Letter from Fr. Margat, missionary of the Society of Jesus, to the Procurator General of the missions of the same Society in the Islands of America (20 July 1743)

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

to the Procurator General of the missions of the same Society

in the Islands of America

 

Reverend Father,

The Peace of Our Lord be with you.

 

You have wished for some time to have a detailed account of our missions on the coast of Saint Domingue.  I will satisfy that wish here.

 

We have been working in these missions since 1704.  At first, we found only four or five settled districts in the part of the coast that the King had entrusted to our care.  The colony has seen much growth since that time.  A number of new districts have been formed and, consequently, a number of new parishes.  We have nineteen of them in our district, following along the coast from east to west and then going from north to south, making for a total area of more than a hundred leagues.[1] The smaller parishes comprise six or seven leagues in area; some of the others, as many as thirty.  In the entire district, there are more than one hundred and fifty thousand Negroes.  The number of whites is not nearly so considerable.  There are parishes on the plains whose terrain is flat and uniform; there are many others in mountainous country, full of ravines and very difficult to traverse.

 

I will not repeat here what I described in some detail in one of my previous letters about the climate of Saint Domingue, the various particularities of the land, and the occupations of the missionaries.  In this one, I will limit myself to describing for you the settlement, the progress and the current situation of our missions.

 

The French colonies began spreading out on the island of Saint Domingue near the end of the last century.  Léogane and its surrounding area were already under the jurisdiction of the Dominican fathers, who are called here, as throughout the islands of America, the white fathers.  The portion of the mission that was entrusted to them is still in their charge today.  The area surrounding Cap Français, where the progress of our Frenchmen had been slower, had almost no definite arrangement in the way of spiritual governance.  The few parishes that were there in the beginning were served by the first priests, either secular or regular, who had been brought to the islands either by chance or because they had served as the chaplain of a ship.[2]

 

The mission of Cap Français was later entrusted to the Capuchin fathers and took on a more stable form.[3]  That lasted until about 1702, but a series of deaths, so common in these climates, soon meant that the fathers were no longer in a position to keep the mission going.  So the crown asked the Jesuit superiors to take it over.  Father Gouye, at that time Procurer-General of the missions of the Society in the islands of America, out of deference to the Capuchin fathers, didn’t want to agree to anything until he had conferred with their superiors  in Paris.  Those superiors declared to him in no uncertain terms that they no longer had the ability, nor the will, to send members of their order to the mission in Saint Domingue, and that they were conceding it voluntarily to those who, with the consent of the crown, wanted to take it over.  Hearing this, Father Gouye went to offer the services of his missionaries to the minister; the minister accepted his offer and implored him to send his laborers as soon as possible, because the need for them was urgent.

 

The French on the island of Saint Christopher were, as everyone knows, invaded by the English in 1660.  At that point, the planters were transported to Saint Croix and to Martinique. Most of them ended up subsequently in Saint Domingue, where the new colonists swelled the population considerably. Our mission on Saint Christopher, which had been flourishing, met the same fate as the colony.  The superior received the order to move to Saint Domingue, in order to take possession of the mission in Cap Français.  He set out and landed safely on Saint Louis Cay, the southern-most part of the island of Saint Domingue.

 

In America, the rocks that rise up out of the sea and sometimes form little islands are called “cays.”  On one of these islands, a short distance from the part of the coast called Fond de L’Ile à Vache, the so-called Saint Domingue Company was in the process of building a fort, from the shelter of which they planned to defend all the settlements that the King had allowed them to establish in the entire vast terrain of Fond de L’Ile à Vache.  Of all the territory on the island that belongs to the French, this area is the farthest from Cap Français.  You have to travel almost a hundred leagues over land, and it is a very difficult journey; then there is even farther to go by sea, since you have to go around nearly half of the island, which, in its totality, represents a circuit of no less than three hundred fifty leagues.

 

But apostolic men are never out of their element and find some way of fulfilling their ministry wherever they go.  The missionary waiting for a chance to get to Cap Français spent several months bringing great joy to the entire garrison and all the workers who were constructing the Saint Louis fortress.[4]  He did so with such zeal  and brought such satisfaction to everyone that the director and the commander of the Company did everything they could to keep him on or at least to make him promise to set up a Jesuit mission on that part of the island. The priest gave them the best assurances he could, but in accordance with the urgent orders of his superiors, he nonetheless went to Cap Français, arriving in early July 1704.

 

Cap Français, which is now a sizeable city, was not much of anything in those days and had just begun to recover from the disasters it had suffered in the previous wars, having been burned twice in five years, by the Spanish and the English, united against France.  Those seeking refuge from the colonies of Saint Christopher and Saint Croix had suddenly increased the number of people in the city, which was beginning to be repopulated.  But those wretched colonists, whom the enemy despoiled of all their worldly goods, found themselves in sad circumstances.  This provided ample material for the zeal of the missionary, but no matter how much good will he had, he was able to give them only spiritual assistance—the English had taken away everything the mission on Saint Christopher had been able to acquire and the priest found himself in Cap Français without a new establishment.

 

Charity, which is ingenious, led him to find a resource in the widespread poverty. He spoke of that poverty eloquently and proposed, as a necessary and appropriate remedy, the establishment of an association of pious ladies. Out of a sense of charity and concern, they made it their duty to visit the sick and the needy who wouldn’t dare ask openly for help and to procure for them all the relief necessary.  Because he had a talent for influencing people, he was able to realize his plan.  The most prominent ladies in the city considered it an honor to join in these good works.  Thus, before long, a sodality of ladies of mercy was formed: every year, a superior and a treasurer were elected and each of the other ladies, in turn, was chosen to visit the sick and procure the aid of the sodality for them every month. The ladies didn’t limit their charity to these things: they founded a hospice for men, women and entire families who were ill or had been reduced to charity. Two houses were bought for this purpose and an administrator was appointed, all of this under the direction of the superior of the mission, who brought the ladies together for a meeting every month.  This hospice lasted until 1707, when M. de Charité, the commander-in-chief after the death of M. Augé, needed the land on which the new hospice stood for the new military training- and parade-ground, and thus destroyed all the buildings that were there and enclosed the terrain, without giving any compensation whatsoever to the ladies of mercy.

