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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 9 (December 1, 1934)

Famous — New Zealanders — No. 21 — Bishop Pompallier — The Story of a Mission Pioneer

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New Zealanders
No. 21
Bishop Pompallier
The Story of a Mission Pioneer.

The history of European missionary endeavour in the Pacific contains no more adventurous story than that of the first Roman Catholic Bishop in New Zealand, the Right Rev. Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier, Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania. The great Bishop's early work in this country was more difficult than that of the famous first Selwyn, inasmuch as he was confronted with the task of beginning the propaganda of his faith in New Zealand, whereas the English Church missionaries had opened their crusade in Maori Land more than a quarter of a century before their first Bishop arrived to take charge. Pompallier, moreover, had cruised from island to island in the South Pacific under circumstances of peril before he set foot on New Zealand's shores. Later he, like Selwyn, voyaged in dangerous seas in pursuance of his missionary work. In this article the life and efforts of the pioneer of his faith in this country are sketched, with particular reference to the long and difficult journeys which were necessary in those days of missionary beginnings in these little-known and primitive lands.

Bishop Pompallier (From an early portrait.)

Bishop Pompallier (From an early portrait.)

JeanBaptiste Francois Pompallier was born at Lyons, France, in 1802. His family wished him to become a soldier, but his inclinations were otherwise. His early desire was to become a Jesuit, but from this he was dissuaded by the Archbishop of Paris. However, following his religious bent, he took Orders as a secular priest, and became one of the founders of the Marist Congregation, which took its rise among a few secular priests in the dioceses of Lyons and Bellay. He became novice-master of the Order, and three hundred novices passed through his hands. On June 30, 1836, when he was consecrated at Rome Bishop of Maronée and first Vicar-Apostolic of Western Oceania, the infant society of which he was so prominent a member came under the notice of the Vatican, and he obtained a brief authorising the creation of the new Society of Mary, which had for its special object the evangelisation of the islands of the Pacific.

The Voyage to the Pacific.

The pioneer Bishop's first voyage to New Zealand was an Odyssey of adventure in perilous seas and among strange peoples. He did not sail direct to this country, but cruised among the tropic islands of his wide diocese for many months before he at last turned New Zealand-ward. He sailed in all manner of vessels, from large ships to small ill-equipped schooners, and all the lore and stress of sea-life were his before he finally set foot on the shores of the Maori. He left Rome at the end of July, 1836, and sailed from Havre de Grace on Christmas Eve of that year, in the “Delphine,” for Valparaiso, where he hoped to meet with another vessel to carry him to the South Seas. Damage to the rudder necessitated putting into Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, where the ship remained for fifty days for repairs. After a long and stormy voyage, during which water and food ran short, the Bishop and his staff reached Valparaiso in June 1837. One of the priests died on the voyage.

“From Island unto Island.”

After a wait of two months, the mission party boarded the American ship “Europa,” which was bound for Hawaii, via the Gambier Islands (Mangareva) and Tahiti. At the latter island he found a schooner of about sixty tons called the “Raiatea,” a trading craft owned by the American Consul. The Bishop chartered this little craft for his diocesan cruisings, and sailed for Vavau, in the Friendly Islands, of which he had heard as a good safe harbour and a convenient place from which to explore the other groups of islands.

On this inter-island voyage Pompallier and his companions began the viva voce study of the English language, a difficult task but indispensable to those travelling or working in Oceania. The captain and mate were English, and nothing but English was spoken by the crew.

The Bishop, in the course of his description of this island voyage, made some shrewd comments on the method of procedure he intended to adopt with the natives of the islands where the missionaries were landed. The first essential was to learn the language of the people. “It is important,” he wrote, “from the outset not to teach religion, nor to make known your intention of changing that of the country. You can only succeed in the ministry of teaching when you are sufficiently conversant with the language of the people. It is enough in the beginning that they receive you with hospitality, and only recognise you as well-instructed travellers belonging to some great and civilised nation, desirous of learning their language to enable you to establish with them friendly and social relations. Generally the natives are flattered by these proposals.”

The missionary Bishop had many a taste of the perils of the sea in his cruises, but his experience in the Tonga Archipelago was the most disturbing of all. The wind dropped when Vavau harbour was being entered, and the becalmed page 26 schooner was carried by a strong current towards the surfbeaten rocks. “Just at the moment when we were awaiting all the horrors of shipwreck and death,” he wrote in his narrative, “a breeze sprang up from the direction of the very rock upon which we were drifting; it filled our sails, we gained open sea, and in less than half-an-hour we were out of all danger.”

To Wallis Island and Futuna.

