Kōrero: Communes and communities

Whārangi 4. Religious and spiritual communities

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

A number of Christian – mostly Catholic – religious orders were established in New Zealand from the 19th century. These communities require formal commitment from their members. Some focus on contemplation, while others provide social services such as education, health services and care of the elderly. In most, members eschew private property. They follow a timetable of praying, working and eating together, and may adopt particular forms of dress, such as nuns’ habits.

Most of these orders were still active in the 21st century, but membership of some had dwindled. In the late 20th century Buddhist and Hare Krishna groups also established communities, as did some less traditional Christian groups.

Christian religious orders


Marists are a four-branched family of religious congregations of the Catholic Church. A Marist mission was established in Kororāreka (later Russell) in 1841. Schools were opened by Marist brothers and fathers from the 1840s, and later also by Marist sisters. In 2016 there were 115 Marist fathers and brothers, 58 Marist teaching brothers, 33 Marist missionary sisters and fewer than 20 Marist sisters in New Zealand.

Sisters of Mercy

The Irish Catholic order of the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Auckland from 1850. By 1897 congregations had been founded in the main centres, where they set up schools and cared for the aged and sick.

Let us pray

Pauline O’Regan of the Sisters of Mercy remembered her first visit to the Aranui state house that would become home for her and two other nuns. The three women were holding hands and preparing to pray, when they realised their legs were covered in fleas. ‘We leapt up and down to shake them off and swiped our legs wildly. In an unseemly rush we ran for the door, and outside in the street collapsed in uncontrollable laughter. The solemn moment was gone, the ritual abandoned, and any trace of sentimentality erased forever. We found in that first experience of our new life the key word: “reality”.’1

In the 1960s the Second Vatican Council called on the Catholic Church to become more relevant to the modern world. Three Christchurch nuns set up a community in 1973 in the suburb of Aranui, where they worked to support local residents. In 2016 there were more than 200 sisters in the order.

Sisters of Compassion

Suzanne Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion (as the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion) at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River in 1892. A community was established in Wellington in 1899, and the first Home of Compassion opened there in 1907. In 2016 there were 57 sisters in the order, which worked to care for the elderly, sick and disadvantaged. A small group remained at Jerusalem.

Community of the Sacred Name

The Community of the Sacred Name was an Anglican convent, founded in 1893 in Christchurch to pursue prayer, Christian vocation and service. The convent was damaged in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake and given to a local social services trust for restoration.

Other religious orders

Other Catholic orders active in New Zealand in the 19th century included teaching sisters such as the Dominicans, the Society of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of St Joseph. Nursing orders were established in the 20th century, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Little Company of Mary.

Religious orders still active in the 21st century included the Carmelites in Auckland and Christchurch (established in the 1930s), the Brigidine Sisters in the lower North Island (established in 1898), the Franciscan Friary and Retreat Centre in Auckland (1939), and Southern Star Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Hawke’s Bay (1954).

Mind control

Eric Miller and his wife joined Neville Cooper’s community as teenagers, but later took their children and moved out. ‘It’s amazing we ever had the courage to leave. Cooper is a guru on a huge power trip. What he says goes and when he organises a men’s meeting with 25 men all telling you you’re evil and have no right to a conscience, it crushes you ... I shudder when I think of the power of those people. They pre-programme your mind. They convince so many members that, if they leave, they’ll turn to drugs, booze and promiscuity.’2

Other Christian communities


Gloriavale is a conservative Christian community near Lake Haupiri, a remote area of the South Island’s West Coast, with around 500 members in the 2010s. The sect was founded in 1969 by independent preacher Neville Cooper – later known as Hopeful Christian – and was originally based at Cust, north of Christchurch. Members avoid contact with the outside world; they dress modestly and pool all property. Gloriavale runs multi-million-dollar businesses, including a dairy farm, oil exploration and aircraft maintenance.

Neville Cooper was convicted and imprisoned on sexual abuse charges in the 1990s.

Camp David

Camp David was a religious commune at Waipara established by ‘Bishop’ Douglas Metcalf in 1974. The camp was raided by police on arms charges in 1977 and 1987. Metcalf died in 1989, and the sect later collapsed.

Quaker Settlement

The Quaker Settlement was established in 1976 outside Whanganui, in association with the Quaker school, which ran in the city from 1920 till 1970. In 2016 it had 16 homes.

Titoki Healing Centre

Titoki Healing Centre is a Christian community and retreat centre, established by Anglican vicar Don Ferguson outside Whakatāne in 1975.

Women power

Although the monks at Bodhinyanarama Buddhist monastery are all male, the community has its origins in the work of three far-sighted, formidable women from different ethnic groups. Somsri Parker was Thai, ‘Aunty’ Mabel Nyein was Burmese, and Irene Gurusinghe was Sri Lankan. The three women worked together in the 1980s to establish the monastery.

Buddhist and Hare Krishna communities

Bodhinyanarama Buddhist monastery was developed from the mid-1980s in Stokes Valley, north of Wellington, in the tradition of Thai forest monasteries. The monks practise and teach meditation, and support ethnic Buddhist communities. Other Buddhist communities in the 21st century included Karma Choeling Tibetan monastery, near Kaukapakapa, and the Mahamudra Tibetan centre on the Coromandel Peninsula.

The New Varshana community was a Hare Krishna community and temple complex on a 30-hectare property north of Auckland, established in 1978 and still active in the 2010s.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Pauline O’Regan, A changing order. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1986, p. 1. Back
  2. ‘After the fall.’ New Zealand Listener, 17 September 1994, p. 34. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Caren Wilton, 'Communes and communities - Religious and spiritual communities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/communes-and-communities/page-4 (accessed 19 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Caren Wilton, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018