Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 01/Section 11

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

The Mission to the Hebrides Islands

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If the most reliable sign of perfect charity is the preference of the interests of Jesus Christ over one's own, or to say it better, complete forgetfulness of self and total commitment to Jesus Christ, then we can truly say Monsieur Vincent had this virtue in an eminent degree. In all his undertakings he put his personal advantage and that of his community out of mind, and always looked to the glory of God and the service of his divine Master. The missions discussed in previous chapters are proof of this. The one presented in this chapter will show more clearly the motive of pure charity which animated him to begin it, for there was no semblance of earthly gain in it.

We must realize that there are many islands in the Hebrides, but they are not large. Since they lie to the north of Scotland in a cold climate, they are infertile. The inhabitants are so poor that even those who pass for nobles and the most wealthy are reduced to eating oat bread. Most of the people have only straw for furniture, for both bed and table, and for some it serves as tablecloth and napkin as well. We can easily deduce the poverty which must be the lot of the ordinary people.

Once the Catholic religion had been barred from the region by the separation of England from the Roman Church, and the priests had been driven away, few ministers or other preachers of the new sects were willing to live in this forbidding region. The lack of spiritual help to most of the poor inhabitants of these islands was such that persons could be found, eighty or a hundred years old or more, who had never been baptized. One can easily imagine how it was with others. Most of those poor people did not know if they were Catholics or heretics, since hardly any religious practices remained in use among them.

In face of these extreme conditions, Monsieur Vincent needed no further motivation to help these poor islanders than his own charity. It was enough for him to know the extremity of their spiritual state to decide to send some of his priests, sparing neither cost or anxiety. We could apply to him these words: Sufficit, ut noveris; neque enim amas et deseris ["It is enough that you know; for what you love you will never be able to leave."] [1] He proposed to several Irish and Scottish priests of the Congregation that they might go work with their brothers. They accepted willingly, notwithstanding the great danger to which they would be exposed because of the repressive laws in force against all Catholic priests. He selected two Irish priests for this mission to the Hebrides, and another priest, Scottish by birth, to work in Scotland. [2]

They left in 1651, dressed as merchants to escape the notice of the heretics. For this same reason they went first to Holland to embark. There they happily came in contact with a Scottish laird named Glengarry, as noble in virtue as in his birth. [3] He had recently converted to the Catholic religion. He took the missionaries under his protection, and continued to be of service to them.

They sailed for Scotland with him, but had scarcely landed when an apostate priest, who had become a Protestant minister, recognized them. He wrote letters to places throughout Scotland, alerting people there to the presence of these missionaries. God in his goodness saved them from this danger by striking the body of this miserable apostate, causing him great suffering and the loss of his hearing and his sight. He finally recognized the hand of God in this malady, and that his sins had caused his sufferings. Touched by divine grace, he decided to convert, and he did so. He made a long journey to find Monsieur Duggan, one of the missionaries, to beg pardon for his fault, and to receive absolution for his apostasy. He threw himself at the feet of the missionary with evident marks of contrition, and begged him to accept his abjuration and to receive him once again into the Church. The priest of the Mission did so, in virtue of the special powers he had received from the Sovereign Pontiff.

We know of no better way to present the fruits of this mission, and the sufferings entailed in exercising their ministry, than by citing two letters written to Monsieur Vincent by Monsieur Duggan. The first was dated October 28, 1652:

God gave us the grace soon after our arrival in Scotland to help in the conversion of the father of the laird of Glengarry. He is an old man of ninety years, brought up in heresy from his youth. We instructed him and reconciled him to the Church during a severe sickness which soon brought him to the tomb. And before he received the sacraments, he expressed his regret for having lived so long in error, but also his unspeakable joy at dying as a Catholic. I also reconciled several of his servants and friends, but did so in secret.

That done, I said goodbye to my companion, leaving him here in these mountains of Scotland to reap great spiritual fruit, and to attend to all the good that needs to be done here. I left for the Hebrides Islands, where God by his all-powerful mercy has worked marvels above anything we might have hoped for. He so moved hearts that the laird of Clanranald, master of a good part of the isle of Uist, converted, together with his wife, the young prince his son, and all his family. All his gentlemen and their families too, came into the Church.

I also worked with the people of this island, and then went to those called Eigg and Canna, where God brought about the conversion of eight or nine hundred persons. They were so poorly instructed in religion that no more than fifteen knew anything of the mysteries of the Christian religion. I hope the others will soon give glory to God. I have found thirty or forty persons here of advanced age, of eighty, or a hundred or even more, who have never been baptized, who died soon after receiving the sacrament. Beyond doubt they are now praying for those who brought them this great blessing.

