The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book II, Chapter I, Section IX, Part VI

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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PART SIX: Letter of Monsieur Bourdaise, Priest of the Congregation of the Mission, About the Missions of Madagascar

Words cannot express the grief of Monsieur Vincent when he learned of the death of Monsieur Gondree. He grieved not only at the loss of such a good worker for the kingdom but for the anxiety he felt for Monsieur Nacquart, the only priest left on the island. He feared that he might succumb to the burden of the labors his zeal would entail. After he blessed God and abandoned himself completely to his holy will, he considered sending other priests to help their confrere in the development of this new Church. He thought first of Monsieur Toussaint Bourdaise, then of Monsieur Francois Mousnier, both priests of the Congregation and both quite capable of this apostolic mission.1 In view of the opportunities offered by this mission which suggested the need for even more workers, he followed the appointment of the first two missionaries with the appointment of three others. Fathers [Claude] Dufour, [Nicolas] Prevost, and [Mathurin] de Belleville were all of proven virtue and experienced in their missionary work. All poured out their lives in working for the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ in this infidel land. Since Monsieur Bourdaise survived the others, and worked the longest in this new Church, we cite here a letter he wrote in 1657 to Monsieur Vincent after the death of all his confreres. In it he recounted all that had occurred in these missions of Madagascar.

Monsieur, I cannot express the grief of my poor soul. God alone knows the regrets and tears we experienced when on first arriving on the island we found only the ashes of Monsieur Nacquart.2 We had hoped he would be another Joseph to receive his brothers in a strange land, or a Moses to lead us in the frightful deserts of this desolate place.

The loss shortly after of Monsieur Mousnier, whose zeal consumed him in less than six months, was all the more grievous to me because I had to bear the sorrow alone. This wound has continued to bleed in my heart. The hope of welcoming other missionaries alleviated my sorrow somewhat, except that the long delay in their arrival concerned me. What is most regrettable is that just when I was about to rejoice at the accomplishment of a good so long desired and anticipated, all was snatched from me. I have lost everything, and have no other resources. I now find myself, my dear father, in extreme desolation. I have nothing to hope for and nothing more to lose, since this ungrateful land devours so cruelly not its own people but those who have come to set it free. You understand, Monsieur, what I have to say, and what I would wish I could suppress, to spare your tears and my sobs. Monsieur de Belleville, whom I knew only by name and by his merits, has died on the way here. Monsieur Prevost did not survive the fatigues of the voyage, and also died. Monsieur Dufour, whom I knew here only long enough to realize the value of what I was to lose, is dead.

All those you sent to Madagascar are dead, and I alone, your miserable servant, remain to give you this sad and distressing news. Yet I cannot refrain from giving you cause for joy and consolation in recounting the holy lives they led on board ship and here on land, and the blessings God bestowed on all their activities since leaving France. I will attempt, Monsieur, to give you a brief account of these happenings.3

God alone knows the sorrow felt by Monsieur Vincent on the occasion of these losses, in a place where their presence and health were so very desirable. Let us hear Monsieur Bourdaise speak of this need. After we hear of his great disappointment, we will take note of the causes for joy with which he consoled Monsieur Vincent.

I had hoped that if there were two or three priests here, within a year we could have baptized almost the entire vast Anos country. In this region, there are many small villages. I cannot go very far afield and also care for those who come to our church here. The chiefs of these villages say they would willingly be baptized if they could have someone to help them pray to God. I attempt, at least, to arouse the desire for baptism, to have them act as though they were baptized, in the hope that this baptism in voto [“of desire”] would suffice in this case.

In order to explain the doctrines of our faith to these people, I have asked a Frenchman who is expert at the language of the country, to help me by translating our small catechism word for word into their language. He has done so for me, and this has proven to be very useful. I no longer use an interpreter. They are attracted more and more to our holy faith, and I see new persons every day, coming to learn the Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Creed, which I teach and explain. All the women of Histolangar wish to be baptized and married in the Church.

