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2 October 1856 – Mr Jean François Yvert to Fr Victor Poupinel SM, Wellington

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, April 2006.

Original in APM Z 208

A M D G et D G H[1]

2 October 1856 (Feast of the Guardian Angels)

My guardian angel greets your guardian angel.

Very Reverend Father
I am finally breaking silence, because for ten months I have been waiting in vain for the decisions of the Roman Curia about our missions, in order to tell you how, in Wellington, we celebrated the Immaculate Conception of our lovable protectress. Already Bishop Viard has given this happy news to the Superior General of the Marists. And perhaps you have even read about this event, in an account taken from the Wellington Cathedral archives, and sent by Fr O’Reily, in the English periodical The Tablet. But these three days[2] have been only too glorious for our dear Society[3] because I have left you unaware of certain details which will redound to the praise of the Most Holy Virgin. As I do not want to be repetitive, I am including the article which appeared in the The Tablet, in case no one has sent it to you from London.
An unheard of thing! The two Wellington newspapers, in which everything is advertised in order to attract attention, were not given notice. When one relies on Mary, one has no need for any other protection. This silence was in contrast to the activity of every sort of work. The rapid blows of hammers attracted the attention of passers-by for a fortnight, while workers took good quality gravel from the sea and covered the courtyard, the church surrounds and the pathways [with it]. The church had become a huge workshop, where carpenters, painters and decorators, Catholic and Protestant each used, according to their skill, materials which arrived from different parts of the town. All the artificial flowers were bought. There came, in their turn, the chandeliers in all shapes, made of fine tin, painted and unpainted according to the effect desired. But nothing attracted the attention of the inhabitants like the difficulty that was had in getting sperm candles.[4] It was only a matter of making their purchase in the shop which usually supplied them to the church. So this item of shopping was left until two days before the feast. Having found our usual supplier, people went through all the stores and shops in the town, to secure only a quarter of our demands. Great was the consternation. But Mary was watching over everything. The next day two ships arrived each carrying candles using sperm oil. Haste was made to unload some boxes, which were expensive, and the fatherland was saved.
On Thursday sixth December, the eve of the great celebration, everything was ready. The windows [5] were covered with thick red curtains, to intercept the light. The sanctuary was hung with white – six chandeliers, bearing 348 candles were hung in two lines between the nave and side aisles,[6] so as not to block the view of the sanctuary. Above the communion rail at a height of 25 feet, a beautiful board 20 feet long and three wide, diminishing in width towards each end, surrounded by a [ ... ][7] and surmounted by a cross, bore in gold letters on a white background the inscription “Immaculata conceptio”. A drape of white and pink gauze hung graciously the whole length of the inscription. And lower down, on each side of the sanctuary, there rested on a fine pedestal, near a statue, a vase of natural flowers, surrounded by 16 lamps which lit up as well, the banners placed below. Two similar vases, both at a height of 15 feet[8] in the middle of the side walls of the sanctuary, were each surrounded by eight lights. Finally, two other vases of great size, like the first four, were seen at that the back of the sanctuary in the window openings. In the middle window [9] was placed the statue of the Most Blessed Virgin, almost life sized. The back[10] of the recess was scattered with stars with this inscription: Mary conceived without sin, pray for us. From its pedestal steps came down to the altar, presenting in its whole width a bank of vases of flowers and lights. Above the throne of our Queen, in the place of the rose window, was the figure of Mary, in a crown of artificial greenery, from where garlands hung to the cornice of the sanctuary so as to completely surround it, four huge stars, shining like silver, and convex in the middle were tastefully fixed on the sides and back of the sanctuary, bearing like the six great vases of flowers, their lights in a semicircle. Four light chandeliers, each forming three stars of different sizes, were hung a short distance from the side walls of the sanctuary. The altar, better prepared than on the greatest feast days, was eclipsed by the steps which went up, as in an amphitheatre, to Mary’s feet. And the brilliance which surrounded our Queen surpassed even more that of the lower areas. Except for the ten big chandeliers, people had decorated the chandeliers, the candle rings [11] and the four stars with artificial flowers. These flowers had also been used for decorating particular features.
As for the beautiful carpet in the sanctuary, it had been offered to the church some time before the feast by Mr Kane at the time of his conversion to Catholicism, which was due to the virtues of his pious spouse and to the Bishop. Two beautiful chapels of the Most Blessed Virgin and St Joseph, although decorated in simple style on those days, completed the scene and gave it imposing proportions.
There was more than a Malakoff to be taken by assault. [12] And certainly the pious and brave Pelissier[13] would have, this time, recoiled at the sight of the obstacles. Before anything else, how could it be hoped that 150 pounds sterling would be offered by a hardly wealth congregation, in a British country, where except on Sundays, the Catholic, mixed up with the Protestants, celebrate so poorly the other feasts of the church. The Bishop himself gave a donation this time. His zeal, his activity and above all the name of Mary brought about complete success. As the mission is very poor, it was necessary to have sufficient funds in hand before beginning. The Blessed Virgin had provided for everything.
