Jack and Vera Katavich have been recognised by Pope Francis for their service to the Catholic Church - and he's not the first pope they have pleased.

Catholic Bishop of Auckland Patrick Dunn last week presented the couple with rare Bene Merenti medals and framed papal awards at the St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Whangarei.

It is understood they are only the 10th and 11th New Zealanders to receive the medals, first awarded by Pope Pius VI (1775-99) to recognise military merit, and since 1925 awarded to lay people for service to the church.

Jack, 85, and Vera, 79, moved to Whangarei for medical reasons two years ago after living all their lives at Kaitaia, where their home was a haven for priests and nuns and they were deeply involved in the church community.


Many Kaitaia people travelled to Whangarei to see the pair honoured and to congratulate them afterward.

Mr Katavich later showed the Northern Advocate a gold medallion he and Vera were given when Pope John Paul II visited New Zealand in 1986.

The large medallion has an image of Pope John Paul II holding a crucifix on one side and Jesus and the Apostles on the other.

Kaitaia priest Fr John Dooley, who died after later moving to Helensville, had given it to the Katavichs while having dinner at their home.

"He said Pope John Paul's bishop representative in New Zealand had told him to give it to someone worthy and he thought we should have it," Mr Katavich said.

Asked how he felt about the medallion being followed by the Bene Merenti medals, he said: "We certainly never expected anything like this."

And Mrs Katavich said she was overwhelmed by the double papal awards.

"I was a bit tearful when we got the medals - I couldn't help myself crying," she said.