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18 July and 11 August 1854 - Father Joseph-André Chevron to his family, Tonga

Translated by Sr Marie Challacombe SM, July 2015

Letter from Reverend Father Chevron, apostolic pro-vicar. Missionary of the Society of Mary to his family.

Tonga 18 July 1854

My dear family,
For several months since my last letter, I have been gathering in my few spare moments little bits of news of our mission; and so as not to be taken by surprise when a suitable moment arrives, as has happened to me several times, I am going to write up my notes for you this very day.
In April and May we had an epidemic of fever which gave us a lot of work because the entire population was affected by this outbreak. For a long time I believed I would escape this sickness, but just when the sickness was declining my confreres and I all came down with it at the same time. Needless to say we looked after ourselves as best we could; but thanks be to God we all recovered well.
Without a doubt this epidemic gave us a terrible amount of work which you will readily understand if I tell you that our native people are prodigious self-medicators. Every family, I dare to say every individual, has its own remedies. They are found in various local plants some of which are violently poisonous. Of course our people dose themselves indiscriminately, without regard to age or appearance, nor the weakness of the patient upon whom they experiment with every possible remedy that they know. Sometimes a sick person will be given 8 or 10 different remedies in a single day. Normally, at a fixed hour each morning, we have consultations and distribute our medicines which we make sure are safe and harmless, and we always have a good number of clients, but when there is an epidemic we are called upon to be doctors in spite of ourselves and distribute remedies at all hours of the day and night. Imagine our worries in these circumstances; our neophytes concern us as much for their bodies as their souls. All these problems contribute to the glory of God, we hope, by attaching to the faith those who have already embraced it and by attracting others who finish by finding and loving something they weren’t even looking for. The ways of the Lord are admirable!
Our great medical system is to prevent the sick who come to us from medicating themselves; what I described for you will help you see the wisdom of our behaviour. If we could prevent our Tongans from treating themselves we would be able to save this archipelago from a great calamity. I would be hard pressed to believe that the death rate could be any higher in any other place, and we believe we can attribute it to this deplorable mania. And also, in Wallis and Futuna, the population is increasing, whereas here it decreases significantly each year, which makes the natives afraid that one day their islands will be deserted. During the last epidemic a good number of our neophytes and catechumens were struck down by the disease; by the grace of God we were able to save nearly all of them.
Up to now we have not been able to hold all the beautiful ceremonies of Holy Week; our chapel was very small; and then too the Wesleyans were mixed in watching our movements and our words so as to ridicule them. We doubted the effect all these new ceremonies would have in our island. Now we can gather without being mixed up with others and we have quite a big church, and we believe it is time to bring before the eyes of our neophytes some of the most sublime ceremonies of the Catholic faith.
What strikes the natives, even the Wesleyans, the most would seem very simple and ordinary for you: the Holy Thursday procession taking the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose which we had set up at the back of the chapel. For this procession we had only 2 priests, Brother Jean who was the cantor, and 6 children dressed in red soutanes and albs to carry the cross, the censor and the candlesticks. Well! This simple precession drew tears of tenderness even from some Wesleyan catechists. What would have touched you most, and even moved us also, was the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the whole of Thursday and even the following night. As most of the neophytes were ill we expected but a very few adorers. But our people were incredibly zealous at spending the hour we had indicated to them; and even this hour was not enough for them. A good number of them spent part of the day and the night in the church. Songs, prayers recited in common continued uninterrupted from Thursday morning until the Good Friday office. The canticle, The blood which God will shed… translated by us into the Tongan language, had a great effect; everyone, even the children, sang it in a way which moved one to tears. Would you not have been touched at the sight of our good neophytes, who for the 3 days of these sad solemnities, were all dressed in mourning, as if for the death of a great chief? The awe-struck Wesleyans never stopped asking about the cause of this truly extraordinary mourning in Tonga. On Easter Sunday we only had 215 communions on account of the sickness; but in contrast we were greatly edified by the recollection of our neophytes.
The Wesleyans, who came in crowds to our offices, especially the night-time ones, were all very moved. Many of them regretted that they were not free to become Catholics; they hope that this respectful fear they have for certain chiefs, which is the sole obstacle to Catholicism, will end one day, and they would then be able to follow the cry of their conscience. Some of our former neophytes whom fear had caused to apostasise at the time of the taking of Pea, also came to see our pious ceremonies and they never stopped weeping the whole time they were in Mua. Some Protestants, more courageous than others came to give themselves to us.