A difficulty of a different sort sprang naturally to mind. Our Catholic, like those in other British colonies, find it harder to overcome human respect than to give up their religious practices, on feast days, even those of obligation, which do not fall on a Sunday. They would indeed have opened their purses but closed their hearts. But their generosity was without limit. And the Bishop, at mass on the Friday, on turning to say the Pax vobis[14] shed tears on seeing the crowd of people surrounding him.
If the Catholics showed themselves faithful, how could it be believed that the Protestants and the Jews would rival each other in zeal to celebrate the glories of the Immaculate Virgin? Let it not be said that curiosity alone attracted them, and that they took away only the satisfaction of having seen a fine spectacle. No doubt, religion also has its spectacles, but they leave deep impressions in the hearts of those who take part in them. I myself saw beside me four Protestant officers as filled with wonder and as recollected as our Catholics. Allow me, without getting too far from my subject, to repeat to you the words of an old Protestant man who was present at the consecration of the church. “My friend,” he said to another Protestant man who had brought him, “there is something in all that.” [15] I am keeping in mind these words of the Protestant to whom those words were addressed on the day of the consecration. The feast of the Immaculate Conception fell during the elections of the representatives for the Wellington province, days of dissipation and excess, which at least should have turned the Protestants away from our noble ceremonies. The new governor had just arrived in Wellington, a town that is so interested in receiving him well, so as to take him away from Auckland, its rival. People were still daily expecting the arrival of the Anglican Bishop. In fact he arrived after the great celebration, to cry apostasy the following Sunday. He wasn’t too severe on his own people, since the church had been almost completely abandoned on Sunday 9 December, the closing day of the celebration.
But it must be said, that if the many Catholic soldier in the garrison were not able to come on the Friday and Saturday, the celebration would have lost half its impact. And how could it be thought possible to gain a favour which is refused on the days of the Ascension, All Saints and other similar days? I cannot say whether the British government demands it as well, or whether than is left the judgement of the military commanders. All I know is that in Australia this permission is not granted. The garrison Colonel had already shown himself to severe towards our Catholic soldiers on more that one occasion, by refusing them permissions which had to do with our ceremonies. No matter. The bishop goes and pays him a visit, and for the first time, asks a favour of him, by himself. “What is it, my lord?” “It is to allow the Catholic soldiers to assist at the three days of celebration in honour of the Immaculate Conception.” “It is my duty, my Lord. Tell me the days, and I will give my orders.” A brave soldier, who did not fear the presence of the Governor in such a delicate situation. Our soldiers answered the call of the Bishop and, six times in three days, they marched along the road which leads to the church, and which overlooks the Governor’s residence. So then, this new pollical leader of New Zealand and his wife [16] were witnesses, more so than any other inhabitants, of the prodigious throng of Catholics and Protestants who went to the church at the sound of the bell, which called them six times by three times a hundred strokes. But if the Governor could not also be present at the ceremonies, he did not leave Wellington without visiting the cathedral with his wife. The decorations stayed in place for more than a month. But not everything was taken away. The beautiful inscription Immaculate Conception will testify still, as will the summary of the celebration, engraved on copper, and attached to the wall in the chapel of the Most Blessed Virgin, that Wellington is a place dear to Mary.[17]
In spite of these innumerable victories, the homeland would not have been saved without a last marvel worked by Mary. She who stirred up the wind to hasten the arrival of the two ships which were carrying the candles, had to chain up, for three days, this element so furious in Wellington. Travellers know of no country where strong winds are more frequent that at Port Nicholson. And our church made of wood, although built doubly reinforced[18] and covered externally with large slates, is a useless barrier against the wind; seeing that inside there are, as yet, only the chapels of Mary and Joseph which are plastered, and consequently, finished. Happily, during these three days, as on the days when the foundation stone was laid and the church was consecrated, we had magnificent weather and a perfect calm. An ordinary wind, such as prevails here almost always in what we call fine weather, would have as effectively stopped the illumination of the church almost as much as strong winds.
Sydney, Hobart, Auckland, and according to all the evidence, Melbourne, Adelaide, etc. celebrated a mass in honour of the Immaculate Conception, on a day chosen by the bishops of these towns. I am far from criticising their lordships for their prudence, being aware of the dangers of a demonstration such as we have had here. But we have so few occasions for joy that that I cannot prevent myself from showing you, you, this comparison between the cathedrals of Australia and Polynesia in the celebration of the Immaculate Conception. I make it as much to give you confidence in the diocese of Wellington, as to increase your love for the Most blessed Virgin, in case you had shown yourselves less generous in Europe than you confrères in the antipodes, at such a memorable time.
