L’Abbe Sgiarte

Wednesday 30th June – this morning we were not far from our Port, the land in the neighbourhood being very distinctly seen. The weather at first was cloudy but soon cleared up & became very fine. We then saw the celebrated Peak of Orizaba & several other high mountains, of which I shall defer the mention, till our return from Tampico, as we shall then likely remain several days here, and I think it best not to give accounts piecemeal, but consecutively that you may find them more interesting & say nothing of Vera Cruz, its castle &.c until a residence if some days permits me to throw all my observations into one connected narrative. It however will be sufficient for the present to say, that we arrived at this Port at noon – that M.r Geach went ashore with the Mail – and that we started from Vera Crux, without having come to anchor, at 6 P.M. for Tampico.

At this place, a Reverend Gentleman passenger left us, whom we had taken on board at Jacquemel. As he has been so long with us – as he had some peculiarities of character – as he belonged to an order of men, whose character I have always been anxious to investigate, to wit the Popish priesthood – and finally as he communicated to me some particulars of his history, I consider that he is worthy of a page in my Journal, both in his individual & public capacity.

History of L’Abbe Sgiarte

Wenceslaus Michael Antoine Sgiarte had the misfortune to be born in Biscaya, in Spain of a French father, by a Spanish Mother and to spend 18 years of his life as a priest in Bayonne. I say had the misfortune – for in the event of a rupture between the two countries, he would probably be denied the rights of citizenship by his townsmen, and of nationality by his countrymen, in consequence of his long residence among the French: while, on the other hand, the French would look upon him with an eye of coldness and suspicion, founded on the opinion, that a man always prefers his native to his adopted country, and her interests to that of any other, however strong might be the ties of gratitude which might bind him. If I mistake not, the exact place of his birth was Victoria, and there he passed his childhood, boy hood and part of his youth – there he received his education for the priesthood, and from thence, as soon as he had received the tonsure, and consequently the power of performing all the holy functions of religion, he emigrated to Bayonne in France.

As a priest in charge of a small parish, he resided at this place for 17 or 18 years. By his own account, he spent that long time in great contentment and peace; having a comfortable house, plenty to eat, servants to tend him, and a horse to carry him – beloved by his parishioners – respected by strangers, and discharging his duties to the entire satisfaction of his superiors. In this state of moderate independence & happiness he might have passed all his days, had it not been for an unfortunate circumstance which all at once dashed the cup of joy from his lips and forced him to seek in his latter days a new home and a new flock. If his story is to be credited, I learned from him that the Great little Man in his parish, who is possessed of much wealth and consequently of great influence, wished to arrogate to himself as much dictatorial authority in the matters of the Church, as he exerted in the affairs of civil life. This profane & infamous design the worthy Abbe strenuously opposed – and his opposition, (in which I consider he was perfectly justifiable) brought down upon his devoted head the enmity and ill will of the Lord of the Manor; and these malevolent passions were not locked up within his own breast, but had free and full vent given to them in public and in private, in the Street and in the Church. At length the irritated feelings of opposition operated so far upon the big little Man (big in spirit and pretensions but extremely little in person), that even in the very domicile of the priest he twice collared and shook him like a dog (conume un chien). The patience of the Abbe could stand out no longer against this direct insult, and besides his feelings were so completely outraged by the verbal abuse which accompanied the action that, at last regardless of every thing but the suggestions of his inflamed passions, he lifted up his hands and knocked my gentleman down like an ox. I could not at first conceive how he could have knocked him down like an ox, as his own appearance by no means indicated the strength of an Hercules, but he explained the matter by saying that his opponent was a very diminutive puny insignificant hop-o-my thumb and of so delicate a constitution that he was confined to his Chamber for three weeks from the effects of Sgiarte’s chastisement.