When Fathers Dufour and Prevost came, and were still on the tiny isle of Sainte Marie, not far from here, I had already planned to have one live here and another there.4 This would allow me to travel to the surrounding areas to instruct the people. In order not to be a burden to anyone, I had planned to store some food in one of the main houses in the interior. In this way I could stay eight or ten days in one place, until I had taught someone in the village to pray to God and how to teach others to pray as well. These people were to help the others learn to participate in morning and evening prayers, just as we do here in our house. These plans pleased me very much. I often assured these poor blacks I would soon come to them, to teach them to know God and how to pray to him, all of which they greatly desired. I told them of my confreres who had come to help me, which pleased them greatly. God, however, wished otherwise.

I taught these good people who had received baptism how to confess, and I hoped all would confess before the feast of Easter, if it would please God. They were very faithful to the morning and evening prayers, and even those at midday. Those who felt shame, and the very old, I had come to our house, where I taught them privately.

Several wanted nothing more than to be baptized, but I preferred that they first learn how to pray. During this time I would test them, and check their behavior.

Many people told me that one of the things that held them back was fear that the French would not remain on the island. Others feared the light-skinned natives would murder them.

I make myself available at all hours for those who want to learn. I have obliged them all to pray aloud in the church. They sit in good order, both the young and the old. May it please God, Monsieur, that all our confreres hear the sweet harmony of so many different voices, the young and the old, men and women, the poor and the wealthy, all united in the faith of the one God.

I have recently baptized five families of blacks, the husband, wife, and children. I have presided at a dozen marriages of Frenchmen and native women. They have been the first to come to pray to God, the first to be baptized, and the first in their zeal for the honor of God. These women are examples for all the rest.

We have had much trouble in getting rid of the women of the streets. I have had to go into the cafes with a whip to drive them away, but I have done this only after my prayers and requests were to no avail. Fear alone drove them away. Before doing this I had the approval of the governor.

Four blacks baptized and married by the late Monsieur Nacquart, but who were later separated by the wars, have been reunited with their wives, at the cost of much effort.

Besides all this, we have celebrated a dozen marriages between blacks, and twenty-three between Frenchmen and women of the country. This number increases little by little. Each one goes back to their own home, coming back on the major feasts of the Church.

I am attempting to learn to read and write the native language, and to help me I have the aid of one of the most renowned and most learned of the Ombiasses. We have instructed four young cowherds, sons of four of the most important men of the country, who sent them to us. One has already been baptized privately. I await the arrival of the French to be their godparents, so that all may be baptized. They greatly desire this. They have cast away their Olis which they used to wear around their neck, and have replaced it with the cross.

I talked to a farmer, whose two oldest sons I baptized some time ago. I urged him and his whole household to be baptized, together with his father and brother, kings like himself. He is very close to a decision. He left his youngest son with me, and has agreed he may be baptized. This is important for a chieftain, for if he allows himself to be baptized there will surely be many who will follow his example.

The oldest son of another king named Dian Masse has also been baptized. He is one of the most courageous men of the island, and is both strong and intelligent. Every day he prays publicly, and has promised me he will teach his wife and family our holy religion.

I have here with me two children of two of the chiefs of the island, together with their slaves. Both want to receive baptism, which we will administer, God willing, with the greatest possible solemnity for the honor of God. We will do so that the people, particularly the leading men and women among them, will be encouraged to follow the good example these two will give. We must admit that the interests of our religion are advanced more by the conversion of a single nobleman and great lord than by a hundred of the lesser ones. Experience confirms this opinion.

Last year I was alerted that three of the most powerful rulers of all the country were unwell. The most important of them was sure to die within a few days. I was most disturbed, since I knew these men were strongly attached to their superstitions. I felt an inspiration of God to go see them. God gave them the grace of opening their eyes when I spoke to them of the truth of our faith. I assured them that no one could be truly happy or avoid the eternal flames after death unless he were baptized. At once they asked for the sacrament, and for the favor of being buried as a Christian after their death. I agreed to both requests, provided they would leave their superstitions and their Olis, which they carried on their persons. They did so at once, and I administered baptism. After their deaths I saw to it they were buried fittingly in our cemetery. I cannot pass over in silence the joy and edification these blacks gave me on this occasion. They gathered in large numbers to see these men buried whom just a while before they had regarded as gods. They gave a thousand praises to the Catholic religion, which buried so honorably those who before baptism wished us nothing but ill. You can see how ready these natives are for conversion, and how much influence the nobles have over them.