It is time, very dear Father, to let you have a break, but only after having assured you that I have offered for my benefactors more fervent prayers at this time of blessing that those which I daily offer for them to the Lord. If you have forgotten their names, you find them in the letter I was happy to write to Very Reverend Father Colin, and carried by good Father Rozet. As this letter has some resemblance to the one in which I congratulated you on your appointment as Vicar General of the interesting diocese of Wellington, I expecting the same reply.[19] I want to offer an expression of remembrance of my benefactors in everything I desire to receive from them, convinced as I am that I do not really deserve it. I am saying what I think.
A fe words more. “Even if I had been sent to Wellington only for the celebration of this festival,” the Bishop said to me one day, “I would have been happy to leave everything. And, if I had to suffer ten times more afflictions than those I had suffered in founding this diocese, to have procured such an honour for the Most Blessed Virgin, I would be only too happy to do so.” “Let us not complain,” the Bishops said on another occasion, "about these delays which afflict our hearts. We would certainly not have celebrated this great feast as we have done, if new arrangements had occupied our minds.”
Please accept, very dear Father, the assurance of my devotion.
As I wish to end this letter with sweet names of Immaculata Conceptio, I will tell you the following incident[20] again. A little Sabine[21] having come to see the Bishop, the conversation came round to the beautiful Catholic Church. “Have you seen it?” said the Bishop. “Yes, my lord, six months ago at the Immaculata Conceptio."
Tell our former and much beloved Superior [General] how much I bless the Divine Providence for having directed me to him to give me a share in the work of the apostolate. It needed his goodness and trust to admit an unfortunate to the number of his children. This consideration along will lead me to live my rule of life faitnfully, so that no reproach can be brought on him, by me, in his old age. I read over again, from time to time, the fatherly advice he gave us when we left; and I still find in it a new strength and new source of consolation. If I cannot render him, from here, any other service but through my prayers, I will be kind towards his children in New Zealand.
On the feast of the Guardian angels – 9:30pm.
My guardian angel greets the guardian angel of my much beloved Father.
Triduum of the Immaculate Conception [22]
1855 December 7, 8, and 9
These days will be remembered by the City of Wellington. The Immaculate Conception of the ever Blessed Virgin Mary was proclaimed and celebrated in the cathedral with an enthusiasm which has not perhaps been surpassed in any church of the Catholic world. Our descendants will scarcely believe that a growing congregation, composed for the most part of the humble and poor classes, spontaneously contributed 150 pounds sterling to meet expenses of a festival decoration. Mr Huntley, a converted Protestant, received in the church some years back in New Zealand, to whom was entrusted the decoration of the solemnity, displayed exquisite taste and untiring industry; and on the third day more than 500 wax candles added to the splendour of the scene. His Lordship Dr Viard, assisted by his Vicar General, the Very Reverend Father J P O’Reily and two of his missionaries, the Reverend Father Petit-Jean and the Reverend Father Séon, officiated pontifically during the three days. The sermons were preached on each day by the Very Reverend Father O’Reily. The piety of the faithful did not relax for a moment, and the ever swelling enthusiasm was such that more than 700 persons were assembled on the Sunday evening. In a word, the city appeared to be altogether Catholic, so great was the influx of Protestants, and we have every reason to hope, indeed, we have the certainly that our erring brethren who have manifested their respect for the ever Blessed Virgin, the Queen of Heaven, will not fail to obtain their reward. And indeed, our congregation counts in a few years’ existence as many Protestants converted as original Catholics. Four Protestants, married women of respectability, after being received into the church, had the happiness on receiving on the 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, for the first time Holy Communion as well as the Sacrament of Confirmation. Many children on the same blessed day, made their first Communion, and during the three days communicants were very numerous. We cannot pass over in silence the visible protection afforded by the Blessed Virgin on the 8th December. After the High Mass, Mrs Davis, wife of the drum major of the garrison, brought her child to the Bishop, in the church, hoping to obtain for the little boy of three years old the use of his speech. And how could the Divine Virgin, holding her beloved Son in her arms, be deaf to the cries of an afflicted mother, especially on a day when an entire population pressed around her to celebrate her glories! Scarcely had the child left the church than seeing some cows pass, he cried out, “Cows, cows!”, and his tongue was loosed for the first time.
Every adult as well as the infants that assisted in their nurses’ arms at the festival received a memento signed by the Bishop, and every person above childhood received the Bull, in English of Pius IX, proclaiming to the world of the Immaculate conception of the Ever Blessed Virgin, An inscription has been placed on a side altar of the cathedral dedicated to the blessed Virgin to commemorate the day of triumph.
Deo gratias.


