Letter from Fr. Margat, missionary of the Society of Jesus, to Fr. ***, of the same Society (27 February 1725)

Letter from Fr. Margat, missionary of the Society of Jesus,

to Fr. ***, of the same Society.[1]

 

Notre Dame de la petite Anse,

on the coast of Saint Domingue,

in the region of Cap Français,

27 February 1725.

 

 

 

Reverend Father,

 

The Peace of Our Lord be with you.

 

I have received the letter which you did me the honor of writing and I cannot read it without my heart being touched.  I will even admit that the great sentiments with which it is filled have contributed in no small measure to reawakening my zeal and helping me endure the difficulties associated with the holy ministry to which God, in His infinite mercy, has deigned to call me.

 

You tell me that you have longed for mission work for some time now.  You are, it seems, attracted to the most laborious missions and to those that entail the most suffering.  A single obstacle stands in your way and that is the lack of disposition for learning foreign languages that you sense in yourself.  There is no such obstacle, you add, in our missions in southern America and that is why you would choose them, preferably, over the others.[2] But you would like to know what types of work they require, how much good can be accomplished to advance the glory of God and procure the salvation of souls, and, finally, what suffering there is in the exercise of our duties.  I will satisfy your desire to know these things, without hiding anything from you, and with all the sincerity that you know me to possess.

 

Even if we had no occupation other than the charge of the spiritual practices of the Frenchmen, who are drawn here from all the provinces in France by the riches of commerce, there would be, it seems to me, more than enough to satisfy the zeal of an apostolic man.  Preaching, hearing confessions, catechizing, administering the sacraments, visiting people, consoling the sick, attending to the dying, maintaining peace and unity in families: these are the things our ministry entails. But they make up only one part of it: the Negro slaves are no less an object of our zeal; we might even regard them as our crown and our glory.  Indeed, it seems that Providence only plucked them from their native lands in order to have them find here a true promised land, and that it sought to reward their temporal servitude, to which the misfortune of their condition subjects them, with the true freedom of children of God.  The success with which we are able to place them in this position can only be attributed to the grace and the blessings of the Lord.

 

You would no doubt be pleased to learn of the character and the mentality of the people for whose conversion you may one day be working.  The image that I am going to give you of them will not be entirely in keeping with the one that some of our merchants have formed; those merchants think they are doing the slaves great honor by distinguishing them from common animals and have trouble imagining that people of a color so different from theirs can belong to the same species as Europeans.

 

It is true, generally speaking, that they are typically crude, stupid, and brutal, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on where they were born. But the interactions they have had with Europeans and with their former compatriots within the colony civilize them and render them docile.  There are even several among them who are intelligent and talented in the arts in which they have been trained and in which they succeed better than the Frenchmen.  Their natural simplicity disposes them, in a sense, to be more receptive to the Christian truths.  They have little attachment to the superstitions of their native lands and most of them arrive here without the slightest tinge of religion.  Since there are thus no prejudices to overcome, their minds are all the more able to be imprinted by Christianity; experience teaches us this every day. Baptism, as soon as they know even a bit about it, becomes the object of their desire. They ask for it with incredible urgency and they demonstrate profound veneration for anything related to it.  The day they have the good fortune to be admitted to that sacrament is the most sacred day of their lives. Those they have chosen to be their godfathers and godmothers acquire an authority over them to which they submit scrupulously.  Aside from a few vices, which are the result of the climate in which they were born, and which are enflamed by the licentiousness of their upbringing and the bad examples so often before their eyes, there would be almost no obstacles to their perfect conversion.  But once we have stabilized them by way of the commitments of a legitimate marriage, these obstacles usually cease to exist, and they become excellent Christians.

 

It is these poor slaves, who number about fifty thousand, who occupy all the time of the eighteen missionaries that make up our group.  Even if we found no good works to do, other than baptizing the children of a people who reproduce often, and whose numbers grow each year with the many ships that bring great numbers of them to this colony, the zeal of an evangelical laborer would be sufficiently satisfied.  Scarcely a week goes by without five or six babies being brought to the church and sometimes more.  These children, born in the bosom of our religion, learn from an early age its principles and maxims.  They have almost none of the crudeness of their parents; they are more intelligent and speak our language more purely and with greater ease than most peasants and artisans in France.  When they have reached a certain age, and we have stabilized them by marriage, it is not unusual to find among them holy families, in which reign the fear of God, constant attachment to their duties, and assiduousness in prayer and in the most fervent exercises of Christianity.  We have seen young slaves give shining proof of their steadfastness and expose themselves to the most rigorous treatment, rather than consent to the solicitations of those who seek to seduce them.

