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Maori and Missionary: Early Christian Missions in the South Island of New Zealand

Chapter Four — Visit of Bishop Pompallier to Otakou

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Chapter Four
Visit of Bishop Pompallier to Otakou

Until November, 1840, Mr. Watkin was the Only European missionary of the Cross in the South Island, but on the 7th of that month he reported: “I am not alone in the field of this Island now. A priest (Bishop Pompallier and the Roman Catholic Mission party at Banks Peninsula) who has been in the North Island is now within 200 miles of me at a place where the French emigrants have located themselves.” On November 21st he reported that the Roman Catholic missionaries “are now ten miles beyond me, i.e., at Otakou, and are doing all they can to ingratiate themselves with the natives there by means of presents, etc., a plan I have not adopted, and if such an appropriation of the Society's funds were allowed, my repugnance to such a plan would render me a very unfit agent of the committee here. I am greatly distressed at the prospect of the few natives here being divided in the Creed which they seem likely to adopt. The French missionaries are very anxious to obtain influence among the natives, and giving largely is the most effective way. If they establish themselves there my operations will be very circumscribed. They have a schooner, the Sancta Maria, at their command … they are, however, much disappointed in finding so few natives, and may perhaps leave the field to me.”

On December 2nd he wrote that the Roman Catholic priests “still continue in the neighbourhood and are resorting to doing evil that what they esteem good may come, maligning better men than themselves and churches purer than theirs. This excites no wonder in my mind, but the poor natives are in danger of suffering from it, etc.”

“December 19th: On Sunday last and during the week have been much engaged as usual. This evening had an interesting conversation with Kurukuru who this day returned from Moeraki, which also has been visited … (by Bishop Pompallier) where by dint of presents, dazzling vestments and superstitious forms has produced some effect, to the disparagement of my plain dress and equally plain mode of conducting religious worship, but as yet there is no resident priest. I may succeed in reclaiming some and preventing others from falling. These natives are fond of page 48 forms and show: I belong to a church which dispenses with parade.”

January 1st, 1841: I have heard a great deal lately of the proceeding of the Bishop. Thus the Bishop has told them that ‘Hine’, the wife of Maui, a New Zealand god or demigod, was the Virgin Mary. A circumstance which has been omitted in all the lives of that excellent, but much abused, woman which have ever been written…. He (the Bishop) has taken leave for some time, taking a number of natives with him to be initiated, and intends to return with a priest or two who are to be fixed somewhere in these parts and to baptise those who have been taught the Paternoster, Ave Maria and the Creed in a dialect not their own, the meaning of which they know little; if baptism is to be dispensed with on such terms, I might administer forthwith to most of the people hereabout. They ought, I think, to be taught more, and to pass through a considerable lengthy trial.”

Regarding the Roman Catholic version of the visit of the Bishop to Otago, the following is copied from Fishers of Men. The book contains a Foreword by Bishop Liston, of Auckland. The schooner in which the Bishop travelled was a small vessel and the record is as follows:

“It is called the Sancta Maria; on its white flag, which floats from the highest mast, is a Cross surrounded by twelve stars; underneath is a crescent. From a distance one would think it was an anchor. His Lordship was inspired by these words from Holy Scripture: ‘Mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus ejus; corona stellarum duodecim.’ On each trip that this vessel has made, it has run great risks, but it has always been saved by the Holy Virgin whose name it bears.”

The following quotations are from Early History of the Catholic Church by the Rt. Rev. Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier:

“Otago is about 50 leagues of the south of Akaroa. Fathers Comte and Pedant accompanied me … we reached Otago all safe. The people of this bay had not as yet been evangelised by anyone. My arrival amongst them had already been announced by the natives of Banks Peninsula. They received the visit I paid them very well. At the end of ten days they knew the necessary truths of religion, made the sign of the Cross and said Catholic prayers. Although the Protestant ministers have not as yet enrolled them in their sects, these people have nevertheless received among them some native disciples of heresy, who have taught them some short prayers and a canticle they sing morning and evening. One might see also, in the hands of some of them, little Protestant books which their native catechists hawked all over New Zealand. Already in the tribes of Otago, they had heard the lies that heresy caused to be circulated to set these page 49 people against the Mother Church, and caused them to embrace the sects of error. Here is one of the lies that made the most impression on their minds. They had told these people from tribe to tribe, from Cooks Straits to the end of the South Island, that the books of the Protestants carried with them a special protection from God for those who procured them. When they had these books about them in time of war or combat, the balls of the enemy would flatten themselves against their bodies without wounding them, while their own would always hit their mark, and would strike ten people at one shot, glancing from one to the other of the victims that were to be struck by it. Alas, how easy it is to deceive people who are in the darkness of ignorance and a state of childishness as they are in the bosom of infidelity. So how eager they were to purchase the Protestant books! These books were a source of income to the ministers of error, and drew into their sects the natives who believed their lies. I set myself to work therefore in Otago to undeceive the people about the falsehoods that had been told to them. They saw at once the abuse that had been made of their ignorance and credulity. They gave me their confidence and affection, received my little instruction books and begged of me earnestly to leave them one of the priests that I had with me and who assisted me in instructing them. But for the present I could only promise to endeavour to send one by-and-by. I wished greatly to comply with their desires, for at a certain distance from Otago a Wesleyan minister had already come to settle himself in the establishment of a rich farmer, at whose house he carried on his ministration in English for the benefit of the whites who were working at this place, and where he was studying the language of the natives in order to instruct them hereafter.”

