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Fr Walter McDonald to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Rome, 2 Feb 1860

Extract from the Annals of the Society for the Propagations of the Faith, Vol 32, 1860

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, March 2002

(A letter from Father Walter McDonald, secretary of His Lordship Bishop Pompallier, Bishop of Auckland, to the directors of the work of the Propagation of the Faith.)

Rome, 2 February 1860
Very dear Sirs
It is with pleasure that I write to you, in accordance with the wishes of several pious people, about two events, little known although already old, which happened in New Zealand, and which demonstrate clearly the feelings of gratitude, love an devotion which the native Catholics have for their first Pastor. I have been told about these events, with all their details, by eye-witnesses.
You know that this mission began in the first days of January 1838. It found the New Zealanders in infidelity and the vices which go along with it, not excepting even cannibalism. But through the divine grace which follows the apostolate of the Mother Church everywhere, conversions soon became numerous, and only a year later there were more that 3,000 catechumens, and nearly 300 baptised neophytes. Around this Christianity coming to birth, Protestantism had already founded some stations, led by European ministers. Now, about the beginning of 1839, one of these stations hatched a plot against Bishop Pompallier’s mission. This conspiracy, which was, moreover, well organised, had, as its aim, by the use of some hundreds of armed natives, to surprise the Catholic Bishop in his house, to take him by force, along with the sole priest near him, and to carry them on board a vessel which was anchored in the deep Hallianga [sic – Hokianga] River. The raid seemed easy. Not far from the ship, on a little rise, was the Bishop’s house; his Lordship suspected nothing and lived in complete safety; his people, like him, knew nothing of heresy’s plan, which arose from annoyance at the success of the Mother Church in this distant country.
But if the plot was not yet known by the Bishop, it did not escape the attention of the Catholic catechumens and neophytes, who were scattered among the tribes of the area. Straight away they organised among themselves a swift resistance, even without the Bishop knowing. Four hundred of their most valiant warriors ran in arms towards his house, where they informed him of the reason for their sudden arrival, and of the plot hatched against his person and against their faith. Bishop Pompallier thanked them for their filial devotion and, smiling, told them that God would bless their Christian and courageous act, and that the simple demonstration of their attachment to the Church would give their adversaries something to think about; that the latter would no longer try to attack a pastor who had never done them any harm; and, finally, that they could not harm their own cause more than by using violence against him, because the European nation to which he belonged would not fail to come and ask them the reason for it.
“Oh, no, Bishop, no, Father,” the chief immediately replied. “Don’t say anything to your nation about what people want to do to you; don’t call on any protection other than ours. You are more precious to us than everything we hold dear. For us, did you not leave your country, your friends, your relatives – everything left behind, for our salvation? Your house has taken root on New Zealand soil, it is the cradle of our faith. Stay there; we are there to defend it. Before a blow can reach you, know that we will all be dead around your dwelling; it will be only by stepping over our dead bodies that anyone will be able to get to you.”
Moved by such sentiments voiced by men who only a short time before had been pagans and cannibals, the Bishop gave thanks to God, and in giving them his paternal thanks, assured them again that their adversaries would be very wary of putting their bravery and devotion to the test. Indeed, the heretical group changed their minds, and aggression was forbidden.
Here is another situation in which the intervention of newly-baptised Catholics again saved their Bishop from the gravest danger.
In 1845, when war broke out between the natives and the colonial government of New Zealand, Bishop Pompallier was living in the Bay of Islands, in the town of Kororareka, the first that the Europeans had built in this group of islands. This place had only two hundred and eighty defenders, military or civilian, against five hundred rebellious natives, almost all Protestant or pagan. At the head of the attackers was one of the Methodist ministers’ first converts. There were however some few Catholics among the aggressors; sons and nephews of Protestant chiefs, who had been involved in the hostilities by force. God had allowed this, to avert greater evils. In fact, it was easy for these neophytes to get their relatives to promise that the Bishop and his establishment would be respected. One of these young men was able come, a few days before the fight, to bring to Bishop Pompallier, on behalf of the chiefs, the promise of their protection if the war went their way, and the advice not to leave his house, and that his person alone would be inviolable. The prelate, having exhausted all the means of making peace between the two races, gave himself over to begging the Lord to have mercy on the people who were going to come from this situation into His hands.
Soon the fight began. It lasted more than five hours. Victory went to the natives, and the while population had to seek refuge on board the warships anchored in the harbour, from which artillery continued to fire on the victors. The latter, having ransacked the houses, set fire to them, and reduced the whole town to ashes, nothing being excepted but the Bishop’s establishment and about fifteen neighbouring houses which his Lordship himself preserved from the fire, claiming that the natives could not burn them without putting his own house in danger of becoming prey to the flames, and so not failing to keep their promise. So everything that escaped the ravages of war was saved by religion.