Well then considering what I have told you of the influence of the Richman, it was not to be expected that such an instance of violence would pass unnoticed or unpunished. Nor was it. An exaggerated account of the assault and its consequences, and an explanation of the offensive words and treatment, which led to it, so softened down and modified as to impress the mind that no provocation had been given, was soon transmitted to the Bishop – who, being but a mere man, decided in favour of friendship riches and influence against poverty, an irreproachable character, and talent well adapted to the discharge of every required duty of the holy function. In other words Monsieur L’Abbe was severely censured, and ordered to resign his parish – since he who could give way to his violent passions, under whatever provocation, was no longer worthy, under him (the Bishop) of being the messenger of that Saviour whose religion is for – tolerance and peace with all men. Many opinions might be entertained with regard to this sentence – some applauding and others highly reprobating its extreme severity – so for my own part – I think it best to say nothing – but this much is certain that the Old Padre was dissatisfied with it and appealed to the Bishop of Paris. This prelate hears his case favourably, and would have used his influence to have him reinstated – but he thanked his Lordship and declared his reluctance to return to a place where he had been so grossly insulted and also his wish to be appointed to some other parish. Not having any vacancies there the good Bishop gave Wenceslaus quarters in some college near Paris & there he remained 14 months. By this time he had heard from a friend in Hayti, that if he could come thither, he would procure him a parish worth £800. Being disgusted with his treatment in France, and if I may venture to say it, allured by the prospects of so large a stipend, for he was by no means averse to making money, he became very anxious to proceed to this ‘El Dorado’ and after cogitating how he might accomplish his wish, he went to the Bishop and acquainted him to the desire – whereupon he recommended him to the Minister of the Marine and of the colonies. By him he was most graciously received and a short time afterwards was favoured by a note saying, that no vessels were required to go to Hayti on Government account but that one would sail soon from Brest for Martinique, in which he (the Abbe) would have a passage – and that from Martinique he would easily find the means of being conveyed to S.t Domingo. Furnished with this letter M.r Sgiarte went to Brest – was received onboard atrauxport and sailed for Martinique. There he found no vessel ready to sail for Hayiti – and therefore for his support in the meantime, he engaged to assist another priest in the duties of an extensive parish.

In this situation he found himself very happy & received at the rate of £400 per annum – and had not his mind been filled with the vision of the £800 which awaited him at Port au Prince he would have been content to have remained there. At length a vessel was to sail to S.t Thomas from which island he could easily pass over to Hispaniola. No persuasions of his friend could induce him to remain, notwithstanding that he assured the Abbe, that if he went to his proposed place, he could not be allowed to return to Martinique. In a few days he arrived at S.t Thomas, and left it again after fourteen days, in a vessel which carried him safe to Port au Prince the Capital of Hayti. Here his full blown hopes of wealth were destined to be crushed – he did not find his friend and he was under the necessity of enjoying as an assistant to the Vicar General with the rank of a Sub-Vicar General, which he shared with another Spaniard of the name of Ricos. Instead of £800, as he had anticipated, his actual income was much less than what he had enjoyed at Martinique, while at the same time his comforts were much curtailed. Besides, his place was no sinecure, for altho’ he was enjoined with two others in the duties of the church, yet being the only one of them who could speak fluently the French, which alone was understood by the people, he had all the drudgery of hearing confession, visiting the sick, and administering the sacraments, while his colleagues merely went thro’ the Church service in Latin. The Vicar General was a Columbian – an ignorant pretender, and a scandal to his sacred profession by the irregularity and immorality of his life. Notwithstanding all these drawbacks M.r Sgiarte would probably have remained but for the ill treatment of the Vicar General, who was moreover a Mulatto.

