Page 1: Biography
Te Awhitu, Wiremu Hakopa Toa
Ngati Maniapoto and Ngati Hauaroa; Catholic priest
This biography, written by Max T. Mariu, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Wiremu Hakopa Toa Te Awhitu, the first Maori to be ordained as a Catholic priest, was born at Okahukura, near Taumarunui, on 28 July 1914. He was the third of 10 children of Tamakaitoa (Toa) Te Awhitu and his wife, Katarina Toia Bell; Katarina also had four other children from her first marriage. The family’s main tribal affiliations were Ngati Hauaroa and Ngati Maniapoto. From his large immediate and extended families Wiremu learnt the importance of sharing everything and working closely with others.
Te Awhitu’s maternal grandfather was Alexander Bell, the first non-Maori permitted to settle in Te Rohe Potae (the King Country). It was a region steeped in Maori history and folklore, and a land of abundant food. The Ongarue and Whanganui rivers teemed with eels and other fish; the surrounding native bush provided delicacies now rare and protected, as well as wild pig and deer, pikopiko (fern fronds) and komata (pith of the cabbage tree). Life on the family farm helped to shape a man of physical strength, mental tenacity and sheer determination. It also taught him the importance of hard work and left him with a very gentle nature.
Wiremu Te Awhitu’s early education was at Ongarue and Okahukura schools. The man who most influenced him was R. A. Watson, known to Maori as Te Miro Watihana. Watson was an English convert to Catholicism and headmaster at the Okahukura School. He also gave the local children their religious lessons, working with the Mill Hill priests. It was to Watson that Tamakaitoa entrusted Wiremu. Through the efforts of Watson and the Mill Hill priests, Wiremu was able to attend St Peter’s Maori College, Northcote, Auckland, in 1931–32. Watson, also now living in Auckland, taught him to master English. Te Awhitu practised Maori crafts and became a skilled carver and artist.
Te Awhitu’s desire to become a priest was supported by Watson and the Mill Hill fathers. He attended St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, to begin the usual academic course preparatory to entering the seminary. At St Patrick’s he was an accomplished footballer and athlete and won the award for best Maori student. Here he met Father J. J. Riordan, of the Marist Maori mission staff, who did much to assist him, then and later.
In 1936 Te Awhitu entered Mount St Mary’s, Greenmeadows, to commence studies for the priesthood. He took temporary vows at Highden in February 1938, and in March 1941 received minor orders. During 1942 he worked with the Marist Maori missioners on the Whanganui River and in Taranaki. In 1943 he recommenced his studies at Greenmeadows. He was ordained a priest in St Patrick’s Church, Napier, on 17 December 1944 and celebrated his first mass the following day in the church of the Immaculate Conception at Pakipaki.
Te Awhitu spent the years 1945–46 at Otaki, then spent 11 years at Meeanee and Pakipaki in Hawke’s Bay. He was a member of the Hawke’s Bay Maori mission, and his pastoral area extended from Wairoa to Dannevirke. In 1958 he suffered a severe stroke which left him unable to speak. He spent his convalescence at Hato Paora College, Feilding, and by 1966 was able to resume his ministry. He spent time at Waitara and Normanby in Taranaki. In 1968 he moved to Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, and was there when James K. Baxter established his commune. He was one of the poet’s religious instructors, and in 1972 headed the priests celebrating Baxter’s requiem mass.
Wiremu Te Awhitu retired to Okahukura in 1989. He was devoted to the priesthood and all it entails: prayer, hard work, a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a commitment to his people. He had a gentle, quiet presence, a big heart, a welcoming smile and a spirituality that sprang from the soul of a man at peace with his God and the world. In retirement he provided the impetus to establish Whanau Maria marae at Okahukura.
Wiremu Te Awhitu died at Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, on 29 July 1994. His tangihanga was held at Ngapuwaiwaha marae, Taumarunui, and his requiem mass was celebrated in the church of the Immaculate Conception, Taumarunui. He was buried in the family cemetery at Okahukura, on the banks of the Ongarue River.