In January 1838 three French missionaries sailed into the Hokianga Harbour and began the institutional history of Catholicism in New Zealand. They 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.
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, Thomas Cassidy, took his Māori partner to Sydney so they could be married and have their first child baptised by the nearest available Catholic bishop.
Their leader was Bishop Jean-Baptiste Francois Pompallier, a handsome 36-year-old. His gentlemanly manner revealed his aristocratic origins and he had great personal charm. Pompallier was the first bishop the Māori had met, and made an impressive figure in his purple robes. Māori soon named the Catholic faith ‘Pikopo’ (from the word ‘episcopal’, meaning ‘of a bishop’).
The priests and brothers who accompanied Pompallier (36 arrived in the first five years) 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 villages of their intended 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 village to village, instructing Māori and leading them in prayer. The discomfort this involved brought many priests to an early grave and crippled others with rheumatism.
Part of the attraction of Catholicism for some Māori tribes was the opportunity to distinguish themselves from their rivals 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.
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. It produced a large quantity of prayers, hymns 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 Catholic mission's success in what became a competition in conversion alarmed its Protestant rivals, who believed that Māori were better to remain pagans (non-Christians) than to 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.
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.
From the 1840s to the 1870s European settlers steadily streamed into New Zealand. New Zealand’s Catholic Church, originally a mission to Māori, became mainly a settler church. The discovery of gold in the 1860s brought thousands of eager migrants to the new frontier. Intensive programmes of immigration sponsored by provincial and central governments in the 1860s and 1870s also swelled religious congregations and placed enormous demands on the churches.
Māori uprisings over land and sovereignty also helped transform the Catholic mission. After a Ngāpuhi chiefs Hōne Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti attacked Kororāreka, the Sunday congregation at its Catholic church was no longer mostly Māori. Larger churches opened in New Plymouth in 1862 and Whanganui in 1864, built by and for the Irish soldiers who made up many of the rank and file of the British army units stationed there. Despite Pompallier’s valiant efforts to mediate between the warring forces in this period, many Māori left the Catholic Church and its Protestant rivals, which they now viewed as Pākehā institutions. Pompallier left New Zealand in 1868, a disappointed man, and died in Paris three years later.
The Vatican authorities soon recognised the changed nature of New Zealand Catholicism by choosing Irishmen to lead the mission. In 1870–71 bishops Patrick Moran and Thomas Croke arrived to lead the dioceses of Dunedin and Auckland respectively. The new men judged their French predecessors harshly. Croke told Rome, ‘I found this place in a shocking condition. The churches not frequented, sacraments neglected, faith grown cold, the Catholics ashamed of their religion.’1 They planned to divide New Zealand between them, but Croke soon returned to Ireland.
By contrast, Patrick Moran’s 24-year term as bishop helped to shape the future of New Zealand Catholicism. On his arrival he launched crusades against secular (non-religious) education and Freemasonry. His aggressive writings in the newspaper he founded in 1873, the New Zealand Tablet, increased tensions between Catholics and Protestants throughout the colony. Catholic-backed measures to allow state financial assistance to church schools were presented to Parliament repeatedly from 1878. They were accompanied by noisy agitation, petitions and threats of a Catholic block vote against hostile candidates.
During the New Zealand wars some Irish Catholics sympathised with ‘rebel’ Māori fighting against the British Crown. This song was written in support of Tāwhiao, the Māori king, and his opposition to selling tribal land. The Shan van Vocht, or the ‘old woman’, is a symbol of Ireland.
Hurrah for Tawhiao
Says the Shan van Vocht
The problem now is solved
The Māori is resolved
The land shall ne’er be sold
Says the Shan van Vocht.2
The Tablet was equally forthright over its other favourite issue – Irish nationalism. Irish immigrants – lay and clerical – brought to New Zealand firm views on politics and education, and a tradition of agitating over their grievances. In 1868 a minor riot involving Fenians (supporters of Irish nationalism) and their opponents on the West Coast showed how little tolerance most settlers felt towards colonists who placed Irish patriotism before loyalty to Britain. There were other skirmishes between Protestants and Catholics, as in 1879 when Irish Catholics attacked Protestant gatherings in Timaru and Christchurch. The violence of the land war in Ireland aroused fear and suspicion in New Zealand, as did the potential for Irish home rule to endanger the unity of the British Empire. Long after colonial-born Catholics made up the bulk of the typical congregation, the Catholic Church in New Zealand was unable to escape its divisive Irish heritage.