A large number of the inhabitants were living in concubinage, but thanks be to God we have been able to bring some relief, marrying those who wished, and separating those who did not. We have taken nothing for the services we have given the people. Besides, I have had to hire two men, one to row me from one island to the other and to help carry my vestments and clothing, for I sometimes have to walk four or five leagues by poor roads to offer mass. The other man helps me teach the Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Creed, and serves my mass, for he is the only one available capable of doing so, once I taught him how.

Ordinarily we eat only once a day, a barley or oat loaf, with some cheese and salted butter. Sometimes we go a whole day without eating, since we find nothing to eat, particularly when we cross the deserted and uninhabited mountains. We almost never eat meat, but occasionally it is available in places far from the sea, especially in gentlemen's homes. But the meat is so bad and so filthily prepared that our hair stands on end when we see it. They throw it on the ground on a bit of straw which serves for table and chair, for tablecloth and napkin, for plate and saucer. To purchase a piece of meat to cook as we do in France is impossible because there are no butchers in these islands. Only a full steer or sheep can be bought, but we cannot use these, for we are constantly on the road to administer baptism or the other sacraments.

There are fish in the sea surrounding the islands, but the people are not skilled in catching them, since they are lazy and not industrious. It would be a great service to God to send good Gospel workers here who could speak the language, and know how to suffer hunger, thirst, and be able to sleep on the ground. Also, they ought to have an annual income if they are to get along. [4]

In the second letter sent, in April 1654, he said:

We are infinitely grateful, and thank the divine goodness for the blessings he has showered upon our work here. I can tell you some few things, for it would not be possible to tell you all that has happened.

The islands I have visited are Uist, Canna, Eigga, and Skye; on the mainland the regions I have visited are Moidart, Arisaig, Morar, Knoidart, and Glengarry.

The isle of Uist belongs to two lairds, one called the captain of the Ranald clan, and the other of the MacDonald clan. The part belonging to the first has seen the conversion of all the inhabitants except for two men without any religion, and who seem to want to be free to sin as they please. About a thousand or twelve hundred souls have returned to the fold of the Church. In the other part of this island, belonging to MacDonald, I have not yet visited, although I have been invited. A minister wanted to engage me in controversy by letter. I responded to him, and hope for some good from the exchange. The nobility have asked me to come, and the laird agrees. I am inclined to do so for I know the minister is fearful, and has tried to prevent my coming. The two servants he sent to me have returned home Catholics, by the grace of God. I heard their general confessions after I had prepared them for the sacrament.

Most of the inhabitants of the small island of Canna have been converted, as well as some from Eigga. The island of Skye is ruled by three or four lairds, one by MacDonald and his mother, another by MacLeod, and a third by MacFimine. [5] In the first two parts, several families have been converted, but as of yet I have not been able to do anything in the third part of the island.

As to Moidart, Arisaig, Morar, Knoidart and Glengarry, all have been converted, or are prepared to receive instructions when we have time to visit their villages. There are six or seven thousand people in these places, very remote from one another, difficult to reach on foot and inaccessible by horse.

At the beginning of spring I went to another island called Barra, where I found the people so devout and anxious to learn that I was thrilled. It was enough to teach a child of each village the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Creed, and in three days the whole town would know it, the great and the simple alike. I have received the leading people of the town into the Church, including the young prince and his brothers and sisters, with a hope of receiving the older laird at the first opportunity. Among those converted was the son of the minister who greatly edified the region where he is known. Ordinarily I defer communion to my converts for some time after the general confession, so the people can be better instructed, and better disposed by a second confession, and also to arouse in them a greater desire and stronger affection for communion.

Among those who received communion five did not seem to have proper dispositions, for having put out their tongue to receive the sacred host they did not draw it back. Three remained so long in this attitude the host was picked off their tongue. Later they confessed once more in a much better disposition, and then received the bread of life with no more difficulty. The other two have not yet come back, and God has given the other Christians of the locality something to think about when they approach this divine sacrament, by the extraordinary signs he permitted to occur. In the same way, some marvelous things were seen by the use of holy water, enough to induce a sense of piety in these poor people. We baptized many infants and some adults, thirty, forty, sixty, or eighty years old and more, who insist they never before have been baptized. An evil spirit troubled some of them. They have been entirely delivered from his influence after receiving baptism, so much so that there is no more evidence of his activity among the people. [6]

The virtuous and zealous missionary planned to visit the island of Pabbay, once he had cleared it with the governor of the locality. This is what he wrote to one of his confreres, March 5, 1657:

I plan to leave here the tenth of this month for Pabbay. I have not spoken of this before lest the danger and difficulties should cause you some anxiety, for this is truly a forbidding place. We have hope of rescuing some stray sheep and returning them to the sheepfold of our Lord. Our trust in his goodness, together with the hope that the inhabitants have not been infected with heretical opinions, leads us to believe they will, with God's grace, come to hear and persevere in the word of God and the truths of our holy religion. This makes me disdain the perils, even death, and we shall go with God's help, submissive to his holy will. This is why I ask you not to delay in coming. But be careful not to reveal my intentions to anyone, except Monsieur Noeil, because for several reasons I want it to remain secret and hidden.

