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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.

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POMPALLIER, John Baptist Francis

(1801–71).

First Roman Catholic Bishop of the south-west Pacific.

A new biography of Pompallier, Jean Baptiste François appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Baptist Francis (Jean Baptiste Francois) Pompallier was born at Lyons, France, on 11 December 1801, of a well-to-do silk-manufacturing family. He worked in the silk trade; then was a dragoon officer; then passed through the Lyons' Seminaries (1825–29) and was ordained priest on 13 June 1829. Appointed to assist Marcellin Champagnat, founder of the Marist Teaching Brothers, he came to join the Marist Fathers, at that time an association of diocesan priests. He later became esteemed in Lyons as chaplain to a Marist college. After the nascent Society of Mary had accepted the proposed missionary field of Western Oceania, Gregory XVI set it up as a fully constituted Order on 29 April 1836. In May the Pope chose Pompallier as Bishop for the area, and on 30 June in Rome he was consecrated titular Bishop of Maronea. When the first 20 Marist priests took their vows on 24 September 1836, he merely took a promise of cooperation. He and his missionary group left Havre on 24 December for Valparaiso, Chile, a base of the Mission of Eastern Oceania. They then travelled westward by an American ship and visited the new missions at Mangareva and at Tahiti. On 4 October 1837, Pompallier and his three Marist priests and three brothers left Tahiti in a hired schooner to enter their own territory. He placed four men at Wallis and Futuna – islands up to then opposed to Christianity – and before proceeding to New Zealand he made contact in December with Bishop Polding in Sydney, then the metropolis of the South Pacific. He decided to land on Hokianga Harbour where were settled the Poyntons and other Catholics known to Polding.

These Catholics welcomed the Bishop, Father L. C. Servant, and Brother Michael Colomban on 10 January 1838, but hostility stirred up by British Protestants was bitter and prolonged. Besides the religious issue there was the question of nationality. Though the mission had no support from the French Government, it did keep alive earlier local fears of French annexation recently renewed by the adventurer, de Thierry.

Pompallier's courage, bearing, and courtesy impressed many of the Maori chiefs, and the respect shown him at the Bay of Islands by Cécile of the corvette Héroine in May and by Du Petit-Thouars of the 2,000-ton frigate Venus in November 1838 caused his mana to rise. Though he was glad of the warships' protection, his Instructions to Missionaries (probably written in 1838) prove that he was no agent for French interests. (This was incomprehensible to the Church Missionary Society which was so closely tied up with the Colonial Office, nor could Busby's suspicions be lulled even though he admired Pompallier as a man.) In June 1839 more men and long-awaited funds came from Lyons, and in July Pompallier made his headquarters at Kororareka. There for a time he had a hospital cum-dispensary under a doctor. Europeans who met the Bishop noted his pleasing personality and his dedicated zeal for the interests of his fellow men, regardless of their race or creed. A third station was opened at Whangaroa in January 1840. These first two years had shown his high capacity for pioneering work. He had been all over the north and had succeeded with tribes hitherto intractable.

At this time Captain William Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands to establish British rule. Pompallier took no sides during the Waitangi negotiations but his growing influence had helped to move the British missionaries not only to abandon their earlier theocratic plans and their objections to lay colonisation but even to become Hobson's most effective assistants. The Bishop was present at Waitangi by Hobson's invitation. On the second day of the treaty negotiations he secured from him the assurance that the policy of his administration would be to protect all creeds.

The Tauranga mission was founded in March 1840. Fresh resources in July enabled the Bishop to buy the schooner Sancta Maria and go south for six months. On 22 November 1840 he held a service at Otakou (Otago Harbour) – in all probability the first of any Christian denomination to be held there – and he also preached in English at Wellington on Christmas Day. He then made two voyages to the tropics, in 1841 – after the news of St. Peter Chanel's martyrdom at Futuna – and again in 1842. Rome set up the Tropical Missions as a separate ecclesiastical territory in 1842 and Pompallier could thenceforth concentrate on New Zealand. By 1844 there were 12 stations – Hokianga, Bay of Islands, Whangaroa, Tauranga, Akaroa, Matamata, Wellington, Whakatane, Rotorua, Opotiki, Auckland, and Kaipara, cared for by 16 priests and 11 lay missionaries. There were 2,166 baptised Catholic Maoris and about 1,400 European Catholics. (In 1841 he reported that about 1,000 Maoris had been baptised with 45,000 under instruction.)