The Tonga group did not offer the Catholics a suitable field of labour, as Protestant missionaries had obtained a strong hold there. So the Bishop moved on to coral islands where the Polynesian populations had not yet received Christian propaganda. He gave the “Raiatea's” captain instructions to sail for the island of Wallis (Uvea) and Futuna, which lay about 350 miles from Vavau. Pompallier had learned at Vavau that the Protestant missionaries intended establishing themselves in these islands, and he determined to forestall them. Wallis consisted of a large island and several small ones, all very beautiful, surrounded by a great coral reef. The natives permitted them to land, and the head chief, Tungahala, received them in a very friendly way, but many of the people were suspicious of the white strangers —they probably had good reason for that attitude towards the men of the ships that roved the South Sea—and there were many moments of danger. Pursuant to his general policy, as naively set forth in his narrative, he did not divulge his character or his intentions for work on Wallis. He succeeded in inducing the king to permit two of his missioners to remain on the island; it was left to them to begin their ministrations when the time arrived, as soon as they had learned the language.

Similar arrangements were made at Futuna Island, which had a population of about a thousand people. These places eventually became converted to the Catholic faith. Another island visited by the “Raiatea” was Rotuma, to the north of Fiji. The island, the Bishop reported, was a huge grove of coconut and other tropical trees, and presented “a lovely sight.” From Rotuma the schooner sailed for Sydney, and after a pleasant stay there, the far-voyaging Bishop at last sailed for New Zealand.

Early Days in New Zealand.

He arrived at Hokianga in January, 1838, and sailed up the great tidal river to Mangamuka, piloted by a European who was established at Omapere, at the Heads, for the guidance of timber ships. Hokianga was at this time the greatest kauri-exporting harbour in New Zealand. At Mangamuka the Bishop was gladly received into the house of an Irish timber merchant, Mr. Thomas Poynton, afterwards a well-known resident of Takapuna, Auckland. The little “Raiatea,” which had borne the mission party safely over such a large area of the South Pacific, was sent back to her owner at Tahiti.

Settled at last in the new land, which was to be the scene of his labours for so many years—a house was built for them at Totara—Pompallier and his staff applied themselves to the study of English and Maori. Inevitably
Bishop Pompallier in later years.

Bishop Pompallier in later years.

there were dissensions between the new-comers and the followers of the Wesleyan missionaries already settled at Hokianga. However, in this sketch we need not concern ourselves with the troubles which are common to all countries in which rival Christian churches are engaged in proselytising primitive peoples.

Pompallier had a rather hard and trying life of it, because instead of receiving funds and assistants from Europe at the end of six months, it was not until he had been at Hokianga seventeen months that they reached him. This was in June, 1839, when three priests and three catechists of the Society of Mary arrived at the Bay of Islands from France via Valparaiso. The vessel in which they crossed the Pacific, a schooner named the “Reine de Paix,” was even smaller than the little “Raiatea.” She was a forty-ton craft, and so cranky that she nearly capsized during the voyage. Pompallier walked across to the Bay of Islands to meet his priests, and he then decided to fix the seat of his Bishopric at Kororareka, now Russell.

In the meantime he had made several missionáary journeys, in particular one to the Kaipara district. He was received everywhere with the customary hospitality of the Maori, and especially at Mangakahia, at the head of the Northern Wairoa; there is a quite eloquent description of his reception and farewell there in his own narrative (published in Auckland in 1888). With the funds he received from Europe he bought a house at Kororareka, and presently built a church after further funds had reached him.

The Bay of Islands establishment was made the headquarters store for all the mission stations to which he sent his priests. His chief need now was a suitable vessel in which to make cruises along the coast and maintain communications with the South Pacific Islands on which Catholic missions had been set up.

The Treaty of Waitangi.

The Bishop was in residence at Kororareka when Captain Hobson arrived in H.M.S. “Herald,” in 1840, and he was present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. There is no need to describe here his part in the ceremonious gathering there; that has been told in the histories which deal so fully with the Treaty. Sufficient to say that the Bishop very wisely kept aloof from politics. He explains in his narrative that when Rewa and other chiefs came to him beforehand and asked him whether they should or should not sign the Governor's document, he told them that it was entirely a matter for themselves to determine what they should do with their national sovereignty. “We were prepared to instruct them in the faith whether they continued New Zealanders or became English.” Dr. A. J. Harrop, in his book “England and New Zealand,” says it seemed clear that Pompallier was more interested in the welfare of the souls of the natives than in the colour of the flag which was to wave over them. His presence in New Zealand was a powerful influence in persuading the Protestant missionaries that their first objections to British colonisation must be abandoned in face of a possible French occupation.”

Pompallier testified in his narrative to the fairness and consideration of Governor Hobson. “His Excellency promised that my future missionary vessel should be free from all imposts, and that everything that came to me from beyond the country for the purpose of my labours should be free from duty.”

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Coastwise Voyaging.