This good missionary was not destined to carry out this plan, for he fell sick shortly after sending this letter, and died on May 17, 1657, to the great grief of all those for whom he had worked so hard.

After speaking of the missions to the Hebrides, we must now speak of those in Scotland, where Monsieur Lumsden worked so zealously. This is what he wrote to Monsieur Vincent, in 1654:

God has greatly blessed the missions given in the lowlands. I might say that all the inhabitants whether rich or poor have never, since the time they fell into heresy, been better disposed to recognize the truth and of being converted to our holy faith. Every day we receive some who come to abjure their errors, some of high station. Besides these activities, we seek to confirm Catholics in their belief by instructing them in the word of God and by administering the sacraments. On Easter day I was in the house of a lord where more than fifty people received communion, among whom were twenty recent converts. The success of our mission inspires great jealousy among the Protestant ministers, who lack the power but not the desire to do us harm. We trust in the goodness of God, who shall, if it please him, always be our protector. [7]

By another letter, in October 1657, speaking of the same subject, he wrote:

The people of these northern regions are much better disposed to receive the truth than they have ever been before. The grace of God has not been idle this past summer. By its influence I have been able to bring back to the Church some highly placed people who have abjured their heresy. I have continued to confirm the faith of Catholics by the instructions I have given, and by the sacraments I have administered. I have even taken a trip to the Orkney Islands, and visited the regions called Moray, Ross, Sutherland, and Caithness, where they have not had a priest for several years, and where practically no Catholics remain. As I began to work, I received into the faith a good man from Caithness. He had invited me to come spend some time in that province, where he hoped for many conversions. I was obliged to leave hurriedly, for the enemy of our salvation had raised up a new persecution against Catholics, at the instigation of the ministers who had obtained an order from Protector Cromwell addressed to all judges and magistrates of the kingdom of Scotland. It stated that many people, especially in the northern provinces, had gone over to papism, and to stop this abuse they were required to search carefully, especially for priests. These latter were to be put in prison, and punished according to the laws of the kingdom. Since the minister of Bredonique was particularly hostile to me, and sought to have me taken, I had to flee to seek some haven until we could see how this persecution was to turn out. I cannot write in greater detail for fear that our letters will fall into the hands of our enemies. [8]

Not without reason did this virtuous missionary take precautions against falling into the hands of the heretics. It was not the fear of prison or even death, but the risk of depriving Catholics in this poor kingdom of the help and consolation he was able to bring. Beginning in 1655, on the occasion of a similar order from Cromwell, issued at the request of the Protestant ministers, the English authorities had sought out Catholic priests. They found three in the castle of the marquess of Huntley, one of whom was his confrere, Monsieur White. He had been imprisoned in the city of Aberdeen since February of that same year.

When Monsieur Vincent heard the news he spoke to the community on the trials and persecutions missionary priests would meet in their ministry, and the constancy they should show in these situations.

We recommend to God one of our priests, Monsieur White, who worked in the mountains of Scotland. The English heretics have imprisoned him, together with a Jesuit priest. They have been taken to the city of Aberdeen, where Monsieur Lumsden is. He does not fail to visit him and help him. There are many Catholics in that region who visit and console the suffering priest. Yet, seeing this good missionary threatened with martyrdom, I do not know if we should be happy or sad. On the one hand God is honored by his detention, for it comes from love of him. The Company could be blessed if God would find him worthy to become a martyr. He would be happy to suffer for God's name, and to offer himself for whatever it shall please God to ordain concerning his person and his life. What acts of virtue are called forth in his present situation, of faith, of hope, of love of God, of resignation, and of self-offering, by which he prepares himself to receive such a crown! All this brings much joy and thanksgiving to God.

On the other hand, our confrere suffers and should we not suffer with him? For myself, I admit that according to human nature I am deeply afflicted and I feel it most keenly, but thinking of this according to the spirit, I believe we must bless God for a special grace. This is the way God acts after someone has rendered outstanding services to him: he places the cross upon his shoulders, then adds sorrows and afflictions. Oh, gentlemen and my brothers, there must be something the mind does not understand, in the cross, in suffering, since God usually sends them to those who have served him so well. He adds afflictions, persecutions, prison, and martyrdom, to raise those who give themselves so perfectly to his service to a high degree of perfection. Whoever wishes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ ought to expect this, but he should also hope, when these occasions arise, that God will give him the strength to support these afflictions and overcome these troubles.

