The founder of the Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand was a young French bishop, Jean Baptiste François Pompallier. Born in Lyons, France on 11 December 1801 he was ordained a priest in 1829 and in 1836 was appointed Vicar Apostolic (‘Bishop’) of Western Oceania which covered a huge area of Polynesia and Melanesia, including many Pacific Islands and New Zealand.
The Bishop sailed from France in December 1836 with a missionary band of four priests and three brothers of the Society of Mary. One priest died at sea. A priest and a brother were left at each of the islands of Wallis and Futuna to begin mission work there. After brief stays at Tahiti, Tonga, Rotuma and Sydney, he arrived at the Hokianga harbour on 10 January 1838. The first Mass was celebrated at Tōtara Point on 13 January 1838.
Bishop Pompallier travelled extensively by schooner around both North and South Islands, setting up mission stations, sixteen in all, by 1844. This was made possible by the arrival of more missionaries – priests, sisters and seminarians – from Europe and by considerable financial aid from France.
At Waitangi in 1840 when the Treaty was being debated, he made an important contribution, obtaining from the future Governor Hobson a guarantee of religious freedom for all beliefs in New Zealand; there was to be no established church, as there was in England.
The so-called ‘fourth clause of the Treaty’ reads:
“The governor says the several faiths of England, of the Wesleyans, of Rome, and also Māori custom, shall be alike protected by him”.
A printing press, bookbindery and tannery were set up at Kororareka (Russell) to provide essential prayer books and Bible translations for Māori who were rapidly becoming literate, thanks to the efforts of all the missionary groups.
The steady progress of the mission until 1850 was interrupted by Pompallier’s disagreements with the head of the missionary sending group in France, the Society of Mary, and soon after 1850 their members were withdrawn to a new diocese set up with Bishop Philippe Viard, based in Wellington. Although Pompallier obtained other clergy from Europe to replace those who had left, few were dedicated Māori missioners and the mission was seriously affected.
During the 1850s the increasing European population came to outnumber the Māori population, Auckland being the largest centre. Pompallier was pressured to remove priests from the Māori areas to attend to the spiritual needs of the Europeans.
The Māori mission suffered further setbacks as Māori-European tensions, especially over land, increased during the 1850s until open warfare broke out in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The flourishing Waikato mission was destroyed by the wars and other missions were profoundly affected. Māori sisters, seminarians and catechists in training now returned to their people in different areas.
During his last years in New Zealand, Bishop Pompallier’s church became deeply indebted, due partly to his desire to continually expand the mission and partly to his weaknesses in administration. His health was also deteriorating after many years of enduring harsh conditions of living in a pioneer society.
Sick and elderly, he left New Zealand in February 1868, attempting to raise funds in Europe to pay the Auckland diocese debts. When this failed he presented his resignation to the Pope in March 1869.
He lived in retirement in France, at Puteaux near Paris until his death on 21 December 1871. He was buried at Puteaux. In January 2002 his remains were uplifted from the cemetery at Puteaux, and returned to New Zealand to be reinterred on 20 April 2002 at Motuti, Hokianga. Hokianga was the scene of his first missionary endeavours.