In 1844 Pompallier walked inland from the Bay of Plenty to the borders of Taranaki and back to Auckland. In 1845 he had Philip Viard, S.M., made his coadjutor and could depart in 1846 to make the customary report to the Pope. He had been much concerned about the Hone Heke War (1845–46) in which the disaffected chiefs had been stirred up by a handful of British and American mischief makers. Governor FitzRoy alleged in 1845 that the French missionaries were the culprits. His successor, Sir George Grey, corrected this officially in 1846 and vindicated Pompallier's pacificatory part.

To spread the faith the Bishop had often placed his men in isolation from each other and with meagre resources. This, and his unpracticality, intensified the spiritual and material privations involved in their work. For several years, in view of the stability of the mission, the Society of Mary had tried to safeguard the well-being of these missionaries. After discussions in Rome, the Bishop opted for diocesan priests, trusting they would be even more flexible and expendable helpers, and in 1848 Pius IX divided New Zealand into two dioceses. The Marist Fathers and Brothers were to transfer to the south under Bishop Viard. When Pompallier returned in 1850, he brought with him 10 diocesan clerics and eight Irish Sisters of Mercy. The Marists sailed for the south, except for four priests who stayed a year longer.

The period 1850–60 saw the Bishop more occupied with the colonists, and there were many Catholics among the British troops and military pensioners. He applied for naturalisation and was declared a British subject as from 1850. It was a fruitful time for him as far as writing went. In the 1840s he had produced certain works in haste, some on his own press at Kororareka. In them his grasp of Maori, if often criticised, was noteworthy in view of his circumstances. His Maori now was not only adequate but good. He wrote catechetical works, public letters to chiefs, and pastoral letters. In French he published a Historical Sketch of the Mission (indifferently translated in 1888) and a Maori Grammar.

Some of the 1850 recruits became excellent missionaries but their work was upset later by Maori disaffection over the land question. The mission personnel changed constantly, and despite fresh helpers from Europe and from the North Shore Seminary, Pompallier had only 10 priests in 1859. There were 20 Sisters of Mercy with five schools, the other nine Catholic schools being staffed by lay teachers. All, since 1847, were aided by Government funds. In 1859 the Bishop made his duty-visit to Rome. In 1860 he was made titular Bishop of Auckland. Among those he brought back were over 10 priests and clerics, eight Italian Friars Minor, two Brothers of St. Viator, and four French ladies, including Mother Mary Joseph Aubert.

Maori mission work in the 1860s was crippled by the Maori Wars, though Pompallier might have used his Franciscans more effectively in the peaceful north. His impartial and humanitarian spirit was esteemed both by Grey and by the Kingites, despite the fact that his efforts to avert bloodshed brought him insults from some Pakehas. When Hauhauism became dominant from 1865, the missionaries south of Auckland had to be withdrawn.

The burdens of the depression years, 1866-67, made a visit to Europe more urgent in 1868. His failure this time to gain support was disheartening even to one whose apostolic dreams had so often been cut down by realities. After reporting to the Pope, he resigned his charge. He had served both races in New Zealand for over 30 years. In 1869 he was made titular Archbishop of Amasia. He died at Puteaux, near Paris, on 21 December 1871.

Pompallier had the gift of treating native peoples with respect, cordiality, and esteem. His chief fault was that he tried to do too much with so little, and too quickly. His forte was extension, not consolidation, but he was the leader the times needed. Lack of resources and consequent debts had harassed him from the beginning but he deserves little blame for that and much praise for all that he contrived to do. Founder of all the Catholic missions in the south-west Pacific, he was one of the great Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century.

by Maurice Warwick Mulcahy, S.M., D.D., Archivist to the Marist Order in New Zealand, Wellington.

  • The Life and Times of Bishop Pompallier, Keys, Lilian (1957) (with list of Pompallier's published works)
  • Fishers of Men (ed.), McKeefry, P. T. B. (1938)
  • The Church in New Zealand, Vol. I, Wilson, J. J. (1910)
  • New Zealand 1769–1840, Wright, H. M. (1959)
  • The Voyage of the Astrolabe – 1840, Wright, Olive (1955).

Co-creator

Maurice Warwick Mulcahy, S.M., D.D., Archivist to the Marist Order in New Zealand, Wellington.

Last updated 10-Nov-11