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Settlers and Pioneers

21 — The Country Parson

page 137

The Country Parson

Parson, priest, or minister, the spiritual shepherd in our country places had too often the grey and ill-rewarded part of the vicar in Alan Mulgan's poem Golden Wedding. Stipends were precarious, a variable quantity. Like the doctor's, the clergyman's financial barometer was a reflex of the farmer's markets and the weather. There were years when vestry and committee of elders found it impossible to squeeze much sustenance blood from a stony-broke parish. It may not be very different to-day. But the parson's profession cannot be assessed only in terms of monetary rewards.

There was a parson in an Upper Waikato township, whose wide-spread parish necessitated much saddle work over rough roads. The pretty Selwyn-period Maori-mission church and the historic old parsonage, among its oaks and fruit trees and green fields by the river were the admiration of visitors, but the passers-through little knew the parson's financial straits which everyone in the neighbourhood seemed page 138to take as a matter of course. The general idea was, perhaps, that a clergyman should not care about such a sordid thing as money. However, this good vicar, an English university man, had a wife and family, and parsons' families, I suppose, are as apt to grow hungry as anyone else. They probably could not have lived on the scant offertories. Farmers of the district had a way of discharging obligations to the doctor by medium of a few sacks of potatoes or half a sheep or so, or a load of firewood, or some oats for his horse-feedbins. So the clergyman also was usually well supplied with firewood and oats and potatoes, but ready cash was shy.

However, he hung it out well, as the vestry themselves admiringly said. He tended the souls of his parish for many a year until some lucky bequest took him back to England.

An up-country clergyman's work, in pioneer times, at any rate, called for men of tough physique; and it was not for the weakling. There was a Presbyterian minister, a young man who had come out from Edinburgh for the sake of his lungs. A contrast to his country-weather flock, that pale, ascetic, lean-bodied scholar, with the great dark eyes and the thin black beard; he looked a man of another world. His spirit burned too ardently for that frail frame. The rough horseback travelling, the solitary life in that little manse in the fern in the bend of the foggy page 139river, was not the cure for his trouble. The robust climate carried him off.

There was his opposite in physical fitness for the shepherd's backblocks round, a genial and hard-riding priest, Father Golden. His was a welcome figure over all the countryside; 'as good as his name' said many besides members of his own flock. Father Luck, who succeeded him, was beloved by pakeha and Maori all along the former frontier.

Even better qualified for out-of-doors life was a certain vigorous athlete of a parson I met years ago down at the gold-mining township, Ross, on the West Coast. Ross was in its palmy and rowdy days of plenty-money; the Mont D'Or sluicing claim was literally what its name implied.

The Rev. Mr Newton was one of those amazingly healthy and energetic young fellows who put us lovers of the easy-going life to shame. He showed me over his spartan vicarage. He slept in a hammock; there was not much else in the way of furniture, not because of lack of money, but because, as he explained, it was such a nuisance to be cluttered up with beds and whatnots. But there was a generous quantity of Alpine climbing gear, and that revealed the soul of the Vicar of Ross. He was really the keenest alpinist I have ever known. He had managed to obtain this the South Westland cure of souls because, I believe, of the wonderful amount of ice-work. Certainly he had a rugged parish for his care; page 140it was more than two hundred miles long; and in all that distance south of Ross there was only one bridge. No matter how ugly the weather, or how great the risk, he was off like a shot at any call from his scattered flock.

One Sunday morning the congregation was waiting but there was no service in the little English Church at Ross. The parson had heard that there were three climbers missing up in the Alps between the heads of the Franz Josef and the Tasman Glaciers, and he was leading the searchers on the western side.

'Oh, well,' was the general voice of the faithful at the church when the message came and they went off to their dinners, 'he'll do more good there. We'll have a fine sermon about it when he comes home. He's a man, he is!'

I have told of a country doctor who often carried a double-barrel gun on his horseback rounds in the Waikato. The pioneer missionary on long tramps through the country sometimes provided himself with food in the same way. His gun was a necessary part of his travelling equipment. But there were times when he fell under suspicion among those who hated both missionaries and Maoris. After the Wairau massacre in 1843, when Wellington armed, all the gunpowder in the town was placed under the control of the authorities. Some powder was found in the house of the Rev. Gideon Smales—how Dickens would have seized upon the name!—who was the page 141missionary to the Porirua and neighbouring Maoris, and it was rumoured that he had bought it for Rauparaha and his tribe. It was also remembered that Smales and another reverend gentleman had previously bought five kegs of gunpowder at a public sale of stores. This quantity, about 100 canisters, was to be divided among three missionaries. The ignorant and suspicious ones asked, what could three missionaries want with all that powder? It must be for their Maori friends.

Mr Smales explained the reason why, but it was not easy to convince their critics. In some notes written in his old age, when he was living in retirement on his little farm at the Tamaki, Auckland, he narrated that episode of fifty years before. 'In our long journeys,' he said, 'we found it necessary and a great acquisition to carry our gun, though for neither sport nor defensive purposes, but as a means of replenishing our daily provisions. Birds such as the wild duck and the pigeon were then so plentiful that they often gave us an ample and a most dainty kinaki (titbit.)'