Towards the end of last year, our famous king George, great chief among the Wesleyans, took it into his head to go and see Sydney. He left here with 2 natives. George had been so zealous on behalf of the Wesleyan missionaries; he had been so ardent in their hatred of the papists, that he was expecting a kind of ovation. Great was his disappointment when he received a very cold welcome and was received very unkindly…. George noted with astonishment that his coreligionists in Sydney practised their religion quite differently from the manner in which their Tongan counterparts imposed it with their hundreds of painful inventions. This had such an impact on poor George that he came back from Sydney quite ill, and on his return was unable to hide his astonishment and distress. The companions on the journey did not hesitate to revile their own missionaries and to speak very favourably of Catholicism. Thereupon two Wesleyan missionaries folded their tents and returned to Sydney; their disciples were so unhappy with them that nobody took the trouble to see them off at the shore, even the chief; they even refused them a boat to get out to their ship. The other two missionaries also announced their immediate departure.
The most interesting thing in all this was the decision in Sydney to send no more Wesleyan ministers to Tonga unless they were paid an annual salary payable in coconut oil. This did not go down well with the people, and everyone was expecting to witness a turning towards Catholicism; it seemed naturally probable. Accustomed as we always are to finding new obstacles which arrive out of the blue to stop or at least slow us down, we were wondering what would prevent the progress of Catholicism. Well! The famous George held an assembly towards the end of April to announce his intention of paying an annual salary to remaining missionaries, so as to retain them and to assure a salary for those he was going to ask for in place of the departed missionaries. Nobody knew what to think about this sudden change of ideas. Everyone was amazed, and asked themselves how, after having spoken so ill of the ministers, he dared to impose such a burden on the people of the archipelago in order to retain them. As for us, we prefer to see in this the ordinary way of Providence which draws good out of evil. This excessive burden could not last very long; it would have the felicitous result of distancing the Tongans even further from their ministers. May it contribute to developing Catholicism as soon as the iron fist which holds them in error weighs less heavily on them.
We had the month of Mary also this year: instructions, prayers and songs; nothing was lacking to these pious exercises, including the eagerness of our neophytes. They still love the archconfraternity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to which they all committed; they are also very faithful in saying the Ave Maria and the invocation every day, in taking part in the Saturday service when, after the instruction, we sing the litanies of Our Lady followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Add to that, the fact that nearly all our faithful recite every day at least part of the rosary, and you will have an idea of the devotion Oceanians have for the Blessed Virgin. This raft of instructions and exercises develops in them the ability to no longer fear the mockery and objections of the Protestants which they answer with marvellous aplomb, even when they are presented by the Wesleyans.
Our dear neophytes have great need of this devotion to the Blessed Virgin to fight off the prejudices, the old habits and the subversive opportunities, unfortunately too frequent, of practices and customs which are very difficult to dislodge. We are too few in number and our influence is not yet strong enough to obtain the reforms which would require a very strong arm like the one which governs this archipelago at present. One of the greatest social wounds of these countries is the independence of children. As soon as child can walk he escapes, as by right, the authority of his parents. If he is displeased, if he is tired of their advice, he goes off to the first-comer; he is certain of finding shelter, clothing and food: correction by the parents here is practically impossible. Our Tongans complain of this themselves; they wish that their famous George, who makes so many useless and ridiculous laws, would make a good one to put an end to such disorder, and that he would forbid the giving of shelter so easily to a child who runs away from the paternal home. The lack of a moral imperative and the habit of weakness towards their children prevents us from hoping for any reform at present. We are waiting until Providence gives us more influence over those who govern.
Our Tui-Tonga left on May 6 for a trip to the islands of Ha’apai and Vava’u; he is accompanied by his children and a good number of neophytes. It is the first time he has embarked since we have been here. We think he will be received in those islands with as much enthusiasm as at the height of his glory. George, who has ruined his authority so much, has softened his attitude towards him somewhat, and he has shown that he from now on he wants to treat him with all the honour due to a Tui-Tonga, that is to say, as a king emeritus. He will leave him the honours, but will retain the government and the authority. The change of disposition towards our grand chief is not without its usefulness for the faith.