Surprisingly, one of the most outspoken New Zealand advocates of Irish nationalism was the English-born Francis Redwood. He was said to be the youngest Catholic prelate (senior church leader) in the world when appointed Bishop of Wellington in 1874, aged 34, and the oldest when he died in 1935, at the age of 95. Redwood was a strong advocate of home rule for Ireland, and later of Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist political movement. Prominent English Catholic families in 19th-century New Zealand included Petre, Weld, Vavasour and Clifford.
References to the Māori haka in Irish author James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s wake probably derive from his sister Margaret, who served as a Catholic nun in New Zealand. In 1909, 25-year-old Margaret Joyce (who took the name Sister Mary Gertrude) arrived at All Saints Convent of Mercy in Greymouth with three other Irish novices (trainee nuns). Sister Mary Gertrude taught piano and singing at Greymouth, Rūnanga and Brunner until 1949, when she moved to the convent in the Christchurch suburb of Papanui, and began teaching at the Loreto School. She never returned to Ireland and retired from teaching just three weeks before her death, aged 80, in 1964.
Redwood’s appointment in 1887 as metropolitan (archbishop) was a recognition that New Zealand Catholicism was developing its own identity, separate from Australia. Another proof of this came in 1899 when Rome ordered the first provincial council of New Zealand to be held. The council agreed to set up a national seminary (school) for secular clergy (ministers who do not belong to a religious order), and Holy Cross College opened in Mosgiel in 1900. By then the Marist seminary in Hawke's Bay had been going for a decade. Both later transferred to Auckland.
The Education Act 1877 introduced free, secular and compulsory primary education. Catholics set up a rival network of church schools, as separate education by Catholic teachers was considered vital to protect the faith of Catholic youth. Their schools were staffed by a host of immigrant religious orders, mostly from Ireland. The battle to build, staff and fund these schools gave the Catholic community a focus for its energy, as well as a burning political cause to win funding from the state. That cause failed, and the school system was sustained for over a century by the donated pennies of the faithful and the almost unpaid labour of hundreds of devoted men and women.
Joseph Ward was the most prominent early Catholic prime minister in New Zealand, but not the first. In 1864–5, Frederick Weld was premier of New Zealand (the title formerly used in place of prime minister). In 1935 another Catholic, Michael Joseph Savage, became prime minister in the first Labour government. National Party leader Jim Bolger became the first New Zealand-born Catholic prime minister in 1990 (Weld was born in England, Ward and Savage in Australia). In 2016, National Party leader Bill English became the second.
Other indications of vitality in the Catholic community were the large churches that dotted the New Zealand countryside. The most striking example was the huge cathedral designed by Francis Petre in Christchurch, which opened in 1905.
Another sign that Catholics were climbing the social and political ladders was the career of Sir Joseph Ward, the Liberal Party leader who was prime minister in 1906–12 and 1928–30. Ward was Australian-born but of Irish parentage. His political success was proof that a Catholic could rise to the highest position in the land. Ward was a lay spokesman for his church on the Irish issue. From the turn of the century Irish home rule was promoted as a means of ensuring the unity of the British Empire, and it won widespread support in New Zealand.
New Zealand Catholics went to war with enthusiasm in 1914. Archbishop Redwood regarded the First World War as a battle for justice and civilisation. Catholics were proud of their high rate of volunteering for military service. When conscription was introduced in 1916, the Catholic hierarchy approved it. The Bishop of Auckland, Henry Cleary, served as a military chaplain in the trenches of Flanders, and won a mention in dispatches.
