3]
You are in revolution in France and going through a change of government; we ourselves are in the same situation in New Zealand and in a change of region, but without any bloodshed as in your country. On 8 April last, Bishop Pompallier came back from Europe with a priest, nine seminarians and nine English religious women, to take over, with his new apostles and in the prime of life, the management of the diocese of Auckland, which is to cover the whole of the North Island down to the 40th degree [of latitude]. That means the peoples that we twelve veterans had cared for as missionaries. So leaving the gathered flock to the new pastors who are replacing us under the title of parish priests, we Marist missionaries are to go and prepare the way elsewhere with our Bishop, Bishop Viard. May it please God that these twelve pygmies of apostles have the spirit, the zeal and the holiness of the first twelve apostles in the whole universe! On hearing the news of our replacements’ arrival we have packed our baggage and are duty bound to leave. Only four of our men have stayed on for a year to familiarise the new and young clergy, some of whom are not yet priests.
I left Tauranga on the 27th April this year to go to Auckland and join my Bishop and my confrères who had chartered a ship to get to Wellington, the central point and the new town for our new mission. Unfortunately having been held up too much by circumstances, I arrived too late, the ship had already gone. I couldn’t arrive until the 6th May and I was present, that day, at the ordination of six of our successors who were immediately sent to their parishes, still knowing only a few words of Maori which they had learned on the ship.
I have to take you back for a moment to Tauranga which I have just left. Because you would perhaps like to know something of the circumstances of my[4] departure from my children whom I raised for six years. I thought that these savage minds who have, apparently, neither fear nor love, who are lovers of novelty, would see me leaving their midst with pleasure, so they could look on a new face. However I would conceal our departure so as not to distance them from religion. We did not openly tell them about it. And when the matter came up, I would tell them that it was quite just to leave the cooked bread to the newcomers and that the former workers should go elsewhere. They only half understood these explanations which are anyway pretty much in line with their customs, but they didn’t say much. When they saw that a ship was going to take away my possessions the next day, there was no longer the same indifference. Only three tribes knew about it. On the day before, several people came a league [5 km] to stay at the house and weep. That evening the whole tribe where I lived formed a crowd at my house to hold me back; and seeing that they could not do so, they wrote a long petition to Bishop Pompallier so that he would promptly send them a guardian and a pillar for their church which would be overwhelmed by storms. Fathers Reignier and Moreau[5] were to come and replace me and live at Tauranga until the arrival of a new man, and from there were to visit all the stations, but that did not satisfy them, because they expected them for only a few days. So the chiefs and the writers united their minds so as to be able to touch the heart of their Bishop. They finished their petition with two verses of song based on the tune Iste Confessor,[6] from which they borrowed some words of their songs and which they adapted to their viewpoint. It is customary for them, as with the Jews, to continually sing, in their great times of sadness, songs expressing sorrow, and sometimes to make very spiritual allusions. Perhaps you are interested in seeing the song that they composed. Here it is:

Ka ngaro te ra, ka pa te pouri
Ko te ritenga o te ora poto
O nga tangata noho manuhiri
ki Tauranga
Tena! Itoü wahi kororia
E tö matou kaiwakapai
Atatitiro ra ki a matou
E pani ana

The day has gone, darkness has fallen
That is the meaning of the short life
Of the people who live as passers-by in Tauranga.
Have mercy! From your place of glory,
You who are our benefactor,
Look upon us who are bereaved.

On the day of departure, as soon as prayers and the Mass were finished, the house was crowded. Tears flowed on every side. I tried to have breakfast before going on board the ship; it was impossible for me to eat, these beloved children were making my heart bleed, weeping all around the table; the others were shut in the neighbouring rooms to give free rein to their tears. At the time of departure I gathered them all in the chapel to put all of us under Mary’s protection, in whose presence we sang, while sobbing, the Salve Regina [Hail, holy Queen].
I then said my goodbyes to them in a few words – I couldn’t do any more than weep with them. Then the people, still weeping, accompanied me to the shore, and the canoe was filled with men and women who wanted to accompany me even to the ship. The whole tribe was silent and in tears.
