Anna Maria Williams, known as Maria, was born at Waimate mission station, near Paihia, Northland, New Zealand, on 25 February 1839, the daughter of Jane Nelson and her husband, William Williams, Church Missionary Society missionaries. Maria was the sixth child in a family of nine.
In late December 1839 Jane and William Williams and their family left Te Waimate (Waimate North) for the East Coast, where they set up a mission station at Turanga (Gisborne). Maria, her five sisters and three brothers spent most of their youth there and later at the inland mission farm at Waerenga-a-hika. Occasional trips were made to stay with relatives elsewhere, notably Henry and Marianne Williams, CMS missionaries at Paihia. They grew up bilingual and with a firsthand knowledge of Maori life and customs. As the children of missionaries, they received an education which emphasised practical and spiritual training. It seems that by the late 1850s Maria was herself a teacher, giving lessons in the mission school.
In 1860 and 1861 Maria suffered from influenza and then typhoid fever which left her an invalid with a spinal deformity. She was sent to relatives in Auckland to see what could be done to help her. The treatment she received included applications of a hot iron, which, however, had little beneficial effect. She had to endure the journey back and forth to Auckland by ship, having been hoisted aboard on a plank.
The years that followed were difficult and sometimes frightening for Maria Williams and her family. In 1865 her father, who had in 1859 been consecrated bishop of Waiapu, made the decision to leave Waerenga-a-hika when it was threatened by a band of Hauhau. The next two years were spent at Horotutu, near Paihia. After returning to the East Coast in 1867 the family shifted to Napier, eventually living in a residence called Hukarere, on Napier Hill.
William Williams had a deep interest in the establishment of Te Aute College for Maori boys; Maria's considerable organising ability, her knowledge of the Maori language and her strong spiritual faith encouraged him to found in 1875 what was first known as the Bishop's School and later as Hukarere Native Girls' School, at Napier. The school acquired its name because of its proximity to the Williams's residence. It started with just seven girls; after a year the number rose to 30, and by 1877 there were 60 students on the roll.
As superintendent, Maria Williams, known as 'Miss Maria', kept the accounts, dealt with the correspondence, supervised matrons and teachers and taught English and the Scriptures. She was aided by her two unmarried sisters, Lydia Catherine ('Miss Kate') and Marianne ('Miss Mary Anne'). The school curriculum in early days included domestic work, hygiene, drill, dressmaking and singing, as well as the usual academic subjects. Maria Williams believed in teaching by example, and in speaking of her school she would often quote, 'As the twig is bent so the tree will grow'. The school attracted pupils from all around New Zealand and among those who went on to achieve distinction was Makareti (Maggie) Papakura, who became a scholar and writer.
After her retirement in 1899 Maria Williams continued to take an active interest in the school. Although she was an invalid, and progressively lost her sight, she would at times have the girls come to her for knitting classes, during which she gave religious instruction. She and her sisters became known as the 'Hukarere Aunts' and lived together quietly and simply. They dressed in Victorian fashion, with black shawls and lace caps, and commanded great respect because of their age.
Maria Williams died in Napier on 5 May 1929, aged 90 years. During her life she had carried on the tradition of her family, as an educationalist and a Christian missionary. She and her sisters dedicated their lives to the service of others, in accordance with their faith.