Story: Religion and society

Page 6. Sectarian conflicts

All images & media in this story


Many colonial Catholics from poor Irish backgrounds brought with them long memories of British Protestant oppression. Some were quick to see old injustices resurfacing. There was a minor skirmish between Catholics and Protestants at Ōkārito on the West Coast in 1865. Three years later in Hokitika when local Catholics expressed support for the Fenians (militant Irish nationalists), 800 special constables were sworn in. Catholics attacked Protestant Orange marches in Christchurch and Timaru on Boxing Day 1879.

Mock funerals

In March 1868 the West Coast’s Catholic community heard that three Fenians had been hanged in Manchester for killing a police sergeant. Catholics in both Charleston and Hokitika organised funeral processions in the men’s honour. In Hokitika on Sunday 8 March the procession numbered about 800, and marched for over 22 kilometres around the district. When it reached the local cemetery, the priest, Father Larkin, conducted a burial service in Latin, and a memorial Celtic cross was erected in honour of ‘the Irish patriots’.


State aid to private schools

The Education Act 1877 denied funding to schools outside the state primary system. This annoyed Dunedin’s Bishop Patrick Moran, an Irishman, who saw it as forcing Catholics to fund both state and Catholic schools. From 1883 until 1897 Moran’s Tablet newspaper carried a standing editorial denouncing this ‘double tax’ as ‘tyranny, oppression, and plunder’.1 The bishop founded a Catholic movement to win state aid for private schools, which finally succeeded in 1975. Although many Catholics got on well with their Protestant neighbours, separate schools sustained a distinct Catholic subculture. This constituted a significant division in society into the 1970s, and has not entirely disappeared.

First World War

The campaign for state aid for private schools inflamed Catholic–Protestant tensions during and immediately after the First World War.

  • New Zealand became the only part of the British Empire where Catholic teaching brothers (and even a bishop) were called up for military service.
  • In 1917 Auckland Baptist minister Howard Elliott founded the Protestant Political Association, which soon claimed 200,000 members and had enough political clout to unseat Catholic politician Joseph Ward in 1919.
  • In 1920 New Zealand was the first country in the British Empire to pass legislation against the supposed implications of the Vatican’s 1908 Ne Temere decree against mixed marriages.
  • In 1922 Bishop James Liston was charged with sedition for allegedly describing the ‘martyrs’ of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 as ‘murdered by foreign troops’.2

Non-religious victims

The state – supposedly secular – sometimes treated non-religious citizens harshly. Making minimal allowance for religious conscientious objectors to military service, the wartime government refused to recognise non-religious objectors at all. In 1922 John Glover, secularist editor of the Labour journal the Maoriland Worker, was tried for blasphemy, charged with reviling ‘Christ and the Last Sacrament.’3

In its treatment of ethno-religious minorities – Catholics, secularists and Māori Christians – the state often operated as a de facto Protestant state. Immigration legislation aimed at excluding the Chinese was also seen as protecting the country from immoral heathens.

  1. Tablet, 31 August 1883, p. 15. Back
  2. Rory Sweetman, Bishop in the dock: the sedition trial of James Liston. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997, p. 11. Back
  3. G. Troughton, ‘The Maoriland worker and blasphemy in New Zealand.’ Labour History 91 (2006), p. 115. Back
How to cite this page:

John Stenhouse, 'Religion and society - Sectarian conflicts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by John Stenhouse, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018