Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Memoir of a Pioneer Trappist Monk in North America

Book of Memoir is a short book by Father Vincent de Paul, a Trappist Monk who fled the French Revolution and settled in America. He hoped to live a quiet monk's life in a secluded monastery, but instead circumstances made him a missionary to the wide variety of peoples found on our continent.
The reverend Father Abbot, of La Trappe, Dom Augustin, (De Lestrange) foreseeing that Bonaparte would seek to destroy the communities existing in Europe, resolved on sending a party of his religious to America, in order that they might establish themselves there and preserve their monastic state.

In 1812, I, in company with two other brothers, was sent by him to the United States, there to found an establishment of our Order. We left Bordeaux on the 15th June, and on the 6th of the month of August we arrived at Boston. We had with us one of our Trappistines, whose object was also to found a community; with this intention she had preceded her companions, but now found herself alone, as passports were refused to the other sisters.
Father Vincent was offered 2000 acres for his monastery in Pennsylvania, but first he had to find the land:
Travelling through these immense and trackless forests was very difficult, and we often went astray.
We moderns complain about too much, I think.
We wished to find a little hut that we had built in the woods in which to sleep; nightfall was coming on, and there seemed no chance of finding our camp before sundown. I said to the child: "here is a low, flat rock, on which I will spend the night." He replied that if I remained there I should be devoured by the bears, of which there were a great number on these mountains; we had already heard their cries and hideous howlings. At length, thanks be to God, we found the cabin, which was not a very safe refuge for us, as it was only a little hut built of young trees. The two novices and I slept there like Indians, either on the bare ground or on couches formed by heaps of the branches of trees.

Having no provisions with us we were obliged for the first few days to eat what we could find in the woods, such as certain little blue berries that they call "bluets," and other wild fruits, which the people of the country despise....

I often said mass in our cabin. One day we made a cross and carried it in procession for nearly a mile: we sang psalms, and part of the way went barefoot, until we reached the spot where we planted the cross, which was our consolation and our safeguard, as there were in this desert a great number of rattlesnakes and other reptiles no less dangerous. When we left our retreat we would sometimes step upon them and would hear the noise that these serpents make with their rattles.
The land was unsuitable, and eventually the monks moved to Maryland:
We built a house for ourselves, which consisted of trees placed one upon another—what is called in this country a loghouse. It was small, being only eighteen feet long, and as many wide. We shortly commenced another which would serve as a chapel. The negroes of the country—who are all Catholics—gave us a helping hand in this work....
Maryland seemed at first a fine place:
Maryland produces an abundance of Indian corn, the cultivation of which is the chief work of the negroes. We subsisted almost entirely upon this food, with potatoes and occasionally bread; wheat, however, and buckwheat grow very well. We arrived there at the beginning of the year 1813, and during the winter we were occupied in cutting down trees and preparing the land for work in the spring, so that when that season arrived we had an acre and a half of land under cultivation. Part of this we planted with potatoes, another part was a garden where we sowed different vegetables, and we also laid out an orchard of young fruit trees.
Things were not what they seemed, however:
So far everything looked well, but when summer came, and while we were working most zealously we all fell ill with fever, and many of us were attacked with dysentery. I attribute these maladies to many causes,—first to the miasma or poisonous vapors exhaled from newly cleared land, then to the great heat and the bad water that we had to drink, which, though it had been pure enough in the winter and spring, had become bad by reason of a multitude of little insects that were perpetually drowning themselves in it. Another reason that contributed to render us ill was the number of different sorts of flies by which we were devoured day and night. There were among others two species of flies which in this country they call tics. Some of them are large, others are small, they fasten themselves to the skin and so penetrate into the flesh that one can only remove them by pulling them to pieces, even then a part remains and causes an insupportable itching.
Eventually, the monks had to leave America:
King Louis XVIII had been restored to the throne of France, and religion was being re-established in that country. Almost all our brothers were dispersed here and there throughout Europe, and it would be necessary to reunite them. Persuaded, besides, that he would receive more help in France than in the United States, and in short, reflecting that there would perhaps be more good to be done yet in the old world than in the new, (the Revolution having been the cause of such wickedness and having done so much harm) our Father Abbot decided that he and his community would return to France.
Father Vincent started on his journey:
About the middle of the month of May, 1815, our business being concluded, we left New York, and fifteen days later arrived at Halifax, without having experienced bad weather. After two week's delay in searching for another vessel, we at length found one, and by means of the recommendation of Mr. Burke, then pastor of the town, and since Bishop, we were taken on board with our seven trunks without being obliged to pay anything for our passage. The ship was a transport called the "Ceylon," and was delayed by contrary winds. The second day after we embarked the wind still being from a wrong quarter, I was stupid and imprudent enough to go ashore to see about some business that was not of grave importance—when lo! the wind veered round suddenly and became favorable. The ship sailed, but Father, Vincent remained and lost his passage!

