A statue of the Virgin Mary believers say has slashed the number of deaths on a Northland road has been restored and returned to its place overlooking the once accident-plagued highway.

For more than 20 years, Our Lady of the Highway - known to locals as Matou Whaea (Our Lady) - has looked out over State Highway 12 from a hillside in Omanaia, in staunchly Catholic South Hokianga.

However, time and weather had taken its toll on the statue, cast almost 150 years ago from melted-down armaments collected from a European battlefield and it was in dire need of restoration.

Parishioners sing Kia Waiata, a hymn dedicated to Our Lady.
Parishioners sing Kia Waiata, a hymn dedicated to Our Lady.

After a fundraising campaign, the life-size statue was removed, sandblasted and repainted, and a shelter was built to protect it from the elements.

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After a three-month absence, the restored statue was unveiled on Saturday as about 30 parishioners braved mud, heavy rain and a cold wind.

It was blessed by Father Kerry Prendeville, the Hokianga priest whose brother, Father Brian Prendeville, brought the statue to Northland in the early 1990s.

 Kerry Prendeville reads a blessing while Pakanae kaumatua Alan Hessell looks on.
Kerry Prendeville reads a blessing while Pakanae kaumatua Alan Hessell looks on.

"This is not a Catholic taonga (treasure). This is a taonga for all the iwi (people) of Hokianga."

The statue's restoration is only the latest chapter in a long and intriguing history.

Father Kerry said it was made in Lille, northern France, using melted-down armaments and shell casings collected from a battlefield of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Parishioners watch the re-dedication of Our Lady of the Highway, on a hillside above SH12.
Parishioners watch the re-dedication of Our Lady of the Highway, on a hillside above SH12.

Originally called Our Lady of Lourdes, it was shipped to a Marist community in Napier in the 1890s and installed at St Patrick's Church.

When the church was damaged by fire, the statue was moved to a seminary at nearby Meeanee; after a flood in 1910, the entire complex was moved to Greenmeadows.

A plaque was added there, dedicating the statue to a seminarian's brother killed at Passchendaele in World War I. That gave rise to the statue's previous name, Our Lady of Passchendaele.

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The plaque has since been lost.

Jack Korewha explains how Our Lady of the Highway came to be on his land.
Jack Korewha explains how Our Lady of the Highway came to be on his land.

When the seminary shifted to Auckland in 1990, the statue was left behind, ending up in the hands of Father Brian.

Originally, it was to have been installed at Pa Te Aroha Marae, in Whirinaki, but when those plans fell through, Jack Korewha, "a man of good will", offered his property at Omanaia.

Father Brian had been concerned about a spate of serious crashes on Hokianga roads and believed placing the statue beside SH12 would help end the carnage.

"The number of people killed on the highway was horrific. Since then there's been only one serious crash in the area," Father Kerry said.

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The re-dedication ceremony, requesting the Virgin Mary's continued protection for motorists, followed a special church service in Rawene. Catholics travelled from as far away as Russell to take part.

A flagpole next to Our Lady of the Highway often flies a French flag as a salute to Jean-Baptiste Pompallier, the French Bishop who introduced Catholicism to New Zealand.

He led the first recorded Catholic mass on New Zealand soil at Totara Pt, North Hokianga, in 1838.