The active Bishop did not spare himself in the duty of visiting the southern parts of New Zealand. He went to Tauranga in a hired schooner and walked across the hills and through swamps and creeks to Matamata, where the Ngati-Haua tribe received him with ceremonious hospitality and provided men to carry him in a litter through the swamp between their large pa and the Waihou River. He visited the various tribes along the coast as far as Opotiki and Wharekahika, and on his return to the Bay of Islands he sent Father Viard to Tauranga as the first priest for that district and adjacent parts.

A reinforcement of priests and funds for the propagation of the Faith came from France in 1840, in the corvette “L'Aube,” commanded by Captain Lavaud, celebrated for his association with the French settlement at Akaroa.

The “Sancta Maria.”

The Bishop was now enabled to extend the scope of his mission considerably, and one of his first acts was to purchase a suitable vessel. He bought an American craft which happened, to be at the Bay of Islands, a topsail schooner called the “Atlas.” She cost him about 35,000 francs. He christened the schooner “Sancta Maria” and presently was off on the sea again, this time a voyage to the far south of the colony. Fathers Comte and Pesant had been given a passage to the south in “L'Aube.” The Bishop landed Father Tripe at Akaroa to minister to the French settlers there, and left Father Comte there also to attend to the Maori converts. The schooner went as far as Otago Harbour, and returning anchored at Moeraki, and spent several days with the people there. Pompallier by this time was able to speak Maori freely. Port Nicholson was the next place of call; there he spoke in English and Maori, and was well received by the citizens of infant Wellington. Colonel Wakefield, the chief agent of the New Zealand Company, gave him “a handsome subscription and made a gift of a piece of land for the establishment of the Catholic Mission.” After leaving at Port Nicholson a catechist, Dr. Fitzgerald, the Bishop set sail for Akaroa again, and visited the principal Maori villages in the bays of Banks Peninsula. Resting awhile in pleasant Akaroa, he employed himself in writing a Maori catechism for the use of the missionaries and natives.

Up anchor once more, and cruising northward to headquarters at the Bay of Islands, the Bishop visited some of the people in the East Cape district. It was March of 1841 before he finally stepped ashore at Kororareka after his voyagings; he had been away six months. Several more assistants arrived from France, and Pompallier was able presently to station priests and catechists at various large settlements of the tribes along the coast.

First Visit to Auckland.

His first visit to the new town of Auckland was made at the end of July, 1841; there the Governor, Captain Hobson, gave him a section of land for a station and church, and arrangements were made for a priest to be sent to Auckland (Father Petitjean was presently stationed there), and the Bishop continued his cruising along the shore southward, addressing the Maoris and the stray traders settled here and there. On his visit to Tauranga this time, he decided to extend his activities to the Rotorua tribes. From Maketu, where he established a mission, he walked to Rotorua, accompanied by several chiefs. The Arawa people received him with the kindness he had invariably experienced in Maori districts. “We encountered tribes on our way,” he wrote in his account of the journey, “who had never seen the face of a Catholic priest, and who had only one little mission book. and yet who recited word for word the catechism and morning and evening prayers without a single mistake.” That was the experience of more than one pioneer white missionary in Maori
The historic house called “Pompallier,” at Russell, Bay of Islands. This was Bishop Pompallier's residence at the time of Hone Heke's war, in 1845, and it was one of the few buildings that the Maoris spared when they burned Koro areka town. The house is now over ninety years old.

The historic house called “Pompallier,” at Russell, Bay of Islands. This was Bishop Pompallier's residence at the time of Hone Heke's war, in 1845, and it was one of the few buildings that the Maoris spared when they burned Koro areka town. The house is now over ninety years old.

Land. The new religion was a wonderful novelty, and the Maori was never content until he had learned every word of the karakia. Korokai was the principal chief at Ohinemutu in those days, and Pompallier made a firm friend of him.

Another Island Cruise.

Sailing as far south as Akaroa, the mission schooner presently had company in the quiet anchorage there, of the French corvettes “Heroine” and ’Allier.” The former had called at the Bay of Islands and the commander brought a letter containing sad news. Father Chanel, one of the priests the Bishop had stationed on Futuan Island, in the tropic seas, had been killed by order of the native king of the island; the mission on Wallis Island was also in peril.

Pompallier decided to sail for the Islands, and Captain Lavaud, the Commandant in the French portion of the Akaroa settlement, placed one of the corvettes, the “Allier,” at his disposal, for any assistance that might be required. The French captain, Bouset, acted with mingled firmness and discretion at Futuna. He impressed on the natives the need for cultivating the friendship of the white people. The Bishop remained in the islands until he had established satisfactory relations, and when he departed again for New Zealand, after about five months, the whole of the inhabitants of Futuna and Wallis were Catholics, at any rate theoretically.

