Doc. 349 - 6 October 1844
Brother Marie-Nizier to Father Colin. Futuna.
Introduction and translation by Br Edward Clisby FMS
Clisby, Letter 49
It was not long after news of Chanel's violent death reached France that a start was made on collecting information about his life and martyrdom. In September 1842 Colin asked Fr Bourdin to set about preparing a biography. Antoine Bourdin (1803-1883) had joined the little group of Marist aspirants at the Hermitage shortly before ordination at the end of 1828 and remained there as director of studies for the novices until he moved to Belley to teach at the minor seminary in 1831. It was there he met and worked with Chanel for five years and took his vows with him in the new Society. He was already collecting material for a history of the foundation of the Society of Mary (S2. 101). In March 1843 Colin wrote the first of a number of letters to Marie-Nizier asking him for details about the martyr's life in Oceania as well as about the circumstances of his death. The brother wrote his first memoir in response on May 26 1844 and confided it to Bataillon when he visited Futuna in June (PC 131). At the same time, the bishop inaugurated the preliminary inquest desired in Europe. The letter we are dealing with here is a result of that inquest as well as a continuation of the one of May, and was intended partly to correct, unsuccessfully as it proved, some of the errors that had crept into the earlier accounts (rf eg L 23). A year later, in July 1845, in response to a further appeal, he wrote a much longer and more comprehensive account to Colin (AM 607-623), keeping a copy for his own reference. When Bourdin's (revised) biography of Chanel eventually appeared some twenty years later in 1867, Marie-Nizier was moved to write a lengthy letter to Colin to correct the errors, he said, he found "on almost every page" in the part dealing with the martyr's time on Futuna (PC 12). This suggests that Bourdin had made only superficial use of the material contained in the letters. His letter of 1845 then served him as a point of reference for a memoir of his own which he commenced in 1869 but never completed.
The work of the mission did not proceed without opposition after its restoration on Futuna. A large group of Uveans resident there supported the traditional party for over a year, and when the Protestants arrived it was from the same quarter. A brother of King Lavelua of Wallis had become a Wesleyan during a period of enforced exile on Vava'u and on his return he and his followers set about trying to convert Wallis and Futuna to their brand of Christianity. At the end of 1844 a large group of Tongan Wesleyans arrived on Wallis to join them.
The text in AM has omitted some passages of the original in the APM, as has Rozier in PC 135-7. Rozier also includes extensive edited extracts from both Marie-Nizier's letter of 1867 (177-219) and the memoir he commenced in 1869 (220-243).
Text of the Letter
- Very reverend Father,
- I think you must have received my first letter, dated the month of May last. That is the little memoir about Fr Chanel you asked me for. You have probably heard I am no longer on Wallis. My stay there was only about 8 months and then Monsignor Pompallier paid us a visit. He had me come aboard the "Allier", the French corvette accompanying him, to serve as interpreter for the commander with the natives of Futuna. When we arrived off that island, which brought back such precious memories, the captain ordered the natives to bring the revered remains of Fr Chanel. They dug them up and brought them on board with only a chasuble and stole, all considerably damaged, his beautiful silver chalice, the soutane in which he died under the axe of the executioner and which is still stained with his blood; we have it here. The surgeon examined the bones and identified by sight the split caused by a sharp instrument in the skull.
- We learned of the lingering and painful death of the murderous king (Niuriki) terminating a long sickness which dried him up alive like a piece of wood. One of his relatives also died in great agony before him. That one also, we were told, had played no small part in Fr Chanel's death. The same day I left the corvette to rejoin Fr Viard on the "Sancta Maria", His Lordship's schooner, which was sailing with her. We set sail for New Zealand and after three or four days sailing the corvette left us. It took us about two weeks to sail from Futuna to the Bay of Islands. We stayed about two months there at the Procure, then re-embarked. On our arrival at Wallis Monsignor baptised and confirmed almost all the natives. Several days later there were a large number of first communions.
- At last His Lordship told me that Futuna would once more be my place of residence. I have been here since the 9th of June 1842, but how lonely I feel! ... Alas! Fr Chanel is no longer there! ...
- I don't know, very reverend Father, if you have been informed of our position on Futuna before Fr Chanel's death so I venture to offer you a little summary. The beginnings of our mission on the island were tolerable - it must be remembered we were among savages. Sometimes, however, we had to endure fasting which went beyond the ordinary limits. After the visit of Fr Baty and his company in May 1839 we were reasonably well fed for several months, but this state of affairs lasted only till the following August or September, the period when the king became progressively more hostile in his actions towards us. First of all, he abandoned us, then he refused us food; eventually he forbade his subjects to render us any services, and finally he told them they could steal from us linen, fruit, etc. when they liked, without fear of any retribution on his part. Fr Chanel soon foresaw the consequences of this policy, which forced us to cultivate the land with our own hands in order to survive.
