The Ratana settlement is remote on its hilltop but strongly linked to Rangitikei and Whanganui. LAUREL STOWELL asks what it's all about.

Ratana's Temepara Tapu glows with devotion in its beautifully manicured garden.

Everything inside the church is symbolic and significant, right down to the placement of the potplants on the walls. The place is clean, empty and peaceful, and photographs cannot be taken inside it.

It's a centrepiece of the settlement and visited by both the faithful and the curious. At times 1500 people are there for a service.

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The Ratana church has at least 30,000 members, with parishes and uniformed bands nationwide.

Despite its size, no one in the entire structure is paid for what they do.

It all began in 1918, a troubled time for Maori grappling with land loss, the effects of World War I and the devastating Spanish flu. The bible and the Treaty of Waitangi were foundations for its founder, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.

It's essentially a Christian church, with the addition of belief in anahera pono - holy and faithful angels as co-workers between people and God. TW Ratana told his people to put away their atua Maori (Maori gods) and locked up objects they had used for "witchcraft" in a building with barred windows.

Most reporters go to the Ratana settlement on January 25, when it's buzzing with thousands of people, and uniformed brass bands usher on politicians on their traditional day for making a pitch to Maoridom.

At midmorning on August 23 the village was empty and quiet. Three people were gossiping on the seat outside the shop, two mums were taking their preschool children for a walk. The streets were wide and empty.

Ratana Church secretary Piriwiritua Rurawhe appeared promptly, in suit, shiny shoes and sunglasses to beat the glare of a bright spring morning. He took on the role at Easter, voted and sanctioned by the church, and is the youngest secretary it has ever had.

He's the person mandated to speak on behalf of the church and movement. He's previously worked in policy and analysis but his church role is full-time and unpaid.

Asked what he does for money, he answers "I pray. We all have to maintain our own. When required you put your hand to the plough and if that means taking from your pocket you do it, to benefit people and ensure the integrity of the church."

In the church office he enthusiastically unwraps some of the mysteries of the place.

The founder, TW Ratana, was the grandson of Ngahina, one of the biggest landowners in the Nga Wairiki/Ngati Apa iwi. Ngahina was one who signed the Treaty of Waitangi on the tribe's behalf. His Waipu farm was flat and grew so much wheat that the railroad of the time had a station there, to take it to Wellington.

TW Ratana was a humble man, a hardworking farmer, Piri said. His wife, Te Urumanao, was a chieftainess.

"If it wasn't for her he would never have been able to carry the mana of the Holy Spirit. She was his backbone and strength."

On November 8, 1918, TW Ratana was visited by the Holy Spirit as he stood on his own veranda.

"I have been all around the world and the world had forgotten me. I have come back to you, the Maori people, to establish a turangawaewae for me on this earth," TW Ratana was told.

He became a person of influence, and a healer, though he didn't heal by laying on hands. Instead he asked sick people to think of themselves and think of the spirit of God within them.

"It was themselves that created the miracle. He was a vessel of God."

People flocked to join him. Some of them were then rejected by their own communities and churches and stayed to build little shacks on the hill near Turakina. A settlement grew.

Ratana told them to give up their atua Maori (Maori gods) for the one true God, Ihoa o Nga Mano (Jehovah of the Hosts).

His beliefs were Christian, with the addition of belief in anahera pono (holy and faithful angels).

"You have to have faith in those things you can't see, touch or hear. I believe that the angesl are here around us all the time," Piri said.

There are still a few at Ratana Pa who can remember TW Ratana. Church elder Hawira Gardiner was a child when the prophet was alive.

"He talks fondly of the memories that he has of our papa."

TW Ratana was concerned about the plight of his people and in 1924-25 he set off on a world tour. He went to England to ask King George V for answers about honouring the Treaty of Waitangi - but was not given an audience.

In 1932 he took a petition to Parliament, asking for the Treaty of Waitangi to be entrenched in statutes.

Ratana became both a church and a political movement, Piri said, and the two have to be in balance.

TW Ratana gave Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage symbolic gifts in 1936, and declared himself a member of the Labour Party. A series of Ratana followers were member of Parliament - Eruera Tirikatene, Tokoura Ratana, Iriaka Ratana, Matiu Rata, Whetu Tirikatene, Rino Tirikatene and others - and now Adrian Rurawhe.

Labour has sought to rekindle that past relationship. But these days the movement is trying to be politically fair. The church executive has now met with MPs from Labour's Maori caucus - but will also meet with any other party. A second meeting with Labour takes place on October 13, and one with the Green Party takes place the next day.

"We want to build a relationship with all political parties so that we can be part of the decisionmaking process and development of policy."