On one occasion they had to celebrate some high festival, in which the services of all would be required. One was to read the prayers in Latin – another the evangelia, and a third the Lectio in the same language. Now it so happened that there was another priest there, for whom they could find nothing to do – and this person was no less than our old passenger, from Jacquemel to Jamaica, the Abbe Cendra. This Abbe was rather favoured by the Vicar General, who at last proposed, that he should officiate as Master of the Ceremonies. The idea of so young & ignorant a man acting in such a capacity, to such old & experienced Padres as Sgiarte and Rios appeared so farcical that in ridicule the latter suggested that Cendra should be furnished with an official rod, the propiaction [?] which gave great offence. The day at last arrived and the young priest, dressed in his canonicals, soon seized an opportunity of reprimanding his older brethren, till at last Rios told him to hold his peace, and not pretend to teach two who knew much better than himself – Cendra retorted – the other rejoined and Sgiarte agreeing with his colleague, such a hubbub arose after the service, that all were by the ears together. The Vicar General sided with Cendra against his two Sub-Vicars, and became so warm as to call both the Spaniards vagabonds and thieves, while they in return cast up to him his own immoralities, and the notorious vices of his two brothers. Incensed by meeting with opposition and recrimination, where he had expected to find only the most servile submission, he at once suspended them from their office, and they likewise, altho’ they considered such an act to be illegal, refused to officiate. When the Vicar General began to cool and had time to reflect that he had no one to assist him but Cendra, who being almost totally ignorant of the French language could do little. He made certain overtures towards a reconciliation, which were accepted by Rios, but rejected by Sgiarte, who declared that he would never again serve in that church, where his character had been so much lowered, and his usefulness so much abridged by the gross insult offered to him, before the assembled people. The more difficult His Reverence found it to effect a reunion the more eager he became to secure the services of so independent a priest – and to shew his desire for a reconciliation he procured from President Boyer that Sgiarte should be appointed to the small Parish of the Mole, with the promise of a much better one when a vacancy should occur. This preferment also the Abbe contemptuously rejected, tho’ already conveyed to him in an official form – and after only three months residence in Port au Prince came to Jacquemel and took his passage with us for Mexico in the hope of obtaining a rich Parish in that land of silver.

I have already mentioned that along with him we received on board the Abbe Cendra, but when I wrote my notice of him, I was ignorant of the cause of his being forced to leave Port au Prince. During our voyage, Sgiarte let me into the secret of the affair – and it was thus. Upon the first breaking out between the Vicar General and Sgiarte, the latter in disgust left the house of the former, where he had hitherto resided, and returned to an Inn, leaving behind him Cendra & Rios not on the best of terms. A few days afterwards Rios visited him, mad with passion, and related that he & Cendra having had some high words, Cendra drew a knife from his side and but for the interference of some persons present, would have murdered him. Sgiarte was not surprised at this story, knowing the passionate & proud character of the young padre – but he lamented the circumstance as he would probably have his company longer than he wished. As he feared, so it happened. Cendra was discharged with disgrace, and, as I have said, left Port au Prince and came with us to Jamaica.

Such is the History and adventures of Wenceslaus Michael Antoine Sgiarte up to the period when he joined us – and of course he has been his own biographer, giving in his own way the various events which befell him and applying to the picture on the canvass his own colours. Now however I shall take up the tale and endeavour to convey to you some idea of the character, which he presented to us during nearly four weeks daily intercourse. But that you may know the person of my hero (for such from the space he has occupied in my Journal he has become, but yet alas how remote from the heroes of Romance) – he was a man 44 years old, about or rather a little under the middle size, with short brown hair intermixed with struggling grey, which was arranged on his forehead, so as alternatively to advance & recede. His eyes were grey and twinkling – & his face and hands much freckled. His dress on shore was very respectable, consisting of a surtout (how unclerical) & trowsers of black Florentine & a black cloth waistcoat – ordinary black hat & invariably a silk umbrella with an ivory handle: There was nothing that bespoke the clergyman & you could not have discovered him to be such for he had also destroyed the mark of the tonsure by allowing his hair to grow over the consecrated place. Again on board he was no ways particular – generally he went about without any hat, coat or waistcoat & with nothing but his shirt & trowsers on account of the excessive heat.

When, however, he went down to meals, he always paid us the Compliment of putting on his coat, and in the cool of the evening he always wore it together with a silk night cap, from the top of which a tassel of the same material dangled most gracefully. You might also have suspected him of a Jewish liking for a beard, for, if you let him alone, he would be content with shaving once a week – and this I attributed to the difficulty a stranger feels in shaving on board, until he told me, when we happened to discuss the number of times necessary, that it was his custom to do so 3 times a week in Town or country – and no more !!!

