He Hīkoi Whakapono: A Journey of Faith


Our Hīkoi of Faith this month journeys to The Catholic Parish of Whanganui – Te Parihi Katorika Ki Whanganui, an area rich in history and culture with a strong Catholic background dating back to the early 1850s. Today the parish includes the River Māori Eucharistic Communities of Hāto Hōhepa Hiruhārama-Jerusalem, Te Rongo o Te Poi Kaiwahiki, and Rānana of Sacred Heart Church; Te Rau Oriwa urban marae; the churches of St Mary, St Anne, Holy Family; the presence of the Sisters of St Joseph, the Sisters of Our Lady of Compassion, the Society of Mary, and the Marist Brothers; four Catholic schools; and many other Catholic pastoral representations and activities.

Surrounded by Te Kahui Maunga, the rangatira mountains of Ruapehu, Tongaririo and Ngauruhoe, wild west coast beaches of black sand, relatively unspoilt flora and fauna, as well as the rugged landscape of the deep interior, the key feature is the Tupuna, Te Awa o Whanganui. The Whanganui River has always had special status and spiritual importance for the Whanganui Māori. In March 2017 it became the world’s second (after Te Urewera) natural resource to be given its own legal identity, with the rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person, highlighting the importance of the Awa which Māori have always known as their whakatauaki suggests: Kō au te Āwa, kō te Āwa kō au. I am the river, the river is me.

Brief history of Catholic life in Whanganui

1845: Fr J Comte sm, first Catholic priest to visit Wanganui. Walked overland from Wellington. Later came from Ōtaki station to minister to Catholic settles and soldiers.

1851: Fr Comte baptised children of soldiers and settlers. Fr John Pezant sm came from ministry in Ōtaki to reside permanently.

1852: Fr John Bernard from Ōtaki came for six months to work among Māori of the River. Replaced by Fr John Lampila sm.

1853: Land bought in Victoria Ave for Church-residence. Fr Lampila founded mission station on Wanganui River at Kaiwhaiki.

1854: Māori invited Fr Lampila to found mission stations further up River. He moved to Kauaeroa where two churches were erected.

1855: Presbytery built on Victoria Ave corner site.

1857: Bishop Viard blessed parish church of Sacred Heart on Victoria Ave in August. In September he blessed a chapel at Ruakopiha, Waitotara, and baptised 35 Māori, prepared by Fr Pezant.

1859: New curate Fr Tresallet sm in charge during Fr Pezant’s visit (on foot) to Taranaki.

1860: Reported total of 400 Catholics, 220 were Māori, of then-Wanganui population of 2000.

1864: Catholic population 700 by 1864. Fr Lampila’s assistant, lay brother Euloge Chabany killed in battle on Island of Moutoa.

1865: Fr Lampila withdrew to Wanganui to assist Fr Pezant, going as far as Jerusalem and Kauaeroa.

1866: School built on Victoria Ave church grounds.

1867: Fr Lampila’s last Baptism at Jerusalem, Ranana and Kaiwhaiki.

1870: Fr Lampila opened St Joseph’s School in Victoria Ave.

1872: Fr Lampila transferred to New Plymouth, Fr Tresallet returned.

1876: Wanganui Branch of Hibernian Society established. Parish now, and up to 1903, included Marton, Turakina, Bulls and Hunterville. Visited regularly by Fr Kirk of Ireland.

1877: Bishop Redwood opened new Church in Victoria Ave.

1880: Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth came from NSW to Wanganui at invitation of Bishop Redwood and Fr Kirk. Convent next to church formally blessed and opened. Sisters ran St Joseph’s primary school, Sacred Heart secondary school and an orphanage.

1882: Māori chief Taiwhiti went to Hawke’s Bay then Wellington to Bishop Redwood for prospects to establish new Mission Station on the River.

1883: Bishop Redwood sent Fr Soulas and Māori missionary Fr Moreau sm (aged 70) to Jerusalem, also Sisters of St Joseph and Sr Mary Aubert to act as a nurse and interpreter. Fr Moreau died seven months later.

