Fr Joseph Chevron to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Tonga, 2 & 31 August 1852
APM OC 208 (Tonga) Chevron
Clisby Letter 98. Girard doc. 1166
Introduction and translation by Br Edward Clisby FMS
At the beginning of 1850, Chevron and Calinon with Jean Reynaud in Tonga were looking after a Catholic community of about 400, based around the two fortified villages of Mu’a and Pea. Their converts were mainly from Tongatapu, though some had originally come from other islands of the group (Duriez 13). In February two more priests came to join them, Charles Nivelleau (1823-1852), a Marist since 1846, and Alfred Pieplu (1818-1857), who joined the Society in 1847. The former joined Chevron at Mu’a while the latter went to Pea with Calinon.
Early in 1852 the situation for the Catholics deteriorated rapidly. The dominant chief, Taufa’ahau, had imperial ambitions . According to Bataillon, he had decided on an expedition to Wallis to put Pooi on the throne and wanted to crush any opposition on Tonga before doing so (Bataillon to Colin, 15 September 1852, APM). In April he laid siege to the largely Catholic stronghold of Pea. The siege lasted several months. Nivelleau joined his confreres inside the fort, as did Paschase when he arrived in Tonga, probably in May (rf), while Chevron and Jean remained at Mu’a. Monfat records an occasion when the latter paid their besieged confreres a visit: “While (Chevron) was on his way to tend to the needs of Br Paschase... a ball whistled past his head and burst against the plank behind which the sick man lay.” (Les Tonga, 340). Chevron describes here  how Pieplu had a similar lucky escape. Pea was eventually taken by a subterfuge in August, the fort destroyed, and its inhabitants scattered or enslaved.
On June 17, Calinon sailed for Tahiti in the hope of getting the French navy to intervene and save the mission in Tonga. He first went to Samoa to spread the news there and possibly to arrange for an evacuation there of the Marists from Tonga (rf ). Returning to Tonga at the end of August, he finally sailed for Tahiti in September. But the Protestant captain of the ‘Moselle’, which brought him back in November, did not take the Marists’ side. It was not until 1855, after the intervention of the Comte du Bouzet, that Taufa’ahau was prepared to sign an agreement according the Catholics freedom of worship (Duriez 21).
Paschase was a sick man before he came to Tonga and a sea voyage from Lakeba cannot have improved his condition. We cannot know what actually motivated him to make this trip, which Chevron attributes to his impulsiveness . He was sent off with Calinon in June` but returned with him, and did not leave for Fiji again until the beginning of the following year.
This letter is written in sections, as its writer indicates , 2 August, 4, 27, 30th. It was presumably taken by Calinon to Tahiti in September and continued its journey to France. This translation was made from a photocopy of the original in the APM supplied by Fr Lessard.
Text of the Letter
- Very Reverend Father,
- In the letter I sent you last June by means of Fr Calinon who was going to Tahiti to put our situation to the French Governor, I forgot to speak to you about the letter you had Fr Poupinel send me. I do not have the slightest desire to return to France. If it was left to me, this return would never take place. Still, however reluctant I might be for such a voyage, I hope, with God’s grace, I will always be perfectly submissive to his holy will if I received an order like that from those who are for me his agents on earth. I do thank you very sincerely, though, for your kindness in making this proposal, and for the pleasure you have given my family in doing so.
- Thoughts of travelling to France are very far from my mind at the moment. In the circumstances we find ourselves I am more often thinking of the great voyage to Eternity. Since Fr Calinon’s departure, I have once, five days ago, visited the two Fathers besieged in Pea. Although they were continually exposed to the bullets of the besiegers, they felt sorry for me being alone at Mua and told me they were worried about me. They seemed perfectly calm. At the beginning I had recommended them to take precautions and to have erected around one of their huts,at least, a little rampart of earth, as the natives do to stop the bullets. They had, I believe, reasons for setting aside such precautions. They have placed themselves entirely in the hands of providence, and it has protected them up to now. The assault has been announced for the day a French ship appears. Some claim that it is for fear that a warship might impose peace on them before they have reduced Pea. Others say it is in order to leave no enemies in the rear. However much I keep telling the chiefs that if a ship does come, something we don’t know, we think it will be to engage them to make peace and not to make war on them, we are treated as liars. If Pea is taken by assault, it is not thought our two priests will be spared, though they say that the chief would give orders they are not to be touched. In that case, what would happen to us? Nothing, so long as it pleases God.
- (4 August) I was visited yesterday by a little band of Christians staying in a Protestant fort (at Maofaga). A good number of those who have fled from Pea have taken refuge there. Many of the catechumens have already weakened and fallen back into heresy. The day before yesterday they were told not to assemble for prayers and not to say them so loudly. They were told that only those who were originally from the fort could continue as Catholics; for the refugees from Pea this was not permitted from now on. They are considered as dangerous animals and no one is willing to even speak to them. All sorts of threats are made against them, and once Pea is taken, these will certainly be carried out. They say they do not want to put any of the Catholics to death (except those in Pea in the eventuality of an assault), but those persisting in the faith will be taken away to some distant islands of the archipelago to work as servants and slaves for the Protestant chiefs. May God’s holy will be done. It is a terrible trial for our converts. Death would be better for them, and, I think, easier to bear. A good number of those who have fled from Pea to our district have already accepted heresy. Measures have been taken to prevent me from returning to Pea since, they say, I go there only to encourage the besieged to stand firm.
- (27 August) Our fort at Pea has been pillaged and burnt, the converts dispersed and lead away into slavery, almost all forced under threat to apostatise. There are some children who carry out their duties in the time of peace but are too weak in character to endure violent persecution. What will happen to our catechumens at Mua? They are being menaced to apostatise. Will we be left with any? Will the test the good God wills to subject us to finish there? Will we be forced to leave the island? Everything is in the hands of God and of the Blessed Virgin.
