When New Zealand was declared a colony in 1840, there were no more than 500 Catholics in the country. Now there are close to 500,000. Many key people, political moments, Church developments and social changes make up the story of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, one which continues to evolve as it tells Christ’s story.
In the early 1800s Christianity was introduced to New Zealand by European settlers and the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1814. It is thought that Roman Catholicism was brought by Catholic seamen, traders and settlers, and that there were some Maori Roman Catholics before New Zealand became a British colony in 1840.
Two Irishmen are credited with alerting the missionary authorities in Rome to the needs of Roman Catholics in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
One was Peter Dillon, an East Indiaman captain who began trading in the Pacific in 1809. He presented a plan to the authorities in France and Rome to send missionaries on trading and naval ships to South America, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
The other, Thomas Poynton had come from Sydney to Hokianga to trade in timber. In 1835 he heard of the arrival of a bishop in Sydney and asked him whether a priest could be sent to the Hokianga where there were around 20 Catholics. The bishop sent Poynton’s request to Rome, where it had already been decided that a Vicariate of Western Oceania would be set up to include all islands south of the equator between the meridians of the Cook Islands and the east coast of Australia.
On Christmas Eve 1836 New Zealand’s first official Catholic missionaries began their journey from France. They did not speak English or any of the languages of the Western Pacific Islands or have experience in mission work.
The party consisted of four priests and three brothers from the Society of Mary, which had received the approval of the Holy See a few months earlier on the condition that it take on the New Zealand mission. They were led by the recently consecrated Bishop of Maronea, Jean Baptiste François Pompallier.
One priest died in the mid-Atlantic, four other members of the party were left at Futuna and Wallis Island to begin missionary work, and the remaining two, along with Bishop Pompallier, arrived at the Hokianga on 10 January 1838.
In 1839 Bishop Pompallier transferred his headquarters to Kororareka. As more missionaries arrived from France he began to travel through the North and South Islands, and with the Marists established 15 mission stations between 1838 and 1850.
Sources: Archdiocese of Wellington Catholic Centre Archives and Library Henare, Manuka, The Visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II: New Zealand November 22-24, 1986 Ministry for Culture and Heritage/Te Manatu Taonga, Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Simmons, Father Ernest, The Visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II: New Zealand November 22-24, 1986