I have told you many times that God knows how to bring good things out of the evil that the wicked want to do to us; here are some more examples. One of our Christians who had the misfortune to apostasise after the sack of Pea, being unable to resist the remorse of his conscience, came back to us last November. He belonged to the Hahake tribe in which he had plantations. We have a second establishment there and we take it in turns to go for the Sunday services. Two days after his return to the true faith, the chief of Hahake gave an order for him to leave the land under his authority, since he had been so insolent as to leave his religion and go back to the papists; they didn’t even give him time to return to his house and say goodbye to his parents. Some time later, a good old blind Protestant of the same tribe, believing that he was mortally ill, told us that he wanted to die in the true faith. That very evening the chief ordered the man’s children to take him off his land. Despite his weakness they brought him to us in Mua, where, some months later he was reconciled and admitted to communion. Towards Easter an apostate woman, of the same tribe, came back to Catholicism, and like the others she was hunted off pitilessly.
We thought that this persecution would discourage those who wanted to convert and frighten our poor timid Christians, but not a bit of it. At the same time, which was around Easter, the neophyte I mentioned above, was taken to the wedding of one of his relations at Hahake; he never thought the chief would disapprove of his presence at the feast, bringing some yams in honour of the spouses. He had scarcely set foot on the tribe’s land than he was mercilessly driven off without even being allowed to pull up some yams from his plantation. Outraged by this treatment our man went directly to find King George, explained the facts to him and received an assurance that he would have his plantations returned to him; and that henceforth nobody should be bothered on account of his faith and that everyone would be free to go wherever he liked. In fact, without delay, George sent an order to the chief of the Hahake to restore his plantations to our neophyte and forbidding anyone to be bothered on account of his religion. This news soon spread throughout the island, many people couldn’t believe their ears. They are so used to seeing George as a persecutor of their faith that they couldn’t believe he was sincere in what he said. It must be said however that these words form our great chief, our enemy, calmed our people and restored some of their confidence. On hearing this news, we missionaries asked ourselves this question: what other cross has God got in store for us? The future will tell. But as for crosses it must be said, they strengthen our faith, they are the food of piety.
The hassles which our dear friend Nuku,[1] the Hahake chief, imposes on us, have not stopped. Just a few days ago he again chased away three new converts from his tribe, a widow who had to leave her sister’s house, a young girl, her father’s only daughter, and a young man who having come to spend some days with his father in Mua, and banished also for his religion, had converted. When he wanted to return to Harake he was forbidden to live there and had to abandon his plantations. A short time after George had declared in favour of freedom of conscience a Wesleyan catechist became a Catholic. The news of this little event soon spread and the former catechist was banished from the tribe. This time the chief did not cite conversion to papism as the reason, but gave two pretexts with not a shadow of sense. I thought it was my duty to write to King George who thought the reasons given by the Hahake chief ridiculous and laughed at them. He did more, he asked the chief for the reasons for his behaviour. The answer had at least the merit of being frank: he declared that he had decreed that in his district whoever became a Catholic would be expelled from the tribe. George obligingly replied that he left the chiefs free to do as they judged with regard to their districts. It wasn’t hard for me to point out to Chief George that it was inconsistent for him to protest that on the one hand he left to each Tongan full liberty in matters of religion, and on the other allowed the chiefs under him to threaten our Catholics, to banish them and confiscate their goods. I have referred him to God’s judgement since we are without support, with no one to take our part on earth. What will become of all that? Whatever pleases the Providence of God, who holds us in his hands. In spite of all these hassles we have at least 30 converts over this last month, especially among the sick who come to us for help.
You give me great pleasure when you remind me that a great many holy people are praying for me. I have always thought that in spite of so many contradictions, our mission holds on and even makes progress owing to the prayers of so many chartable souls who take an interest in our painful work. Encourage as many peoples as you can to join in our crusade of prayer and make sure to tell them that over the 19 years since I left you to come to Oceania, I have never missed, except for the rare occasions when I was sick, to offer the holy mass every Wednesday for the people who pray for me and for our dear mission. God will repay them magnificently one day for their charity. Prayer is the greatest alms one can offer! If a glass of cold water given in the name of Jesus to refresh the body of a poor person is assured of reward, how much more so are the fervent prayers of those who by their alms bring the Christian life to poor infidels in the shadow of death, and a heavenly reward to the missionaries who work far from their own country in the vineyard of the Lord.
I am….