 

At that time, there were only eight parishes in the area surrounding Cap Français: Cap Français, Morne Rouge, Accul, Petite Anse, Quartier Morin, Limonade, and two in Port de Paix.  Father Gouye, the superior of the mission, realized the need for priests to serve these parishes and had already written, with some success, to all the French Jesuit provinces to stir up zeal and find some missionaries willing to make the commitment.[5]  Father Jean-Baptiste de Pers, of the province of Flanders, was among the first to embark. He arrived in Cap Français on August 24, 1704 and in the course of the year 1705, was joined by Frs. Olivier, Le Breton, Laval and Boutin.  Thus, with the help of two secular priests who happened to be in those districts, the superior of the mission had enough priests, as of that year, to staff all the previously vacant parishes.

 

The mission needed to be given a stable form and that is what Fr. Gouye efficaciously worked at, obtaining letters patent from the King, which were officially registered with Parliament on November 29, 1704.  With these letters, the King established the Jesuits as the spiritual administrators of the French colonies of the coast of Saint Domingue, from Monte Cristo to Mont St. Nicolas, and forbade all secular or regular priests from interfering in that mission without the express consent of the Jesuits.  The superior of Cap Français was established as the superior-general of the mission.

 

The state in which the Jesuit missionaries found the churches in the various parishes was as deplorable as it could be.  Most of them were open on all sides and subject night and day to all sorts of profanations by both men and beasts, without anything to stop them. The one exception was the church in Cap Français, where there was a proper tabernacle, which had been sent by the King.[6]  The first task of the new missionaries was thus to work on the restoration of their churches; Fr. Pers in Limonade, Fr. Boutin in Saint Louis, and Fr. d’Autriche in Port de Paix especially distinguished themselves in this endeavor.

 

Cap Français, which was already the center of the missions and was destined to be the principal city and the capital of the French colony of Saint Domingue, was not distinguished by its church, which was at that time just a poorly constructed wooden building with fence-like walls, in the old style of local construction; what’s more, it was rather dirty and lacking in ornamentation.[7]  It is no doubt in this condition that Fr. Labat, so well known through his memoirs, saw it; indeed, he found such negligence less than edifying  and complains about it bitterly in the description he gives of the place. But when he passed through in 1703, the city was just beginning to rise back up from the two consecutive fires; furthermore, the churches in the colony were prey, so to speak, to any passerby who wanted to loot them and thus could be neither decorated nor maintained as would normally be proper.

 

The zeal of the missionaries awoke the planters, who still felt themselves entitled to live according to the free-wheeling ways of buccaneers, from their indolence.  So large groups of builders were organized with the goal of constructing a church.  Fr. Boutin, who was then serving as parish priest and who had quite recently finished the construction of the church in Saint Louis, which he had undertaken without the help of any builder, took it upon himself to accomplish the same in Cap Français, and so he did.  M. le comte d’Arquian, governor of the city,  was asked to lay the cornerstone.  That was March 28, 1715.  Just three-and-a-half years later, which is very fast, given the typically slow pace of such undertakings on the island, the church was ready to be consecrated on December 22, 1718, under the title of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

 

It is a large stone building, one hundred-twenty feet long and forty-five feet wide.  Generally speaking, it is in good taste, despite being too simple inside and also having too little space for the number of people who live in the city.  The sacristy is well supplied; the decorations are beautiful and holy Mass takes place with as much order and dignity as in any province in France.  There is a bell-tower detached from the main body of the church, a square structure with a rather lovely-sounding bell and a clock whose chimes can be heard throughout the city.

 

I will not take the time here, Reverend Father, to give you the details of the missionaries who have arrived here since that time, nor to indicate the new parishes that have been established as the colony has expanded.  You will get a good idea of those things from the description I will give of the current state of the mission. In doing so, I will run through, rather quickly, the different parishes under the direction of the superior-general, only stopping when necessary, to recount certain particular circumstances which deserve some attention.

 

Cap Français, which originally was just a haphazard collection of a few fishermen’s huts and a few stores serving the needs of those who were about to board ship, is at present a considerable city.  It is built at the foot of a range of mountains, which partly encircle it, forming a sort of crown around the city.  These mountains, which are either cultivated by planters or naturally wooded, make up a varied amphitheater that is not without charm. Most of the city borders the harbor, which is as much as three or four leagues in circumference; it is always filled with a large number of vessels of all kinds.  No fewer than five hundred come here each year, big ones as well as small, which makes for constant movement in the harbor, which in turn lends an atmosphere of liveliness to the city.

 

All the streets are aligned with the harbor and the cross-streets intersect with them at right angles; they are all thirty or forty feet wide.  In the center of town, there is a handsome parade-ground and public square, onto which the parish church faces.  In the middle of the square, there is a fountain and around its edges rows of trees, which provide shade and freshness, have been planted. The houses are not very pretty, but they are cheerful and built to take advantage of the breezes and the proximity of the shops. Cap Français owes its embellishment to three fires.  In order to be protected from such accidents, people have developed a taste for stone buildings. Every day, new stone houses are going up; in addition to being pleasing to the eye, they will be more durable.  The largest buildings in town are the rather handsome barracks where all the soldiers live, and a big building belonging to the crown, overlooking the water, where both the High Council and the lower court hold their sessions.

 

Our dwelling is in one of the highest spots in Cap Français.  You get there by way of a very beautiful avenue of large trees, called Martinique pear trees, because their leaves look something like those of European pear trees.  This row of trees provides both shade and coolness, which cannot be overestimated in a land as hot as this one.  The house itself is not nearly so nice; it is a quadrangle of old buildings lacking in both taste and convenience.  We are very poorly and very tightly housed in it, but the site is lovely and the air very good. The most significant element of it is the chapel, dedicated to Saint Francis-Xavier; it is built entirely of large stone blocks and is very well decorated.  Next to us, separated only by a street, is the convent of the sisters of the order of Notre Dame, whose useful work is the education of the young Creoles.[8] That school, which is so much needed, doesn’t yet have the building it should have.  The late Fr. Boutin, who was its founder, had the greatest zeal and the best intentions in the world, but didn’t have the best taste in architecture.  His only concern was to get something built as quickly as possible, and the buildings that resulted are neither solid nor well proportioned.