 

Although the Negroes recently arrived from Guinea do not have, generally speaking, such fortunate dispositions, we are always able to change them, and fairly easily, for the better.  It is true that the character of their devotion accords with the crude nature of their mentality; but one also finds in them that precious simplicity so celebrated in the Gospel. Their devotion consists of: believing in one God in three persons; fearing and loving Him; hoping for Heaven; fearing Hell; avoiding sin; reciting the prayers; making your confession from time to time; and taking communion when you are deemed to be worthy of it.  Furthermore, they are completely docile; they listen to us attentively, and as long as what we are saying is accessible to them, they profit, however imperceptibly, from our directives.  They confer with each other about these matters, in their own way: the more knowledgeable among them teach their newly-arrived compatriots and give them an exalted idea of baptism.  These are seeds that come to fruition over time.  They are then introduced to a missionary, so that he can examine them.  He asks them to repeat in his presence what they have learned and when he has found them to be sufficiently knowledgeable, and in addition, has been informed of their good behavior, a date is set for their admission to baptism.

 

The confidence and respect that these poor people have for the missionaries knows no bounds: they regard us as their fathers in Jesus Christ.  We are the ones to whom they turn in all their troubles; we are the ones who direct them in their undertakings and reconcile them in their quarrels; and it is by way of our intercession that they often obtain from their masters pardon for their misdeeds, which would otherwise have brought severe punishment upon them.  They are convinced that we have their best interests at heart and that we work to soften the rigor of their captivity, by all the means that religion and humanity make known to us.  They appreciate this fact and continually seek to express their gratitude to us.  If there were more of us laboring here, we could visit more often in the course of a year the various plantations, which are situated, in some cases, as far as four or five leagues away from the church.[3]  Our teaching would be more frequent and would thus bear more fruit and would reanimate the fervor of these good people.  But, as each of us in alone is his district, it is hardly possible for us to go very far from our church, for fear that, while we are gone, someone might come looking us to tend to the sick, who are always quite numerous.

 

There you have, Reverend Father, a small idea of what can be done here to advance the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Now let us come to the problems associated with our ministry.  They are not lacking and those who consecrate themselves to these missions need to expect various challenges. Some are caused by the intemperate climate, others are associated with the nature of the work we do.  Some are specific to the newly arrived, while others are the fruit of much labor, over the course of a long sojourn here.  Finally, some of the problems crucify the body and modify one’s health and others torment the mind and afflict the soul.  In all of them, there is much need to exercise patience.

 

I must tell you that this island makes a charming first impression on a newly-arrived missionary: a vast plain, with green prairies, well-cultivated plantations, and fields, some planted with indigo and others with sugar, all of them lined up with art and symmetry.  On the horizon, you sees, from one side, the ocean and from the other, mountains covered with forests which rise up and form a sort of amphitheater, offering a varied perspective made up of an infinite number of different things.  There are roads as straight as a pin, lined on either side with vibrant lemon and orange trees, and a thousand flowers, which delight the eye and fill the air with perfume.  This spectacle can convince a newcomer that he has found one of those enchanted islands that exist only in the imagination of poets.  But, as cheerful as this image is, you must keep in mind that only a great desire to make money or an ardent zeal to save souls can make someone take pleasure in living here.

 

I consider one of the greatest disadvantages of this island to be the excessive heat, caused in  part, I believe, by the topography itself of the island.  Its coasts are rather low-lying and, as the island is divided lengthwise by a chain of high mountains, all the sun’s rays are reflected onto it, which heats things up to an extreme extent.  This conjecture seems all the more likely because the wider the plain is, the less you feels the heat.  By contrast, in the bays, and other narrower sites, such as Cap Français, Petit Goave, and the rest, the heat is nearly unbearable.  It is also true, however, that through an admirable disposition of Providence, this violent heat is moderated by two types of wind that, ordinarily, blow every day: one is called the “breeze” and starts up around ten in the morning, blowing from east to west, until about four or five in the afternoon; they call the other “the ground wind” and it blows from the west, starting up around six or seven in the evening and continuing until eight in the morning. But since these winds are often stopped or interrupted by various things, it is always hot enough to exhaust, extraordinarily, those who are called to attend to their affairs outside the house, especially between nine in the morning until four in the afternoon in the summer, which lasts nearly nine whole months.  It is during that particular time that you are exposed to the risk of violent sunstroke, which causes fever, accompanied by delirium and unimaginably painful headaches; that kind of fever agitates tremendously both the blood and the brain.  I have seen tin bottles, filled with water, applied to people’s heads; the agitation of the brain made it boil, just as if the bottle were on a stove.  If the sun has made its mark on the hand or the leg, the result is an inflammation akin to a bacterial skin infection.