1884: Srs of St Joseph returned to Wanganui.

1885: Bishop Redwood opened Jerusalem Church on Christmas Day.

1888: Mother Aubert purchased land and planted fruit trees on 50 acres for revenue and medicines. Church built at Ranana.

1892: Bishop Redwood established Missionary community at Jerusalem under the protection of Our Lady of Compassion. New church built at Jerusalem.

1894: Three Marist Brothers arrived in Wanganui to teach. School erected behind church.

1895: Mother Aubert begins orphanage at Jerusalem.

1898: Large house bought for Sacred Heart boarding pupils, Villa Maria. Holy Infancy convent school opened, later called St Joseph’s.

1907: Aramoho Church of St Joseph consecrated by Bishop Redmond.

1908: Parish now has convent of 27 Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth, high school for 100 girls, a division for 35 boys, school at Aramoho with 60 pupils, Marist Brothers’ school with 90 scholars, Sacred Heart Church and Associations with 500 members, and Catholic clubs.

1910: St Vincent De Paul Society Branch established.

1912: New convent opened with large secondary boarding school and day school.

1918: St Vincent Church and School at Castlecliff consecrated.

1924: St Anthony’s Church at Gonville dedicated, convent completed in 1925.

1931: Home of Compassion, Guyton St, opened.

1944: St Augustine’s Catholic Boys secondary College established.

1945: Catholic Women’s League branch established.

1949: New novitiate for Sisters of St Joseph at Hillside Ter blessed and opened by Archbishop McKeefry. Fr JD Cullinane sm opens new school at Ranana.

1961: Planned Giving introduced. New school at Totara St built.

1964: New Home of Compassion opened on St John’s Hill for 55 patients.

1966: St Mary’s Parish split; Gonville-Castlecliff and Wanganui East separate parishes.

1967: New St Augustine’s College for boys officially opened.

1969: Schools at Jerusalem and Ranana closed. Sisters of Compassion travelled extensively to visit Māori settlements on the River.

1973: St Mary’s Church last Mass celebrated before closed for new church to be built. Joseph’s Hall temporary church.

1974: Hui Aranga took place in Wanganui. Villa Maria closed for new church to be built on site.

1975: New St Anne’s parish school built on 4½ acre site.

1976: Cardinal Delargy blessed and opened new St Mary’s Church.

Parish overview

Fr Marcus Francis

Fr Marcus Francis, parish priest, outside St Mary’s Church, Whanganui.

The Catholic Parish of Whanganui has deep Catholic roots with contributions from the Sisters of St Joseph, the Sisters of Compassion and Society of Mary. A number of beloved Irish priests, such as Fr Des Levins, and local diocesan clergy, such as Mons Dave Bell, have also served over the years.

St Mary’s, the principle church, is situated on a small hill adjacent to the centre of town. It is a magnificent combination of old and new with the sun beaming through its stained-glass windows and multi-coloured resin panels. It is also unique for the two sets of the stations of the cross with one set in Māori carvings on one wall and the other in ceramic on the other. A reliquary holds relics of St Peter Chanel, St Mary of the Cross and Venerable Suzanne Aubert as well as other saints that speak also of the spiritual roots. The church is connected to St Joseph’s Hall and Te Rau Oriwa urban marae by a gathering area which offers unity and hospitality.

St Mary’s Church interior – with spectacular stained-glass windows, carvings and relics.

Te Rau Oriwa urban marae is connected to St Mary’s Church.

As well as having longstanding prayer and faith-sharing groups common to most parishes, the ample resources of the parish are about to embark on an evangelisation strategy prompted and informed by the teaching of Pope Francis. This will affect the congregations at Holy Family and St Anne’s churches as well as in the Māori Eucharistic communities up the Whanganui River. Living Faith groups are the first initiative to open up the parish to a new era of missionary discipleship. This includes prayer and faith sharing as well as social justice concerns. The parish is well placed for this with the Friendship Meal in the hall, the ecumenical support of Christian Social Services Whanganui and a community garden outside of St Mary’s Church.