The Bishop with two of his priests and some catechists were [now] the only inhabitants of this devastated area. During the first day, he had also been able to give refuge to the school teacher and his family; he was a retired British soldier who had been asked by the authorities to take command of the colonists in the battle which had just been lost. The natives, who recognised him in the Bishop’s house, would have taken him away and killed him with his own people, if not for the charitable intervention of the pastor, who dissuaded them from this. He told the natives that this officer, having acted because of the obedience he owed to his leaders, deserved full protection after the battle. But if this officer was in safety in the Bishop’s house, there was reason to believe that he could not step outside it without being massacred. So the Bishop had him and his family embark in his own small boat to join the white population who were heading for Auckland, sixty leagues from the Bay of Islands.
As for the Bishop and his people, in order to take care of the temporal and spiritual interests of the mission, they remained at the site of the fire: a sad experience for the pastor. The site of the sheepfold remained, but the flock had gone. The victors had also gone back to their tribes, about five or six leagues away.
After three weeks spent in the middle of the ruins, without any human protection, and placing his entire confidence in the Lord who does not let fall, without His permission, a single hair from our heads, the Bishop learned one evening that a great number of natives were going to come, armed, to attack his establishment at sunrise the next day. The spirit of darkness had inspired them to finish off what still was left of the town of Kororareka. They had resolved not to leave a single house standing, nor a European alive. In this way, they claimed, they would avenge the deaths of some chiefs fallen on the battlefield. According to them, it was necessary to have the lives of the Bishop and of those with him to compensate for the lives which had been lost. A spirit-message had told them that in expiation for the blood that had been lost, the gods of New Zealand wanted really sacred victims.
The news was only too true. In the first light of day, about six long canoes were seen on the harbour, some of which had more than thirty men on board. They were half-naked, paddling with all their strength and uttering their frightful war cries. In this imminent danger of pillage, fire and death, there was safety neither in resistance nor flight. So the Bishop encouraged his companions to put all their trust in God, and to be ready to give up their lives if that was His will. To give an example of resignation, he began calmly to say his Rosary.
Meanwhile, the canoes came on with speed. Already they were no more than about fifty paces from the shore, when a neophyte named Peata, the widow of a New Zealand chief, whom Providence had brought there as if by chance, ran to the edge of the sea, and in a strong voice called out to the attackers, “If you are brothers [to us], come on! If you are traitors, I am waiting for you!”
At this intervention from a person whom the New Zealanders saw as a queen, all the boats immediately stopped, the men in them fell silent, and the chiefs gathered to hold council. After having consulted among themselves for some minutes, the leading chief asked Peata how many men were on shore to oppose their landing. “There is only me,” she replied confidently, “only me between you and the Bishop’s house.” The chiefs said to each other: “The one barring our way is only a woman, but if we take her on, she has subjects to avenge her unknown authority.” Realising that they could not go forward without involving themselves in war with a powerful tribe, the aggressors directed their canoes towards a more distant point on the coast.
Hardly had they got on shore, when a column of about one hundred and fifty Catholic natives arrived, armed with muskets. These unlooked-for defenders, whose presence no one suspected, had quickly gathered during the night, and had set an ambush behind a hill near the Bishop’s house to observe all the enemy movements. Seeing them coming to land, they had quickly set off to meet them, ready to make peace or give them battle, depending on whether they wanted to pursue or to abandon their aggression. The leaders exchanged speeches, and peace prevailed. The warriors on both sides shook hands, and the women who had come with them made haste to prepare a feast to seal the reconciliation.
As proof of his new and favourable attitude, the high chief of the attackers presented to the Bishop his fur cloak, and with it his double-barrelled rifle, so that this weapon, remaining in the Bishop’s house, would in some way protect it in his name.
Finally the two groups went back to their tribal areas, and the town would have gone back to its previous silence and solitude, if the Catholics had not left behind a guard numbering fifty men to watch over henceforth their pastor and their Father. Happily, this precaution was not needed, for since then no further threat of this sort has been made against the mission. After hatreds eased, the colonists came back to settle at Kororareka; in only a few years, houses again spread over the ground devastated by the fire, and nowadays this area enjoys a real peace. May all its inhabitants, native and foreign, form one flock under the leadership of the Divine Pastor and under the protection of Mary Immaculate. That is what we join in asking for, with you gentlemen, in our prayers and good works.
Your devoted servant
Walter McDonald
(Secretary of His Lordship the Bishop of Auckland)