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August 1848 — Father Joseph-Xavier Vachon to his mother, Samoa

Based on the document sent, APM ON 208 (Samoa) Vachon.

Translated by Mary Williamson, January 2018

Sheet of paper forming four written pages, Poupinel’s annotation being at the top of the first page.

[p.1] [in Poupinel’s handwriting]
Samoa, August 1848 / Father Vauchon
Curacy of Central Oceania.
Letter from the Reverend Father Vachon, apostolic missionary of the Society of Mary.

Village of Vailele,[1] near to the port of Apia, island of Upolu, Samoan archipelago.
August 1848.

My beloved Mother,
The good Lord, who has taken care of us up until now, will not, I hope, abandon us. Since I have been here in my little mission, I have not lacked for anything essential; the body has sometimes suffered, but my heart has always enjoyed the greatest of contentment, so that I am not afraid to say that in my whole life I have not been so contented and that I would not for the whole world wish to see my present situation change. Only one thing troubles me and that is my extreme isolation, as I am several leagues distant from my colleague, which situation is, nevertheless, not going to last long. Do not think, however, that I have been bored; oh! no, not a moment of boredom has found a place in the depths of my heart.
I have found myself a thousand different occupations, so that I am the most occupied man in the whole world. The days, though I stretch them out as much as possible, always seem to me too short, five or six hours of sleep are sufficient for me.
Studying the language has been and still is a pleasure for me, so I spend as much time as possible on it. The good Lord has made this study seem easy for me, something that for others is quite arduous and full of problems. After a few months I should be able to manage; now and for the last few months, I have been able to preach and instruct my little flock which is beginning to grow.
The bishop has placed me with a tribe which has been regarded as the hub of Protestantism. At first they did not wish to have anything to do with me; and the fanaticism had reached a point where some families went and sheltered in the bush to avoid contact with a man who, they had been told, was cursed by man and God and who should be considered as another devil who had come from hell to torment them. This fear lasted several months. Now, my dear Mother, it is hard for me to believe my own eyes when I see the changes that have taken place amongst these poor people. As much as they detested me before, they now feel affection for me and that is without exception, even those who had fled so as to avoid contact with me.
Now I am almost obliged to be secretive when I wish to be away, as if I want to go to visit me colleague, I am stopped all along the way with them wishing to know where I am going. If I reply that I will be away for two or three days, they reply that that is too long and I should return as soon as possible.
A while ago they were greatly troubled. Several tribes who wished to convert begged me to go and visit them and even to establish myself amongst them, promising me that they would all become Catholics and would not be resistant to God’s grace like those who I live amongst at the moment. My tribe, having learnt this, came to beg me to have mercy and not abandon them, to be patient for a little longer and that they were all very keen to convert, but that they wished to behave thoughtfully in a matter of such great importance, so that their conversion was all the more solid and stable. Now my dear Mother, those who believed five or six months ago that it was a great sin to even caste eyes on me, today find the greatest pleasure in offering me whatever their poor situation can allow them to spare. There has been a food shortage on the island for several months, because of some tribes who wanted to wage war. At the moment all the talk is about war and already the whole island is in turmoil. Several battles have taken place; this is going to lead to civil war. Fear has gripped everyone; my house is crowded with people who come to bring me their small treasures so as to protect them from pillage which is always carried out by the victorious army. The heretics themselves are not afraid of coming to ask this small service of me, telling me and assuring me that anything that is in my house will be respected and protected from abuse by both the vanquished and the victors. So, I have nothing to fear from all these events. People often come to consult me about matters concerning the war; my response has always been that I wish with all my heart to see peace reigning amongst them and that I will even do my utmost to keep or reestablish it, but that in the end I do not wish to become involved in their political affairs and that they should do as they think best. This response, that I have always offered to both parties, satisfied everyone, for here, as for everywhere else, it is not an action without consequences to say to a chief, after having explained all the reasons for and against, that one will support the outcome according to his judgement and his experience.
To occupy the small amount of leisure time that the time of fighting will probably afford me, I will cultivate a small area of land or rather a wood that I have procured. It is 300 metres long and 50 metres wide. I started by burning down all the trees, then I cleared the ground; I planted a good few banana palms whose fruit has a fine taste and is sought after by all the money changers who pass by these islands.
I have acquired, by sheer chance, several olive trees, fig trees, muscat grapes and seeds of jujubes, pomegranate, melon and maize. All are looking very promising and fill me with the greatest of hope. The hundred seeds of maize that I sowed, three months ago have already produced three or four cobs as thick as a bottle and a foot long. According to the calculations I have made, from their appearance and on examining a stem that is more advanced than the others, I assume that altogether they will produce from 1200 to 1600 cobs. In a few months I will be eating melons and courgettes. I can already make onion soup.
