Letter from a missionary of the Society of Jesus, written in Cayenne, in the year 1718

Letter

from a missionary of the Society of Jesus,

written in Cayenne,

in the year 1718

 

It is with great sadness that I inform you of the loss we have just suffered in the death of Fr. de Creuilly. He spent thirty-three years in this mission. It is hard to believe, with a constitution as delicate as his, that he was able to carry out such a difficult career and to dedicate himself to such continual labor, which was far beyond his capacity.

 

As soon as he arrived on this island, his first concern was to instruct the people, and to bring them to the practice of Christian virtue.  He didn’t limit himself to the public lessons he gave on Sundays.  He would take off every Monday, in a canoe with several Negroes. Taking into account neither the perils he had to face on the often-stormy sea nor the stifling air one breathes in this climate, he would visit the entire island.  He went to the plantations that are scattered throughout and, carrying with him the sweet odor of Jesus Christ everywhere he went, he would instruct each person, in private, on the duties of his condition. Ordinarily, he would not return from his errands until the end of the week. He would be completely exhausted, but sustained by his courage and the sweet consolation of having fulfilled the functions of his ministry.

 

Although his charity was universal, he nonetheless seemed to toil with more ardor and affection among the poor.  In order to gain their trust more fully, he shared their troubles, consoled them in their sorrows, and was ingenious in finding ways of relieving their indigence.  To that end, he had their lands cultivated by the Negroes who accompanied him and worked to repair their half-ruined cabins. He chopped down the wood needed for those repairs with his own hands, and carried it on his shoulders just as a slave would.  Such lively and active charity did not fail to win everyone’s hearts.  They all listened to him with docility, and everyone respected him as a saint and loved him as a father.

 

The conversion of the Indians was the second object of his zeal.  Nothing put him off—neither the difficulties he had to overcome, nor the constant dangers to which he had to expose himself. His first order of business was to learn their language, of which he had no previous knowledge whatsoever. He was the first one to distill from it some general principles; this laborious and thankless work on his part facilitated the study of the language for other missionaries.

 

He lived, as did those savages, on fish and cassava (a bread made from manioc root).  He lodged with them, in a corner of what they call a carbet (a type of long barn, constructed of reeds, exposed to the indignities of the air and full of infinite numbers of highly importunate insects).[1]  But he was less disturbed by these incommodities than by how little disposed the people were to put into practice the truths he was announcing to them. Their extreme indolence and natural inconstancy conflicted with his desire for their conversion.

 

That is why he only conferred holy baptism on a small number of adults, on whose perseverance he could rely, and concentrated his zeal on baptizing children who were in danger of dying.  Nonetheless, though the sheer sweat of his brow, he forged a path for other missionaries, who would complete his work.  Today we have the consolation of seeing several communities of Indians who have received the sacrament of baptism, and who live an edifying life, conforming to the holiness of Christianity.

 

His entire focus turned next to the Negro slaves.  The humiliation of their condition inspired his charity and he worked for almost twenty years toward the goal of their sanctification.  He was nearly always on the road, exposed either to the ardor of a burning sun or the constant rains that are so incommodious here at certain times of the year.  When he was in a canoe with Negroes, he would often do the rowing for them; when some of them would fall ill, he would give them his own provisions, subsisting on the few pieces of cassava that he would get from them in exchange.  After having exhausted himself working all day long, he would arrive in the evening at some poor plantation, where he took pleasure in the lack of everything.  he was never more cheerful nor more content than when he found himself worn out by the labor of the day that had just ended and deprived of the things most necessary for him to regain his strength.

 

Among the many extraordinary examples of his zeal, I will choose a single one, which will give you some idea of its scope.  One day, he heard that a slave had been wounded and was in danger of dying without having made his confession.  The cabin of this unfortunate soul was quite far away from the main house.  Fr. de Creüilly, obeying the usual dictates of his charity, took off right away on foot.  After having wandered for a long time in a wood, where he got lost, he found himself at the edge of a prairie, which was completed flooded and full of sharp-spiked plants and poisonous snakes.  He then spied a wretched cabin, which he thought was the poor slave’s dwelling.  Immediately, without a moment’s hesitation, he threw himself into the prairie, and made his way across it, in water up to his shoulders.  When he reached the other side, he was covered in blood, and discovered, to his chagrin, that the cabin was abandoned.  As soaked as he was, he nonetheless continued on his way, with the same ardor as before, toward the place that had been indicated to him.  Finally he arrived at the cabin of the Negro, whom he found in a condition worthy of compassion.  He heard his confession, consoled him, and  attended to his needs to the extent possible, given the poverty of the circumstances.  When he returned home that night, he could barely stand.

 

No one here has any doubt that this kind of fatigue, along with his fasting and his constant austerity, shortened his life and hastened the moment of his death.  We will never forget the great example of virtue that he left behind for us.

 

Despite his lively, fiery nature, he had so learned to control himself that he seemed to have a cool and moderate temperament.  His face and his overall appearance suggested only kindness.  It was indifferent to him what type of work he did, and he showed an inclination for none but the most humiliating and difficult of tasks, always considering himself inferior to his assignments.  Since he thought of himself as the lowest of the missionaries, he regarded all the others with a singular veneration.  The low esteem in which he held himself made him refuse, over and over, the position of superior of this mission, a job of which he was more worthy than anyone else. But his humility always provided him with plausible reasons for being dispensed from accepting the job.

 

The refinement of his conscience led him to make his confession every day, when he was able to do so. His union with God was intimate.  All the time that was not filled by the functions of his ministry, he spent in prayer, not only during the day but also for much of the night.  A life so full of virtue and merit could only end in a death precious in the eyes of God.  He received the last sacraments with an exemplary piety, and on August 18, around eight o’clock in the morning, God called him to His side, to reward him for his labors.

 

It was then that we became more aware than ever of the saintliness that those living on this island ascribed to him.  People came in great numbers to his funeral, rushing to throw themselves on his body and kissing it with respect. They touched their medals and their rosaries to it and considered themselves among the fortunate if they were able to come away with a few scraps of his clothing.  The miraculous healings that it pleased God to bestow on several people who implored the late missionary for his assistance served to increase, more and more, the veneration for him and the trust in his intercession.  A number of people came to pray at his grave, while others said novenas to him.[2]  They all consider him to be their powerful protector in heaven.

 

[Translated by C. Rivers, November 2018; published 14 January 2019]

 

[1] Translator’s note: The word carbet appears in the French text in italics, presumably because the Jesuit writing the latter would have assumed that his reader would not be familiar with it. It is still used in French, to denote the kind of architectural structure described here, found in Guyane, some of the Caribbean islands, Brazil, and Surinam.

[2] Translator’s note: In French, d’autres lui font des neuvaines. There are two possible translations here: “others said novenas to him” or “others said novenas for him.” Given that the missionary had not been canonized or even beatified, saying a novena to him would fall outside orthodox Roman Catholic practice (though not outside the practice of “popular piety,” in which “crowd-sourced” saints are often prayed to long before Rome has anything to say on the matter). I have decided to go with “others said novenas to him,” a choice that is reinforced by the following sentence tous le regardent comme un puissant protecteur qu’ils ont dans le ciel (“they all consider him to be their powerful protector in heaven”).