And a Frenchman to whom I had entrusted the house until Father Reignier’s arrival told me in writing, three weeks later, the following facts: “Since your departure,” he told me, “my position in the house has become untenable. Nothing but cries and tears. Father Reignier has not come yet and I can no longer stay there in the midst of tears every day. The bell for prayers rings as usual in the evening and in the morning, but that is all. The natives go to the chapel, and at the first word of the Sign of the Cross they all begin to cry and say nothing more. The Saturday after your departure saw a very sad scene. Hohani, his wife and his two little children, who did not know of your departure, came from the other side of the bay for Sunday Mass. When they came ashore they were told of what had happened. Then the poor woman went out of her mind. She took her child, whom she was feeding at the breast, threw it on the sand of the shore, and approached the door of the house uttering cries and shedding tears fit to break your heart.” This woman, Mariana by name, was about 25 years old, and was one of my best Christians and singers. She had an amazing memory.
During the three months I have spent in Auckland while waiting for a ship to Wellington, several of my good neophytes came to see me on their ships and to weep. They told me that in all the tribes cries and tears were still going on, that people could pray no more; and that when people heard news of my departure, there were tears and wailing as there had been at the death of one of their chiefs, much loved, which I had witnessed. So you see that the savages, even the eaters of men, are not totally incapable of feeling once the faith of J(esus) C(hrist) was penetrated their hearts. I did not believe that they had come to this so soon, seeing their nonchalance and their weakness of virtue.
Now I am going to take you, dear sister, to Akaroa where I am living today. Although the way is long – about 150 leagues [750 km], it took me a lot of time to get here, since I left Tauranga in April and didn’t get here till October. Everything on my way seemed to frustrate me as I tried to head onwards. Sometimes when the wind is favourable you can get from Tauranga to Auckland in 24 hours, but it took me nine days. Having got to Auckland with a confrère, who like me had missed the ship, we stayed four months with Bishop Pompallier, helping him through difficulties and giving his young priests directions.
We could not find a ship bound for Wellington. We heard of a big ship. We thought that for 400 francs it would give both of us a passage. Nothing doing. The captain, a Protestant fanatic, and fearful for his children whom he had on board, and who were not as bigoted as he, didn’t want in any way to accede to our wishes, and to those made to him on our behalf. He told us very honestly that if we were members of his religion he would give us a free passage, but that his conscience would not allow him to take somewhere else the envoys of Satan. So we had to resign ourselves once again. We didn’t lose very much in this, because it had a very bad voyage and was thought to have been lost. Although it left a long time before us, it didn’t arrive until a week before us and in a sorry state. It had to be hauled ashore for repairing.
Our belongings were carried on three different ships, and still there were obstacles to our leaving. So that all our boxes were damaged. I did not regret the time we spent in Auckland, because I believe we were of use to Bishop Pompallier, not to say needed. Finally on 8th August we boarded an English ship whose captain was a Protestant but a fine man and who showed us a lot of good will.
On the so longed-for day, the Assumption of Mary, we arrived happily in Wellington harbour where our worthy Bishop and some of our confrères were waiting for us impatiently. Unfortunately we arrived too late to say Holy Mass. It was two o’clock.[7] We were very well received in our new mission. Unfortunately there are few people, and especially Maori, who are disappearing from sight in this island.[8]
During my stay in Wellington, where I did my annual retreat, I was present at two great religious ceremonies which were quite new for these people who were all Protestants. Wellington is a little English town of about 4000 souls of whom about 200 are Catholics, all the rest are Protestant. There are some prominent people who are good Catholics. We performed as solemnly as possible the funeral service for a regimental colonel who happened to die. We put on all the ceremony we could in a little wooden cottage which serves as a chapel here. The whole body of troops was bearing arms and the military band played a motet at the Mass and went on playing during the whole funeral procession. A great part of the town witnessed such a ceremony in which prominent among the civil and military authorities were a Bishop in a black cope, six Catholic priests, four choir boys and above everything the Cross which for the first time was carried at the head of the procession, triumphant in the midst of a Protestant people. Everyone was in silence and admiration at the Catholic ceremonies which they had never seen, even most of the Catholics. The second ceremony was the blessing of the foundation stone of a cathedral church in the middle of the town.[9] The ceremony took place on the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin[10] which fell on a Sunday.
The ceremony began at three in the afternoon. The whole town was at the square to see what had never been seen; that is, a cross, a clergy gathered in order, and a Bishop in mitre and cope. A speech was given in English which was listened to attentively. It is to be hoped that God will bless these happy beginnings. Unfortunately all the Maoris are Protestants, and mostly baptised; however they are good people and some have already become Catholics.
