A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A Nightmare and its Consequences (1)

From the Golden Jubilee Speech  of Fr Delach

For Fr Delach's Golden Jubilee of Profession, the boys at Institution Saint-Vincent at Senlis, Oise, which is about 40 km north of Paris, put on a magnificent celebration for him on the Sunday closest to Epiphany, 8 January 1839. A booklet, running to 48 pages, was produced as a record of the event, complete with photos, poems, songs, play scripts and speeches. It includes the message from Māori published in the Marist Messenger.
The piece you are about to read, translated by Elizabeth Charlton, NZ Province Archivist, comes from Fr Delach's  address to the school.

I am going to tell you a story; a lived story, the first that happened to me on mission. It will not perhaps be more interesting than a bad speech; it will at least have the advantage of novelty, having never been told before.

Pā Hohepa (Fr Delach sm)

Let’s call our story A Nightmare and its Consequences, and we enter at ground level into the domain of bad spirits, tohunga1 and devilry.

I had been about six months with the Māori2 in New Zealand when my superior asked me to spend four weeks in the southern part of our district, about 200 km away, to visit the Christian communities and to try to make a few conversions. Needless to say, that at the start, I was not successful. After travelling for three days, uphill and down dale, partly by train, as the colonists had already started to build lines, partly by coach, on foot, on horseback and by any other means to hand, I arrived on Saturday afternoon in the main Catholic village of the area, a village where the inhabitants had converted a few years previously and had built a lovely little church.

Informed of my visit, they had told all the Catholics up to 20km away, so that they could come to Mass on Sunday. That evening, after reciting prayers and the rosary together, I was taken to a small bedroom, made of rustic boards which had for all furnishings a mattress on the floor with a few covers. That was already a lot; anyway, when one is young one sleeps well anywhere, even on the tables in study hall, and when one is a missionary one must not be too picky.

Tired by the travelling, I fell asleep immediately. I was sleeping like a blessed one – if, however, the blessed sleep – when suddenly, I saw, in a dream of course, an enormous serpent, which was coming out of the sea and coming towards me, with its gaping mouth ready to eat me up. It was of a size, its undulations were at least two to three metres high.

I was seized with terror. I started to tremble. I was hypnotised, paralysed, incapable of moving, incapable of calling for help. The serpent was approaching rapidly. It entered the room whistling like a siren. As it rushed up to me, I regained control of my nerves. I seized it by the throat, avoiding being bitten. Surprised, the animal leapt backwards and pulled me on the floor. The battle started; the battle for life.

It wrapped itself around me to try to crush me, but I was too close to its head and its too large coils could not contract enough to smother me. It was hitting me with its tail to get me to loosen my grip, but I realised that I had only one chance of salvation – I had to strangle it. My hands were so tight around its neck that I could no longer feel them nor let go.

Then the serpent reared and lifted me with it. It shook with such force and such speed that I should have been thrown 10 metres, but to no use. I hung on. It then seemed to panic and began to jump from one end to the other of the room, dragging me after it. At one time it came so close to a partition that I stuck its panting jaws against the boards. The jaws turned backwards, like an umbrella in a gust of wind.

Then it started to have frightful convulsions. It started to vomit blackish lava which smelt of the devil and its horns; it spewed like from a crater and in no time at all the room was flooded. It rolled and rolled me with it in its vomit. I felt lost and called to the Holy Virgin and to my Guardian Angel. Their help was instantaneous and immediately the convulsions ceased. A few jolts and the serpent was dead.

I woke up. What time was it? How long had this battle lasted? I don’t know. The village clock – if there was one – had no sound … like at Saint-Vincent.

Needless to say, sleep did not return. When I said Mass on Sunday morning, I was still trembling with emotion, so the sermon was neither long nor eloquent, any more than my other sermons. When I came out of the church, all the Māori were there, worried, impatiently waiting to find out what had happened to me.

I told them my nightmare and was surprised at the superstitious attention with which they listened to all the details. They asked questions; made me repeat, clarify. When I had finished an elderly Māori woman barked at me, “Is your serpent at least dead?” I replied, “In any case it will not bite anymore, since its jaws are turned backwards. As for being dead, I believe that divine omnipotence would be necessary to bring it back to life.” “So much the better,” she replied, “The old witchdoctor will die because of it.”

Tohunga under tapu
Gottfried Lindauer

Then a good old man, an elder of the tribe stood up and said the following to me, “Greetings to you, Father, you who have come from faraway lands to bring us the words of eternal life. Your presence among us will be the ray of sunshine which will illuminate our faith and will lead us toward the way of salvation…” He continued along these lines and ended with, “But there are our tohunga, our witchdoctors, who will not pardon us for having abandoned them and who have sworn death to all the preachers of the New Gospel. Like a tidal wave, their fury surged against you, they put a spell on you, and the infernal serpent came to eat you up. You killed it, God be blessed. In killing it, you have broken their harmful influence, which proves once again, that there is neither god nor devil above the God of the Christians.”

To be continued

1 A Māori expert practitioner of any skill or art, religious or otherwise

2 Translator's note: Fr Delach was first stationed at Pakipaki in Hawke's Bay

Tagged as: ,

Comments are closed.