Our Catholic history - a rich tapestry

It is good for us to reflect on the story of how the Catholic Church in Tauranga Moana began. The first Catholic presence, of course, was in the simple faith and devotion of the early Catholic settlers, some of whom married into local families. The Church here was formally established, however, on March 7th, 1840, when Bishop Pompallier arrived on the harbour foreshore, and dedicated the Mission here to the saint of that day, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The early priests who served here under Pompallier were French Marists, the first being Philip Joseph Viard SM, who became the first Catholic Bishop of Wellington in 1846. These early missionaries endured harsh conditions as they sought to bring the Catholic faith to the people of Tauranga Moana. Their base was on the foreshore at Otumoetai, but they travelled on horseback, by canoe and on foot to all parts of the area.

In 1871 a small wooden church was built in Cameron Rd, to replace the Otumoetai church which had fallen into disrepair. A more solid Gothic-revival style building was erected on the Cameron Rd site in 1888 (which can now be seen at Bethlehem College). Having been established by the Marists, the Tauranga parish was looked after by secular (Diocesan) clergy for some time before the arrival of the Mill Hill Fathers. For a time, Tauranga was served from Matata.

On January 1st 1900, St Joseph’s Church in Te Puna was dedicated. The presbytery was added in 1931, with Mill Hill Father Alink the first resident priest. Before the priest’s house was built, the church was served from Tauranga, and priests would often stay with local families overnight. (Now the priests drive between the two churches, in 12 minutes!)

St Mary Immaculate Church “in town” was replaced in 1956 with a brick building, and this church was incorporated into a larger, more modern building, in 1991.

Catholic education was a “late starter” in Tauranga Moana, compared to other centres: the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny arrived in 1940, and St Mary’s School began. The Sisters also staffed St Joseph’s School, Te Puna, from 1958. (The school closed in 1980.) And in 2003, Aquinas College opened, with the late Brendan Schollum the founding principal.

This is simply a quick romp through our Catholic history – others have done a much better job of this, in particular Patricia Brooks’ By the Name of Mary, and the history of the Te Puna Parish written for its centennial celebrations in 2000. It is important for us to remember that the stories of our Church’s presence in Te Puna and Tauranga are interwoven in so many ways, and the creation of our new parish of St Thomas Aquinas sees us return to the name Bishop Pompallier first gave to us in 1840.

A waiata we often sing reminds us of the rich inheritance that is ours: Ehara i te mea no inaianei te aroha – no nga tupuna tuku iho, tuku iho. (The love we share is not from the present, but is handed down to us by our ancestors.) As we forge this path together, both old and new, may we keep alive the faith, hope, and love of those who have gone before us.