I have taken on three small French children together with two sons of the king of Mavaubouille, all around two years old. This is the age at which you can be sure they still have preserved their innocence, above all their chastity. This virtue is rare here, beyond what you can imagine. It is no wonder, for fathers and mothers do not even wait for the age of puberty to teach their children of either sex to lose their purity. What is worse, they themselves excite their children. This deplorable state shows how much these poor people need to be instructed.

I also have taken in hand four other young boys now seven or eight years old. They give me much satisfaction and I hope that I shall see them one day contributing to the conversion of their own people. My hopes are principally on two of them, who already know how to read and to serve mass.

These poor natives come to me when they are sick, and thanks be to God, I have been able to help. As soon as anyone hurts himself or falls sick they send for me to come or to give them some remedy. This is important, for at such times the people are disposed to listen to me. On these occasions I have baptized several small children who died soon afterward, and as a result they went straight to heaven. We buried them with the usual ceremonies, with children of their own age carrying lighted candles.

When I went to see the lord of Imours, an old man in the last extremity of sickness, all his subjects gathered, alerted to my coming. I spoke to him of the other world and of the greatness of the Christian faith. I told him that if he consented to be baptized as a Christian he would be numbered among the children of God. This good man gathered all his remaining strength to tell me he indeed did wish to become a Christian. His illness was such that I thought it best to baptize him immediately in the presence of all the assembly. Afterward I exhorted them, and then returning to the sick man I gave him several cloves to strengthen him, for he had no more himself. He asked me if I would give him some French wine, which I promised to do.

He wanted to give me a present, but I refused with thanks. I told him that baptism was something of such worth that nothing in the world could repay its reception. Seeing him so well disposed I returned and gave him a bit of a panacea I had and a portion of hyacinth. At the end of three days he was cured. In this I owe thanks to the divine Goodness. By blessing these simple remedies for the body I find these good people are ready for the healing of their souls.

During the war a village near us was raided during the night, and about twenty men under the protection of the French were killed. They beat a woman with fifteen blows of their spears, and after ten days she was brought to me with a very high fever. Her wounds were so infected that the odor alone drove all away. The poor have no way of getting help from the Ombiasses, and their wounds are not treated. I gave her an ointment which quickly cured her by the help of God, even though she remained very nervous. When she recovered she brought her two sons to be baptized, and wanted to give them to me as slaves. I would not accept them on these terms, explaining to her that in our religion we do not have slaves.

An Ombiasse recently came to see me about a man of his village who had not been able to sleep for the past three months. He suffered greatly from an abscess on his thigh which had become large and inflamed. The skin was so hard that it could not be pierced, but when I saw it I lanced it with my scalpel. The resulting discharge of the infection was the marvel of all the poor souls who saw it. He was cured three days later. He had a similar infection on his shoulder which I lanced in the same way. Soon he was entirely relieved of this ailment.

A persistent malady among the natives here is a form of dysentery, or gray flux, which they call sorac.5 It comes from lack of proper nourishment, and is usually prevalent three months of the year. This sickness is usually fatal in eight days, and they have no medicine to cure this condition. I gave them some of the panacea I had, which did cure this illness. More than a hundred were saved by God’s mercy, so that all come to me when they are afflicted. It is to be hoped that the bodily cures will dispose them to accept the spiritual ministration, as happened with the apostles and our Lord himself, who cured bodily ailments before converting souls.