Henry Cleary, the Catholic Bishop of Auckland, was an intensely energetic man who performed magic tricks in public, was a friend of world-famous authors and artists, and took one of the first commercial aeroplane flights. He served as an army chaplain in the trenches in 1916–17 and was fascinated by the behaviour of birds under shellfire. ‘The sparrows swarm along the fighting lines, picking up scraps and bits of the soldiers’ food. They are very tame, almost let you walk on them, and pay no attention to the rifle or trench mortar fire or to the tremendous crash of high explosives.’1
The Catholic population felt that its sacrifice, shown by the faces of its dead sons in each issue of the Tablet, deserved the gratitude of the rest of the country. Instead, it found itself gradually being made a scapegoat by a war-weary nation. Catholic leaders were accused of using the war to push their religious interests. The Pope’s neutrality and his suspected pro-German sentiments were criticised. Worst of all, the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland meant that New Zealand Catholics were accused of disloyalty. From 1917 the Protestant Political Association (PPA) carried out a virulent anti-Catholic campaign. It found many willing followers and after the war convinced Parliament to pass a number of laws penalising Catholic interests.
Events in Australia contributed to the hostility between Protestants and Catholics. Irish Catholics there challenged the Protestant establishment and defeated efforts to introduce wartime conscription. Daniel Mannix, the outspoken Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, became the most controversial figure in antipodean politics and his speeches were fully reported in New Zealand.
During the war Catholics made up one-seventh of the New Zealand population. The dilemma of their minority status in an overwhelmingly British Protestant country increased once Ireland moved to separate from Britain. In 1917 Dr James Kelly, a former priest from Ireland, was appointed editor of the Tablet. He was a committed Irish Republican who cheered every victory for the separatist Sinn Fein party and insulted its opponents (famously referring to Queen Victoria in highly disrespectful terms). The solicitor-general urged that Kelly should be arrested and prosecuted for sedition, but the wartime coalition government was not willing to take that step.
In 1922 James Liston, the coadjutor (assistant) bishop of Auckland, was charged with sedition and given a two-day criminal trial. It was claimed that in a speech on St Patrick’s Day he had referred to British troops as ‘foreign murderers’. Liston was acquitted, and that verdict marked the end of the divisive Irish issue, but its effects lingered. Over the next two decades the Catholic Church seemed to isolate itself from the rest of the country, bruised by what it regarded as institutional bigotry.
Catholics were strongly represented in the early Labour Party, which shared their dislike for the Protestant Political Association and supported Irish self-determination. In 1922 Bishop Liston publicly rejoiced at Labour's electoral gains: ‘Thanks be to God, the Labour people, our friends, are coming into their own – a fair share in the Government of the country.’1 In 1935 the Labour Party, led by a Catholic, Michael Joseph Savage, swept to power and the New Zealand Catholic Church regained confidence and national pride.
Also in 1935 Francis Redwood, the last link with the Church's Marist pioneers, died. Like the country itself, the Catholic Church was turning to the native-born for leadership, beginning with James Liston (Bishop of Auckland 1929–70) and Matthew Brodie (Bishop of Christchurch 1916–43). These new leaders insisted that Catholics were no strangers in the land of their birth. Liston's confidence that Labour (and his non-Catholic countrymen) would treat Catholics fairly was soon rewarded. Church schools were given a number of minor concessions. The sense that the era of exclusion was over was reinforced by enthusiastic Catholic participation in the Second World War and the Korean War.
One of the most prominent Māori Catholics in the 1950s and 1960s was Whina Cooper (Te Rarawa), from the Hokianga. She moved her family to Auckland in the early 1950s and was horrified to see the conditions in which some of her people were living. She set up an Auckland Catholic Māori Society, which raised funds to build an urban Catholic marae, Te Unga Waka, in Epsom. Her nephew, Father Henare Tate, became the second Māori to be ordained as a priest.
In the 1950s and 1960s New Zealand Catholics generally formed close-knit communities, friendly with non-Catholics but seldom marrying them. Catholics in that period ate fish rather than meat on Fridays. Their children went to different schools than non-Catholics and their sports teams were organised into different clubs, such as the Marist rugby clubs. Rivalry with non-Catholic teams spurred fierce competition on rugby fields and basketball (netball) courts.
A nationwide network of Hibernian Societies (Catholic welfare societies, named after the ancient name for Ireland), helped those in need. St Patrick’s Day was an occasion for noisy and joyful parties, with traditional Irish songs and dancing. The heart of Catholic communities were the local churches where Mass was said in sonorous Latin.