 

Our planters take the precaution of going out only rarely during those hours or else traveling in a chaise, a type of carriage that has become very common; it is no longer considered a sign of distinction to avail yourself of one.[4]  We have often been urged to use them, as do the other religious who have their missions in this part of the island, near Léogane.  But we haven’t yet thought it necessary to procure that convenience for ourselves and make do with a few horses, often rather bad ones, as good ones are hard to come by, and excessively expensive due to the large number of chaises roulantes. Our ministry does, however, necessitate frequent and difficult journeys; in fact, it is even impossible for us to take certain measures that prudence would seem to demand, in order to be of service for an even longer time.  They come for us at all hours of the day and night, sometimes to go to several places that are fairly far apart from each other, either to hear confessions or to perform baptisms.  We have barely returned from one district when we are called to another.  Often, after an exhausting errand, just when we think we can get a bit of rest, they come in the middle of the night, interrupting our sleep, to rush us to the bedside of a supposedly dying person, who is sometimes in better health than we are.  

 

What’s more, we consider ourselves lucky when we don’t encounter one of the sudden and violent storms that crop up almost every evening after dinner, from April to November.  The sun’s rays make steam rise up from the ground in the morning, gather them together, and in the evening turn them into this type of hurricane, always accompanied by thunder, lightning and a tempestuous wind.  The rain then falls so abundantly that you are soaked through in an instant.  Elsewhere, this would be a mere refreshment, but here that sort of happenstance is usually followed by some sort of fever or other regrettable indisposition.

 

Although the heat is less intense inside the houses, one nonetheless suffers greatly from it; it casts you into a state of exhaustion and takes away your strength and your appetite.  A prodigious quantity of flies completes the task of rendering you utterly distressed.  You are constantly bringing your handkerchief up to your face to chase them away or to wipe the sweat that rolls down your face in abundance.  You may perhaps think that one would feel some relief when the sun is setting: not at all.  The wind stops at the same time as the sun and leaves you to breathe the stultifying air produced by the vapors of the over-heated ground, which are no longer being dissipated by the breeze. 

 

If you want to go out to enjoy the cool of the evening, you find yourself swarmed by an army of mosquitoes, obliging you to go back home immediately and lock yourself in the house.  There are times when, no matter what precautions you take, they torture you all night.  The annoying noise of their buzzing and the sharp prick of their stingers keep you in a state of constant agitation and lead to long and dangerous bouts of insomnia.  What is extraordinary is that  around midnight the weather changes and the ground wind starts to blow more forcefully, cooling the air.  You are tempted to go out and take advantage of the change but you mustn’t do that—as a matter of fact, you need to be sure to cover yourself well, if you don’t want to be exposed to unfortunate ailments.

 

This is not to say that the sun has the same strength the entire year: the winds from the north, which blow from November to March, moderate the heat and bring rains that cool the air.  But those rains are so abundant that the rivers overflow and the roads crack and become nearly impossible to travel on.  Since the rough and humid air causes an infinite number of maladies in that season, that is the time when a missionary is busiest out in the world.  He must swim across rivers, crawl through mud, climb mountains, traverse forests, and expose himself to a thousand incommodities, the least of which is being rained on all day long.  It was in a season like this that we lost Fr. Vanhove.  That missionary, whose zeal pushed him beyond his own capacities, had been called to go see a sick person; he insisted on crossing a river swollen by a storm.  The violence of the water carried him away and it wasn’t until the next day that his body was found, very far from where he had fallen in.  This was how, a victim of his own instinct for charity, he crowned a holy life, with a death that we considered to be a type of martyrdom.