There is a soothsayer here named Rathy, about sixty-nine years old, short of stature, simple to look at, and of few words. This man has somewhat of a reputation because of his predictions, most of which have come to pass. Even the French pay attention to him. In 1654 he predicted that in less than six months ships from France would appear. This turned out to be true, for soon after, those sent by the Marshal de la Meilleraye arrived.6 Another time, on being asked if Monsieur de Flacourt, who was returning to France, would arrive safely, he said, “Yes, but as he approaches the coast of France he will run into three enemy ships.” It happened as he predicted, as Monsieur de Flacourt can tell you himself. He has proven true in other cases, also, as I can testify. This makes me wonder if this is not a true gift of prophecy from the hand of God, as he gave earlier to the Sybils, as a recognition of their moral virtue. He appears to be a good man, simple and naive.

Since he often comes to see me, I once asked him if he talked to the fairies, the imps, and forest creatures. He naively replied that he did, and often. I asked him where these spirits lived, and where they come from. He said they live in the high mountains, and appear to be all belly, though they do not eat; some among them speak, while others do not. I asked him if he dreamed of what was going to happen in future. He said, no, he just spoke what came into his head at the moment he was asked. I believe him, for he has answered questions immediately, with no time to consult the devil, such as when a person asks him if his father was alive, or how many brothers and sisters he had. With no possibility of knowing the right answer beforehand, he has replied correctly.

I asked him if this gift benefited him, and if it was good to pray to God. He replied very ambiguously, whether from doubt about what to say or because he was afraid to say no, and I did not press him further on this question. I asked him only if the spirit that moved him loved the priests. He stated the spirit feared rather than loved them, which led me to believe that the spirit was one of the evil sort. He predicted other things too, but we do not yet know the outcome, for example, that the whole island would be converted and baptized. Whether this prophecy is from the good or evil spirit I cannot say, it being God’s will which will determine its fulfillment. We have reason to hope for this, if my sins do not prevent it.

Another of his predictions is just on the verge of being fulfilled: that he, his wife, and children will one day be baptized. He has promised to present himself soon. He comes to prayers every day, and tells me that once he has learned to pray he will accompany me to the villages, to teach the others. He no longer responds to those who ask him something about the superstitions of the people. He excuses himself on the plea that he is afraid of me. This man could do much to move the people away from their idols, for he is one of the most respected of their authorities on the Olis.

The famine here has become so serious that several of the blacks have died from hunger. I have prepared something for both the baptized and unbaptized children, who are delighted to have a bowl of soup every day. I present a catechism lesson myself at midday, at which they are very attentive and modest. Mothers come also, and bring their tiny children with them. I am very pleased at this for they take this spiritual milk with much eagerness, and seeing the fruit produced I am persuaded to continue the practice. Besides this usual feeding, I see to it that the older persons are taken care of, and also the children abandoned by their mothers, who have almost nothing to eat.

You see then, Monsieur, the rich and beautiful opportunities for extending the kingdom of Jesus Christ in this large island. At least six hundred of the inhabitants have already received the light of the Gospel, and the number of those who await baptism is much greater. If we can judge from the favorable dispositions and the lack of resistance of these first converts how the others of the island may react, we can have great hopes for the remainder of the people of the island. We are speaking of the four hundred thousand inhabitants, plus the unnumbered multitude of those future generations who will owe their faith to this generation of converts. However, though I am a poor, small useless servant, if something should happen to me, alas, what would become of this poor Church? What would become of these people who live in ignorance, without the sacraments, and lacking all direction? God, who makes me aware of this pressing necessity, inspires me in spirit to throw myself at your feet to say on behalf of so many souls, with all humility and all possible respect, Mitte quos missurus es [“Send those whom you are going to send”].7 Send us missionaries, for those who have died on our shores were not destined to serve in Madagascar. They were called to pass this way on their journey to heaven. No place on earth needs your Congregation more than here.

I end this letter with some news, both joyful and sad, that happened recently. The mother of Dian Machicore, one of the greatest lords of the country, who was more than a hundred years old, died after earnestly requesting baptism. I was not able to answer her request because of the great distance of her home from mine. In truth, I was much put out that I had not been called earlier to help her in her last passage. There is good reason to hope that her fervent desire will supply for what was lacking, for surely she received the interior baptism of the Spirit. This thought gave me much consolation, and I am sure she should be numbered among our neophytes.