 

This city is the official residence of the governor, of the military administration, and of the High Council.  Those bodies, along with the officers of the lower courts, the merchants in the city and in the harbor, and the people—whites as well as blacks and mulattos– coming and going from the plains, make for about ten to twelve thousand people in Cap Français.

 

The impressive hospice of the King, which is located about a half-league out of town and which has an endowment of more than eighty thousand pounds, takes in and treats all the sick paupers and soldiers. In addition, three other charitable establishments have been founded in this city in the past several years and they are a great resource for the poor. The first of these is called the Maison de Providence des hommes. A while ago, one of our missionaries, a parish priest in Cap Français, was touched by the wretchedness of so many of the people who had come here in the hope of getting rich.  Often, with neither the means to buy food nor a place in which to take refuge, they fall into despondency; soon after, stricken with illness, they perish, in the very place where they had hoped to make their fortune. This missionary thought that it would be a very charitable act, and a very useful one for the colony, to found an establishment where these poor people could be taken in and cared for, until some type of work suitable for them, according to their talents and profession, could be found.

 

He confided his plan to a virtuous and intelligent man; the man was favorably disposed to it,  and the two of them immediately put their shoulders to the wheel.  The layman offered a little house and the lot on which it sat, which belonged to him. They decided to construct additional buildings on the site.  The missionary, for his part, took on the task of feeding and caring for the newly arrived poor people. Soon enough, the plan for the establishment was realized and there was no shortage of demand for its services.  The news spread throughout the colony and everyone applauded it and pledged to help out however he could.  The governors general, the chief administrator , and the High Council of Cap Français found out about it, granted their approval, and promised their protection.  A larger site was purchased, at the edge of the city, in the direction of the mountains: there were lodgings, land and Negroes to work it, and many conveniences, among them a wonderful source of water at the foot at the house, which is such a precious advantage in climates like this one. And so the new establishment was moved there.

 

This more stable and more gracious setup soon attracted to the house, now called the Maison de la Providence, considerable advantages.  M. le marquis de Lamage, general of the Leeward Antilles, and M. Maillard, the chief administrator there, came to Cap Français and honored the new house with a visit.[9]  They informed themselves in detail about all that was being done to relieve the  wretched condition of poor. They seemed to be quite satisfied by what they heard, promised their protection, and pledged to obtain, as soon as the house was on an even more stable footing, letters patent from the King, which would be a seal of approval for the establishment.  Following their advice, and that of prominent local men, administrators were appointed and a set of formal policies for the house was drawn up.  Lord de Castelveyre, the man who dedicated his abilities and his efforts to this pious establishment, was the first head of the hospice. He made it his residence and every detail was overseen by him.  Every Monday, there was an administrative meeting, attended by the two lay administrators and the parish priest of Cap Français, who was an ex-officio administrator.

 

[…]

Our house in Cap Français serves a sort of headquarters for the mission. It is the  residence of the superior general, who, from time to time, embarks on a tour of the various parishes and churches.  There are only four of us priests who live full-time in Cap Français, including the superior and two monks.  The parish priest, who has a vicar under him, serves the white planters in the area.  There is a vicar for the Negroes, who also takes care of the sailors.

 

The superior general of the mission is also the superior of the nuns.  The Crown, by way of the letters patent that it gave to them, also places them under the authority of the parish priest of Cap Français.  On weekdays, a first Mass is said in the parish church; the bell announcing it is rung at sunrise.  A second one, the perpetual daily Mass, is said at 7:00, and another one is ordinarily said at 8:00, when possible, for the schoolchildren.  There is indeed a school for boys, but it is fairly unstable. Among the things we most need here are monks from  teaching orders, who take on the important responsibility of educating young men, not seeking mercenary gain, as is the case with those whom we are currently obliged to use, but in the spirit of religion and the desire to procure the glory of God. The youth here are perverse, indocile, flighty, and resistant to hard work.  They have been spoiled by the blind tenderness of their parents and perhaps by the Negroes and Negresses, into whose arms they are delivered the moment they are born.  They nonetheless have no trouble learning how to read and possess a distinct disposition for writing.

 

On Sundays and feast days, aside from the first and second Masses, which are said at the same time as on weekdays, there is in addition a solemn High Mass sung at 8:30, followed by what they call “the Negro Mass,”  because it is especially designated for them.  At that one, hymns are sung, and an explanation of the Gospel is given to the slaves who are present, as well as religious instruction that is proportional to their capacity to understand.  Every Thursday of the year, there is a perpetual service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.[10] Aside from the one held on all Sundays and feast days, there are catechism classes for children three times a week during Lent, in order to prepare them for their First Communion.  On all Sundays and feast days, immediately after Vespers, the vicar to the Negroes also gives a class for his charges.  Every weekday evening, at the end of the day, we gather together as many Negroes as we can, to have a prayer service for them and to prepare the converts for their baptism.

 

Cap Français has held us up for a while, so we will review the parishes of the plains in less detail. The closest one to Cap Français, to the east, is  Petite Anse.  It was one of the first districts established in the colony.  The properties there are admirable: there are nearly fifty sugar mills in operation, several excellent refineries, and at least six thousand Negro slaves.  The number of whites is not nearly as high.  Most of the owners of the plantations in this district, as well as in the neighboring districts, are in France and have their operations managed by overseers and bursars.