Monsieur le Vacher once wrote me from Tunis of a rough and ready priest from Calabria. He developed a desire to suffer martyrdom for the name of Jesus Christ, such as animated Saint Francis of Paula, but which did not occur since God had destined him for other things. This priest was so obsessed by this holy desire that he crossed the sea to seek martyrdom in Barbary where he was finally discovered, and where he died in confessing the name of Jesus Christ. May it please God to inspire us with this same wish to die for Jesus Christ however it shall please him. What a blessing this would attract upon us!

You are aware there are several forms of martyrdom, not only the kind we have been speaking of, but there is another kind too, of constantly mortifying our passions, and even another, to persevere in our vocation in the accomplishment of our duties and our exercises. Saint John the Baptist, for his courage in reproving the king for his sin of incest and adultery, was put to death for his pains. Yet he is honored as a martyr, even though he did not die precisely for the faith, but for the defense of a virtue against which the king had sinned. Dying in defense of a virtue is then a kind of martyrdom.

A mortified and obedient missionary who does his duty well, and who lives in keeping with the rules of his state in life, makes it evident by the sacrifice of his body and soul that God alone deserves to be served, and that God should be preferred absolutely to all advantages or pleasures the world has to offer. To do so is to demonstrate the truths and maxims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not by words, but by the conformity of one's own life to that of Jesus Christ. Giving testimony to his truth and his sanctity to both Christians and infidels, to live and die in this effort, is another form of martyrdom.

Let us return to our good Monsieur White, to consider how God dealt with him after a life of dedication as a missionary. Here is a marvel, what some would call a miracle. A certain inclemency of the weather happened to affect the fish of the region with sterility, resulting in much suffering for the people. He was asked to lead prayers and to bless the sea with holy water, for it was felt that spells of some sort caused this difficulty. He did so, and God willed that immediately after, the difficulty passed and the fish returned. He wrote of these things himself in a letter to me. [9] Others have told me of the great work he did in the mountains to strengthen the faith of the Catholics and convert heretics, the constant dangers he braved, the hunger he endured, eating only bread made from oats. Only a person who deeply loved God would do and suffer so much in his service. Should God permit still greater crosses to come and that one become a prisoner of Jesus Christ, ought we not adore God's ways, submitting ourselves lovingly to them? Ought we not offer ourselves to him in order that he accomplish his holy will in us? Let us then ask this grace of God to thank him for this latest test of the fidelity of his servant. We should beg of him, if it is not yet in keeping with his will to deliver him, at least to strengthen him to bear the ill treatment he is suffering or will suffer in the future. [10]

According to all appearances, this virtuous prisoner was in danger of his life, since he was in the hands of his cruel enemies who wished for his death, but it pleased God that he be released after five or six months in prison. According to the laws then in effect against Catholics, there was insufficient evidence against him to convict him of having celebrated mass or performed other functions of his ministry. Someone testified against him, but unconvincingly. When challenged, he took back what he had said, stating that he did not want to be responsible for the condemnation of the accused. Monsieur White's parole was granted under the strange condition that if he preached, instructed, baptized anyone, or administered any of the sacraments, he would be hung without any further trial.

When Monsieur Vincent heard news of his release, he spoke to the community:

We thank God for having delivered the innocent, and that someone among us has been found to suffer so much for the love of his Savior. This good priest, disdaining the threat of death, went back to the mountains of Scotland to work as before. What reason we have to thank our Lord for having given one of our Company the spirit of the martyrs! The light, the grace to see how glorious, how great, how divine, to die for the neighbor, in imitation of our Lord! We thank God and we pray that he will give each of us that same grace to suffer and to give up his life for the salvation of souls. [11]

  1. Augustine, PL 35:1749.
  2. The two Irish priests were Francois le Blanc and Germain Duiguin, as they were known in France, and referred to by Saint Vincent. Their English names were Francis White and Dermot Duggan. The Scottish priest was Thomas Lumsden, originally from Aberdeen, who was received into the Congregation at Paris, October 31, 1645. Lumsden arrived one year after his two Irish confreres.
  3. Scottish names and terms in this chapter have been corrected and updated from Abelly's original text.
  4. CED IV:515-16.
  5. Probably a typographical error for a name various spelled: MacSimon, MacSymon, MacShiomoun.
  6. CED V:116-17.
  7. CED V:124-25.
  8. CED VI:530-31. The identification and location of Bredonique is unknown. Joseph Leonard, the translator of Coste, Vie has suggested Brechin. Coste, Life, II:39, n. 13.
  9. This letter no longer exists.
  10. CED XI:173-76.
  11. CED XI:304-05.



This page:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Section Eleven: The Mission to the Hebrides Islands

Index of this chapter:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Index: The Missions of Monsieur Vincent

Index of:
Abelly: Book Two