Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Ian Church, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Jean Lampila, known to the Māori as Hone Rapira, and also known as John Lampila, was born in Mazamet, southern France, on 24 October 1808. After rising to sergeant in the French army, and seeing service in Greece, he entered the Society of Mary (Marists) in June 1840. Father Jean-Claude Marie Colin, the Marist founder, had doubts regarding Lampila's suitability and he was not ordained when he sailed for New Zealand in the London in November 1841. He continued his studies and was admitted to the priesthood by Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier at Purakau, Hokianga, on Christmas Day 1842.
After serving as assistant at Purakau, Lampila established the Whakatāne mission in February 1844 and journeyed from there to the Urewera district, Wairoa and Hawke's Bay. He attempted to set up a mission at Wairoa in March 1849 but withdrew in December. He went to Wellington when the society moved its headquarters there from Auckland in May 1850 and was then appointed to Hawke's Bay. However, a storm drove his ship to Gisborne where, building on earlier visits, he settled for five months. He was sent to Pākōwhai, Hawke's Bay, in November 1850, and arrived there in January 1851; he continued to minister to his Wairoa and Poverty Bay converts.
Lampila moved to the Whanganui River in October 1852 and was based at Kaiwhaiki until 1854 when he chose a more central base at Kauaeroa, near Jerusalem. With the support of Te Peehi Tūroa, principal chief of the upper Whanganui River, he assisted the Māori to erect flour mills. With 'miracles' such as 'Hine Roimata', the weeping Virgin, who was rumoured to have conversed with Lampila, he won nearly 1,000 converts in the next 10 years. Sectarian differences contributed to intertribal rivalry on the river and in 1857 fighting broke out over a planned flour mill at Maraekōwhai. Lampila was banned from going upriver by Tōpine Te Mamaku of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi; in one battle the priest led his followers through the palisades into Te Mamaku's pā. The following year a disputed marriage prevented Lampila's descending the river to Whanganui.
Like other Catholic missionaries Lampila benefited from his perceived independence from the British government but there was little substance to several charges of disloyalty levelled against him. At the meeting held at Pūkawa, Lake Taupō, in November 1856, to discuss the idea of a Māori king, he supported the government, and in the battle of Moutoa Island on 14 May 1864, Lampila's followers defeated a Hauhau force menacing Whanganui. The loss of leading supporters in this and subsequent engagements, combined with Lampila's ill health and the general Māori mistrust of European institutions, caused the mission to decline and Lampila withdrew to Whanganui in April 1867.
Lampila held notable debates with his Anglican rivals, attracting considerable interest from the Māori who, to some extent, engineered them. He confronted John Alexander Wilson at Ōpōtiki in October 1844, James Hamlin at Whakakī in November 1846, William Williams at Poverty Bay in November 1849, and Richard Taylor at Rānana in September 1856 and at Parikino in October 1860. Lampila argued from Catholic history, traditions and miracles, to the frustration of his antagonists who quoted the Scriptures in support. To discomfit them further he issued challenges to enter a fire, to test the strength of their respective beliefs. James Hamlin and William Colenso received the dare at second hand in November and December 1848; William Williams was directly challenged a year later. Afterwards Bishop P. J. Viard advised Lampila that in future confrontations the missionaries should enter the fire tied together. He used this tactic against the Reverend Arthur Stock on the Whanganui River in October 1855 and against Richard Taylor at Rānana. None accepted the 'fiery ordeal' but the challenge increased Lampila's standing with his supporters.
Lampila took charge of the Whanganui parish in June 1868. While he was there, he had to defend himself against William Williams who, in his book Christianity among the New Zealanders (London, 1867), had charged him with trickery over his use of a weeping image of the Virgin. From 1872 to 1879 he had charge of New Plymouth and built new churches there and at Inglewood. After eight months as curate at Napier he became assistant at Lower Hutt, which included Petone, Pāuatahanui and Kaikōura. When Kaikōura separated in May 1883 Lampila, despite his frailty, became its first resident priest. Four years later he retired to Sydney, and returned to France in September 1888. He became chaplain to the Carmelite nuns at Mazamet in April 1890, retiring in 1895. He died on 14 February 1897 in the Marist house of St Marcel lès Sauzet, in the diocese of Valence.