  1. Ad majorem Dei gloriam, et Dei Genetricis honorem – To the greater glory of God and the honour of the Mother of God.
  2. The first anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma was celebrated in Wellington by a triduum of prayer in December 1855 – translator’s note.
  3. trop Glorieux pour notre chère Société
  4. bougies de sperme - Candles made using the oil of sperm whales
  5. les croisées
  6. ailes
  7. ninclare ? – word unknown
  8. â même hauterur de quinze pieds
  9. croisée
  10. ? - L’azur”
  11. bobèches
  12. The Malakoff was a great stone tower, an important part of the defences of the Russian naval base at Sebastopol, and was taken by the Allied French and British forces on 7 September 1855 – translator’s note.
  13. Marshal J Pelissier took over control of French forces in the Crimea in May 1855 – translator’s note.
  14. ”Peace be with you” – the celebrant faced the altar for most of the mass, the sign of peace is one time he turns and can see the congregation
  15. Il y a quelquechose dans tout cela.
  16. Madame la gouvernante
  17. This engraved copper plate, with its record of the great Triduum of December 1855, is in the present cathedral of the Sacred Heart, below the statue of the Blessed Virgin, at the far end of the south side aisle.
  18. quoique’à double cadre
  19. There may be irony here, Fr Poupinel was never appointed to a position in NZ.
  20. le trait suivant
  21. un petit sabin – perhaps he means a Maori boy? – translator’s note
  22. Transcription of an English language account of the Triduum celebrating the promulgation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This must be the account published in the London Tablet that Yvert mentioned at the start of his letter – translator’s note.