- The month of Mary is a month of blessings; it was in the month of May following that Fr Chevron and Brother Attale arrived. We were in great want at that time, for our bananas, our main resource, were not bearing fruit. We also had some breadfruit which were in season, but I am not sure if half of these had not been stolen.
- After the departure of Fr Chevron and Br Attale for Wallis in November the same year, we continued our poor way of life, but the contradictions and difficulties did not grow any fewer.
- The first information about the martyrdom of Fr Chanel has been faithfully reported as far as I have been able to learn at the time. But unfortunately I have heard some things not so reliable, and the situation I found myself in immediately after the death of our venerable martyr did not allow me to get more detailed information. Since Monsignor Bataillon's visit last June we have summoned Fr Chanel's murderers one by one and put them through the same questioning. After the measures we have taken, I do not think it will be possible to get anything more reliable about the martyr. Here are a few notes from the depositions:
- On the day before Fr Chanel's death, the king went to find his son and some of the catechumens in order to induce them to give up the faith. Unsuccessful in this objective, he went out to the fields to find Musumusu, and confided to him his plan to kill his son for becoming a Christian and Fr Chanel who had brought him to it (and I was included with him), and made him responsible for carrying it out. He accepted willingly and the same evening gathered together the young men of his village and revealed to them the king's intentions. They discussed the affair and decided to act the next day.
- The next day, then, 28th April 1841, they went at dawn into the valley where most of the catechumens lived. There was a fight, with wounded on both sides. After that, they went with the people from another village to Fr Chanel's house. He was by himself. (You know that I had been sent to the other side of the island on the 26 to attend a sick man and to visit the various valleys on the chance there might be children in danger of death I could baptize.) When they were quite close to our house Musumusu went ahead of the others with two or three companions in case Fr Chanel saw them coming and escaped. Father was not in the house. Musumusu went alone to find him to ask him for something to treat the wound he had received in or near one of his eyes. The better to deceive the priest, who did not suspect a thing, he claimed he had been hurt while getting down coconuts. During this exchange, two men had entered the house; one carried off an armful of shirts newly washed but not yet folded. Fr Chanel went into the house to fetch the required remedy. On entering he observed the pillagers and asked them why they were acting like the owners of his house. The one with the shirts took no notice of what the Father said to him. Having thrown all the linen outside to those stationed there in front of the door, he seized the priest himself by the side and pushed him out too. Then one of his accomplices who was outside, club in hand, smashed him once or twice over the head and the blood gushed. At almost the same time, one of the two inside struck him with a big stick he had taken into the house (presumably the Father was only on the edge of the threshold). Then a third came with a bayonet fitted on to the haft of a spear which he used to prod him to the end of the room where he collapsed into a sitting position (this man denies he pierced him). There the one who had already hit him outside the house threw himself upon him and struck him again with redoubled blows of the stick.
- The first report, which has Fr Chanel reading, seated on the ground, seems scarcely credible. But it has been attested that from time to time he wiped away the blood flowing down his face with his one good hand; the other arm had been broken by the blows it had taken.
- There is no point in telling you that, while this was going on, the rest were dashing into one room or the other to grab what they could find. Musumusu, who was prowling round the house like a wild beast around its prey, shouting all the while: "Did you come for plunder or to kill the white!" at length leapt through one of the windows and hurled himself on the Father with our little axe which he buried so deeply in his head that it took him a lot of effort to get it out again.
- Some have said that our venerated martyr was struck on the back of the head; the executioner himself has stated he struck him on the forehead. Whatever the case, the woman who rendered him the final services of charity, told us she herself gathered up the brains which had spilt on to the ground, replaced them in the skull through the opening they had spilled from, closed the head up and wrapped it in a piece of tapa.
- Judging my behaviour on the day of the death of our apostolic pro-vicar for western Oceania at first glance, I might be accused of excess caution for not carrying on to the scene of the martyrdom. On this head I dare neither accuse nor defend myself since I only followed the path divine Providence traced out for me. It was Providence that sent me the person who would prevent me from going on to mingle my blood with that of the first martyr of the Society of Mary. I regret only not having had a martyr's virtues. That was, without a doubt, the sole reason I didn't become one. The day of my departure from Poi, Fr Chanel said to me laughing, "You're lucky you're going to Sigave. If it weren't for that, I'd have you weeding all day." The last word he addressed me was the one they use on Futuna for paying someone off: "Anola, Go."
- The days I spent on Futuna between Fr Chanel's death and my departure did not pass without causing me anxiety. The thought of death did not leave me unmoved. I was afraid I would not be able to endure the torments I believed inevitable as bravely as I wished. I imagined at any moment I would meet on the paths along which I passed someone coming out of the bushes to take my life.
