Pa Mikaere Ryan, MHM, left England some 67 years ago to work on the other side of the world as a missionary.
Now living in retirement in Mt Eden in Auckland, he greets people in a room flanked by bookshelves, which are filled with volumes on all manner of subjects. In a sense, he is surrounded by the worlds he traversed – and most of those worlds, for him, were in the Maori Mission.
In one corner of the room is a little altar, where he still celebrates Mass most days.
“I stay seated most of the time. I do stand for Mass, but the legs are a little wonky,” the then 91-year-old told NZ Catholic, three days before his 92nd birthday.
He uses a walker to get around, and speaks regretfully of no longer being able to go to the gym or for his daily walks in the neighbourhood.
But, never one to give up, he has tried to walk around the large table in the room ten times each day. It is ten metres to go around the table once, and if he can do it ten times, then that is 100 metres. But he has not been able to do even this in recent weeks, he said.
But while he might struggle to meet his physical goals these days – he has people who help care for him – his mind is as sharp as ever.
“I have a good memory, but not a lot of it is written down,” he said. Some people who know him are trying to make notes about his many stories of people and places encountered through his long years of ministry.
The anecdotes tumble forth from him. A question leads to the beginnings of a reply in English, then a saying in Te Reo Maori by way of explanation, then back to English to say where and from whom he first heard the saying, and then how he knew that person’s mother and so on. His is a rich treasure house of memories.
Many of those memories would have likely been shared at a farewell Mass and ceremony on June 28 at Te Unga Waka in Epsom (Te Whanau Tapu) from which he recently resigned (as the oldest parish priest in the country). But his health was not up to it on the day, so he could not attend, conveying the message that he felt badly about it. He feared that he might fall on the steps going up to the altar.
People at Te Unga Waka on the day – many of whom had travelled from Whangarei and Dargaville – were understanding. One speaker remarked that it was a great achievement to even get to 92 years of age, let alone do anything. The Mass, celebrated by Pa Bernard Dennehy, was recorded so Pa Ryan could watch it at home. Also recorded was the singing of “Happy birthday” by all present. A piece of birthday cake was taken from the celebration to Pa Ryan’s home. He had not been able to celebrate Mass at Te Unga Waka since last year, due to ill health, which saw him hospitalised at one stage.
Two days before the Te Unga Waka Mass, NZ Catholic asked Pa Ryan if the then-upcoming farewell would be a poignant occasion for him.
“Not really,” he said, in a manner-of-fact way. “I was at the opening of Te Unga Waka, I took photos at the opening. I was actually at Hato Petera teaching then.”
This launched Pa Ryan into an anecdote about the late Dame Whina Cooper (“a good sort, she could shake them up”) and how Te Unga Waka came to be named – suggesting the drawing up of waka onto a beach to “settle” in the sand and how this was fitting for a “parish/marae”.
Again, he alternated between speaking in English and in Te Reo.
Given that he is the author of many books, with perhaps the most well-known being his “Dictionary of Modern Maori” (1995 and reprinted several times), NZ Catholic suggested to him that he could well be the most proficient Pakeha speaker of Te Reo in the country.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I can manage very well. I have got the vocabulary.”
“Of course, you are learning all the time. Sometimes I [hear] a word off the TV and I’ll say, I bet that is not in the dictionary.”
Asked about the language he uses for prayer, Pa Ryan said “I say the office in Maori. What language do you use to God?”
He continued: “Well, I try to pray, to be practical. I say Lord, we have got this terrible Covid thing here. Keep looking after us, teach us how to face up to this and take care of our people.”
He digresses: “Saying the prayers, you get lots of lovely expressions from the psalms, which the old people loved. A lot of them, they recognised [things] in the abstract words and expressions and thoughts, the old Maori cottoned on to that.”
For himself, he prays “to be able to go from A to B by my own steam. I haven’t driven the car for ages”.
Pa Ryan conveyed the sense that, while he didn’t mind talking about himself and his life, he is happier talking about others and their lives. He spoke warmly of his Mill Hill confreres, past and present – names like Aherne, Wanders and Timmerman.
He shared an anecdote about playing golf with Pa Timmerman once in Rotorua.
“We were about the same quality. The winner was the guy who found the most lost balls – looking for our shots in the rough. It was just a laugh.”
Asked about the future of the Maori Mission, without the steady supply of religious such as himself as in the yesteryear, he said: “I am just hoping they will pick it up and go with it a bit more.”
Another visitor arrives and it is time for the interview to end. But not before Pa Ryan proudly points to dozens of Plaster of Paris figurines and statuettes that he has made, which are displayed on ledges around the room. They range from Christmas crib figures to Maori chess pieces.
It would not be a surprise if Pa Ryan could tell a story about each one.