 

Air that is always overheated or thick with malignant vapors will inevitably cause frequent ailments, but it is primarily the newly arrived who suffer from them.  Rare is the person who, upon his arrival, doesn’t pay that tax.  Some of them hold it off for three months, some for six, some for a year or even two, but they are very few who are exempt from it altogether.  The attack is intense and harsh in the first eight days of the sickness; if it lingers, that’s a sure sign that a recovery is in store.  A lack of proper care and sufficient rest are more to be feared than the malignancy of the ailment itself.  If homesickness presents itself as well, the patient falls into a profound melancholy, from which it is very difficult to extract oneself.  Add to that the excessive heat, which is infelicitous even to people in good health and can only be unbearable to those who are stricken with sickness.  I myself lived through such a trial and I thought for a while that I would end up utterly useless to this mission; but, thanks be to God, my health rallied and now I am in better shape than anyone to tolerate the labor.

 

One has only to consider how few missionaries we are here to understand that it is not possible to make as many allowances for the health of a convalescent as would be necessary for his perfect recovery.  When I arrived here, accompanied by several other missionaries, the only thought on the part of those already here was to take full advantage of the long-awaited help we would be able to give.  As soon as we got off the ship, some of us were dispatched to occupy vacant positions and others to serve newly-established districts.  The district to which I was assigned was the largest of the entire mission.

 

The usual ailment attacked me almost immediately.  Because I was so far from the mission-center, I insisted on continuing to fulfill my duties longer than the violence of my sickness allowed.  I dragged myself, as best I could, to the bedsides of sick people;  when I couldn’t stand to go either on horseback or on foot, I had myself carried in a hammock. Often, when I was administering the sacraments, I would fall over from sheer weakness. I finally had to be transported to our house in Cap Français, where my life hung in the balance for a time.  Fr. de la Verouillère left to fill the position that I had vacated, fell ill with the same sickness, and died from it.  Even though I hadn’t yet fully recovered my strength, I had to replace him.  This precipitous return to work caused several relapses which delayed my recovery.  It was this same confluence of work and illness that put Frs. de Baste, Lexi, Allain, and Michel in the grave. If we had been able to spare the newly arrived and let them weather the early sicknesses in our house in Cap Français, where all necessary treatment is available, we wouldn’t have lost those excellent persons, taken by death while they were in their prime. But those of an advanced age are not susceptible to that trial; on the contrary, this climate is salutary for old men and warms their cold, aged bones.  There are several among us who arrived on this island quite elderly.  They have felt themselves reborn here and to this day, they endure the burden of the work with more heart and vigor than the youngest among us.

 

Another trial that can amaze a new missionary, accustomed to the cities of Europe and the social life in the houses of our order, is the solitude; it is extreme, when your ministry doesn’t call for you to travel.  You find yourself alone in a house that is isolated and surrounded by woods and mountains, far from the help that you might need at any hour of the day or night, and at the mercy of two Negroes, whose only goal, in some cases, is to do harm to their master.[5] In the rainy season, when the rivers very often overflow, you sometimes go for as long as eight whole days without seeing anyone.  That is when the gifts of prayer and study are absolutely necessary, to deliver you from boredom.  You can find ways of occupying your time without leaving the house: the decoration and maintenance of the church provide chores to do; you can also apply yourself to the cultivation of a little garden, an activity both pleasant and useful.  French vegetables are commonly grown in such gardens.  That kind of distraction takes away the sad and wild desert-like atmosphere that can make your sojourn even less tolerable.  It is also the only resource we have to subsist on during Lent and on other days of abstinence, since fish is quite rare here—not so much because the rivers or the sea are empty, but rather because the planters are negligent in fishing them.

 

But, you may say, are our houses so far away from each other that we can’t see each other from time to time?  The answer is that those who live on the plain and have neighbors three or  four leagues away, can in fact have some contact with each other, either by visiting in each other’s houses or by going to Cap Français, where the main house is.[6]  But that pleasure, the only one available to us, is much compromised by the hardship of the journey, and by the constant fear that, during our absence, someone will come seek our help for a sick person.  There are many others whose have been assigned to locations that can be accessed only with great difficulty, between rows of mountains, often surrounded by dangerous rivers.  Those missionaries venture out only rarely; some of them I have only seen once in the six years I have been in this mission.  It is true that one might be able to lighten the solitude through interaction with some of the planters; but, for good reasons, we have established a practice of not leaving our houses unless courtesy or charity requires that we do so.

