150 years on, Puhoi celebrates roots

By Peter de Graaf

Northland's Bohemians are preparing to celebrate the arrival in New Zealand of their forebears 150 years ago next month.

In 1863 a group of settlers from Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic, arrived by boat at Puhoi. They had been allocated "farmland" by the colonial government, so were surprised to find nothing but dense bush, which they had to clear before they could begin to eke out a living from the land.

They brought with them a distinctive German dialect, a staunch Catholic faith, and musical traditions which survive to this day.

More waves of Bohemian settlement followed until the 1880s, and their descendants - recognisable by surnames such as Wech, Papesch, Straka and Becher - are now scattered throughout New Zealand.

Among them are siblings Florrie Mason of Houhora, and Noel Wech and Linda Hill of Whangarei, descended from Bohemians who arrived on the ship Liverpool in 1866.

Two years ago they and their remaining siblings, the children of Robert and Christina Wech, held a reunion as a precursor to the 150th anniversary celebrations of June 28-30 this year.

Sesquicentennial publicist Judith Williams, herself a descendant of Bohemian pioneers, said the Wech siblings were now in their 80s and 90s, so it was likely to be the last big anniversary they would celebrate in Puhoi.

Other descendants to move away to places around New Zealand included members of the Schischka, Russek, Remiger and Schollum tribes, she said.

The date of the Bohemians' first arrival in Puhoi - June 29, 1863 - is the feast day of Sts Peter and Paul in the Catholic calendar, after whom the pioneers' church was named.

Festivities include an honouring-of-age luncheon in the Puhoi Centennial Hall, mass celebrated by Catholic Bishop Pat Dunn, an official opening ceremony, a formal dinner, and plenty of costumes, folk dance and music featuring the accordion and dudelsack (Bohemian bagpipes).

The first wave of Bohemians came mainly from Staab, which these days is known as Stod.


Friday, June 28

  • Book launches; mix and mingle at Puhoi Hotel, 4-6pm

Saturday, June 29

  • Anniversary mass, Church of Sts Peter and Paul, 9am

  • Welcome ceremony and opening, Puhoi Centennial Hall, 11.15am

  • Photos of individual and family groups, museum and historical place visits, 2pm

  • Bohemian dancing and music by the Puhoi and Ohaupo Bohemian Bands, 3-5pm

  • Formal dance, Puhoi Centennial Hall, 7.30pm

Sunday, June 30

  • Mass, Church of Sts Peter and Paul, 8.30am

  • Farmers market with Bohemian food and music, Puhoi Sports Centre and Domain, 9am-1pm

  • Bohemian dancers and music, Puhoi Centennial Hall, 1-2.30pm

See www.puhoi150years.org.nz for the full programme.


- Northern Advocate

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