- I dare not tell you that amidst these events we seem to have become happier, more joyful, especially since we have been reunited at Mua by the loss of most of our belongings at Pea and the complete destruction of the establishment we had there. I could not recognise the site of our houses when I went to see the place. Yes, I am afraid that this feeling of peace, I would almost say, this reinvigorated gaiety, may not be according to the spirit of God. In any case, may the good God pardon us. It was on the 17th that the destruction of Pea took place. Fr Pieplu was wounded in the stomach 10 days earlier. Providence willed that two hedges and a wire screen stood in the bullet’s way. The blow knocked him down but did not wound him. A sore then developed which prevents him from working. We hope it will not come to anything.
- They are going to be busy for a month or so working on the plantations which have been neglected and then mount an expedition against Wallis. The Protestant chief wants to take back the Protestants who withdrew from there last year. He claims that as chief of the Tongan group he has a right to Wallis. Everyone tells us that his goal is the same as in the war against Pea, that is to say, to destroy Catholicism. In that case, Wallis will not be able to stand firm. They say he wants to go from there on to Fiji to join up with the Protestants there and submit the group to Wesleyanism. If he undertakes it, he has a good chance of success. They say that then his project will end with the Navigators. It must be hoped, however, that the good God will thwart him. Our mission of the Centre is very exposed. And probably Monsignor when he returns will find us all in the Navigators. He would certainly do well to make his return as fast as possible.
- Fr Calinon, back from the Navigators, tells us one cannot have an idea of the corruption of that group. The necessity of not leaving the Fathers by themselves. The even greater necessity, one adds, that some Fathers do not want to have any confreres with them. I had charged one of the Fathers of the Navigators to make a visitation of the vicariate. The response was that none of the stations can be abandoned without compromising the mission. My confreres here tell me I cannot leave Tonga in the present circumstances. I cannot send Fr Nivelleau. He was in good health when he went to replace Fr Calinon at Pea but his health has since declined. Still, he is beginning to improve. Fr Pieplu cannot be charged with the visitation because of his wound. This leaves Fr Calinon. He will go, although I suspect Monsignor would prefer to see some other priest making the visitation of his vicariate.
- I have just heard talk again of the Protestant projects. They are truly inspired by the devil, so arrogant they seem. The converts we have around us are people from different parts of the archipelago gathered around the Catholic chiefs. Up to the present people have been allowed to dwell with whatever chief they please and to leave him whenever they wish. So now, we are told, they are going to send each of those belonging to the faith back to his home area, so that our converts will be dispersed, and moreover, dispersed among the Protestants, who will everywhere harass them. It is not likely they will be able to hold firm. Then we will not be able to set up any other establishment, so as to remove from us all option of communicating with and supporting the converts. I cannot believe, though, that an island under the protection of the Immaculate Conception, where so many rosaries have been recited , and are still being recited, even if without much fervour, I cannot believe that this island could be abandoned by the Blessed Virgin. As well, I repeat in each instruction that, were we to be uprooted from Tonga and all of them fallen into apostasy, or driven out, or put to death, I would never be convinced that this island would not one day be Catholic.
- I do not think, very Rev Father, that anyone could be as carefree, I go so far to say, as joyful as we are, all three of us. I fear sometimes this may be a sign of lack of zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of the neighbour, but so far this idea has not taken hold. We are waiting on Fr Calinon, who is aboard the ship, to decide if he will go straight to Tahiti to reveal our plight to the governor and ask him to reclaim our freedom of worship, or if he will go to carry out the visitation.
- The manner in which this letter is written should give you an idea of my situation. For the last three weeks I have always been on the move or caught up all the time with the natives here. I haven’t half an hour, I would say a quarter of an hour, when I am really free.
- Br Paschase, who has been here several months and embarked with Fr Calinon to return to Fiji, is still here. Acting on the spur of the moment, he came from Fiji in a native canoe. I am very afraid this poor brother may cause some scandal. I do not think he can last for long. Perhaps he might be carried away by the torrent whichever house of the Society he was in, but here it is very difficult, especially with a head like his. Brothers who don’t know how to do a thing but who know they are ignorant, those are the ones I believe are good brothers for our country. How many priests, too, who would do well in France and who are here a burden to themselves and to others. How little people still know about the terrain on which we walk. Br Paschase told us one day that brothers like him should not be sent here.
- 30 August. The vexations to which our converts are daily subjected convince us we should go immediately to Tahiti to make the French governor aware of our position. Who knows if we will be able to keep a nucleus of catechumens here. The schooner here from Tahiti is continuing its visit to Wallis, Futuna, etc.
- A thought I have shared with His Lordship. It seems to me that it would save the mission much expense caused for lack of knowledge of the needs of the individual station, by fixing a sum of .... for each station. Each station would make an estimate of its requirements and this could not exceed the amount stipulated. The estimate would be picked up by the ship on its visit and taken to Sydney to be made up by the procure, then the things ordered brought back to each station on its visit. A lot of things are wasted because the needs of the different localities are not all the same, and yet the supplies delivered are the same. The result is that, at great expense, each station suffers from the lack of things particularly necessary to it and is burdened with things useless to it and which are wasted. Perhaps this would cause the procure a little more trouble, but then there is plenty of justified complaint about objects damaged when the chests containing the common provisions are opened at every station.
- I pray you, my very Reverend Father, to have many prayers said for our mission and not to forget us yourself before the Blessed Virgin.
- Please accept the assurance of profound respect with which I have the honour of being,
- My very Reverend Father,
- Your humble and obedient servant,
- J. Chevron.
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