St Anne’s Church, Whanganui East.

Holy Family Church, Whanganui.

Marie, Margaret, Natalie and Maria at St Vincent de Paul Shop, Victoria Ave, say people are always made to feel welcome in the bright friendly shop. There are more than 30 interdenominational volunteers at the shop and some have been serving for over 20 years. Clothing donated is sold at affordable prices and the team helps out people in need wherever they can.

The Catholic Parish of Whanganui is therefore ideally placed to advance into the future while mindful of its rich spiritual and temporal patrimony. The Filipino and Indian communities, of recent arrival, have added to the richness of this mix. Recent refurbishment of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and the 151-year-old bell from the first church, with a new stand to be completed shortly, show there is plenty of vigour and commitment in the lay faithful who so generously have given of their time, money and faith over the 168 years since the establishment of the parish which was consolidated back to one in 2015.

Fr Marcus Francis is parish priest and is assisted by Fr Nathaniel Brazil and Fr John Roberts.


Cullinane College

Principal Justin Harper with senior students.

Cullinane College has 300 students and growing. ‘We are mindful of the Marist and Josephite charisms and traditions that flow from St Augustine’s College and Sacred Heart Girls’ College, which amalgamated in 2003 to form Cullinane College,’ says Principal Justin Harper. Now in his second year he says, ‘I believe this college is in an incredibly strong position to move forward. It has a strong history and has had significant investment from the Diocese making it one of the best colleges in the region. There’s a tradition of great schools in Whanganui but the difference here is we are a school that has 2000 years of values.

‘For us as Catholics we can have values that reflect modern society, care for the environment, care for disadvantaged people, social justice and excellence but all in a context that we are special to God’s plan.

Our students do well in NCEA results, sporting and cultural events – our Kapa Haka group excels consistently in regional championships and our young Vinnies are strong and involved with lots of fundraising activities.

‘Our school is a safe and happy place to be and our staff and students are all incredibly proud to be here.’

St Marcellin’s Primary School

Principal Maia Williams with Yr 8 senior prefect team (l-r) Te Reo Tuatahi Mareikura, Ezekiel Moran and Jessy Taison.

St Marcellin’s was founded by Marist Brothers and Sisters of St Joseph. The school has a roll of 60 with children of many ethnicities, and a team of six staff with numerous support staff. ‘We have a great relationship with the neighbouring faith community of Holy Family, we attend Mass and have prayers at our own chapel, and we have been well recognised by the Diocese in their special character review of our school,’ says principal Maia Williams.

‘All my staff and I love our involvement with the children and families and we work very hard to build that relationship based on trust and values of courage, respect, integrity and excellence. We work to model ourselves as Jesus would want us to.

‘In 2017 we began a pilgrimage from mountain to sea – visiting Mt Ruapehu, last year Hiruhārama-Jerusalem, and this year the sea – to complete the children’s understanding of Whakatoke, ‘I am the River and the River is me’ and the significance to them of this journey. The journey also takes us to Te ro Oriwi, the Catholic Urban Marae at the base of St Mary’s Church.

‘We try to have the children experience the wonderful things that are them here in Whanganui through a Catholic lens.’


St Anne’s Primary School

St Anne’s in Whanganui East has 270 students. Founded by Josephite Sisters, the school celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2017. What makes our Catholic School special is the pastoral side as well as the educational side says Elizabeth Shaw, relieving principal. ‘We serve our community where we can, for example we have a strong Vinnies group and the children are involved in Caritas programmes. We have a whole programme around positively managing students, which fits well with the Catholic character. Our parish’s priests are involved in our strong RE and Sacramental programmes and we attend Mass every Tuesday. We value excellence and where the spirit of Jesus is living, which underpins everything at our school.’