 

The parish church of the district is the most beautiful of all those in the area surrounding Cap Français.  It was begun in the time of Fr. Larcher, who was the parish priest there for ten years, and who, through his care, his activity, and the great trust that the parishioners had in him, advanced the building project significantly.  The cornerstone was placed on May 20, 1720, by the Marquis de Sorel, who had recently arrived in Cap Français to serve as Governor General.  The church was not completed until ten years later.  At that time, I was the priest of that parish, a post in which I served for nearly twenty years.  Fr. Larcher was famous throughout the mission for his prudence, his affability, and the indefatigable dedication he deployed in his work, at great cost to himself. He was universally cherished, by the highly-placed and the humble alike, and was named superior of Cap Français in 1720. Shortly thereafter, he was named Apostolic Prefect.  He governed the mission with great gentleness, and was esteemed by all, until 1734.  At that time, his health had taken an extreme turn for the worse, and the doctors considered that only a return to France could make a recovery possible.  He boarded ship on March 10, 1734, Ash Wednesday; but his illness got worse and he died while at sea on April 12.

 

Two leagues from Petite Anse, and a bit to the north, is the church of the Morin district, which has for its patron Saint Louis.  This district exceeds all others in the colony in terms of the quality of its topography, the beauty of its roads, and the wealth of its plantations.  It owes all these attributes, in part, to the late M. de Charité, who was governor of the district, and then lieutenant to the Governor General, in which post he was serving at the time of his death in January 1720. The parish church, which is made of brick and has recently been repaired, is quite pretty and is especially distinguished by its great cleanliness.  There is a Roman-style altar, a baldachin, and a most tasteful tabernacle.[11] The district is very compact, but it is composed entirely of plains, and possesses the best quality terrain you could wish for with respect to cultivation.  There are about the same number of Negroes there as in Petite Anse.

 

The parish of Morin takes great pride, and rightly so, of having had Fr. Olivier as their priest for many years. A native of the French province of Guyenne, he was a man truly worthy of respect, possessing all the virtues required of a missionary.[12]  He arrived in Cap Français in early 1705.  He was small in stature, with a rather weak constitution, which he ruined even more by his austerity and his abstinence, which were nearly incredible.  He had a sweetness, a modesty and a religious simplicity about him, and these qualities would earn him from the first moment the esteem and the trust of all who had dealings with him.  His zeal for the salvation of souls was indefatigable.  As soon as he was called to go see a sick person, he would take off running, no matter the hour, the weather, the heat, nor even the abundant rain, which almost always bring on fevers in travelers who get wet from it.  The Negro slaves always found in him a father and a zealous defender.  He received them with kindness, listened to them with patience, and instructed them with singular effort.  He accompanied these virtues with an intimate union with God, an extreme disregard for himself, self-mortification in all things, and a delicacy of conscience that bordered on scrupulousness.[13]  He spent no less than three hours a day, every day, on the holy sacrifice of the Mass; as much of that time was spent preparing himself for it as for the offering itself, which was followed by prayers of thanksgiving.

 

He served as superior until 1720.  He had already fallen prey to a leg ailment, to which he seemed to pay no attention. But he nonetheless found himself in no condition to serve a parish and asked permission to go live on a plantation that we have in Terriers Rouges, where he served as the overseer of that property.[14]  There, he gave himself over to his attraction to prayer and meditation, which he interrupted only in order to apply himself to the instruction of our Negroes and to the various temporal concerns arising from his job as overseer.  It was while living in this solitude that the wound on his leg healed, but soon after, he was fell prey to the malady from which he would die.  He saw his last moment approaching and greeted it with a resignation, a constancy, and a joy worth of the holy life he had always led.  He died on March 28, 1731, at the age of approximately fifty-eight, having been in the mission for twenty-six years and having served as its superior for four of them.  His memory is the object of extreme veneration here, and everyone in the colony considered him a saint.

 

Heading toward the east, one finds Limonade, which is halfway between the Morin district and Petite Anse.  This district is in no way inferior to the other two, neither for the quality of the terrain, nor for the quantity of slaves.[15] The patron saint of the church there is Saint Anne.  It is already quite old and is built solely of wood, but it has rich silver vessels and much ornamentation.  Every year, on the Feast of Saint Anne, after whom the church is named, many people from all the districts in the colony come flocking.[16]

 

[…]

 

[T]o the district of Petite Anse, which I have described to you above, corresponds the district of Dondon, which is situated in the thick of the mountains, to the south of Petite Anse. Not many years ago, it was only a hunting ground; it has only been in the past twenty years that the area has been cultivated and that a number of plantations, which today make up a fine district, have come into being.  There is an established parish, with its own priest in residence, a monk from the great order of Cluny.[17]

 

It was in this parish that Fr. LePers, one of the most famous and hardest-working missionaries of  the dependency, died, eight years ago. He had been here longer than any other priest in the mission, having arrived in 1705.  Fr. LePers, despite his very simple and much-neglected appearance, had a very good mind, a fortunate memory, a healthy sense of judgment, but especially much candor and an extremely charitable heart.

 

During the thirty years that he lived in the mission, there were few places in which he did not work, leaving monuments to his zeal in each of them.  What he liked best was to confine himself in the least-civilized and least-inhabited spots, which he took pleasure in molding.  As soon as he had gotten things up and running, and the churches and rectories were in proper condition, he would immediately ask for a successor, and would move on to another district, in order to continue the same work there. This indicates, as you see, Reverend Father, a man quite detached from himself, since people naturally like to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Fr. LePers kept only the labor for himself and left for others the sweetness of an establishment that only required a bit of fine-tuning.  His character was a kind of philosophy, founded on religion.  Indifferent to anything related to temporal life, he seemed not to even know of the existence of such things or at least not to pay them any attention unless extreme need obliged him to attend to them.  There was no kitchen to be found in the places where he took up residence. Almost always traveling, his only provisions were  a few hard-cooked eggs and some cheese.  He would stop alongside the first stream he came across and take his frugal refection there. Often, he would get carried away with the pleasure of collecting specimens of native plants, which led him to ramble in the woods and the mountains, and his Negro would have to remind him that it was time to take some nourishment.  Along with all of this, he also had great zeal for the salvation of souls, and a special attraction to, and particular talent for, the guidance of Negroes.  In addition, he had a great affability, which made him amiable in social interactions, despite the fact that he was of a very retiring nature and only engaged in contact with laypeople when he thought it necessary for their salvation or wanted to satisfy his curiosity about local history.