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page 29 Satisfied that the missionaries he left there would now be treated well, the Bishop continued his voyaging to new islands and fields of labour. He visited several of the Fiji Islands, Tonga and Vavau, and after a final look-in at Wallis Island, set a course for New Zealand again. When he anchored again in Kororareka Bay, in August, 1842, he had completed an anxious but successful voyage of fourteen months.

That summary of the pioneer Bishop's voyaging by sea and land over a period of less than four years, conveys some idea of the enormous burden of work which devolved upon him as a missionary leader in primitive lands. But it is necessary, also, in order to realise adequately the nature of his task, to remember that he had to grapple with a vast variety of problems ashore and afloat; to be not only a religious teacher but an ambassador to savage peoples, a diplomat, a linguist, a financier, an architect and builder, and a good deal also of a seaman. The discomforts were as great as the perils, the long voyages in small schooners and the anxieties of navigation in uncharted or all but uncharted seas and among labyrinths of coral reefs. No missionary in the South Seas a century ago had a soft or easy life.

Heke's War.

Letters on record from Bishop Pompallier to Hone Heke and others, show that he made efforts to prevent the conflict which he saw looming in the North of New Zealand. He wrote to “Jean Heke,” as he called him, in the early part of 1845, strongly counselling peace, and warning the discontented chief that he would not be powerful enough to resist the English, with their millions. He suggested that Heke should write to the Colonial Government and to the Queen of England with regard to his claims concerning lands and authority. “Claim your rights before declaring war. The words and writing of a man of honour are better than the bloody sword.” (This is one of the letters quoted by Mr. J. J. Wilson in his history of the Catholic Church in New Zealand.) But war came, and Kororareka went up in flames—all except the English and Catholic Church establishments. The Bishop's house was one of the few buildings spared by the triumphant Ngapuhi when the Pakeha people evacuated the town. The Bishop remained, with two members of the mission and some faithful Maoris. He wrote in May, 1845, in a letter to Europe: “Now I reside in the midst of cinders, and have only ruins under my eyes, but notwithstanding the sadness with which the spectacle fills my soul I continue to work for the salvation of my flock in sending them the missionaries, who are well received everywhere.”

Voyages to Europe.

When Pompallier wished to make a visit to his native land in 1846, and to render to Rome an account of his labours, Captain Berard, commanding the French corvette “Le Rhin” provided him with a passage. The ship sailed from Akaroa on April 16, 1846, and arrived at Toulon in August. The Bishop visited Rome in September and paid homage to His Holiness the Pope, and reported the progress of his missionary work in New Zealand and Oceania. He returned to New Zealand in 1850, landing at Auckland on the 8th of April. He brought with him a number of Irish and French priests and the first contingent of the Sisters of Mercy, who rendered such noble service in New Zealand in caring for the orphans and the sick and helpless and distressed. The good Bishop now had his Church well established throughout the colony, and he was ceaseless in his endeavours to extend the mission. He brought out priests who became not able figures in the growing community.

Pompallier was a greatly experienced voyager in all manner of vessels, from smart frigates to leisurely whaleships and tiny schooners. He seems to have made a second voyage to Europe to recruit his forces for New Zealand and the South Seas, for it was recorded that the French whaleship “General Testa” arrived at Auckland on December 30, 1860, bringing as passengers Bishop Pompallier, 21 of his clergy, and several Sisters of Mercy.

After thirty years of labour in his widely-spread mission field the great Bishop obtained leave from Rome to retire. It was reported that in his time he had baptised ten thousand natives of New Zealand. He sailed from Auckland finally on February 18, 1868, in a French warship, and on arrival in France he was raised by the Holy See to the dignity of Archbishop of Amasia (Asiatic Turkey) in partibus. His rest from his long and trying toil was not long. He lived chiefly at Puteaux, near Paris, where he died on December 20, 1870, worn out by his great labours and travels in the cause of his Church.

Such is the story, in necessarily brief compass, of a wonderfully energetic and able man, and a brave, zealous and self-sacrificing apostle of his Faith among the primitive folk of the strange new Southern world.

There is a small pakeha and Maori settlement in the far north of Auckland whose name commemorates the great Bishop. It is called Pamapuria, which is the Maori pronunciation of Pompallier. On the gate of an old fashioned and pretty home in Russell township, a place of history and garden-charm, there is the name “Pompallier,” a reminder of the fact that the house was the home of the Bishop when Kororareka was his headquarters ninety years ago. The record of his early days in New Zealand and the South Pacific is given in his own narrative, edited by Bishop Luck, and published in Auckland in 1888; and the pioneer period of the Church is carried on by Mr. J. J. Wilson in two volumes that represent a vast amount of careful and patient research.

For the use of books and notes consulted in writing this sketch of Pompallier's life I am indebted to Mr. H. E. Fildes, of Wellington.