Philippe Viard was born in Lyons, France, on 11 October 1809, the eighth child of Claude Viard, a metal founder, and his wife, Pierrette Charlotte Rolland. He probably took Joseph as a religious name at confirmation. In New Zealand he was often known as Philip Joseph Viard.
Philippe attended the parish school of St Nizier and then entered the minor seminary of l'Argentière about 1827, proceeding to the major seminary of St Irenaeus in Lyons in 1831. He was ordained priest in the cathedral of St John, Lyons, on 20 December 1834. Thereafter he was a popular curate in the Lyons parishes of Couzon-au-Mont-d'Or, and Notre Dame St Louis, La Guillotière, where he worked until 1839.
Viard was drawn to missionary work; he felt tortured by the thought of 'thousands of savages who were lost and plunged into hell for lack of priests to instruct them'. On 1 January 1839 he entered the recently formed Society of Mary (Marists) at Lyons. In 1836 the society had dispatched Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier and a group of missionaries to the South Seas. Pompallier had established a mission base at Hokianga, New Zealand, in January 1838 and was in need of further assistance. After a short novitiate Viard was professed on 19 May, leaving the following day with a group of Marists for New Zealand.
The missionaries sailed from London on the Australasian Packet on 14 June 1839. They arrived in Sydney on 23 October, and sailed for New Zealand on the Martha, arriving on 8 December. Bishop Pompallier was now established at Kororāreka (Russell) and took Viard with him on a visit to the Bay of Plenty in early 1840. Viard was sent back in May that year to set up a permanent mission station at Tauranga with the help of a Māori catechist, Romano. He picked up a reasonable knowledge of Māori and despite his isolated position gradually established a strong mission, whose influence extended to Matamata and Maketū. There is evidence that he was a peacemaker between warring tribes.
On 4 June 1841 Pompallier made Viard his vicar general or second in charge, and recalled him to Kororāreka. Viard accompanied him on his voyages around New Zealand on the mission schooner Sancta Maria. It was at Akaroa in November that news was received of Father Pierre Chanel's murder on Futuna Island in April. With Viard, Pompallier set out for Wallis and Futuna islands on his schooner, accompanied by the French corvette L'Allier. Pompallier remained at Wallis while Viard brought Chanel's remains back to the Bay of Islands in February 1842. Viard returned to Wallis in April with provisions and was placed in charge of the Pacific islands section of the diocese.
Viard found Wallisian akin to Māori and therefore easy to learn. In December 1843, while assisting the Marists in their first attempt to establish a mission in New Caledonia, he discovered that some of the local people had Wallisian ancestry and spoke the language. This made it easier to communicate with the New Caledonians and Viard proved invaluable to the new mission. He was summoned back to New Zealand by Pompallier in September 1845. Arriving at Sydney en route for the Bay of Islands in October, Viard learnt he had been appointed bishop of Orthosia and coadjutor bishop to Pompallier, at Pompallier's request. Viard was consecrated bishop in Sydney by Archbishop J. B. Polding on 4 January 1846. He chose a simple coat of arms, depicting the Blessed Sacrament and the Cross. The motto was 'sub Mariae nomine' (under the name of Mary).
Viard arrived back in the Bay of Islands on 22 January. A few months later Pompallier went to Rome to explain his disputes with the Marists. Viard was left in charge of the Catholics of New Zealand. Between 1846 and 1850 he made frequent pastoral visits to established Catholic missions in the North Island, using Kororāreka as his base. He visited Auckland many times, consecrating St Patrick's Church on 19 March 1848, and establishing churches for the military and their families at Howick, Panmure, Otahuhu and Onehunga at Governor George Grey's request. Grey also authorised funds for a college of St Mary at Takapuna, which opened in October 1849.
On 15 February 1849 Viard received news from Rome that two dioceses had been created in New Zealand. Pompallier was to retain control of the northern diocese, which was centred on Auckland. Viard was to be vicar apostolic or administrator apostolic of the southern diocese, which had its headquarters at Wellington. This was Rome's attempt to solve the Pompallier–Marist quarrels, by sending the Marists south of Taupō with Viard as their leader. In spite of the separation Viard and Pompallier were to remain on terms of friendship for the rest of their lives.
When Pompallier returned to Auckland in April 1850, Viard set sail for Wellington. With him on the Clara were five Marist priests, ten Marist lay brothers, three religious sisters and a novice from a local order of sisters, which Viard had founded in Auckland, two Māori catechists, two male schoolteachers, and one Māori woman. His Māori helpers seem to have returned to Auckland later. In his new diocese there was one Marist priest at Ōtaki, another Marist priest he had sent ahead of him in 1849, and Father Jeremiah O'Reily, an Irish Capuchin priest, who had come to Wellington as chaplain to the Petre family.