 

That study of history was the only diversion he allowed himself amidst his apostolic labors.  Since he arrived early on in the life of the mission, he was able to find many early colonists, a few pirates, and some other people who were eyewitnesses of events that had taken place not long before, in the early days of the establishment of the French in this colony.  It was based on their recollections, each one correcting and elaborating on the others, that he was able to write a history of Saint Domingue.  In Oviedo and other Spanish historians, he found accounts of the earlier period, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s enterprise and ending with the arrival of the first Frenchmen and their exploits on the coast.[18] To all of this, he added information about the present state of the island, much of which he had visited, and about its natural history, based on what he had been able to study first hand, while also taking advantage of the enlightenment provided by Oviedo, d’Acosta, and other sources.[19]  For a long time, he kept his work in the form of a manuscript, being unsure of its style (which does, in fact, have many faults).  He finally made up his mind to send his papers to Father de Charlevoix, who, in his history of Saint Domingue, acknowledges the use he made of the writings of Fr. LePers.[20]

 

[…]

 

At the foot of the mountains of Dondon is situated the district of Grande Rivière, where there is a parish, of which Saint Rose is the patron.  This parish is equidistant from Limonade, the Morin district, and Petite Anse, approximately two leagues from each of them.  […]

Twenty years ago, this district was one of the most inhabited and the most flourishing.  The planters, despite being of a mediocre station in life, led quite comfortable lives there.  Indigo and tobacco, for which the district had a good reputation, kept them solidly afloat.  This felicitous situation was disturbed by one of most furious instances of the river overflowing that has ever been seen.  It happened on October 22, 1722.  The river came down fast as lightning from the top of the mountains, where its source is located.  The swollen waters spread out everywhere and carried away houses, gardens, men and livestock.  The path of the water, while less obstructed at the end of its route, was nonetheless violent.  The river flowed into all the streams and ravines along its way; having swollen them, it flowed with them into the plain.  The Morin district, Petite Anse, and Limonade  were all partly flooded.  The flood tore sugar cane out of the ground, uprooted hedgerows, took down trees, demolished houses, and dragged everything with it, even the enormous copper and potin cauldrons in which sugar is made. It caused inestimable damage everywhere it went.

 

The planters of Grande Rivière, as well as others who were nearby and still others who were in especially vulnerable situations, were the hardest hit.  Many whites, caught off guard by this sudden, nocturnal inundation, perished.  A much greater number of Negroes were drowned, as well as much livestock of all species.  The planters who escaped such a cruel fate went from being rich to finding themselves the very next day without Negroes, without land, without money, and some of them without family and without a place to live. The charity of the faithful shone forth brilliantly on this occasion.  Collections were taken up in all the districts of Cap Français area.  Alms were given in abundance.  They were distributed by the hands of the missionaries, according to the loss that each planter was estimated to have suffered.  This relief, though prompt and offered to all, was nonetheless unable to repair the damage that the flood had caused to the district.

 

Since the roads had been washed out and the fields either covered with pebbles or buried beneath the water, some of the planters were obliged to abandon their plantations and others to sell them for next to nothing.  Those who stayed learned a lesson from their misfortune and have since moved their properties to the mountainsides.[21]

 

Fr. Méric was at that time the priest of the parish.  His apostolic zeal often led him to decry forcefully two vices that were common in the district, drunkenness and immodesty.  This is not to say that there were not good, upstanding people who shuddered along with the missionary at the number of transgressions and public scandals, which nothing could prevent. Fr. Méric made these transgressions the usual subject of his discourse to his parishioners. Realizing that all his efforts were yielding little, he felt extraordinarily motivated one day by some impieties that had recently been  committed in a cabaret located fairly close to the church.  He spoke about the matter with more vehemence than usual in a sermon at Mass in the parish, on a day when the Blessed Sacrament was on display.  He called on Jesus Christ to witness the outrages that had been committed against Him. Suddenly carried away by a wave of emotion beyond his control, he said to the parishioners: “Well then, since my speeches and my remonstrances have borne so little fruit so far, you should know that soon God will let you know that you can’t going on committing outrages without suffering the consequences.”  Three or four days later, the terrible flood took place, devastating the district in such a way that it would never be able to recover.  I heard this story from Fr. Méric himself, and it has since been confirmed by a number of the planters who were present there that day.

 

[…]

 

So you see, Reverend Father, that we are far from having enough missionaries to be able to staff all the parishes in the area surrounding Cap Français. But what can we do? This island is a land that devours its inhabitants.[22] The initial maladies are terrible to endure and most people succumb to them.  Fifty-six Jesuits have died since the founding of this mission in 1703.  The Jesuit missionaries who remain are almost all elderly, infirm, and nearing the end of their lives.

 

Nonetheless, Reverend Father, this mission is one of the finest we have.  Nowhere are things flourishing more than in the French colonies of Saint Domingue, where there are signs of new progress every day.  I won’t even mention the good works that need to be done here, because I have outlined that in sufficient detail elsewhere. I will close this letter with a well-deserved song of praise to the memory of Fr. Pierre-Louis Boutin, whom the mission lost on December 22 of last year.  Everyone considers him to be the apostle of Saint Domingue, and rightly so.  He arrived here, as I have said, in 1705, and during the thirty-seven years he spent in the mission, he provided a constant example of heroic virtue–a virtue which, far from flagging for a single moment, seemed on the contrary to increase in strength until the very end of his days.  The reputation of his merit and of his sanctity spread through all of France some years before his death, especially in the seaports and among the sailors, with whom he had a special rapport, having taken it upon himself to look after the waterfronts, where he exercised all of his priestly functions. The sailors talked only of Fr. Boutin, who was both their father and their spiritual guide.