Finally, dear sister, I left for my destination, for Akaroa, where already a confrère was waiting for me, and had been on his own with a Brother since May.[11] So with my companion I embarked on the 23rd September, who was a neophyte from Tauranga who wanted to follow me. The little ship which was taking us was to leave us at Port Cooper,[12] nine leagues [45 km] from Akaroa. I had been led to expect that I would easily get from there the means of getting me to my station. We left with a tail wind about two o’clock in the afternoon. We were travelling well, and if the wind had continued for 24 hours we would have made our port. But a missionary is not someone whom the demon from the abyss allows to pass with impunity. At nightfall the wind changed and drove us out to sea. Soon it became furious, there was no way of steering. All the sails were furled, the rudder was secured and we remained battered and beaten by the waves for four days. Lying on my bunk, I couldn’t leave it without vomiting my guts out. I couldn’t eat anything but some mouthfuls of bread and butter. A lady and young person, passengers like me, were even more ill than I. They were vomiting day and night even in bed. We were all no great cost to the captain. At last on Friday the sea became a bit more calm and the sky clearer; eyes looked out for land in the belief that we had been borne towards Akaroa. What was our surprise when the land around Wellington was again seen. The animals being carried to Port Cooper were worn out, the men could do no more, the wind remained contrary, everything forced the captain to return to port, where we arrived in the evening with a tail wind as when we left. Myself, I was very happy to see land again, I could do nothing because of tiredness and exhaustion.
It wasn’t till Sunday, the day of St Michael, that I was able again to get to sea under the protection of that holy patron of our mission, after having celebrated the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Again we made good progress the whole day, and if the wind had continued the next day we would have been in port. But that was not to be. As great as the storm had been the previous week, so great was the calm this week. We were well, but we were making no headway. We took four days to complete the journey.
Port Cooper is a little town which has just been founded, and is to become the port for another considerable town which is going to be built four leagues [20 km] from there on a vast and magnificent plain. Several ships are already on the way bringing settlers from England. That town will be called Canterbury.[13] The English do not need much time to build a town. They call that plain the paradise of England. It would indeed be a pretty district if there was timber available. But you have to go pretty far to find it, that is, to the edges of that huge plain on which there is not a single bush. It is an English company which has bought this land, as well as Akaroa, which is no longer French. It is said that no Catholics will be allowed to settle there. They want to have only a Protestant sect there. We however hope that with the help of Mary and of St Michael the Archangel, and the prayers of the Archconfraternity of the Sacred Heart of Mary, the opposite will happen. Already we count several Catholic families at Port Cooper among the small number of inhabitants who have [……] there. So pray please and get others to pray, in a special way, for this important place in my mission territory, so that Satan’s plans may be frustrated.
Although there are hopes for the future, I didn’t find any ship at Port Cooper to carry my possessions to Akaroa which you can get to by land in a day by going through a bay, but through awful mountains, which you cannot imagine in your flat countryside around St Philbert. There is a plan to put through them in the future a highway 50 miles long – that is, 20 leagues. I could only find a large open boat whose owner would only transport my belongings for an exorbitant fee of 150 francs [£6]. We had to travel that way. The same boat took me across the bay, and I set out on foot with my native, thinking that my belongings would perhaps be delivered before my arrival. I had left on the Friday and I had a lot of trouble getting there on Saturday evening with my companion who was ill and could not climb the mountains. We were forced to alternate carrying our travelling bag. I had the happiness of arriving for the Sunday – the feast of the Rosary – in the midst of our poor French people, who number about 50 – adults and children. We are very happy when we have half of them at Mass. These unfortunate people, not having had anything but a few scattered visits from a priest for ten years, have become half savage. I do not know yet what grace will bring about among them, but it needs to achieve everything. Some are Protestants, others are deserters from ships. The rest are…
What concerned me in the first days after my arrival were my belongings which were not to be seen. I didn’t dare go out, being in a bad state and with no change of clothes. At last, on Friday evening, a week after our departure from Port Cooper, we were informed that all the sailors in the boat had just arrived overnight in a little skiff, having left 12 miles away their big boat, which they could not bring further, having abandoned it two fathoms from frightful rocks, and that someone had to go early the next morning to save it, otherwise it would be lost along with all the belongings. It wasn’t one of the men who came to tell us this news; they were at the inn. They were recovering from the exhaustion and hunger they had experienced for three days. They had lost their sails and their ropes in the sea and could no longer steer. Imagine, dear sister, how I felt at getting this news. I resigned myself to God’s will, which seemed to me to be very obvious, because I was almost certain that