Thus have I described the outward man of Monsieur L’Abbe, so as to enable you to see him with your mental eye, and to accompany me satisfactorily in my further description of his deposition and character.

Partly from his mixed descent & partly from his long residence in France; he seemed to possess a disposition, which was allied to the characteristics of both nations and peculiar to none. With the French he was generally lively, talkative and bustling – a stranger to Senussi, and flying like a butterfly from one subject to another. As with them too he was constantly uttering with an air of frivolity “Diable” “Mon Dieu” &.c and in his whole movements and actions he was ever on the fidgets, now here, now there. If you wanted him, you could never exactly tell where to find him – for if one moment he would be in the after Cabin & in another in the cooks galley – sometimes he would descend the Companion ladder and ascend by the main or fore hatchways. On some occasions he would sit down quietly with us and chat, chat away, and when tired of our company and conversation he would enjoy himself exceedingly with the humours of Jack between decks, where he would be regularly quizzed or [touched ?] without taking offence, as he did not understand one word of English.

Again in some parts of his character he resembled the Spaniard, for sometimes, under the influence of despondency, for which he had some cause as I shall afterwards mention, he lost all his French vivacity, and assumed then the gravity and reserve, tho’ not the morbidness of the Spaniard. His native spirit also broke out when relating his history, at some parts of which, his words, his actions, and his whole appearance indicated anew the extremity of rage and the desire of vengeance for the insults he had met with. In his habits he resembled more the grossness of the Biscayans than the polish and cleanliness of the politest people in the world, heaping upon one plate, different meats, and using his fingers in a way disgusting to anyone but a subject of Ferdinand.

In his clerical capacity, if I were asked what was my opinion of him, I should feel much puzzled for an answer. He was neither very learned, not very ignorant – very superstitious, bigoted, nor yet very liberal in his sentiments. I believe that he was fully competent to the discharge of his duties in that church, and would prove, if not a bright, at least a very useful pastor to such a congregation as were truly sincere and persuaded of the truth of their religion, eschewing all discussion of abstruse and doctrinal points. In short I am convinced that he would make an excellent village pastor but no more. For if he were to be called upon to enter the lists against the meaning of his peculiar faith, whether Protestants, Deists, or Materialists, I am truly persuaded that he would be a most unfit champion to uphold the cause of Papistry. I speak this not unadvisedly, or ignorantly, for on various occasions we have had discussions on different religious topics, sometimes introduced by me, sometimes by himself – which discussions however were always conducted with moderation and good feeling. From the arguments employed in these contests with the priest I judge of his particular abilities. The essence of almost every argument he brought forward was that all things were possible with God, and from this stronghold I could not force him to retreat, and to reason on other grounds. For example, once talking to him of the doctrine of the real presence in the sacrament, I advanced the common objection urged to us to it viz. that Christ could not at one and the same time be sitting at the table with his disciples and actually changed into the bread which he held in his hands. The Abbe at this shrugged up his shoulders and said “all things are possible with God,” tho’ he readily admitted that the circumstance was [totally/utterly ?] incomprehensible to human reason. Well then, said I, as God is truth, and truth is one and immutable, it is impossible for God to make 2 and One to be six, granting that our ideas of the true power of numbers continue to be unchanged – Yes he replied, as nothing is impossible with the almighty, this also he can do!!! On the subject of modern miracles he urged the same argument – so what can be said of the talents of him who used this as the whole burden of his cause and thereby rendered himself invulnerable to all the shafts of reason& rationality, however skilfully arrived.