The church and movement are now headed by tumuaki (principal) Harerangi Meihana, TW Ratana's grandson. It has a 30-member executive, at present the youngest ever, chaired by Andre Meihana.

According to the last census, the church had 30,000 to 40,000 followers. But there are likely 100,000 to 120,000 in total, Piri says.

Those baptised in the Ratana Church are called Ratana. Others, Morehu, believe in Ratana's teachings.

In New Zealand the church is divided into 18 takiwa (areas), each with apotoro (apostles/ministers) and parishes. The South Auckland takiwa has eight parishes. The apotoro for the Taranaki-Whanganui takiwa is Te Rino Rapana.

The distinctive shape of the Ratana Temepara Tapu (temple) has been duplicated in smaller buildings in five other places - Raetihi, Te Kao, Te Hapua, Ahipara and Mangamuka.

The church is especially strong in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland) because a prophet there, Aperahama Taonui, predicted TW Ratana's influence.

"A man is coming from the west, holding two books, a bible and a Treaty of Waitangi. You must follow him," he said.

Music is a major feature of the church. There are seven Rātana bands across the country and they have a spiritual role. Called Nga Reo, they each have uniforms in their own colour.

They're used to clear the way for important occasions. The Ratana band, Te Reo o te Arepa, wears blue and always goes first.

"They lead everything that we do, because their reo doesn't change and it's universal. Music is universal so therefore it's sweet to the ear of God," Piri said.

The settlement, Ratana Pa, has 105 houses. Most of the time there are about 300 residents, but that swells to thousands during the January 25 celebrations of TW Ratana's birthday.

The celebrations are really for youth, with sport and entertainment provided for them.

"It's the one time of the year, in the holidays, when the rangatahi can come together and talk about things happening across the country in their districts."

Another important date in the Ratana year is August 21, the annual celebration of the Maori King Movement. There's always a Ratana presence there because TW Ratana formed an alliance with the fourth Maori King, Te Rata Mahuta.

"He said "You be the king of the Maori people and I will be the prophet, so that we can forge the pathway together"," Piri said.

November 8 is the most important day of all, because it was the day TW Ratana was visited by the Holy Spirit in 1918. Its 100 year anniversary in 2018 will be huge, with more thousands coming to the settlement and celebrations in the takiwa as well. He and others are already making plans for it.

Ratana Pa is a pan-tribal village - which is unusual in Maoridom.

It's lucky to have a very stable workforce, Piri said. Many residents are meat workers, and many others work in health, either in the community or for Whanganui District Health Board or Te Oranganui Iwi Health Authority or Te Kotuku Hauora o Rangitikei.

"You can't walk across the marae without bumping into a nurse or a community health worker."

Ratana Pa has a sports club, kapa haka groups for old and young, a school and a kohanga reo, a gym, a computer hub and archives, kaumatua flats and a health clinic with a weekly visit from Marton's Dr Benic.

On a political level it has a community board, and resident Soraya Peke-Mason represents the larger Turakina Ward on Rangitikei District Council.

Sixty more houses will be added to the village when the Ratana Ahuwhenua Trust's subdivision is complete. Infrastructure for that is going in now.

The settlement clusters around some remarkable buildings. One is the original Ratana family homestead, Orakeinui. TW Ratana used to speak to the people from its veranda, the same veranda where tangata whenua (local Maori people) sit to welcome visitors.
The marae atea where visitors gather is spread out before it.

The huge marae building to one side is Te Manuao. It was Ratana's last gift to his people in 1938.

Facing it across the grass is the Whare Maori, a locked and barred building where relics of TW Ratana's healing powers are stored - spectacles, splints, crutches. It also houses items he took away because they were used in sorcery to cause harm - taiaha, tewhatewha, mere pounamu, greenstone rocks. There are also more ordinary objects, including a sheepskin with the Treaty of Waitangi etched into it.

The items belong to TW Ratana's descendants, and he warned bad things would come back 10-fold if items were removed from the house.

To the rear of the marae's stage is Tikaraina, the meeting house from Parewanui that was used by TW Ratana's aunt, Mere Rikiriki. She had her own following and predicted her nephew's powers.

Finally there's the immaculate Temepara Tapu, the temple in its tended gardens, with the graves of TW Ratana and Te Urumanaao in front. It was officially opened in 1928 and seats 1500 at times. Every least aspect of its decoration is symbolic.

The many potplants and paintings inside, the shape and number of the windows, the two doors and the garden clock with its hands at a minute to midnight all have their meaning.

It's open to all, with a service at 11am every Sunday, and it glows with a quiet devotion.