The Bishop then stated that several persons from Ruapuke visited him and that—“The messengers who came to seek me were a white man and five or six natives from their tribes. The white man was an Irishman (Kelly) by birth and a Catholic. He brought with him two of his children whom I solemnly baptised on board the Sancta Maria…. In Otago, one Sunday, I celebrated Mass, as solemnly as was possible for us, in a large shed that an English merchant, a Protestant, had the goodness to lend us to hold Divine service in. All the natives of the Bay assisted at it, some twenty English, American and French whalers also came. The greatest number of the whites were Protestants. All the same they displayed the greatest religious respect for the ceremonies of the Church. Under these circumstances I gave two addresses, one in English to the whites, and one in Maori to the natives.” After this the Bishop and his party visited Moeraki and “instructed the natives during five or six days.”

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It is stated that the Bishop took on his schooner from Moeraki three young men of the nobility of that place, to take to Akaroa. They were taken probably for training, but they were not heard of again in the South.

There are several statements in the Bishop's report which are of a controversial nature.1 When he denies that any natives had been evangelised, does he speak as one who does not regard Protestant evangelisation as anything but heresy—therefore, the Maoris had not been evangelised? Then … “Although the Protestant ministers have not as yet enrolled them in their sects these people have nevertheless received among them some native disciples of heresy.”

He also states that they have learned certain prayers, and a canticle that they sing morning and evening. Notwithstanding the above statements, the Bishop says “they had not as yet been evangelised by anyone.”

The above statements surely are contradictory. The real position presumably was that a church was functioning before the Bishop arrived which he endeavoured to ignore. Then, strange to say, the Bishop regrets that the Maori people are “in the bosom of infidelity” even although they acknowledge God and offer prayers to Him and sing morning and evening.

It must be remembered that Watkin's Catechumen members used the Wesleyan service book, parts of which he had translated into South Island Maori, which included the Confession, Creed, Collect, etc. When the Bishop said “the Protestant ministers have not yet enrolled them in their sects,” was he correct? Watkin received as Catechumens all who attended his ministration classes, and there were many from Otakou. It must be understood that a Catechumen member was an accredited member of the Wesleyan Mission and as such was entitled to receive the standard membership ticket bearing the member's name, but endorsed “Catechumen”.

Adults were baptised only after a period of probation. The first adult baptism did not take place till January 21st, 1841, eight months after Watkin's arrival in Otago.

The Bishop stated that he gave two addresses at Otakou, one in English to the whites and one in Maori to the natives. It is not

1 The Bishop did not recognise the Protestant Communions as valid Christian Churches. The following is from Fishers of Men:

“We began at Whangaroa on Jan. 4th, 1840…. Already seven young men have asked to be allowed to remain with us. Among them is the son of a Methodist. One day his father came to see us and on entering he said: ‘I am a Protestant with four children. I give them to you but I myself will remain a Protestant.’ I gave him to understand that he was not doing the best for himself, that the branches of the tree from the trunk, i.e., Christians separated from the True Church, were dead branches.”

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Te Matenga Taiaroa.

Te Matenga Taiaroa.

Hoani Weteri Korako.

Hoani Weteri Korako.

Korako Karetai.

Korako Karetai.

Patoromu Pu.

Patoromu Pu.

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Rev. Te Rote Ratou.

Rev. Te Rote Ratou.

Rawiri Te Maire.

Rawiri Te Maire.

Matiaka Tiramorehu.

Matiaka Tiramorehu.



page 51 likely that the Maoris could understand him, seeing that he did not know the South Island dialect. Even Bishop Selwyn, an expert in the North Island Maori language, who visited Otakou in 1844, according to Watkin, could not make himself clearly understood.

