VALLEY OF FAITH — Sisters of Mercy in Pawarenga 1927–1990 (Available at St Mary’s Convent, New Street, Auckland, ph. 360 8009); $25. Reviewed by BEATE MATTHIES.
The cover picture Tangiwai by Julia Lynch, Sr Mary Lawrence, RSM, is sometimes called the Maori Madonna or the
Hiruharama Madonna and it fits so well to the content of the book.
The book is dedicated to the first missionaries in Aotearoa New Zealand, Bishop Pompallier, the first Maori priests
and especially the Sisters of Mercy who served in Pawarenga.
Valley of Faith describes the life and missionary work of the Sisters of Mercy in Pawarenga, Northland.
The authors, Sr Marcienne Kirk, RSM, Mrs Lyn Ryan and Sr Mary de Pazzi Hudner,RSM, remark that this was not to be
considered a researched history book but rather a collection of written letters and memoirs from the sisters who served in the Hokianga from 1927 to 1990.
The book starts with a historic background of the Catholic Faith in Northland: the Poyntons arriving in Hokianga Harbour in 1827, the first Catholic Mass on New Zealand ground on January 13, 1838, and the wish expressed by Maori women for wahine tapu (sacred/holy women).
Mother Cecilia Maher and seven other sisters volunteered to go with Bishop Pompallier from France to Auckland,
where they arrived on April 9, 1850.
During the long trip, Bishop Pompallier taught the sisters Maori, and they prepared themselves to work among the
However, on their arrival in Auckland, the New Zealand wars were raging and the remoteness of Maori settlements made it difficult to get really involved with Maori.
This is where the collection of letters and memories start.
More than 50 years later, the Sisters of Mercy decided to start a primary school in Pawarenga.
It is fascinating to read the challenges of the first years in there. The Mill Hill Fathers had been working in
the area for several years and when the first Sisters of Mercy arrived, the sisters received valuable support from Fr Andrew Zangerl, who was parish priest in Pawarenga from 1922 to 1967.
Fr Zangerl, an Austrian Mill Hill Father, was knowledgeable in Maori customs and protocols and was a real
handyman. He was even harnessing a wind generator and charging batteries at the waterfall.
The sisters also had to improvise. Sr Mary Cyril took on coaching the boys rugby and league teams. Having no money to buy jerseys, the sisters dyed sugar bags and made jerseys, piped neck and arms with a gold material. These jerseys gave the teams the nick name “The Sugar Bags”.
The team won the Primary Schools’ Football Competition in 1935.
The comments and descriptions of situations are so natural and in some cases the reader has the feeling of being
able to hear the sisters talking.
One example I particularly enjoyed was when a new sister had arrived in Pawarenga and wasn’t aware of the challenges that the children had to take when walking to school, such as muddy paddocks after heavy rainfall.
The sister complained about a boy not coming to school and received the following reply from his father: “Dear Sister, You think my boy a duck. If he a duck he come to school on a wet day. If he not a duck he stay home.”
The sisters in Pawarenga were teachers and nurses and sometimes had to leave the classrooms to attend to patients. The people trusted them and even when district health nurses were available, the people would still go to the
sisters for medical advice.
In the winter, the sisters gave cod liver oil daily to the children using mussel shells as spoons, and they loved it.
The letters and memories are not in chronological order but sorted according to the sister who contributed. Some
sisters wrote their memories apparently at the request of the authors and did so many years after they had left
I think this is a beautiful book, full of life, history and valuable experiences. I am grateful to the authors for collecting these stories.
Beate Matthies is the manager at the Mercy Spirituality Centre in Epsom, Auckland.