everything was lost and that they had saved themselves from the shipwreck. Straight away my confrère went to the inn to find out the exact situation. The same answer was given, and in addition he was told that the boat was not yet lost; but that if the wind happened to change, it was all over for both the boat and the belongings, that having dropped the anchor with 30 fathoms of chain they had not found bottom; that they had been forced to lengthen the chain with some lengths of rope they still had. So I thought that everything was lost; however these thoughts came back to me from time to time: Mary’s statue and all the medals which are in this boat, would they be at the bottom of the sea? So would God want to make it impossible for me to carry on the sacred ministry by depriving me of everything necessary for it, and which I could not easily get for myself? These reflections gave me some glimmers of hope; but I didn’t dare dwell on them. As soon as morning came the next day someone went to look at the scene and came back with the news that everything was safe, but that if the wind happened to change everything would be lost right there. The wind was too strong and towing the boat wasn’t possible. Finally two boats were got ready to go and fetch it on Sunday night and it was, fortunately, towed here to the port of Akaroa, arriving at half past nine. The Brother who had gone there told us that it was amazing that it hadn’t been lost where it was. The waves were so strong there, even in calm conditions, that one of the rowers of a boat who when he arrived wanted to put his hand on the gunwale to look inside, was tossed into the sea which hung him along the gunwale, and he was saved only by the strength of his grip. He had to leave by swimming. The anchor couldn’t be recovered, and was left at the bottom of the sea with all of the anchor chain.
When people saw that boat in Akaroa they were all in wonderment; Protestants as well as Catholics, and some of the former even said it was saved only because it was carrying sacred things. Because it was too astonishing that it was saved, there where it was for three days under God’s care. For there was no one on board. The sailors didn’t want to stay on it, being afraid of perishing if it happened to be wrecked along those cliff-like rocks on which landing was impossible. Finally, thanks be to God and Mary, I got all my belongings safely, except a few boxes wet from the rain.
So here I am, dear sister, having arrived in Akaroa Harbour, the harbour of the French. There are roughly as many English as French people. The former are nearly all Protestants. There are hardly any more natives, most of whom are Protestants, and are on the other side of the harbour where you can go only in a boat. We haven’t yet been able to get one for ourselves. Everything here is very expensive. But they are a people who have been ruined by the Europeans, and there is not very much to be hoped for from them. I went on a two-day journey to see some others of them who had not yet seen a priest. I did five baptisms there, and I promised to return there in January. In this island there are very few natives, but they are dying off in an astonishing way while the English go on growing in numbers. Sometimes among the natives there are up to three and four deaths for every birth. They are, clearly, a people heading for extinction. People say there are many of them on a small island 220 leagues from here named Chatham.[14] The Bishop was talking about sending me there. May God’s holy will be done. I think that I will not go alone without a confrère, and have to wait until one comes from Europe.[15]
Thank you, dear sister, for the relics you were so good as to send me. I am still waiting [for them] and a few long letters from very dear Father Bosceret with the miracles and wonders of France. Everyone read with pleasure the copies of the Annals of the Archconfraternity of the Sacred Heart of Mary. So are there no more of them? I haven’t been sent any more. I believe as well that I personally have obtained a cure with the relics of blessed Germaine.
I received last August the letter from Father Gandon, your venerable parish priest, dated 7th July 1849. Please give him my respects and thank him on my behalf for the pleasure he gave me by giving me details, always too brief, about the beloved place of my childhood and my friends. He informed me about a letter from Father Bosceret.
16 January 1851. Since my letter has not yet been sent, I am going to end it with my wishes for a happy new year, to you first, and to all your dear community. I have not been able to reply individually to each of your Sisters who have sent me signs of affection and remembrance. But I have not forgotten them in the presence of J(esus) C(hrist) and of his holy Mother, and I want you to offer them today signs of the affection I have for them, all the more because they want to be my adopted nieces. Well, I do adopt them on condition that they pray for their poor uncle who, above all the difficulties of his apostolate, places that of seeing in every district so many souls who care so little about their salvation. Again I wish a happy new year to F(athers) Gandon, Bosceret, Gregoire, Braud[16] etc, to my cousin Anne Bretagne[17] whose name I saw with delight and astonishment in Father Gandon’s letter. Is she, by chance, at St Philbert? If I stay at Akaroa, you could write to me via Le Havre, sending what you wanted to send me to Akaroa or Wellington by way of the whaling ships which come directly to New Zealand, but not by the others. A new whaling ground has just been discovered near here; if it is good, you will have, this year and those following, from April to August, a lot of whaling ships from Le Havre and even from Nantes coming here. That would be the opportunity to send me what you want to. I myself will try to use them if they come back here while going home.