St Mary’s Primary School

St Mary’s has an amazing community with families from all walks of life. The school works hard at creating a safe place to be and where people want to learn. With 260 students the roll is full with a waiting list that is growing through word of mouth. St Mary’s is creating a community of responsible young people who take responsibility for their actions supported by a highly effective staff of 25 committed to the best for the students. The school is on a mission to revisit and rediscover its founding charism of Mary McKillop and sense of community and is closely connected to the Sisters of St Joseph, for example with their wetlands restoration project and the sisters involvement with pastoral care for families in the community.

A brief history of the Catholic-Anglican Mission in Kaiwhaiki Marae

Sr Makareta Tawaroa rsj

In 1852, Fr Jean Claude Lampila of the Marist Fathers established a mission station at Kaiwhaiki, living among the Nga Paerangi people of the lower reaches of the Whanganui River. The Mission lasted for two years.

Fr Lampila was a latecomer to Whanganui – which was earlier called Petrie – as the Anglican missionary John Mason of the Putiki mission, had lived and built a chapel at Tunuhaere, the original kainga of Nga Paerangi, on the opposite side of the present day Kaiwhaiki, 12 years earlier in 1840. Three years later, the vastly experienced missioner Richard Taylor took up residence at Kaiwhaiki, crossing the river to preach in the chapel at Tunuhaere, and later visiting Kanihinihi, further upstream, where missionaries were already established.

Richard Taylor had witnessed the first signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and soon found himself at the cut and thrust of Whanganui settler society, becoming, ‘civiliser’, keeper of the peace, friend of governors and policy makers of the day. While sometimes critical of settler behaviour and official policy, Richard Taylor, nevertheless, was convinced that ‘colonisation, properly conducted, is the natural adjunct to Christianity in civilising aboriginal races’.

Despite his best efforts to maintain contact with his fledgling Kaiwhaiki flock, while at the same time trying to maintain an evangelical influence over a vast area encompassing the Whanganui River inland to Taupo, across country to the Rangitikei, and between the headwaters of the Waitara and Whanganui Rivers, cracks began to show.

At the invitation of rangatira Kerehoma Tuwhawhakia of Ngati Rongomaitawhiri/Nga Paerangi, Kaiwhaiki became the site of the first Catholic mission on the Whanganui River, replacing the Anglican mission.

Fr Vibaud of the Society of Mary, records: ‘In 1852 Fr Lampila had his headquarters at Kaiwhaiki, 12 miles above Wanganui, where he soon established stations at Ramahiku, Atene, Koriniti, Ranana, Kauaeroa, Hinemutu, Utapu, Manganui-o-te-ao, Tieke and Tauwhata.’ These were small kainga that stretch along the Kaiwhaiki hinterlands and beyond.

Two years later Fr Lampila abandoned Kaiwhaiki and moved north to Kauaeroa, just below Hiruhārama, because the Kaiwhaiki people had opposed pakeha settlement and, more importantly, had not embraced Catholicism with enthusiasm. With a growing mistrust of European institutions, combined with growing ill health, Fr Lampila withdrew to Whanganui in 1867 and the Catholic mission, like the Anglican mission, also declined.

It would take another 16 years for the Catholic mission to restart. In 1883, at the invitation of Archbishop Redwood, Sr Aloysius and Sr Teresa of the Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth, together with their superior Sr Hyacinth Quinlan, and accompanied by the experienced mission worker, and part of the Third Order of Mary, Suzanne Aubert, made their way by open canoe to Hiruhārama, a journey of three days long, stopping overnight at Parikino, beginning a new chapter of missionary zeal and activity that continues right up to the present day.

Makareta Takahia Tawaroa, Josephite, Nga Paerangi, Ngati Tuera, Ngati Hinearo.

The Sisters of St Joseph

Sr Anne Burke rsj

On 24 April 1880, four Sisters of St Joseph stepped ashore onto the banks of the Whanganui River, having travelled from Perthville, near Bathurst NSW, Australia. The original community of Sisters, founded by Fr Julian Tenison Woods and Mary MacKillop, had their centre in Adelaide, while some remained in Perthville as a Diocesan Congregation.