 

This holy missionary was a native of Tour Blanche, in Perigord, and was received as a Jesuit in the province of Guyenne. Everything about him seemed to indicate an eminent holiness: his face, pale and thin; his extremely modest gaze, despite lively eyes that would light up when he preached or talked about God; his voice, which was surprisingly loud coming from such a thin, even gaunt, body.  His style of preaching was simple and without pretense.  He spoke of the abundance of the heart and sought more to correct people’s morals than to please their ears or flatter their minds.  He had, nonetheless, flashes of pronounced eloquence, accentuated by the booming tones of his voice, which instilled terror in the souls of even the most hardened of his listeners.  His moral code was severe and his appearance suggested nothing but austerity, but penitent sinners were nonetheless sure to  find in him all the charity and all the gentleness needed to bring them back to Jesus Christ.  Hearing confessions was thus one of the most arduous and continual occupations of his life.  He showed up at the parish church as the day was breaking and always stood ready to listen to those who wanted to talk to him. You could always find him, especially  on Sundays and feast days,  faithfully manning his post.  He paid particular attention, willingly, to sailors and Negroes; he listened to them with patience and never ended a conversation with them without having given them instruction according to their individual needs.

 

His first attempts to put his zeal into action, as soon as he arrived at the mission, were in Accul, and then in the most remote places, which is to say the most difficult.  I have already told you in part about what he did in Port-de-Paix and in Saint Louis; for a time, he had sole charge over those two immense districts.  You can’t imagine the fatigue he endured in the building of the church at Saint Louis.  He had the misfortune of finding that the commandant of those districts was predisposed against him, by way of false reports, meaning that, far from being  supported or helped in the enterprise of building a church, he was constantly thwarted and disturbed in his task. But Fr. Boutin’s character was firm by nature, when it came to the glory of God and the spiritual well-being of his neighbor, and that same character buoyed him in the midst of such opposition. Furthermore, M. le Comte de Choiseul, then Governor General of the colony, had taken note of this discord; full of zeal for religion and friendship for the Jesuit missionary, he exercised his authority to put a stop to it, ordering that the priest no longer be disturbed in his pious work. Fr. Boutin thus continued his work and managed to finish the church, not only by way of his labor, but also through the money he set aside from his own food budget, having received special permission from our Reverend Father General to do so.  This work, and the continual tasks he had to attend to in such difficult and far-flung areas resulted in an unfortunate blow to his health, which was rather robust by nature.

 

After having worked for nine years in different parishes in the area, he was ordered by the superior to serve in Cap Français, and it was there that his zeal and his apostolic talents shone forth in a singular way.  In his role as parish priest there, he found himself, as I have said, charged with the task of leading the church that the planters were having built at the time.  He suffered more than a little at the hands of certain malicious spirits, the type who have no desire to do good, and who are jealous when they see others doing so.  The sainted missionary, having explained the reasons behind his actions to those who were willing to listen, demonstrated to the others nothing but unwavering patience and continual assiduousness in pushing forward the project that had been undertaken.  He was no less assiduous in church, nor in his ministry to the sick, for whose care God had given him a particular talent.  Countless times we wondered, and are still wondering, how it was possible that a single man was able to accomplish, on his own, so much work and of such different types.

 

He nonetheless appeared unflappable, regardless of the task at hand; his outer composure was the sign of the inner tranquility he enjoyed, even in the midst of the most exhausting occupations.  This could only be the fruit of true union with God,  who was always present to him, and of whom he never seemed to lose sight, as long as he lived.  It is certain that he fulfilled to the letter the precept set forth in the Gospel to pray without ceasing.  He was always up at the hour indicated by the Jesuit rule of life; after his personal meditation, he would go to the house-chapel, where, having woken the Negroes of the house from their slumber, he would lead them in prayer.  Then he would go over to the parish church and would stay on his knees until someone showed up at the confessional.  He sometimes spent two or three hours in that posture, in a state of meditation and devotion, thereby providing a great example to all.  It was said that his body must have been made of iron, to be able to hold for so long, and in such a hot country, such an uncomfortable posture.

 

Respecting his vow of obedience, in several instances, he left his position as parish priest in Cap Français and limited himself to the care of Negroes and sailors.  It was only recently that an ordinance was enacted with respect to sick sailors, sparing the priest who has that responsibility much difficulty.  The rule is that the commanders of ships must transport any sick sailors on board to a building in town, where, if necessary, they are given the last rites of the Church; from there, they must be transported to the hospital.[23]  Before this ordinance, the missionary had to travel almost a full league across the harbor and go from ship to ship in a dinghy, wherever there were sick men. This meant that, in many cases, the missionary would have just returned from one ship when he was called to another, and this went on at all hours of the day and night.

 

The care of Negroes in Cap Français is an exhausting task.  There are more than four thousand of them, including both the city and the surrounding area of the parish,  which extends for a full league, into the mountains, where there are  many plantations, each one higher up the mountain side than the next and very difficult to access.

 

Fr. Boutin made a specific study of the guidance and instruction of Negroes, which requires steadfast patience and zeal.  They are a crude people, and their minds are hard to penetrate. They express themselves with difficulty in a language they cannot understand and which they never manage to speak well.  But the sainted missionary considered these wretches to be a chosen people, extracted from their land by Providence, in order to lead them to heaven, by way of the misery and the captivity to which their condition had subjected them. Through long and stubborn labor, he eventually managed to understand them and to make himself understood by them.  He acquired a sufficient familiarity with the languages of all the peoples  of the coast of Guinea who are transported to our colonies, an infinitely difficult task, because those barbarous languages, which have nothing in common with any known language, are furthermore very different each from the other. A Senegalese, for example, can in no way understand a Congolese, and so forth.

 

He made use of this knowledge when working with the newly-arrived Negroes who, fallen ill before having been able to learn enough French to be prepared for baptism, would otherwise not have been able to receive that grace before their death.  As for those who, after some time in these colonies, had begun to understand a little French, Fr. Boutin, in the public instruction he gave them, adjusted the style of those discourses to their way of speaking, a sort of gibberish they never get beyond, and in which it is necessary to talk to them if one wants to be understood. This method of instruction is quite off-putting, as the limited intelligence of a Negro requires that, in order to see your work bear any fruit, you restate the fundamental precepts of religion in a hundred different ways and according to his ways of thinking.

 

Fr. Boutin was the first to have the heads of households that owned Negroes to be baptized to send them every evening to the front steps of the church, where he would give them lessons in the catechism, in order to prepare them to receive holy baptism; this practice still continues today.  For the baptism of adults, he followed the ancient custom of the Church: that is, with the exception of a few particular circumstances, he performed that type of baptism only twice a year, on Holy Saturday and the eve of Pentecost.  Those were days of incredible fatigue for him, with no fewer than two or three hundred adults to be baptized at a time.