 

Finally, Reverend Father, I will forego talking about all the other incommodities particular to these islands, such as the multitude of insects of all species, some of which are actually poisonous and others merely annoying, and talk instead only about the difficulties associated with our work.  Not the least among them is the necessity of our constant assiduousness with respect to the Negroes.  We sometimes hear the confessions of more than a hundred of them in a single morning.  The odor of the tobacco they insist on smoking, along with that of the sugar-cane brandy of which they are so fond, creates a perfume that can turn the stomach of one who is not yet accustomed to it.  Your natural tolerance is put even more to the test when you are with them during their illnesses.  You find them in their huts, lying on the ground or on a horrid scrap of leather that they use as a bed, amidst muck and refuse, often covered in ulcers from their head to their toes.  The stifling heat of these shacks, which are closed in on all sides and in which there is always a fire burning, and the thick smoke and bad smell that dominate the air make for a brutal exercise for the missionary who must stay there for hours on end, in order to prepare them to receive the sacraments and help them to die a holy death.  Furthermore, as most of them are extremely crude, they require infinite and close attention from us.  It is only by way of pounding the basic principles of religion into their heads, over and over, that we can instruct them.

 

It is with respect to the exercise of confession that we have to work especially hard.[7]  Most of them stand before us like statues, not saying a word unless we interrogate them.  Others drown us in a sea of boring details about a thousand trivialities, which we are obliged to listen to patiently, so as to avoid discouraging them.  Discussion of their petty affairs is another source of difficulty; we are the natural judges of their quarrels and must have extreme patience to listen to them and reconcile the opposing parties.  I won’t even tell you about what we have to suffer at the hands of their masters: here, as in Europe, there are persons of an exemplary and edifying life, but there are others whose undisciplined conduct is a source of worry and affliction for those to whom God has confided the care of their souls.

 

There you have, Reverend Father, a faithful exposition of the labor and suffering that this mission requires of those who consecrate themselves to it.  I do myself the honor of thinking that you will soon come share our labor and our suffering and that the example of a zeal as ardent as yours will rekindle our fervor and help us face more courageously the difficulties associated with our ministry.  I am, with respect, etc.

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

[1] Translator’s note: in French, the Jesuits, as a collective body. are referred as la Compagnie de Jésus.  In English, the order is called “the Society of Jesus.” In Latin, Societas Jesu. (Hence the familiar usage of the initials “S.J.” after a Jesuit’s proper name).

[2] Translator’s note: in French, l’Amérique méridionale, clearly a reference to the French colonies in the Caribbean and, possibly, French Guyana, as opposed to Quebec.

[3] Translator’s note: a French lieue (league) differed at different points in history. In 1725, it appears to have been equivalent to roughly 2.4 miles, meaning that the plantations to which Margat refers here were situated roughly 9.5 to 12 miles from the church.

[4] Translator’s note: a chaise, at the time of the writing of this letter (1725), could have referred either to a sort of closed chair carried through the streets by two servants or a sort of small coach, with either two or four wheels, pulled by horses. Given the information contained in the following sentence, it is clear that Margat is referring here to the latter.

[5] Translator’s note: In French, nuire à leur maître.  It is not clear what nuire à (to do harm to) may mean, in specific terms, for Margat here. More important is his use of leur maître (their master): clearly, slaves were not the personal property of individual Jesuits but rather the property of the mission and, by extension, of the order itself. That said, in a situation such as the one described here, the individual Jesuit missionary would in effect have functioned as the master of his household slaves.

[6] Translator’s note: three or four French leagues, in 1725, would be roughly equal to seven to nine-and-a-half miles.

[7] Here, and in several other instances above, Margat uses the word exercice in a somewhat unexpected way. Rather than try to find a more usual synonym, I have translated it as “exercise,” in order to maintain the slight strangeness of it. Margat’s fondness for the word is no doubt indicative, perhaps unconsciously so, of its particularly Jesuit resonance.  St. Ignatius Loyola’s seminal Spiritual Exercises (1548, first written in his native Spanish and translated into Latin before being published by the Vatican), formed the backbone of Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality and continue to do so to this day. Retreats following the formulae laid out in the Spiritual Exercises are an integral, foundational element of Jesuit formation but are popular among other clergy and laypeople as well.