Led by Sr Hyacinth Quinlan, the Sisters arrived in Whanganui to find a new convent ready for them, a school with lay teachers, and a number of young women ready to join. This was a far cry from the trials and hardships often faced by Sisters in the Australian outback.

In 1883, three Sisters travelled to Hiruhārama with Suzanne Aubert to open a school at the Mission there. Two Sisters remained for several months, and this began a long association with the Sisters of Compassion.

By 1912, a new Sacred Heart Convent and Boarding School was opened on St John’s Hill, Whanganui. In 2003 it was amalgamated with St Augustine’s College and transferred to their site. The two combined colleges opened as Cullinane College.

Primary schools and convents were opened continuously over the years in local suburbs, and further afield in the Archdiocese. Whanganui schools underwent transformations and name changes as the needs of the Catholic population grew.

In 1949, the Sisters purchased a property on Hillside Terrace to serve as a novitiate. Today it serves as the Josephite Retreat Centre, as well as having a small community of Sisters and an Administration Centre on site.

The former Nazareth Rest Home and Hospital was built on a headland over-looking the river in 1982. Land below the buildings has been replanted with native trees and the valley area returned to a wetland. The lower hillsides feature orchard areas and gardens used by Whanganui City Mission. In 1998 Quinlan Court was opened as a place for aging Sisters and lay people wishing to live independently.

Over the years the ministries of the Sisters changed according to the needs of the time. Following Vatican II, the Sisters moved from schools and became involved in social and pastoral work in hospitals and prisons, spiritual direction, counselling, adult education, bi-culturalism, justice, and ecology.

In 2013, the Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth, based in Whanganui, celebrated their fusion with the original group of Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Compassion

Sr Jo Gorman dolc

The Sisters of Compassion have lived at Hiruhārama-Jerusalem from 1883 until the present. It began with an invitation from Taiwhati and other River elders for a Christian presence on the river.

Fr Christophe Soulas sm arrived from Hawke’s Bay. About the same time, two Australian Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth, recently settled in Whanganui, were asked by Bishop Redwood to start a school. Suzanne Aubert, who for the past 12 years had been living at the Marist Mission at Meanee, was asked to accompany them. Suzanne was fluent in Māori and knowledgeable in Māori customs and culture.

On 14 October 1892 Archbishop Redwood appointed Suzanne Aubert in charge of a newly-established religious order, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion. Suzanne Aubert wrote later, ‘Never forget that we were first instituted for the Māori, that we began in the bush, that by our vows we are consecrated to their service’.

Up until 1918 all the priests serving the Mission at Jerusalem and Rānana were French. Fr Augustin Venning sm was the first New Zealand-born Marist. He was joined in 1923 by Fr James Riordan sm, the second New Zealander to become a Marist.

When there were more people in the River communities, the priests learnt the Māori language and encouraged the use of it in the liturgy.

Many of the early Sisters learnt Māori. They joined the people for morning and evening prayer, for daily Mass or Benediction, they visited families, attended to the injured or sick, and, on occasions, the birth of a baby. Many families lived in isolated settlements on the river and some parents chose to send their daughters to the Convent for education and for Faith instruction.

When the schools were closed in 1969, two sisters remained in Jerusalem. They pioneered an outreach ministry to the families and provided religious education in the River schools and later to schools in Whanganui.

In the 1970s, the convent was adapted to accommodate large groups of people coming on retreat or for weekend visits. A second building restoration took place from 2004-2006 in response to people visiting Jerusalem and walking in the footsteps of Suzanne Aubert. On 14 January 2007 the church was rededicated. During the summer and autumn months there is a steady flow of visitors from all over New Zealand and other parts of the world.

The Sisters understand the great importance of their Jerusalem place to the Congregation, to Jerusalem and the communities of the Whanganui River, and to the people of New Zealand. The church is in daily use and the church bell is rung every day. The Convent is regularly used by various health, arts, community, cultural and family groups, for retreats, hui, training workshops, and for rest and recreation.

Published in WelCom June 2019

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