Next I am going to prepare the ground to sow it entirely in maize. I want to show the natives what sustenance one can get from it, by making a gruel that they will find delicious and I will be very happy to be able, by this means, to give them a small taste for work; for it is hardly possible to see men as lazy as these ones and as well such great talkers, such great liars, such great eaters and such great sleepers, without taking into account everything else; more carnal than the Jews, more voluptuous than the Turks and more indifferent about their salvation than the atheists. The Protestant religion has only taken them away from their superstitions to plunge them into the abyss of indifference; only the fire of the Holy Spirit will be able to melt these hearts of ice. Oh! My God! I say to myself sometimes, here is what we would be without the benefits of Christianity and especially of the Catholic religion.
Besides, they have so often had, before their very eyes, scandals within the lives of their ministers, that it is not surprising to see that indifference is common amongst them. And lastly, the one who enjoyed the highest reputation of them all, for goodness and a blameless reputation, committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor.
We have had the pleasure of receiving several visits which have made the greatest of impressions on the natives, amongst others, the visit of the captain of the warship the Junon; as well I have had private visits, to my home, of Bishop Viard, coadjutor of New Zealand; of the captain of the Didon, an English corvette and of the Calypso and several of her officers.
Although, my dear mother, these visits do not have great importance in themselves, they do have importance where the natives are concerned and here is why: the Protestant ministers had formerly spread the rumour that we were just poor miserable creatures, who had been obliged to leave our own country because we were dying of hunger, that we were despised by everyone in our country and an object of loathing amongst all peoples. The natives, seeing that all these gentlemen were coming to visit us and even did not hesitate to travel more than two leagues to come to my home, wondered amongst themselves: well, how does it happen that these important chiefs from English warships come to see the Catholic missionaries and treat them with distinction. So, these are not men as despicable as others wished to tell us. All this contributes greatly to our gaining their esteem.
I only had one chair to receive my guests; they were amused by my poverty; nevertheless, my small room is spotless, which pleased them. I am almost reduced to one of everything and my personal clothing consists of one cassock, fairly worn out and one pair of shoes which will soon not be worthy of the name. Anyhow, may God’s will be done! He who gives to the lilies and the flowers their most beautiful adornments, to the little birds of the fields their food,[2] well knows what should be most useful to me and most advantageous for the salvation of my soul. My small deprivations do not prevent me from being very happy and content, to the extent that I fear for my salvation in the future. I beg you, my dear mother, to pray for me, so that the Good Lord might have mercy on me and wish, in view of the infinite merits of my Saviour, to be content with my minor sufferings and accord me blessings.
I cannot enter into great detail, my good mother, for time is pressing. That should not surprise you as I am, as I have already said, the busiest man in the world. In my role of busy worker, I include that of great doctor and what is more, the best doctor in the archipelago. Sometimes “doctor, well too bad” , sometimes “doctor so much the better” and most often “doctor in spite of himself”; no matter, I have numerous patients. Here is what my great reputation is built on. It was imagined that, following a few cures that seemed astonishing, I had the power to cure all ills, past, present and in the future.
No matter what the Protestant ministers might say or do, they are not able to prevent the natives from coming to drink my water, of which the powers were felt immediately. Several chiefs who were fairly influential on the island and whose illnesses had been declared incurable by the ministers, sought me out despite the cause. Their complete and entire cure, achieved in a few days, I do not know how, caused such a great stir that more than twelve hundred sick people came from all over the island in less than six months. All, or almost all of them, returned home cured or considerably relieved; what was particularly striking when sending back home the poor people, who had so often been told that we were men cursed by God, was that they had spread this same curse like a contagious illness.
Among those who came to seek me out there were a large number of chiefs, who all talked about religion with me and who have all returned home, I believe, more or less convinced of my truths and of the falseness of the slanderous things that had been spread about us.
I am now known throughout the island; and that is why I have nothing to fear as far as war is concerned, except when they come to bring me their wounded for me to dress their wounds. For some time I have been obliged to turn away many people, as my small supply of pharmaceuticals is exhausted. Oh! Well, my dear mother, you could never have imagined that your son would one day be, all at once, a missionary, agronomist, horticulturalist, doctor, pharmacist and what is more, stuffer of birds, which, I must say in passing, have all been carried off by my visitors. With all these occupations, boredom would be just fine, if it was able to find a place deep in my heart.
I am the most cheerful man in the world. I love to laugh, as you know. I have many moments of satisfaction with my natives, who I am very fond of, despite all their faults. They too are very happy, and they have a preference for cheerful missionaries, as they claim that happiness is a sign of goodness.
I wish, my dear mother, that you might be as happy as me; never in my whole life have I been as content as I am now. I am so attached to my mission that I cannot help asking the Good Lord for the blessing of never being separated from it; it is in my little mission that all my desires are encompassed, it is here that I wish to finish my days, even if it causes me many more periods of suffering.
There, my dear mother, is where I am up to; my little mission grows every day, even though somewhat slowly. Pray for it, I beg of you, so that the Holy Spirit may touch these hearts and that we may finally gather the fruits from a land where we have at first only found thorns.
I am, with the deepest respect,
your….. Joseph Xavier Vachon.


  1. Vailele: village on the Northern coast of Upolu, situated six kms to the East of Apia.
  2. summarised from biblical texts: Mt 6.26-29; Lc 12.24-27.

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