Lyndsay Freer: Catholics celebrate beginnings in NZ

Church members went to Hokianga at the weekend to mark the first Mass on Kiwi soil, writes Lyndsay Freer.

The church built by Bishop Pompallier on the Hokianga. The first Mass was celebrated on New Zealand soil on January 13, 1838. Photo / Ross White and Auckland Catholic Diocesan Archives
The church built by Bishop Pompallier on the Hokianga. The first Mass was celebrated on New Zealand soil on January 13, 1838. Photo / Ross White and Auckland Catholic Diocesan Archives

Great numbers of Catholics made their way to the Hokianga at the weekend to commemorate the celebration of what is believed to be the first Mass to be celebrated on New Zealand soil, on January 13, 1838.

Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier, the first Catholic bishop in New Zealand, was the celebrant and the Mass was held at the Totara Pt property of timber merchant Thomas Poynton and his wife Mary, who were among the founding laity of the Catholic Church in this country.

From 1814 Anglican missionaries had been here, followed by Methodist missionaries who arrived in the early 1820s. It is recorded that Catholic settlers had been in New Zealand since the late 1820s and had looked to Sydney for their spiritual needs and leadership. The Poyntons, along with other settlers and some Maori converts who had earlier sailed to Sydney for baptism, had been requesting their own official church presence in New Zealand.

In mid-1836, the young Bishop Pompallier, from Lyons in France, was appointed by Pope Gregory 16th to take responsibility for the lands of Western Oceania. It was on Christmas Eve in 1836 that Bishop Pompallier, accompanied by several Marist priests and brothers, began their arduous sea voyage to the islands of the Western Pacific, and after many stops en route they departed from Sydney at the end of December 1837 on the ship Raiatea. Twelve days after setting off, they sailed up the Hokianga on January 10 from where Bishop Pompallier gained his first sight of the country which was to be his home on and off for the next 30 years. It was here that the Poyntons had made arrangements for the celebration of Mass on Saturday, January 13.

Bishop Pompallier was sympathetic towards Maori concerns, and culture. He spoke and wrote te reo Maori. At the invitation of Lieutenant-Governor Hobson, he was present during the two days of the gathering at Waitangi for the signing of the Treaty on February 5-6, 1840. He asked Hobson for his promise to protect the Catholic faith. This is sometimes referred to as the unwritten "fourth article" of the Treaty, and is said to protect and recognise not only major Western religions but also Maori custom.

Here are the words which Hobson authorised Henry Williams to read to the assembly:

E mea ana te Kawana ko nga whakapono katoa o Ingarani, o nga Weteriana, o Roma, me te ritenga Maori hoki e tiakina ngatahitia e ia. (The Governor says that the several faiths of England, of the Wesleyans, of Rome, and also Maori custom shall alike be protected by him.)

Some years later, Bishop Pompallier wrote about his experience at Waitangi.

"One question however interested me deeply, it was that of religious freedom, about which no one in any way seemed to trouble themselves.

"Before the last meeting broke up and it became a question of signing the Treaty, I broke my silence. I addressed Captain Hobson, begging him to make known to all the people the principles of European civilisation which obtain in Great Britain, and which would guarantee free and equal protection to the Catholic as to every other religion in New Zealand.

"My demand was immediately acceded to by Captain Hobson, who made a formal notification of it to all the assembled people, to the great satisfaction of the Catholic chiefs and tribes, who triumphed in the fact of my presence in the face of the Protestant missionaries and at the speedy compliance with the few words I had spoken."

In 1850, Bishop Pompallier accepted British citizenship.

Although Pompallier returned to France where he spent the last years of his life and was laid to rest in the cemetery at Puteaux outside Paris, it was always the wish of the Maori of the North that his remains could be returned to the Hokianga where he spent much time and was greatly venerated by the local people.

After lengthy negotiations between church and state his remains returned to Auckland in 2002, and he was reinterred at the small church at Motuti, where Mass was celebrated yesterday at Tamatea Marae.

Bishop Pompallier's successor, Bishop Patrick Dunn, the 11th Bishop of Auckland was present, with the Pope's representative, Archbishop Charles Balvo.

Lyndsay Freer is the media and communications manager for the Catholic Diocese of Auckland

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- NZ Herald

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