This is long enough to bore you, and I am also out of paper. Still, however, a few words about our new establishment. God’s house is in a pitiable state. The big chapel, made of wood, which had been built at the start, fell down last year because of the furious winds which prevail here. We have no more than a wretched cottage made of clay, open to daylight through the walls and the roof, for a chapel. I do not know when we will be able to have another, with only a handful of real Catholics. And when we get the chapel, we will have nothing to adorn it with. There is here, however, a seaman-whaler who is writing to his sister, a religious in the Cotes-du-Nord department to send us an altar cloth.
May God be blessed. We have neither procession cross, nor stoup, nor monstrance, nor…
Further, we don’t have a house for ourselves. We are now living in a little house in ruins, which the ships’ commanding officers had built for themselves. We do not yet know if we will be left here. Besides, it is too small, and the rain gets in. Nowhere here do you find workers except from six to seven francs, and still the work is badly done. See how we can set ourselves up. We are forced to make our beds, our tables, our seats ourselves. To get a door made and put into our house, we had to pay 50 f(rancs) to a gentleman who is even from Paimbeuf.[18] Again, may God be blessed.
So please pray for us. I am, in the blessed hearts of Jesus and Mary, my dear sister, your totally devoted brother
J(ean)-S(imon) Bernard
Miss(ionary) Apost(olic)


  1. Father Jean-Marie Gandon (1797-1857), parish priest of St Philbert (Trochu, pp 41-42)
  2. Abbé Le Priour de Bosceret, having become blind, had retired to the presbytery of St Philbert de Grand-Lieu (Trochu p 104)
  3. No doubt the whaler Latour du Pin (Captain Gilbert Smith) which left Le Havre on 27 May 1850 to get back on 9 April 1853. It was in Akaroa from 24 November to 16 December 1850. (Crew lists – series 6P6 – Archives of Seine Maritime)
  4. A wrong reading in the original text is corrected: m’on becomes ‘mon.
  5. Marist missionaries in New Zealand. Euloge Reignier had been in NZ since 6 April 1842 and Delphin Moreau since 1843 (cf Doc 166 [2, 6-7]; 242 [3]; 257 [11])
  6. a hymn in honour of a confessor of the Catholic faith: Iste confessor domini colentes, Quem pie laudant populi per orbem: (opening lines) “This is the day on which the Lord’s true witness, whom all the nations lovingly do honour” – Hymn No 57 in the revised English breviary, the Divine Office, 1974 - translator’s note. The Latin hymn – three settings are given – is in the Liber Usualis, Declée, Tournai, Belgium 1956, pages 1177-80 - translator’s note
  7. in the afternoon, presumably. Until Pope Pius XII’s liturgical reforms of the 1950s, Mass could be celebrated only in the morning. A missionary on a journey could get an hour’s grace, but no more - translator’s note
  8. “… in this island”. He may be thinking, in passing, of the South Island, from where he was writing - translator’s note
  9. St Mary’s Cathedral, burnt down in 1898 - translator’s note
  10. 8th September
  11. Antoine Séon and Brother Euloge (Antoine Chabany) were at Akaroa when Bernard arrived – doc 984 [1,3] - translator’s note
  12. today the town of Lyttelton on the north west of Banks Peninsula: Akaroa is on the south side of this peninsula - translator’s note
  13. In fact, Christchurch, today the centre of the province of Canterbury. The fact that the settlers had not yet arrived indicates that this part of the letter was written in early December 1850, because the first settler ships arrived about 16th December 1850.
  14. Chatham Island, c 880 km east of Akaroa
  15. The last Marist missionaries to come to New Zealand arrived in February 1843. There were no more during Father Colin’s generalate. The sixteenth departure of missionaries occurred on the 23rd April 1855.
  16. Father Braud, parish priest of La Limouzinière, a parish fairly close to St Philbert
  17. Jean-Simon and Jeanne Bernard’s mother’s maiden name was François Bretagne
  18. now Paimbœuf a town in the department of Loire-Atlantique and the diocese of Nantes – Bernard’s home diocese. No sense of loyalty to a fellow-countryman? - translator’s note