First Mass in NZ waters was 250 years ago

9 Kaitaia priests


Eight priests (including five Dominicans), a representative number of local parishioners and many others who travelled from different places in Auckland diocese came together to fill St Joseph’s church in Kaitaia on January 19 to commemorate the first Mass celebrated in New Zealand waters by a French Dominican priest, Fr Paul-Antoine Leonard de Villefeix, OP, on Christmas Day, 1769.

Fr Anthony Walsh, OP, prior provincial of the Dominican Friars for Australia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, was the main celebrant, while Fr Alex Vickers, OP, delivered a homily in a true Dominican-preaching spirit.

He focused on the words of the responsorial psalm:

“Here I am Lord, I come to do your will”, and how we are all “worthy” to reply and witness to God’s power because we are all called by him — each in our own unique way and place. Just like St Dominic, more than 800 years ago, had heard God’s call and replied to it by gathering others — first Dominican sisters, then friars — to live the life of truth and light, so did Fr
Paul-Antoine, who accepted the call, joined the Dominican order and, as a chaplain on a French ship St Jean Baptiste, arrived in New Zealand waters 250 years ago.

And though there seem to be no entries in the ship logbook as to when and where he celebrated Masses, knowing that the ship was stationed in Doubtless Bay for two weeks and that one of these days was a Christmas Day, Fr Vickers said that “we can be morally sure” that a Catholic chaplain from a Catholic boat did say a Mass on Christmas Day in 1769. He also said that we know that Fr Paul-Antoine “went ashore, tended to the sick and buried the dead”.

And the fact that all this happened 44 years prior to what is considered the first Christian service here (Rev. Samuel Marsden in 1814), Fr Vickers summed up with: “We Dominicans like to get there first”.

In the prayers of the faithful which followed, Dominican sisters, Sr Bernie Cheyne, OP, and Sr Joan Hardiman, OP, prayed for love, unity and wisdom to work together: Catholics with Protestants, Franciscans with Dominicans and authorities with protesters.

Beautiful hymns and waiata were sung at the Mass and Hami mo te Tupapaku (De Profundis) was sung after Communion to pray for Fr Paul Antoine and all those gone before us.

After the Mass, a light luncheon was provided to allow for more conversations and fellowship.

• But there is more to the story of a French chaplain bringing the gift of a holy Mass — a sacrament of love and unity — to New Zealand 250 years ago on board the St Jean Baptiste.

The French left behind them sadness and hurt. The captain, Jean Francois Marie de Surville, instead of showing gratitude for the hospitality, fresh food and assistance offered to him and his crew — exhausted after a long passage from the Philippines — by the local chief Ranganui and his people, had accused him (Ranganui) of a theft of a ship’s yawl (a two-masted sailing vessel)that got stranded on the beach after a big storm on December 27, 1769.

In reprisal for the alleged, but unproven, theft, Ranganui was taken aboard de Surville’s ship, which set sail for Peru on December 31. Both de Surville and Ranganui were dead within 12 weeks. The captain drowned in heavy seas off the Peru coast in April, 1770, while seeking help for his dying crew.

According to the ship’s log, Ranganui was well treated, eating regularly
at the captain’s table, but like many others, he became affected by scurvy and died at sea on March 24, 1770.

When approaching New Zealand in early December, 1769, de Surville narrowly missed Captain James Cook, on the Endeavour, and the ships almost crossed paths off the top of the North Island, and although de Surville named the bay Lauriston Bay, today it is known as Doubtless Bay, as named by Cook a few days previously.

Two of the St Jean Baptiste’s anchors, which had to be cut free in a storm, were recovered by Kelly Tarlton in 1974; one is on display in Te Papa, Wellington, one in Te Ahu in Kaitaia.

A monument with a plaque commemorating the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the explorer and trader de Surville on the St Jean Baptiste was erected near Patia Point, Whatuwhiwhi, in 1969 by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, with support from the French Embassy in New Zealand.

The inscription on the plaque read, “J – F– M De Surville anchored his ship Saint Jean Baptiste in Doubtless Bay 17 – 31 December 1769 to refresh his men. He visited a pa on this headland 30 December.”

The monument site is not an easy place to find, and my recent expedition to search for it was a true challenge. After a few attempts — I found it! Sadly, the plaque has been removed. Maybe, instead of seeing it as a “loss”, it could be viewed as an “opportunity” — to repair the wrongs, seek reconciliation and to place a new plaque, with a wording that would acknowledge the whole story.

Wiga Autet is faith formation coordinator, Te Tai Tokerau.

NZ Catholic contributor

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