- The day of my embarkment was the most critical one. All the natives among the conquered, where I was, with the exception of only two or three, strongly opposed my going abroad on the pretext that it would only anger the conquerors. That day I really believed I had only 24 hours to live; in my heart I offered the sacrifice of myself to God. Two who stayed loyal to me spoke out: "If the Conquerors are angered by this and want to make war on us on this account, we will fight. But at least our friends will be at sea out of danger." It was while this argument was going on that I went on board with Thomas, a young Englishman who had remained with us and had shared my trials, sleeping in the bush with me, etc. The next news brought to us on the ship was that Niuriki, the king of the conquerors (who did not know that we had embarked the day before) had held a meeting during the night and had sent messengers to have us prevented from boarding, even if it meant killing the crew of the whaler.
- Since our return to Futuna I have taught catechism almost daily up to May 1843 when I was struck down by an illness which I thought would bring me down to the grave in a very short time. I was so weak I could not move without help or even make the sign of the cross by myself, and even then I could not lift my hand as far as my forehead. It astonished me that the priests did not even mention administering the last Sacraments, since I considered that I had no more than three or four days to live. Some time later a ship arrived and the captain, an excellent man and a good Catholic, came to visit me on two occasions. He brought me some medicines and several bottles of wine from his personal stock. I was looked after by a convert who showed me all the affection possible. He spent nearly whole nights by my bed, against my wishes, simply seated on a trunk.It was not until three months later I was able to take up my ordinary tasks once more.
- Something has just occurred to me. It has left such a strong impression that I cannot help sharing it with you too. It goes to show how little one can rely on the apparent loyalty of the sailors who go about the islands (though they may not all be like this). This is what happened. Fr Chanel had a little boat capable of carrying seven or eight people and he had loaned it to two Americans. It served to carry them the day of the good Father's death from the village near the murderer's one, where they lived, to the shore of the conquered, where I was. We spent the night in the bush. It was a very fine night, with magnificent moonlight, except for a bit of rain we got, having no shelter. Suddenly, one of the Englishmen, who had stayed with us all the time and for whom Fr Chanel had done all sorts of things, got up, together with the two Americans; they took one of the natives with us, and all four descended the hill we were on and went down to the beach. There they asked the native to collect their supplies, a certain number of coconuts full of water. Then they hid under a tree a little way off the track and sent the native to see if there was anyone near the boat; if there was no one there, they were ready to escape by sailing away. "What about Jean-Baptiste (they always use my baptismal name) and the other Englishman?" the native asked them. "Don't say a word to them," they replied. The native did what he was told. Arriving at the boat, he found it quite deserted (there was no one anywhere near it). Then he considered the situation: "If I go back to the bush, they are ready to leave secretly and sail away. The boat is not very sound. I will take the oars and hide them in the bushes. I will tell them it is impossible to get near the boat, that there are natives all around it." He went back and told them the conquerors were there, and on this false information they were too afraid to make the attempt.
- That, very reverend Father, I repeat, is how far one can trust such people. If they did not carry out their plan, it was not because they lacked the willpower. They were not much concerned about seeing me killed and did not even consider offering me a place in the boat, even supposing they could have used it.
- I have said before that the promises of the Futunans are confined to their words. Here is a proof of this. After my departure, the two men who had helped me get aboard became the targets of their compatriots' hatred, even the people with whom I had taken refuge. "Why," they said, "did you let the whites go on board? Why didn't you stop them before they got into the boat? The Conquerors will be angry with us and make war on us. It would have been better to detain the whites to kill them and prevent news of what has happened on Futuna spreading to other lands."
- You ask about our way of life, very reverend Father. Alas! the Futunan way is primitive, and we have been obliged to follow it for a long time. A little taro, yams, breadfruit, and bananas (rarely do we get all these together); a soup of taro shoots seasoned with fermented coconut or grated old coconut, all cooked in a banana leaf - that's about our usual diet. At present, something out of the ordinary, a little pork and fish. A leaf serves as a plate, and the handiest piece of wood as a fork.
- I must finish here without being able to say all I would like to. I have been called to go as quickly as possible to the island of Fr Favier. Some heretics arrived just last night, the 9/10th December and he doesn't know the language well enough to deal with them. Although my letter is dated October it will not go until the 11th of December. My many occupations have prevented me from finishing it properly.
- Accept, my very reverend Father, etc.
- Br Marie-Nizier.
- Allow me, my very reverend Father, to express here my heartfelt greetings to the dear Brothers of Our Lady of the Hermitage.
- The soutane and vestments were kept in the little church of Our Lady of the Martyrs at Poi built on the site of the priest's house and martyrdom under the supervision of Roulleaux and Marie-Nizier in 1844 (cf letter 24 July 1844 AM 355). The rest of the relics were returned from France in 1976.
- Marie-Nizier had referred to this illness already in his letter of 26 May, where he states, "The most significant date relating to the cure of an illness I had (I will speak about it in another letter) is the feast of St Peter, Apostle. That day I finished a novena I was making to the Reverend Father martyr." (P.C. 132 ).
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