As the 150th anniversary of his death draws near, Peter Dragicevich explores sights in Northland and Auckland associated with Aotearoa's first Catholic bishop, Jean-Baptiste Pompallier.
Here's a good pub quiz question: who is New Zealand's patron saint? It's well known that St Patrick is Ireland's and, at a push, some of us may be able to rattle off the patrons of England, Scotland and Wales (Saints George, Andrew and David, if you're keeping score). Yet surprisingly few Kiwis know that in January 1838, in a remote corner of the Hokianga, Aotearoa was dedicated to the care of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The occasion was the first Mass to be celebrated on New Zealand soil, and the person making the dedication was the enigmatic Jean-Baptiste Pompallier, our first Catholic bishop who died
150 years ago to the day on December 21.
Pompallier's story in this land starts and ends in the Hokianga. After travelling from France via Chile, Tahiti, Rotuma and Sydney he entered the Hokianga Harbour on January 10, 1838, headed for the home of Mary and Thomas Poynton, an Irish couple who had settled on the banks of the Mangamuka River. It was at their house at Totara Point – three days later, on the first Sunday after his arrival – that Aotearoa gained its patron saint.
The site is reached by a dusty farm road leading off the Twin Coast Discovery Highway (Kohukohu Rd) around 8km north of Kohukohu. There's a signpost but you'll need to keep your eyes peeled to spot it. A memorial in the form of a plinth topped by an orb was erected for the centenary of that first Mass, in 1938. Every year, on the second Sunday in January, Mass is celebrated here to mark the anniversary.
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Pompallier developed strong relationships with local Māori, who affectionately dubbed him Pikopo (based on Episcopus, the Latin for bishop). In February 1840 he was invited to the great hui that culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Here he famously pushed for the inclusion of a fourth article ensuring freedom of religion (including Māori beliefs) that was discussed and accepted but not copied into the already drafted document.
Of the many missions that Pompallier founded across Aotearoa, the best preserved is just across the water from Waitangi at Kororāreka (present-day Russell). Now operated by Heritage New Zealand, Pompellier Mission and Printery is a whitewashed rammed-earth building that could have been beamed in from rural France. Between 1842 and 1850, 40,000 books were printed here in te reo Māori. Fascinating guided tours explain the entire printing process, from the pits out the back used to tan leather for the covers, right through to the original presses upstairs.
The fledgling settlement of Auckland started its short-lived run as New Zealand's capital in 1841, and in that same year Pompallier secured land on Wyndham St to build a church. Nothing remains of the initial wooden chapel but the foundations of the scoria church that replaced it in 1848 can be viewed under a glass floor in the present-day Cathedral of St Patrick & St Joseph. Here you'll also find a brass bust of the man himself and, trailing along the wrought-iron fence facing the square, a grapevine believed to have been planted by him. The cathedra (bishop's chair) was Pompallier's, too.
In 1852 the church purchased a 17-hectare estate positioned on a headland to the west of the city, changing its name from Clanaboy to Mount St Mary. These days it's better known as the salubrious city-fringe suburb of St Mary's Bay. Pompallier's house is still standing at 57 St Mary's Rd, an attractive single-storey villa marked with a plaque. The grand red-brick Bishop's Palace around the corner on New St, home to the Pompallier Diocesan Centre, was built by his successors. However, Pompallier would have been very familiar with the gorgeous chapel across the road in the grounds of St Mary's College where he regularly said Mass.
All up Pompallier spent 30 years in Aotearoa, returning to his native France for the last two years of his life where he passed away on December 21, 1871. However, the story doesn't end there. In late 2001 a hikoi departed for France where, amidst the full richness of Māori and Catholic tikanga, the bishop's remains were exhumed and returned to Aotearoa. The story ends where it began, in the northern Hokianga. Here, beneath the altar of the pretty blue-trimmed kauri church in Motuti, Pompallier was laid to rest amongst the people who treasure his memory the most.
That's not quite the end of the story, though. In December this year (traffic light systems permitting), 150 years after Pikopo's death, the local hapū plan to open a museum near the marae at Motuti to house their collection of Māori and Catholic taonga. It was the late Dame Whina Cooper who came up with the whare's name: Raiātea, after the ship that first brought Jean-Baptiste Pompallier to these shores.
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