Story: Catholic Church

Page 1. First Catholic missionaries

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In January 1838, three French missionaries sailed into Hokianga Harbour and began the institutional history of Catholicism in New Zealand. The Catholics were late starters in the race to bring Christianity to Māori – the Anglicans had arrived in 1814, the Wesleyans eight years later – but they soon made rapid progress in converting Māori. They were well supplied with men, money and material by their religious order, the Society of Mary, which had been formed in France in 1836 to convert the western Pacific region to the Catholic faith.

Explorers and convicts

Individual Catholics had practised their faith in New Zealand before Bishop Pompallier arrived in 1838. The French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville brought a priest on his 1769 voyage, and he probably said Mass on board ship on Christmas Day. Later, Irish and French Catholics arrived as escaped convicts and settlers. One was Thomas Poynton, an ex-convict who, with his wife Mary, set up a store and sawmill in the Hokianga in 1828. Another was Thomas Cassidy, who took his Māori partner to Sydney so they could be married and have their first child baptised by the nearest Catholic bishop.

Bishop Pompallier

Their leader was Bishop Jean-Baptiste Francois Pompallier, a handsome 36-year-old. His gentlemanly manner hinted at his aristocratic origins and he had great personal charm. Pompallier was the first bishop Māori had met, and he cut an impressive figure in his purple robes. Māori soon named the Catholic faith ‘Pikopo’ (a transliteration of ‘episcopal’, meaning ‘of a bishop’).

The priests and brothers who accompanied Pompallier (36 arrived in the first five years of the mission) were less impressive in appearance but well suited to the demands of their new life. As celibates (people choosing not to have sex), they had no family responsibilities and were able to travel lightly and live in the kāinga of their prospective converts. Unlike their Protestant counterparts, they did not need to barter for land in order to support a large family.

A missionary's life was a test of physical endurance as much as of spiritual faith. Sunday Mass was celebrated at a central base, but most other days were spent travelling on foot or horseback from kāinga to kāinga, instructing Māori in the faith and leading them in prayer. The hardship and discomfort this involved shortened the lives of many priests and crippled others with rheumatism.

Māori and Catholicism

Part of the attraction of Catholicism for some iwi was the opportunity it provided to distinguish themselves from rival iwi who had become Anglicans or Methodists. Pompallier was unusually sensitive in urging his priests to build Catholic belief around existing Māori tikanga (customs) and to avoid seeing Māori ideas as anti-Christian simply because they were non-European. Above all, the Catholics were able to feed an insatiable Māori appetite for books by teaching their followers to read and write.

Printing literature

In early 1840, Pompallier distributed the first printed books from the mission. A year later, a printing press was imported from Europe, along with a lay printer to operate it. The press produced a large quantity of prayer books, hymnals and sections of the New Testament in Māori. The printery was the only one of the Catholic mission buildings in Kororāreka (now Russell) to survive, and has been restored as Pompallier House.

The missionaries part company

The Catholic mission's success in what became a competition in conversion alarmed its Protestant rivals, who believed that it would be better for Māori to remain pagans (non-Christians) than become papists (followers of the Catholic pope). However, Pompallier's confident predictions of thousands of Māori converts were unrealistic, as was his optimism that the practical needs of the mission would somehow be supplied.

Constant arguments over finances and divided authority led to a split with the Society of Mary in 1850. Pompallier was left to staff the Auckland diocese with anyone he could get, while all the Marist clergy departed for the newly created diocese of Wellington.

Pompallier and the Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840 New Zealand became a British colony and not, as once seemed possible, a French one. Akaroa, the site of a hopeful handful of French immigrants, did not become the country’s capital. Pompallier was present when the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed. He extracted a promise from Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson that all religions would be given equal treatment and that the new administration would respect religious freedom. Unlike England, New Zealand was not to have an ‘established’ (official) church.

How to cite this page:

Rory Sweetman, 'Catholic Church - First Catholic missionaries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Rory Sweetman, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 17 Jul 2018