Joseph Chevron, Society of Mary
JMJ Tonga 18 July 1854
I began a long letter a long time ago which finished by becoming a journal because of interruptions; I shall finish it by one which is especially for you. We had a visit at the start of this month from one of our Fathers in Hamoa. He brought your letters of 1852 and 53. You see how long they take to reach me. So no news surprises me anymore. For a year and a half I have been praying for the soul of our dear mother in case she was in need. I am confident that she has not waited long to enter into possession of the happiness which her virtues merited. As for our dear older brother, I had a presentiment based on the precarious state of his health. Amand alone gave me a bit of a surprise. But God’s will be done in everything. He is too good a Father for us not to receive, not only with submission but even more with gratitude everything that happens to us because all comes from his hand, and we can be quite sure that everything is for our good. They have just gone before us, they are waiting for us. It’s over to us to hold ourselves in readiness for the moment when our good God wishes to reunite us with our loved ones in heaven. Let us try to pray a lot for our brother and for Amand to hasten their entry into heaven if they are still held back by the dissipation which temporal affairs necessarily entrain. I would very much like to have some details about the death of our brother.
Along with your letters I received a little box containing a clock, newspapers etc. I thank you for all these things which in these isolated places have the double merit of being materially useful and reminders. With regard to the collection of newspapers, I would ask Alphonse not to send them again. The long delay in them arriving makes the expense of sending them not worthwhile. In Sydney they pay attention to sending us a resume of the most important news with each visit, not to mention that we also receive news from the boats that visit this island from time to time. Then too our increasing workload leaves us little time for the leisure to read all these pages which are no longer news for us with regard to the most important events.
I beg Rosalie to hold off a bit on sending us Eau de Cologne. Having plenty of medicines, we use very little of it now. I think we still have all from the time before last.
I particularly thank her for the spectacles. The ones that came before were given (not having any need of them myself) to one of my devout people, a widow from Wallis, come with her husband at the same time as me. She is undoubtedly the most devoted woman in the world and renders us great service. She is called Josephine, the same as our oldest sister. As she could no longer read without glasses, I gave them to her. But these will do for me. I have tried them and they are good but I only want to use them when I cannot do without them. We have heaps of pencils, and metal pens. Our Lord said he would give the hundredfold in this world to those who have abandoned all for him. After having deprived us in the beginning, he has kept his promise abundantly. Brother thanks you for the candles which will light his lamps for Benediction. We usually use lamps, only for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament each Saturday and on feast days, we use candles which come from Sydney and are extremely dear. I wish you could see the lampshades we made from the glass jewellery that was sent to us. When they are lit up by their candles on great feast days they would astonish you. All told, I am very happy with our little church especially on feast days. We have stored the vestments etc. of our deceased confrere, Reverend Father Nivelleau, who died two years ago. They are the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life; plus an arrangement of chandeliers which would look good in a church in Nantua, and a superb frontage for the altar of red silk richly embroidered with gold and silver. You can imagine the effect all this has on the people. The little candleholders which arrived from Nantua several times are held so carefully by our children that they look as good as new. The flowers you sent us earlier on are still passable because we take great care of them. And our devout people out of rivalry keep the church and its enclosure in a habitual state of cleanliness which rouses the admiration of the Protestants and makes them speak very favourably of the Catholics.
Rosalie is always asking me what would be useful to me or give me pleasure. What we receive always with the greatest pleasure is what serves to decorate our church such as flowers or even vases to put them in. (I carefully look after two little porcelain vases sent in 1842(I think) by one of the nieces from Bellegarde; they still look good.) If a few flowers or some ribbons or other similar things useful for decorating our church would give me pleasure, there is however something even more precious, that is your prayers and the prayers of pious people who have sufficient charity to take an interest in me and in our mission. And I beg you to let me know how our Wednesday prayer association is getting along. I never miss saying Mass for this intention.
I beg you to remember me to Mr and Mrs Brachet and their son, the Vaudel family, the sisters-in-law of Mrs Collet, the Ravet family, (I have asked Sr St Cyrille to take care of commissions in Lyon), Mr Cagin and his family, your venerable parish priest Fr Denis and his curates whom I don’t have the honour of knowing, the inhabitants of Montanges whom I don’t forget, Marie Berou and Jeanne Serrod who I believe are at home, the Misses Mainiat and Berou and my former confreres. If the haste with which I am writing this letter has made me forget someone, please remember them; don’t forget to ask the good Sisters of St Charles to remember me in their prayers.
(11 August) In a hurry to profit from a boat which it seems is leaving today, I will finish to see if my letter can get there in time. The boat is 3 leagues from here. A test of my health. Last Monday I did 6 leagues by water and 9 on foot without stopping for more than an hour. I was en route from 3 in the morning until I reached home at 9 in the evening. The soles of my feet were hurting me.
All yours, Joseph Chevron


  1. Nuku is the dynastic name of the chief of the Harake; this one is probably Kuliuliuli about whom Chevron has already spoken twice.(Cf.doc. 776,§ 3; 1161, § 1 and 3)