I thus found myself alone in a strange country, and without means. I made every effort to discover some way of overtaking the ship, but in vain. It was impossible to do so, and I felt very sad at the thought of my brothers being carried so far away from me.

My Superior in France, to whom I made known this event, wrote to me that as God had permitted it, I could remain until farther orders, and occupy myself with the salvation of the Indians; for which object I accordingly labored up to the time of my leaving Nova Scotia, that is to say up to the month of October, 1823.

...we were only two priests for the town of Halifax and its suburbs, where there were many Catholics, without counting the Mic-macs, who are the Indians inhabiting Nova Scotia. These Indians were called to the Faith about four centuries ago. French priests or Jesuits coming at the peril of their lives, brought them the light of the Gospel. Many of these ministers of our Lord fell victims of their own zeal and charity, being murdered by this nation, then pagan and barbarous. Since these Indians became acquainted with the true religion they have never been known to conform to any other, but have preserved their firmness in the faith up to the present day in spite of the danger of perversion to which they are so often exposed, more especially since they have lived among the English....
This area kept the Faith until the 1970s, when government money and power seduced the people to live secular lives.

Here is an example of his mission circuit:
Tracadie was usually my starting place when I left for the Indian mission of Cape Breton. I had from eighteen to twenty leagues to journey by water, making long circuits and paddling round twelve or fifteen little islands, and passing near many others. Nevertheless it only takes one day to make the journey in a bark canoe, that is if the wind be not contrary. The Micmacs of the Cape (Breton) knowing that I was on the road and would soon arrive at the mission [Footnote: This place is called "Mission" or "The Mission of the Bras d'or," because it is there that the missionaries are accustomed to confess, baptize and administer the Sacraments to the Indians, and to those who present themselves to receive them. It is a pretty little island on which they have built a nice chapel, and a house sufficiently commodious for the priest.] would all gather there to the number of five or six hundred. On the occasion referred to above, three canoes came to meet us. (I was then accompanied by another missionary). This was to do honor to us, to show respect and gratitude. When we approached near to the island two of these canoes were sent on ahead to announce to the king that we would arrive immediately, The king had all his braves armed (for they all have guns) and the moment we landed he commanded them to fire, after which he formed them into two lines and made them kneel to receive our benediction; they then rose and we passed between them. They accompanied us to the church where we chanted the Te Deum, or rather it was chanted by themselves in thanksgiving for our arrival. This is about the ordinary ceremony to honor the arrival of a missionary. When the mission was opened, after having implored the light of the Holy Spirit, they all confessed, and a great number received Holy Communion. I made the Stations of the Cross partly in their own Micmac language....
But elsewhere in this colony things were not so good:
For some time I was the only missionary there, and obliged to traverse forty or fifty leagues by land and by sea. I found every where colonies who were Catholic, as well as many persons who were not. If some zealous priests would go to carry spiritual help to all these people who are in a measure abandoned, they would perform a great act of charity and win much merit; but they must be prepared to suffer many miseries, hunger, cold, persecution, poverty, &c, and to risk their lives often both on land and sea. The principal nourishment of the people of the country consists of potatoes and salt meat, water or spruce beer (biere de Pruche) is their ordinary drink. They love rum which is common enough, and is not expensive—but on the other hand it is dangerous and unhealthful to soul and body. A very small quantity of this liquor will make a man lose his reason, and quite inebriate him. It is this unhappy and deadly drink that ruins the Indians in this country as in all others.
Sadly, Enlightenment governments often use cheap booze as a way of keeping people pacified.

Father, however, loved the place: is a healthy country, and one which produces all necessary grain and vegetables, such as wheat, bearded wheat, rye, kidney beans, beans, turnips, cabbage, potatoes, &c, and even good fruit, such as apples, pears and plums. As to the fruit, in some townships it is very good, in others it is small, while as to vegetables, potatoes succeed the best. These latter are very fine in Nova Scotia and in Cape Breton.

But what makes a good country?
A proof of the country not being a bad one is, that every one lives well there. Strictly speaking, there are no poor, for one never sees a beggar. It has been remarked that those who work well, and are rather industrious, live in comfort, without being exactly rich.
Father eventually came back to the United States. During this time of Lent, we are told the value of Lent's devotion, the Stations of the Cross:
When we arrived in America we found most Catholics well disposed. Their religion was obscured, but they seemed to be impressed with the first invitations or instructions that we gave them; of this they gave exterior proof, such as building churches, erecting crosses on the roadside, establishing Calvaries, and making the way of the cross, a devotion which touches the heart and bears excellent fruit. I, myself, have often been witness of the good effect produced by the Stations, and it is not long since one of my parishioners who was given over to drunkenness was completely converted after assisting at this devotion. He threw himself at my feet dissolved in tears, made his confession, and since that time he has always been extremely sober and filled with the fear of God. I often make the Stations in the different places where I go to hold missions, and as I have remarked a change for the better in the manners and in the amusements, the dancing, vanities, &c, of the people, I attribute it to the grace attached to the devotion of the way of the cross.

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