Other men and women are probably also among their number because of this same spiritual baptism, since they find it impossible to receive the sacrament. We must fear that the number of those who will be lost is much greater, for lack of someone to bathe them in this mystic pool. This is what gives me pain, above all when I picture to myself their guardian angels saying to me, si fuisses hic, frater meus non fuisset mortuus [“If you had been here, my brother would never have died”].8 O missionary! If you had been here to help this man or this woman they would not have died this eternal death.

O my dear father, how often I wish those capable priests in France who live in idleness, would come to know of the great need of workers in the Lord’s vineyard, and then would reflect carefully that our Lord addresses this reproach to each of them individually: O sacerdos! si fuisses hic, frater meus non fuisset mortuus, Oh priests, if you had been here on this island several of my brothers redeemed by my blood, would not have died in their sin. Beyond doubt this thought would move them to compassion and possibly to fright, if they reflect carefully that having neglected to provide this spiritual help, Jesus Christ will one day address these terrible words to them, Ipse impius in iniquitate sua morietur, sanguinem vero ejus de manu tua requiram [“The wicked man himself will die in his iniquity, and I will hold you responsible for his blood”].9 If the priests, doctors, preachers, catechists, and others with talent and a vocation to the foreign missions would consider this, and would reflect on the account they will have to render for all the souls lost for lack of their help, I have no doubt they would be more attentive than they are. They would seek out the lost sheep to lead them back to the sheepfold of the Church.

Since this fervent missionary thought that Monsieur Vincent might lose courage in the face of the death of the most excellent workers of his Congregation, he returned to his appeal.

Send us other workers, I beseech you, my dear father. If these unfortunate events make you doubt that this is properly the vocation of our Company, consider Saint Bernard in preaching the crusade for the recovery of the Holy Land, or the Israelites fighting against the city of Gibeon. Both these attempts failed, even though God had supported the first by a miracle and the second by direct revelation. The sad outcome of sending your priests here ought not to suggest that God did not call them, for other signs show his blessing. You know well, Monsieur, that God tears down and builds up according to his good pleasure. Thus we can hope that other workers whom your charity will send will succeed better than those who preceded them. This is what happened to the Israelites of whom I spoke earlier. After the Gibeonites had beaten and repulsed them twice, they were finally victorious on the third assault. It is true, my dear father, that you have lost many valuable members. Yet please, for the love of Jesus Christ, do not be discouraged, nor abandon so many souls redeemed by the Son of God. You can be sure that if so many good missionaries have died, it is not the climate of the country that brought this about. The fatigues of their voyage, their excessive mortification, or the excess of work, which will always be the case here with too few workers, were undoubtedly the cause of their early deaths.10

  1. Toussaint Bourdaise was born in 1618 at Blois. He entered the Congregation in 1645. Several times as a student he had almost been sent away as not having the necessary talent for the work of the Congregation. Providentially, he would become the true apostle of Madagascar. Jean-Francois Mousnier was born at Saintes in 1628. At age eighteen he entered the Congregation. He was assisting in the distribution of alms in Picardy when Monsieur Vincent recalled him for assignment to Madagascar. He died in Madagascar, May 24, 1655.
  2. It took three years for the news of Nacquart’s death to reach Paris. He was the only remaining priest on the island. When he sensed his death approaching, he encouraged the native Christians to remain faithful, and to continue to show respect to the blessed sacrament, which he left reserved in the church, being unable in his agony to consume it. He asked that the body of Gondree be exhumed and that they be buried together in the same tomb at the foot of the altar. He died May 29, 1650.
  3. CED VI:195-96.
  4. Sainte Marie lies just off the northeast coast, some six hundred miles north of Fort Dauphin.
  5. The symptoms are those of a form of cholera.
  6. Charles de la Porte, Duc de la Meilleraye, 1602-1664. It was he who gave Saint Vincent the idea of sending missionaries to Madagascar.
  7. Based on Exod 4:13.
  8. John 11:21.
  9. Based on Jer 31:30 and other passages.
  10. CED VI:194-234.

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