Story: Fabish, Agnes

Page 1: Biography

Fabish, Agnes

1873–1947

Domestic servant, farmer, homemaker

This biography, written by Rod Fabish, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Agnes Dodunska was born on 21 December 1873 at Gremblin (Gręblin), West Prussia (now in Poland), the daughter of Michael Dodunski and his wife, Catharina (Katryna) Liper. Her uncle, Matthias Dodunski, emigrated to New Zealand in 1876 with other Poles from the villages of Gremblin and Rauden (Rudno), which were located on fertile cropland near the Vistula River, on the main road from Danzig (Gdańsk) to Warsaw near the major town of Dirschau (Tczew). At Matthias's encouragement, Michael and Catharina Dodunski emigrated to New Zealand with their family in 1883 on the British King. Polish families had arrived in New Zealand from 1872 onwards, and from 1875 several were settled at Hokitika and Jackson Bay in south Westland. When the special settlement at Jackson Bay failed, they were relocated. Wishing to stay together, most of the Polish families, including the Dodunskis, eventually resettled in the Inglewood, Tariki and Midhirst areas of Taranaki, working in the bush, developing farmland or doing labouring work.

Agnes and her family moved to a property on York Road at Midhirst; 17 of the first 18 sections properties on York Road were purchased by Polish immigrants. Initially referred to locally as Germans, within a short time the families were recognised as Polish. Polish was spoken within the community, but the immigrants were committed to their new home. Michael Dodunski became a naturalised New Zealand citizen on 25 October 1890.

Having received some education at Hokitika, and then at Waipuku after her family moved to Midhirst, Agnes was put into domestic service at Eltham. She maintained a friendly relationship by letter with Joseph Fabish (originally Fabisz), the son of a neighbouring Polish family. Joseph had immigrated to New Zealand with his family on the Fritz Reuter in 1876. They, too, came to Taranaki via Hokitika. Agnes and Joseph were married in the Catholic Church at Stratford on New Year's Day 1894.

They purchased their first small farm on Hursthouse Road, Inglewood. The land was covered in tree-stumps and without a house when Agnes gave birth to their first child, August, in December 1894. The delivery took place in her parents' home. Joseph worked in a sawmill by day and removed stumps by night. Most of the time Agnes was left in sole charge to milk the cows, and to feed and tend a growing family. (Agnes and Joseph were to have 14 children: seven sons and seven daughters.) She toiled relentlessly, chopping wood for the fire, knitting, sewing and baking. She prepared and cooked traditional Polish dishes, an art subsequently passed on to her daughters. Agnes loved music, and on festive occasions the largest room in the house was cleared for singing and dancing, with Joseph playing the accordion.

A keen gardener, Agnes cleared new ground to grow vegetables for her expanding family. When they moved to a farm on Rugby Road, Tariki, Agnes planted camellias and grew apples, gathered honey and cured home-grown bacon for the markets. She also worked on the farm, feeding the pigs and rearing calves. Trips to town were made every three months, usually to purchase material for the children's clothing or to buy other necessities such as boots.

The Polish community was known for its fervent Catholic faith, and Agnes and Joseph were both strong believers. Every second Sunday, Mass was held at Inglewood, and the family would walk the several miles, carrying the babies. They later travelled by horse and buggy. Agnes observed all the holy days of the Polish church calendar.

Agnes was well known for her generosity in helping friends or neighbours during times of adversity. The Polish settlers struggled to eke out a living for their families and did not become prominent in public or commercial life in the district. Polish customary values were strong in the immigrant community, but because they were neither isolated nor concentrated enough to maintain their ethnic identity, they gradually became assimilated.

By 1921 the Fabishes had moved to New Plymouth, where Joseph worked in the building trade. They later farmed again, and in 1935 moved to Waitara, where Agnes actively participated in church affairs, attending daily Mass. Her later life focused on church work, caring for her husband, and the interests of her extended family.

Agnes Fabish had great energy, good health and a strong constitution. She and her husband helped set up their sons on their own farms, and made great sacrifices to ensure their family survived and prospered. She died at New Plymouth on 21 July 1947. Joseph Fabish died in 1952.

How to cite this page:

Rod Fabish. 'Fabish, Agnes', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3f1/fabish-agnes (accessed 21 April 2019)