 

It was also he who established, on Sundays and feast days, a special Mass for the Negroes, which was said shortly after the High Mass for the parish. He would begin the Mass with spiritual hymns about the holy sacrifice, which he would sing, having them repeat each verse after him. Then he would lead them in the ordinary morning prayers. After the reading of the Gospel of the day, he would explain it to them.  All of this was done in accordance with their style, but he would also, every so often, add in some things for the edification of the whites who were in attendance.  He would end the Mass with the usual catechism. This meant that, on those days, he would stay in the church until almost noon.  This was so regularly the case that, in the twenty-three years he was in Cap Français, he was absent scarcely one time.  His dedication was made possible, no doubt, by a special blessing from the Lord, which, despite Fr. Boutin’s seemingly feeble constitution, upheld him in such continual labor and in a climate where the violent heat exhausts and cuts down even those who do no work at all.

 

Abstinence had become such a part of his life that you might say that, for him, Lent lasted all year along.  It was rare to see him eat anything before noon. He didn’t go home until around that time, exhausted by his usual duties; but he never complained.  At meals, he ate only the most common foodstuffs and drank only water reddened by a dash of wine.  After the meal, especially in the evening, he would go to the chapel and, on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament, spend as much time as our rule of life permits for some sort of diversion, for this sainted man knew no other form of relaxation.  He ended his day leading the Negroes of the house in prayer, which he had them do every day, morning and evening.

 

[…]

 

Fr. Boutin seemed to enjoy fairly good health for a period of many years.  During the twenty-three years he was in Cap Français, at most he had taken to his bed once or twice, while the most robust constitutions  of many of our newly-arrived missionaries yielded every day to the violence of the maladies that carry away so many people in these colonies.  He was a sort of prodigy, who amazed everyone: how could a man so dried up, so emaciated, so heavily burdened by so much work, and so unwilling to spare himself in any way, not only remain on his feet but accomplish a list of tasks long enough to keep several men busy?

 

Nonetheless, his time finally came.  We had noticed for several months that he had been declining, despite the fact that he complained of nothing and that there were no changes at all in his usual daily routine.  Suddenly, he was attacked by a bout of pleurisy, which didn’t seem to be extremely dangerous at first.  We even thought that he was pulling out of it, when all of a sudden he was near death.  His death was like his life: in the few days he was in bed, he had the same tranquility, the same patience, and the same union with God; he spoke to men only when necessity or courtesy required it.  His illness lasted only four or five days.  He viewed death with a calm eye and accepted it with perfect resignation.  His entire life had been but a preparation for this last passage. Just a few days before, he had completed the annual retreat that he never failed to undertake, in accordance with our rule of life.  He received the last rites with the same sentiments that he himself had inspired so many times in others.  From that moment, until the point where he lost all ability to speak, he never stopped praying, not even during the delirium that preceded his agony. That is how deeply he had ingrained the habit in himself.  It was thus that the Lord chose to crown a life that all of us here believe to have been in no way inferior to the most venerable and edifying examples ever given by members of our order.  He died on Friday, November 21, 1742, at sixty-nine years and several months of age.

 

Because we had allowed ourselves to believe that his illness wouldn’t amount to anything, given that he had seemed to be out of danger Friday evening, the news of his death, announced Saturday morning, and which spread everywhere in a flash, caused general distress in the entire city.  He had been known everywhere, and loved and respected everywhere and so his death was universally mourned.  In that, there was no difference between the whites and the blacks: everyone openly lamented the loss that had befallen the entire colony, everyone sang his praises endlessly, and no one doubted  for an instant that he was among the most blessed, highly exalted souls in heaven.    His body was displayed for viewing in our house-chapel and all day long, a prodigious parade of people from all stations in life hastened there, to offer him not only their sorrow but also their veneration.  We saw happen all the things that usually happen at the death of a saint, and in particular the ardent desire to have a scrap or two of his poor clothing or some other object that had been used by him.

 

Since there were so few of us missionaries in Cap Français, we were preparing to celebrate the funeral rites with little pomp, in our house-chapel.  But there was no resisting the public outcry and the repeated insistence of all the wardens of the parish church, who were asking, on behalf of everyone, that, if we were not willing to give them Fr. Boutin’s body to be buried in their church, at least we not deny them the consolation of his presence during the funeral service.  The superior general felt that he had to give in to such unanimous fervor, which was also such an honor to the memory of the departed.  The crowd was large and it would have been much larger if all the inhabitants of the plain had had time to make their way there.  Those from the far-flung districts who were unable to attend nonetheless demonstrated how touched they were by the loss.  It can truly be said that there was no difference of opinion on that matter.  The entire colony erected, in their hearts and in their memories, a monument far more precious than those that are erected so often, and at such great expense, to politics and vanity.

I am, etc.

Cap Français, July 20, 1743.

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

[1] Translator’s note: One hundred French leagues would equal roughly 240 miles.

[2] Translator’s note: A “secular” priest refers to an ordained priest who does not belong to any particular order or congregation, such as the Jesuits (the term comes from the Latin word  saeculum, in this case referring to “the world,” life outside of religious orders and their houses). A “regular” priest would be a priest who does belong to a specific order or congregation  (the term comes from the fact that he would follow the rule of life of his order—in Latin, regula).

[3] The Capuchin order is an offshoot of the Franciscans, founded in 1528 in an effort to return to a rule of life that more closely resembled the original intentions of St. Francis.

[4] Translator’s note: There is an odd usage here: “Le missionaire […] s’occupa pendant quelques mois à faire gagner le jubilé à toute la garnison…”  The word jubilé´has several very specific meanings in French (including one concerning a plenary indulgence granted by the Pope), none of which appears to apply here. Given that fact, and the context of what is being said here, I am assuming that Margat is, erroneously, using jubilé in lieu of the much more general jubilation (joy). There is, of course, a possibility that my assumption is wrong and that Margat is in fact referring to some sort of specific ecclesiastical benefit earned by the inhabitants of the garrison.

