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Story: Catholic Church

The Catholic Church in New Zealand began with French missionaries in 1838, who converted Māori. By 1870 it had become primarily an Irish settler church. In the 21st century it is more diverse, with parishioners from the Pacific, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Story by Rory Sweetman
Main image: A procession outside the first Catholic chapel in Wellington

Story Summary

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First Catholic missionaries

The first Catholic missionaries arrived in New Zealand in 1838. They began their work in Northland, and were led by Bishop Jean-Baptiste Francois Pompallier, a handsome and charismatic 34 year old.

Māori and Catholicism

Many Māori converted to Catholicism, some because rival tribes had become Anglicans or Methodists. Pompallier urged his priests to build Catholic belief around Māori customs. The missionaries set up a printing press, and printed books in the Māori language.

Irish settler church

As more European settlers arrived in New Zealand, many of them Irish Catholics, the Catholic Church become more of a settler church rather than a mission to Māori. Irish Catholics supported home rule for Ireland, which was ruled by Britain at that time. Some saw this as a lack of loyalty to Britain, and there were some conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

Catholic schools

Catholics believed it was important to educate their children in the Catholic faith, and set up many church schools from 1877. They failed to get government funding for the schools until 1975, when religious schools were able to join the state system. Until then, they were supported by their communities.

Catholicism in the 20th century

New Zealand Catholics fought in the First World War. However, because the Pope remained neutral, and due to continuing tensions between Irish nationalists and Britain, there was a backlash against Catholics.

Many Catholics were involved in setting up the Labour Party, and the first Labour prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, was Catholic.

Catholics tended to go to separate schools, play for separate sports clubs, socialise together, and marry within the faith. However, in the 1960s there were many reforms in the Catholic Church, and Catholics became more involved in the wider society.

Catholicism in the 21st century

In 2013 there were just over 492,000 Catholics in New Zealand. Many were Pākehā, of Irish descent, but there were increasing numbers of people from the Pacific, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

How to cite this page:

Rory Sweetman, 'Catholic Church', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/catholic-church (accessed 23 November 2017)

Story by Rory Sweetman, published 5 May 2011, updated 3 Feb 2017