Viard purchased land in Thorndon and the Hutt Valley. On the Thorndon property (now Hill Street) the Marist lay brothers began building a clergy house and a convent for the sisters. A foundation stone was laid for the cathedral. Viard had a vast diocese and few clergy but was able to open missions or parishes in the Hutt Valley, Hawke's Bay and Nelson. The Akaroa mission was reopened for a time but troubles with the Canterbury Association caused its priests to leave. In 1852 the Whanganui parish and mission were opened and after that there was virtually no Marist help given to Viard until 1859. 'The south of this diocese is in a pitiable state', lamented Viard. Not only did he lack clergy, but the money from Rome was meagre, and poor Irish Catholics could give little, although they were generous with what they had. The few rich English Catholic families who had moved to New Zealand, such as the Petres, Cliffords and Vavasours, assisted, as did Dr J. P. Fitzgerald and Baron C. E. von Alzdorf in Wellington; but the demands for new land, churches and church buildings in so many towns absorbed whatever money Viard could raise.
With some central government and provincial council financial aid, Viard was able to open several Catholic schools and add to those existing before 1850. A Māori girls' college, called the Providence of St Joseph, and run by the sisters, was begun in Wellington in 1852 with Grey's enthusiastic support, and Father A. M. Garin's secondary boarding school for boys in Nelson, which opened in 1851, was generally admired. Thus the Catholic mission received some official support and acceptance. However, during the 1850s Viard opposed the Wellington and Nelson provincial councils when they proposed education acts containing clauses which were detrimental to Catholic education.
In 1860 Viard was appointed first bishop of Wellington. Practical questions continued to tax him during the next decade. In 1861, noting the diminishing number of sisters in the Wellington convent, he invited Auckland Sisters of Mercy to come to Wellington. He also brought French sisters from the Institute of Our Lady of the Missions to Napier, Christchurch and Nelson. With the arrival of new groups of Marists he was able to establish priests in New Plymouth and Christchurch in 1860, and in Marlborough in 1864. During these years he remained keenly disappointed that he did not have the resources to support adequately the Māori missions. The Taranaki wars also interfered for a time with the expansion of Māori work.
A new phase of activity was precipitated by the goldrushes in Otago and Westland. From 1861 Viard kept a Marist at Dunedin permanently, and during the 1860s was able to send more priests to Invercargill and the Otago diggings. The miners of the Otago and West Coast diggings helped Viard build up his depleted finances. He visited Otago and Canterbury in 1864 and the northern part of the South Island and Westland in 1866.
In Westland, Irish priests followed the thousands of Irish miners and their families to the diggings, and parishes were established at Greymouth, Hokitika, Kūmara, Ngahere, Charleston, Ross, Westport and Reefton. Viard was greatly embarrassed when it was revealed that several Irish priests were active Fenian supporters, and he spoke out against their activities in 1868. In that year one of the priests, Father William John Larkin, was gaoled for seditious libel. Viard suspended him, and after his release, he and another Irish priest left the diocese.
Since his appointment as bishop of Wellington several requests had been made for Viard to visit Rome. Finally on 8 July 1868 he left for Europe. In 1869 and 1870 he attended the First Vatican Council in Rome, presided over by Pope Pius IX. In his absence Dunedin (Otago and Southland) was created a separate diocese under Bishop Patrick Moran.
The affection Wellington people had for Viard was evidenced by the crowd which welcomed him back to New Zealand on 19 March 1871. His health was visibly weaker and by 1872 it was evident death was near. He died on 2 June and was buried in the Catholic cathedral in Wellington.
Viard's gifts do not seem to have been as outstanding as those of Garin, Jean-Baptiste Petit-Jean and Jean Forest. When Pompallier first asked for him as coadjutor bishop in 1843, Jean-Claude Marie Colin, the founder of the Marists, wrote to Rome that he 'is pious and of excellent character, but his talents are very ordinary. Above all, he has no aptitude for administration. The Sulpicians, under whom he did his theology course at Lyons, and whom we consulted, do not give him their vote for the episcopate.' Later in life Viard was criticised for remaining in Wellington and seldom travelling through his vast diocese, and for parsimony. In his defence it could be said that he was cautious, and determined to avoid the problems which had resulted from Pompallier's extravagance. His faith, his zeal and his unassuming goodness were nevertheless unquestioned, and he was revered in Wellington and throughout his diocese for many years after his death.