[5] Translator’s note: Margat is clearly using the word province here in the specifically Jesuit  sense (a regionally specific administrative unit, akin to a diocese), rather than in its much more common usage (regions of France, such as Normandy, Brittany, Provence, and so forth).

[6] Translator’s note: A tabernacle is a small cabinet, usually located on or near the altar of a church, in which the consecrated host or “reserved sacrament”, believed by Catholics to be the Body of Christ, is stored.  As such, it is the object of the utmost reverence. Note that this differs from a common Protestant usage of the word, which often refers simply to the interior of a church.

[7] Translator’s note: The comments in this sentence about the condition of the church in Cap Français clearly seem to contradict those in the previous paragraph.

[8] Translator’s note: In this particular context, “Creoles” would have been whites born in the New World. In other, contemporaneous letters, however (see Bréban), the term créole is used to designate slave born in the colonies, as opposed to those transported from Africa,

[9] Translator’s note: The Leeward Islands, les Iles-Sous-le-Vent in French, are a group of islands at the intersection of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. The group includes both former English and former French colonies; among the French islands are St. Martin, St. Barthélemy, St. Christopher (for a long time, shared by the English and the French), and Guadeloupe and its dependencies (La Désirade, the Iles des Saintes, and Marie-Galante). They are not to be confused with the other group of islands that goes by the same name (Iles-Sous-le-Vent), in French Polynesia.

[10] Translator’s note: In the Roman Catholic (and, in some cases, Anglo-Catholic) tradition, “Benediction” is a service in which the consecrated host (the “Blessed Sacrament”) is enshrined in a vessel known as a “monstrance,” which include a “lunette,” a small glass circle in which the actual host may be seen. The priest, wearing a wide stole-like vestment (a “humeral veil”), used only for this particular liturgy, lifts up the monstrance and ceremonially displays it to the faithful, who respond with specific prayers of adoration.

[11] Translator’s note: A baldachin is a canopy, usually made of stone (often marble), and usually found above an altar. In this context, it was surely not made of marble, but Margat does not specify what the material in question was. A tabernacle is small cabinet in which the consecrated host is housed; a tabernacle is usually found on or near the high altar of a church.

[12] Translator’s note: Guyenne was formerly a province of France, a region that corresponds more or less to the archbishopric of Bordeaux.

[13] Translator’s note: “Scruples” and “scrupulousness” are used somewhat differently in a traditional Roman Catholic context than is generally the case.  In church tradition, a “scruple” refers to an excessive, perhaps even irrational, fear that an act or thought constitutes a sin when in fact it does not. “Scruples” can thus be stumbling blocks to grace, rather than necessary and appropriate steps toward it. In the case presented here, Margat seems to be implying that Fr. Olivier was extremely conscientious, almost to the point of excess (without, one assumes, crossing the line into the dangerous territory of actual “scrupulousness”).

[14] Translator’s note: In French, il donna ses soins en qualité de procureur. As noted elsewhere, the terms used to designate the various jobs administering a plantation are difficult to translate exactly. Here, I have chosen “overseer,” but “manager” might also have been an appropriate choice.

[15] Translator’s note: In French, la quantité d’esclaves. Ordinarily, one would say “the number” rather than “the quantity” but I have translated Margat’s quantité literally, in order to preserve its oddness and the possible underlying implication thereof (i.e., slaves viewed as a single commodity, rather than as individual human beings).

[16] Translator’s note: The Feast of St. Anne is July 26. The choice of St. Anne as the patron saint of a church in a colony with a slave-based economy may or may not have something to do with the fact that she is also the patron saint of Brittany.  Nantes, the epicenter of slave-related wealth and commerce in France, is historically and culturally part of Brittany.

[17] Translator’s note: Monks of the order of Cluny (“Cluniac monks”) were Benedictines, albeit of a specific sort. The order no longer exists.

[18] Translator’s footnote: Gonzalo Fernández de Olviedo y Valdés (1478-1557) was a Spanish historian who took part in the establishment of Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and then wrote a first-hand account of what he had seen and experienced (La Historia general de las Indias,  first published, in a partial edition, in Spain, in 1535, and soon translated into both English and French. It was widely read and remains one of the very few extant primary sources on the earliest phase of Spanish colonialism in the Caribbean.  He said that his chivalric romance, Libro del muy esforzado e invincible caballero Don Claribalte, was written during his time in Santo Domingo; it is thus believed by some to be the first literary work written in the New World.

[19] Translator’s note: José de Acosta (1539-1600) was a Spanish Jesuit missionary in the New World (Peru, Mexico) and a naturalist. His seminal book was Historia natural y moral de las Indias, which treated not only the natural history but also the cultural history of indigenous peoples in what would become the Spanish colonies in the New World. It was first published in Spain, in 1590, and was soon translated into several languages, including French.

[20] Translator’s note: Pierre François-Xavier de Charlevoix (1682-1761) was a French Jesuit historian considered by some to be the first chronicler of the French colonies in the New World. The work in question here is his Histoire de l’Ile espagnole ou de S. Domingue, écrite particulierement sur des memoires manuscrits du P. Jean-Baptiste Le Pers, jesuite, missionaire à Saint Domingue, et sur les pieces originales, qui se conservent au Depôt de la marine. The work was published in Paris, in three volumes, vol. I in 1730, vol. II in 1731, and vol. III in 1733. Margat is writing in 1743.

[21] Translator’s note: In French, les côtières des montagnes. The word côtière is an adjective that corresponds more or less to “coastal,” so this usage is idiosyncratic (and possibly local), as evidenced by the fact that it appears in italics in Margat’s text.

[22] Translator’s note: In French, ses habitans. In virtually every other instance in this letter, and others, I have translated habitan as “planter,” and the context has justified that choice. Here, however, habitan clearly means the much more general “inhabitant.”

[23] Translator’s note: In French, les faire transporter dans un magasin au Cap. There are several specific meanings of magasin, none of which seem to fit here in any obvious way, so I have chosen to go with the generic term “a building in town.”