Another remark calls for comment. It is often stated in print that the Bishop conducted the first Christian service in Otago (Otakou). This statement appears to be based upon a very slender foundation. Mr. Watkin's first recorded visit was on March 1st, 1841, but as you read the entry there is nothing in it to suggest that it was his first service.

It seems strange that Watkin, who arrived at Waikouaiti in May, 1840, having Catechumens at Otakou and who was so conscientious regarding his duty as a missionary, could neglect to visit such an important part of his charge till March, 1841.

Unfortunately there are omissions in Watkin's Journal which even his reports to London do not complete. Moreover, Watkin, as proved by his letters, lived the strenuous life, every day being packed with engagements and toilsome duties.

Another fact must be noted. Watkin and Creed, his successor, did not seem to realise that they were making history. If they had been conscious of that fact they would have been more careful to place on record the smallest details and the dates of all happenings. For instance, Creed, in reporting a visit to Moeraki on November 28th, 1844, refers to previous happenings and successes but does not give the dates of these previous visits. The same may be said about Watkin's reports to the London office.

The following quotations from Weller's Journal, kept by Mr. O. Harwood, throw further light upon the matter:

Tuesday, November 17, 1840: The Catholic missionary schooner Sancta Maria, Bishop Pompallier, arrived here.

Sunday, 22nd November, 1840: Bishop Pompallier performed Divine service for the first time in Otago in Mr. Hoare's shed.

Sunday, 29th November, 1840: Bishop called and performed Divine service on shore.

December 1st, 1840: Six boats left for Moeraki. Bishop went in one of them.

December 6th, 1840: Bishop's priest performed Divine service on shore.

December 7th, 1840, Monday: Read prayer over and interred the body of William May. The priest who was left here by the Bishop was requested to perform office for the dead, which he refused. The Bishop arrived from Moeraki.

December 10th, 1840: Skidmore's schooner discharging potatoes on the Sancta Maria, having sold them to the captain.”

Weller's record is perfectly clear. The Bishop performed his first service at Otakou on the date mentioned (November 22nd, page 52 1840). This statement does not claim that it was the first Christian service ever held there.

Regarding the Bishop's statement that Watkin ministered to the Europeans and was studying the language of the natives in order to “instruct them hereafter”, a sufficient answer is that within three weeks after his arrival at Waikouaiti, Watkin “could understand and make himself understood on most subjects”. His knowledge of the Tongan dialect was a help. So rapid was his success that on November 16th, 1840, he reported that he conducted five services that day, three in Maori.

Bishop Pompallier claimed that he had instructed the natives in the truths of Christianity so that “at the end of ten days they knew the necessary truths of religion, made the sign of the Cross, and said Catholic prayers”.

Thus ended the Bishop's visit to Otago. Watkin remarked that he expected that after the Bishop's visit “the field would be left to himself alone”. That is just what happened. Mr. Creed, five years afterwards, on October 6th, 1845, during his visit to Akaroa, reported that he badly needed a European assistant at that place and stated that “the cause of the Roman Church has nearly dwindled to nothing”. So far as Otakou was concerned the influence of the Roman Mission was of a very evanescent nature and nothing further was heard of it.1

1 It is with much reluctance that I revive a somewhat ancient con troversy. Religious disputations are subjects I much dislike. However, in the case in question, what we need is history and accuracy. It has so often appeared in print that Bishop Pompallier conducted the first Christian service at Otakou.

Dr. A. H. McLintock, in his History of Otago, repeats the statement:

“There has been some slight controversy as to whether this was the first service held at Otakou. From the study of Watkin's Journal it seems clear that Watkin had not visited the Otakou settlement by that date, though he certainly had been in touch with the natives there” (page 122).

I have placed the statements of the Rev. James Watkin and Bishop Pompallier side by side and leave the reader to draw his own conclusion. I would also add that any person with an open mind cannot forget the zeal, self-denial and devotion of the French priests of the Roman Catholic Mission in the North Island. Lieutenant the Hon. H. Meade, R.N., in his Ride Through the Disturbed Districts of New Zealand in 1864–5, states that after leaving Lake Rotorua, “the country we passed through was dismal in the extreme…. In one of the terraced basins we found two little whares, one of which was surmounted by a Cross; these were the church and dwelling of Father Boibeaux, a French Roman Catholic missionary…. We stopped for an hour or two, and partook of the good Father's hospitality. It would be difficult to conceive a life of greater devotion and self-denial than this—no hope of ever again seeing his native land, or returning to the society of educated men … in a place where even the barest necessities of life are procured with the greatest difficulty—his life is passed in his Master's work,” etc.