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Fr Jean-Simon Bernard to Fr Victor Poupinel, Akaroa, 22 January 1851

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, February 2006

APM Z 208 22 January 1851

G I L M, Akaroa 22 January 1851
To Reverend Father Poupinel

Reverend Father
It is from my new mission that I am writing you these few lines. I have in fact made a journey of 200 leagues[1] to the South. At Tauranga I complained about not seeing enough faith there among the natives and the few Europeans who lived there. I even, sometimes, worried when I thought that the results did not correspond to the work put in. Alas! In the awful desert where I am, I long for the garlic and leeks of Egypt. [2] God has chosen me with Reverend Father Séon for the choice portion[3] of Akaroa. In material terms we are pretty well off, and perhaps better than anyone else. We are in the midst of the dying French colony: 50 souls, adults and children, make up our whole parish! In the same place are about 60 British and Germans, of whom only four or five are Catholics. There you have the entire flock for two missionaries and, later on, three or four, so as we can conform to the wishes of the Reverend Father Superior.[4] And out of these 50 we are very happy when there are two people at one Mass on Sunday, and 12 or 15 at the other. These unfortunate emigrants, who were not the flower of Catholic France, having been abandoned for ten years in the midst of a Protestant population, and furthermore amongst naval vessels and whalers which contribute nothing but corruption; it is not surprising not to find among them any St Isidores or St Teresas. As well, the demands of the sacred ministry are not overwhelming us here. If we could have them[5] at the services, we would hope that in becoming instructed, they would become believers, and as a result, practising. Unfortunately, the Mass here is, every Sunday, the meal provided by the Father of the family which no one attends. In their homes, they speak to us only in haste. They do not even know how to keep a conversation going, the women especially. The children do not come near us. For my part, I am studying English, and Father Séon has become a schoolmaster for two French Catholic boys, one [French?] Protestant, and five or six English Protestant boys and girls. The other French people prefer to leave their children in ignorance rather than deprive themselves of them at home. Sometimes I have four or five on Sundays at the catechism class. In earlier times at great expense a chapel was built [p2] at Bishop Pompallier’s direction, on a mountain side exposed to strong winds. It collapsed last year. We have nothing more that a stable of Bethlehem made of clay, [6] open to all the winds and rain through the roof and walls, for a parish church. I do not know whether we will be able to put up another. The colonists here are not, right now, well off, and the first useless expenses[7] will likely further chill icy hearts. However some have promised some hundreds of feet of timber. We are waiting until the site is finally determined and recognised by the English company which presently is in possession of Akaroa.[8] We do not have a home for ourselves any more. We are living in a little house which the commanding officers of the warships had built seven years ago, and is in a ruinous state. We have only two bedrooms and a little living room six feet square. However we have with us Brother Euloge, a Maori man, a sick sailor and three little English orphans. We hope that this house will be left for us, with the little garden and the piece of land on which it is built. Everything here is remarkably expensive. You cannot get a worker[9] less that 7 to 8 fr[10] and simple day labourers at less than 4 to 5 francs.[11] We are therefore obliged to do as did St Paul[12] while waiting for financial help[13] to arrive.
Two days’ [journey] from here, on a vast plain, an English town is being formed, which will be called Canterbury.[14] There are perhaps two thousand newly-arrived people. But they are all Protestants, and do not want to sell land to other religions. We have, however, about ten Catholics there. 50 leagues[15] in another directions is also the beginning of the town of Otago.[16] There are about 2000 people there as well. We count 40 Catholics whom we can see only on rare occasions, and only by ship: the overland route is too long and dangerous because of rivers that are unbridged and without boats. Reverend Father Séon who is coming back from there paid 125f[17] for his voyage.
You are surprised, Reverend Father, that I have not yet spoken to you about the natives to include them among our parishioners. The fact is that there are very few of them on this peninsula, and so much on the way to extinction[18] that I believe I do not have to count them any more. Out of 150 or 200 natives, perhaps, in the whole peninsula, we have among them about sixty poor Catholics. They are scattered everywhere through these awful mountains which surround us. We cannot get them to come to the services. We cannot instruct them where they are, because there are only two or three in each place, and as well, still unsettled. Besides, they have so little taste for religion that you cannot force into them abstract knowledge which they neither want nor care about. Two months ago I went two days’ walk away [p3] to see about twenty of them who said they were Catholics, in three different places. In all these far apart places not one person was capable of teaching the catechism to the others, nor even the prayers, which they do not know by heart. There you have the flourishing state and a sample of the mission in Southern New Zealand. So we are no longer missionaries, but simple religious, using up immense sums of money without any result. Although our visits to the natives and the scattered Europeans are exhausting and fruitless, I would like to make them more often, or at least still to on with them, but we have no one to go with us from place to place and carry our blankets and a few provisions. The natives will come only for an extraordinarily high wage, and also will not come when we want them to. We also need a canoe and oarsmen, whom we cannot find. Whatever happens, we abandon ourselves into the hands of divine providence, which will know how to withdraw us from here and employ us when it wishes.
In the meantime, Reverend Father, I beg you to send me from France Bellecius in French[19] and some books on controversy, some Ordos, breviaries, and finally, some copies of the Rule. The four French whaling ships which have just now come from France inform us that there are, at present, very comfortable soldiers’ sleeping bags[20] which can be used as a bed, and shoes which are put together with screws[21] and whose soles you can change yourself. It is things like this which we need to have sent here, where we have to walk everywhere and sleep out in the open, or on the damp floors of Maori houses. So I beg you to send me a bag like that and screw-together shoes.[22] You could send them through Le Havre by way of the French whalers that come to Akaroa from June to September, or address them to Wellington. If you send them to the latter place, I beg you to carefully address them to me because the Bishop takes everything he sees which pleases him.
I commend myself to your prayers, and beg you to present my respects to the Reverend Fathers Maîtrepierre, Favier, Epalle, etc etc.
I am, in the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and of Mary, Reverend Father,
Your very humble and grateful confrère
J S Bernard, missionary apostolic, Marist priest.


  1. about 1,000 km
  2. cf Numbers 11:5
  3. bon morceau
  4. General – translator’s note
  5. He presumably means the French colonists - translator’s note
  6. pisé possibly ? - translator’s note
  7. les premiers dépenses inutiles
  8. the Canterbury Association, which had begun the organised English settlement of Canterbury in 1850, refused to recognise French land ownership rights at Akaroa - translator’s note
  9. ouvrier
  10. about 6 or 7 shillings – a day, presumably - translator’s note
  11. about three or four shillings
  12. who worked - at his trade of tent-making – to pay for his living – Acts 18:3 - translator’s note
  13. moyens du contraire
  14. sic - Christchurch
  15. about 250 km
  16. sic – Dunedin
  17. about £5
  18. et dans une telle voie d’extinction
  19. Aloysius Bellecius SJ (1704-57), best known for his Spiritual Exercises According to the Method of St Ignatius (1757). Colin Library, in Auckland, has an 1845 edition of La Solide Vertu by Bellecius containing the signature of Fr Michel SM
  20. des sacs de soldats
  21. qu’on mente à vis
  22. souliers à vis