Missionary built nine NZ churches

20 Rawene church


“Building a church is not about erecting a building and leaving it as a monument for future generations to admire,” said Fr Kerry Prendeville, SM in his homily during the centennial Mass at St Charles Borromeo church in Rawene on November 5.

“It is about building a community of people,” Fr Prendeville said, “it is people who are the living timber and the posts of this ‘Ecclesia’, the welcoming foundation for the community. It is people who celebrate jubilees, not the buildings: it is we who are celebrating today – and not just the church we are in, but the korowai (cloak) of people who are around us.”

The Mass was attended by some 150 south Hokianga parishioners and guests. Frs Trevor Tindall, SM, Rob Devlin, SM, and Junior Perezperalta, SVD, concelebrated.

Fr Prendeville recalled the involvement and dedication of religious and lay people in the Hokianga, and in particular that of the two Mill Hill priests and brothers – Fr Bernard Kreymborg and his younger brother Fr Charles Kreymborg. It was Fr Charles, or Pā Karora, as he was known amongst the local Māori, who was appointed to Rawene in 1915 – and as soon as he arrived there, he started to build a church and a presbytery on four acres of land.

In fact, not only was Rawene getting a priest, but a skilful master-builder and carpenter had arrived there. Pā Karora completed nine churches, many schools and presbyteries during his 35 years of ministry in New Zealand, ministry prematurely interrupted by his tragic death in 1928 in Rotorua.

“He was an amazing priest,” said Fr Prendeville, “a missionary who preached with both hands, one held the hammer and nails and the other a saw.”

When someone had remarked that his hands did not look like “piriha (priest’s) hands” – he allegedly replied that Jesus was a carpenter too. In 1917, the church in Rawene being completed, Pā Karora crossed the Hokianga Harbour to its northern side and carried on building a church in Panguru, one in Waiho and one in Mitimiti – just to name a few.

Pā Karora’s great devotion to his saint patron: St Charles Borromeo, is a likely explanation for the new church in Rawene having this saint as patron – a remarkable figure on his own account. A man who had left behind his noble status and wealthy family. After having studied the general and ecclesiastical law –at the age of only 23 he become a cardinal (years before he was ordained as a priest). He was very influential in supporting the Church during the tumultuous times of the Reformation in the 16th century. However, his main gifts were “pastoral”: looking after his flock; reaching out to the neglected, hurt and abused; bringing together the divided; offering reconciliation and unity to those in dispute. And when the great plague hit Milan in 1576, he gave away all of his own wealth to “feed the poor, to care for the sick, to bury the dead”. For this he was truly loved by his people. And – maybe because of this – he is known as a saint patron of church leaders and katekita (catechists).

Pa Prendeville concluded linking these two figures to the Gospel reading which was about Jesus, the Good Shepherd: “St Charles kept a caring pastoral eye on his flock while Pā Karora had built a shelter fit for his sheep”. And this “flock” of pirihi (priests) and katekita, men and women, kaumātua and kuia (older leaders), families and whānau, rangatahi (youth) and tamariki (children) – has continued to thrive over the many years being both the living kauri posts and the living totara beams that hold a shelter for others to gather under. It is also a remarkable assembly for extraordinary people who are held together by a common bond of faith, love and care for one another. This is the living centennial Church of Rawene.

After the Mass, all present were invited to the town hall to continue sharing told and untold stories and to enjoy the hospitality of the local community of faith. A small group of very dedicated parishioners, led by Pat Mendes, made this celebration not only possible, but also a very memorable event.

  • Wiga Autet is religious education coordinator for Te Tai Tokerau, Auckland diocese
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