The process of healing old ethnic and religious wounds was greatly accelerated by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1962–65. From 1970 Mass in New Zealand was said in either English or Māori. New hymns and prayers with more relevance to local seasons and ideas were introduced. The reforms also led to church services with other Christian religions, joint Good Friday processions, and joint social justice projects. Many Catholics took up justice and peace causes in their own communities, as well as nationally and internationally. During the Springbok tour of 1981 Catholics were deeply involved in the movement against apartheid.
The new liberal climate encouraged joint action by some Christian churches to secure state funding for church schools, which were suffering due to post-war population pressure and rising educational standards. The third Labour government passed the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act 1975, which allowed religious schools to join the state education system on terms that protected their special character.
By 1983 all 249 Catholic primary and secondary schools had become ‘state integrated schools’, saving many of them from financial collapse. The act marked the full integration of Catholics into New Zealand life. This was demonstrated in 1986 when Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit New Zealand.
In the 2013 census just over 492,000 people in New Zealand, about one-eighth of the population, identified themselves as Catholic. The proportion of the population who are Catholic has changed very little in the past hundred years, but the nature of the Catholic congregation has changed considerably, especially since the 1980s. The number of Pākehā Catholics, who are mainly of Irish descent, dropped sharply as a result of the general secularisation of New Zealand culture (the trend away from organised religion). Over the same period, changes in government immigration policy meant that the Catholic Church took on a more Pacific identity. By the 2010s there were also many more Korean, Indian, Filipino, Iranian and Burundian faces in the pews.
Between 2001 and 2006 Catholic numbers grew by 23,000 (4.5%) to exceed half a million (508,400) for the first time. However, New Zealand’s population grew by 7.8% in this period. Though numbers dropped to 492,000 in 2013, Catholics overtook Anglicans as the largest religious group.
In the 2010s the Catholic Church in New Zealand was divided into six regions, called dioceses, each made up of a number of parishes, or local districts. There were 271 Catholic parishes throughout the country: the Diocese of Auckland had 67, Hamilton 37, Palmerston North 33, Wellington 47, Christchurch 50, and Dunedin 37.
Since the early 21st century, instead of mainly white, often Irish, priests, the Aotearoa Catholic clergy have been more multicultural. New Zealand has two seminaries for training priests – Holy Cross and the Marist Seminary – and also the Good Shepherd national theological college, all in Auckland. In 2016 there were 22 seminarians training at Holy Cross Seminary. Most were New Zealanders, with others from South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Africa and India.
Most Catholics in New Zealand are Roman Catholics – members of the church founded in Rome. However, there are also Catholics from other branches of the church such as Maronites (who first came to New Zealand from Lebanon over 100 years ago), Byzantine or Greek Catholics and Chaldeans (Iraqi Catholics).
Bishop Pompallier would be happy to know that since his original conversion of the Māori people, Māori and people of many nations worship together. The links with the original Catholic mission were acknowledged in 1988 with the appointment of a Māori bishop, Max Mariu. In 2002 the bones of Bishop Pompallier were brought back to New Zealand and reburied at Motuti, near the place on the Hokianga Harbour where he had landed 164 years earlier.
King, Michael. God’s farthest outpost: a history of Catholics in new New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin , 1997.
Reid, Nicholas. James Michael Liston: a life. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006.
Reid, Nicholas. The bishop’s paper: a history of the Catholic press of the Diocese of Auckland. Orewa: Catholic Publications Centre, 2000.
Sweetman, Rory. 'A fair and just solution?': a history of the integration of private schools in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 2002.
Sweetman, Rory. Bishop in the dock: the sedition trial of James Liston. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997.
The official website of the New Zealand Catholic Church.
The website of the Catholic cathedral in Christchurch.
The website of the organisation for Catholic Women.
The website of the Catholic friendly society.
The training centre for Marist priests.
The Pompallier Hokianga Trust preserves and promotes the memory of Jean Baptiste François Pompallier, the first Catholic Bishop of New Zealand.
This page on the Heritage New Zealand website gives a history of Pompallier House in Russell, the oldest surviving Catholic building in New Zealand.