Conversing with him of the subject of the holy Virgin, he maintained that she had always remained a virgin, and had never been the mother of any but Christ. He was totally ignorant that Joseph and Mary had a family, and when I pointed out the Chapter and verse wherein the names of the brothers of Jesus are expressly mentioned he seemed much surprised – but said these were adopted children, altho’ he could produce no passage, where such adoption is stated or even hinted at. He could give me no other reason for his belief in purgatory, penance, extreme unction, &.c other Popish ceremonies, than that he thought that the traditions of the Christian fathers & the practices of the Church were established to receive as much credit & observance, as the doctrines established in Holy Writ – and consequently believing this all argument was vain.

The worthy Abbe did not seemed [sic] to have attended to much extraneous literature. Once he took one of the most celebrated and most generally read among French authors, Racine to be an Italian – and to a question I asked, he could not even tell me the name of a single one of those reformers, who have nearly caused the total overthrow of his religion. To sum up – his religious character, I consider him to be but an indifferent specimen of the learning and abilities of the Church of Rome and one who had imbibed certain dogmas, not from reason and conviction, but from his mothers milk and a contracted passive education.

All the particulars which I have mentioned above, I, as already stated, I received from Sgiarde himself – but as [he] did not understand one word of English the French and Latin languages were the medium of our conversations. His French was very bad, being a patois or vulgar dialect of Bayonne. When he came to Paris, he did not understand the Parisian dialect, and his lingua was equally unintelligible to them. He spoke very fast and I experienced great difficulty I following him in his sentences. Indeed from my very partial acquaintance with his tongue, – from the rapidity of his utterance, and mispronunciation I descried but little information from that source. Latin therefore was our established medium, and in it I understood him perfectly well. You are not to suppose however, from this, that his fluency was the voice [of] an elegant [?]. Far from it! Being unused for so many years to conversation in that language he has forgot all his syntax, shewing also utter disregard of all tenses, cases, & genders & conjugations. It was sufficient that he put together certain parts of words, by which he wished to express his thoughts – and I found not the smallest difficulty in comprehending him. A little Spanish also assisted us much in our colloquies – and hence it was no uncommon thing to commence a sentence in French, carry it thro’ in Latin and conclude in Spanish. But after all we came on bravely and were mutually satisfied with the successful efforts of each other – he good naturedly laughing at many false French & Spanish, and I at his Latinity – both meanwhile referring ourselves to the Captain, whenever a knotty point, which we could not untie, presented itself.

I have said before that in his disposition the Abbe was sometimes desponding and that he had some cause for it. His object was to obtain a rich settlement in Mexico – and he was dreadfully afraid that the circumstance of his birth would operate as a complete bar to prevent him. You are aware that since the revolution in Mexico and establishment of a republic, all the old Spaniards have been expelled from the country, with the exception of a very few – and that those few are strictly excluded from all official situations. Of course as the Mexicans have indiscriminately expelled the Natives of the old Spain, they are especially careful not to admit them again. – and hence Sgiarte being in this predicament, and coming under this banner, he had very just reason for alarm. How to get over this serious difficulty was the question – he evolved many plans but could resolve upon nothing. What he chiefly depended for concealment was his passport calling him a French priest – several official letters addressed to him as being a Frenchman by naturalization – and his perfect knowledge of the French language. But again, when he conversed in Spanish, he used the pure Castilian accent – and was afraid lest this should lead to his detection. Amidst so many contending reasons, sometimes his fears, sometimes his hopes predominated. He would for the most time repeat to me that he was naturalized in France – and endeavour by so frequent repetition to convince himself, that the same plea would be equally convincing efficacious with others. – then he would begin to give way to fear, and with utter despondency – I tried to keep up his spirits, and succeeded pretty well, until the day of our arrival at Vera Cruz, when he became exceedingly anxious. He went on shore with the Master, from whom when he returned I learned that no difficulty has occurred, to his entrance into Mexico, and that on the strength of his good fortune, he had plentiful libations of wine and strong drinks. This indeed was the greatest failing I observed in the worthy gentleman – and was particularly observable wherever we landed, as at Jamaica, Belize and Vera Cruz. It is probable when we return, I shall see the old Padre again and learn his further prosperity, and I have undertaken to carry a letter to Tampico and he expected an answer.

Read on … Tampico, Mexico