Jean Baptiste Pompallier, the first Catholic bishop in New Zealand, arrived with other Catholic priests in 1838 and first celebrated mass at Tōtara Point in the Hokianga. As with other denominations, where the Catholic missionaries first arrived remained an area of strength for their faith, as local Māori converts and their descendants remained committed to their early choice of faith. In 1839 seven priests of the Marist order arrived to join Pompallier and the denomination relocated its headquarters to Kororāreka (later renamed Russell) in the Bay of Islands. From there the missions spread to elsewhere in Northland, and to Waikato.
Missionaries among Māori
Following the New Zealand wars James McDonald was the sole Catholic missionary to Māori for many years. From 1886 the St Joseph Society for Foreign Missions, known as the Mill Hill missionaries, ministered amongst Māori Catholic communities in the Auckland diocese. This, along with Suzanne Aubert’s (Sister Mary Joseph’s) work in Hawke’s Bay and then Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, kept Māori missionary work alive. Although the missionaries struggled to retain Māori converts, many Māori communities kept their loyalty to the denomination alive through their own perseverance. In 1944 Wiremu Te Āwhitu, from the Hawke’s Bay Māori mission, was the first Māori to be ordained a priest of the Catholic Church.
From the 1940s the church fostered Catholic Māori clubs in urban centres to support the religious and social needs of Māori who had migrated from rural areas. These clubs were organised nationally by the Central Council of Federated Clubs. In 1946 this council launched the first of what became known as Hui Aranga, annual Easter gatherings for cultural performances and religious expression. Some Pākehā Catholics criticised these hui for going against a wider social trend towards integration of the races. New urban marae such as Te Ūnga Waka in Epsom, Auckland, became centres for the many Catholic Māori relocating to the cities.
The Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s allowed a more pluralistic view of cultural differences in the Catholic Church and gave wider scope for Māori Catholic aspirations. By the 1980s the concept of biculturalism was embraced by the leadership of the church, and Te Rūnanga o Te Hāhi Katorika ki Aotearoa (National Catholic Māori Council of New Zealand) was established in 1984 to guide the pastoral care of Māori Catholics across the country. In 1988 Max Takuira Mariu was appointed Auxillary Bishop of Hamilton, with a mandate to work across Māoridom as the first Māori Catholic Bishop. Māori made up 13% of Catholic Church members in 2013.