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Marist Bulletin - Number 123

 

THE MARIST BROTHERS IN NEW ZEALAND
05/02/2004

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Brother Edward Clisby has taught in schools in New Zealand, Tonga, and Kiribati. He has researched and translated the correspondence of the pioneer brothers in Oceania and is currently archivist and historian of the province of New Zealand.

The pioneer brothers
The first members of the newly recognized Society of Mary left France on Christmas Eve 1836 for the islands of the Pacific, to begin the mission of Western Oceania. They were lead by Monsigneur J. B. Pompallier, whose remains have recently been returned to New Zealand, and Saint Pierre Chanel, first martyr of the Society and of Oceania (1841), and numbered five priests and three brothers. The latter belonged to the Little Brothers of Mary founded by Saint Marcellin Champagnat. Michel Colombon was the first Marist brother to set foot in New Zealand, in January 1838. He was followed by 13 others between 1838 and 1841, including Claude-Marie Bertrand, a second cousin of the Founder, and Euloge Chabany, martyred among the Maori in 1864.
The pioneer brothers accompanied the missionary priests primarily as catechists. But the demands of life in the remote islands of the Pacific meant that they had to turn their hands to a great variety of tasks – cooking, agriculture, carpentry, building, tailoring, bootmaking, medicine, printing, and bookbinding, to name a few. Some had the opportunity to follow their teaching vocation in the first mission schools. During this period, from 1838 to 1870, they worked with and under the guidance of the Marist fathers, and for this reason they also appear in the records of the Society among the coadjutor brothers.

Brothers for the schools
From 1870 groups of brothers were sent out independently to take charge of the mission schools. The first to come to New Zealand for this purpose arrived in 1876, two Frenchmen and an Englishman. They opened their first school in the capital, Wellington, in 1877. By the turn of the century, the brothers were conducting seven primary schools and a high school, forerunner of Sacred Heart College, which celebrated its centennial this year. In 1917, when New Zealand became a separate province from Australia, it had 20 schools, either in the country itself or in its missions of Fiji and Samoa, with 68 brothers teaching some 2500 students.
Primary education remained the focus of the province for the first half of the century. But after the Second World War there was an increasing demand for secondary schools and boarding schools. Thus a heavy emphasis was placed on recruiting and on university education for the brothers. Large numbers of boys and young men passed through the formation centers, the juniorate at Tuakau, the novitiate at Claremont, and the scholasticate in Auckland. By the end of the 1960s, almost 300 brothers were teaching over 10,000 children in 36 schools throughout the province.
Two events most significant for the Marist brothers in the second part of the century were the Second Vatican Council and the Private Schools Integration Act of 1975, which incorporated the Catholic schools into the state education system. Among their consequences were a decline in the numbers of religious and vocations, a predominance of lay teachers in Catholic schools, and a much greater variety of ministries to youth and to the poor. Brothers became involved in pastoral institutes, retreat teams, young adult ministries, youth at risk projects, chaplaincies in schools, hospitals, prisons, and retirement homes, work with slow learners and the mentally and physically handicapped. Although the number of brothers is declining and ageing, Marist influence is still strong, through the schools and ex-student associations, the animation of teachers and parents, the activities of Remar groups, and, in the wider world, the Marist sports clubs which have sprung up in the footsteps of the brothers throughout New Zealand and the Pacific islands.

The Maori Mission
The first Marists came to New Zealand to evangelise the Maori, a Polynesian people who had settled the country nearly a thousand years before. By 1860 there was a considerable Catholic Maori population scattered throughout the North Island. But expanding European settlement lead to clashes with Maori over land and sovereignty and war broke out in various parts of the island. It was during one of these skirmishes that Br Euloge was killed on the Whanganui River in 1864. The wars proved a costly setback for the mission as converts fell away and priests and brothers were reassigned to serve the settler communities. The last of the pioneer brothers on the mission, Basile Monchalin, died at Meeanee, Hawkes Bay, in 1898.
After the teaching brothers arrived in 1876, they were too occupied in setting up schools in the growing townships to respond to requests from the Marist fathers to help with the education of Maori youth. Maori boys did attend some of the new schools, notably Sacred Heart College, which educated some 200 in the first half of the century. But it was not until 1946 that the brothers became directly involved once more with the Maori mission. That year they took over the teaching at St Peter’s Maori College, Auckland, run by the Mill Hill fathers. By 1972 the college, now known as Hato Petera (the Maori for St Peter), and under the complete control of the brothers, was the largest and one of the best known Maori schools in the country. The brothers still live on the property and provide for the school a principal, a Maori Marist, and several teachers.
Maori migration to the towns in the second half of the century lead to increased numbers of young Maori in the brothers’ schools. It also drew their attention to the needs of the people in the often remote rural areas from which the students came. Communities were established in some of these areas – Panguru in the Hokianga (1983 – the area associated with the first Marist missions), Moerewa-Kawakawa (1986) and Kaitaia (1993) in Northland, and Tolaga Bay on the East coast (1997). Although the number of brothers engaged in this apostolate is very small, they have the satisfaction of knowing that they are continuing the mission for which the brothers first came to this country. Each year the province receives a reminder of this when the brothers and their friends celebrate the Founder’s feast day at Pompallier House in the Bay of Islands, the restored Marist mission printery built by their predecessors in 1841.

The Pacific Islands
As members of the Marist Oceania missions, early brothers worked in Wallis and Futuna (1837), Tonga (1842), New Caledonia (1843), Solomon islands (1845), Samoa (1846), Rotuma (1846) and Fiji (1848). They prepared the way for their teaching confreres who opened their first school (for catechists) in Apia, Samoa, in 1871. Local warfare lead to their departure only six years later, but they returned in 1888 to commence over a century of work for Catholic education in Samoa. The same year the brothers opened their first school in Fiji. In 1917, the new New Zealand province was given responsibility for the missions of Samoa and Fiji. In both countries schools conducted by the brothers have provided leaders of church and state, in commerce, law, medicine, and other areas of life. In Fiji especially, they were the pioneers and leaders in multi-racial education.
Over the years, the superiors received requests for brothers from bishops in other parts of the Pacific. It was not until the 1970s that men were available for new projects. In 1978 the brothers returned to Tonga to take over the secondary school at Lapaha on Tongatapu. In 1982 they set up a second community in Ha’apai to conduct the local community college. In 1984 the province responded to a request from the bishop of Tarawa-Nauru to help with the running of a secondary school in south Tarawa, Kiribati. From 1994 to 1996 they also had a community in one of the outer islands, Marakei.
As in New Zealand, the brothers of the Pacific, while still engaged in schools, have diversified their apostolates. In Fiji, New Zealand and local brothers are involved in teaching or administration in primary and secondary education and in a project set up for students with special needs. In Samoa, New Zealand and Samoan brothers are engaged primarily in the school apostolate, as are their confreres in Tonga. In Kiribati, the brothers work in teaching, formation, and counseling. There are a number of young islanders at various stages of formation in the congregation, a sign of hope for the Marist brothers and the Church in the Pacific Islands.
The brothers have not been afraid to move beyond the province. Some have served in formation centers in Manila and Nairobi, others in solidarity in schools and projects in Pakistan and India. At present, one is a member of the international community in East Timor.

Br Edward Clisby, December 2003

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