When Auckland Catholic diocese’s library closed last year, the slow process of rehoming the books started. By chance, a colleague came across a slim volume titled, “Pioneer Catholic Women of New Zealand” (1992 – correct year. An initial version of the editorial stated 1922 as the year) by Noeline De Courcy. It was compiled for the Catholic Women’s League of New Zealand.
The colleague showed me the book, and one of the first chapters was about a woman named Mary Brown. The text was written by a P. Dunstan from Gisborne. It is stated that Mary and her husband James disembarked from the Blenheim in Wellington on December 29, 1840. They had come from Greenock in Scotland, and had four children in tow.
The text stated that the family settled on the banks of the Hutt River. One of Mary Brown’s sons, James, was quoted concerning the practice of the faith in those days and in that place:-
“When the late Fr O’Reilly came to Wellington in January, 1843, he was told that there were some Catholic families living on the banks of the Hutt River. He came and visited these three families. In those days, we all lived in small raupo whares, and not one of those whares was large enough to accommodate the eight children (four of the Doreen family and four of the Browns) in order to perform the ceremony of baptism. Fr O’Reilly took us down to the bank of the river and there baptised us.
“My mother [Mary Brown, nee Flynn, who originally hailed from Wicklow in Ireland] travelled to Wellington once a month on Saturday to go to Mass, confession and communion, coming home on the Sunday evening or Monday morning. In 1847, when we moved to Upper Hutt, my mother continued to do the same, travelling over a very rough track . . . .
“In 1850, when the Marist Fathers came from Auckland to Wellington, the late Fr Forest was appointed by the bishop to take charge of the Hutt Parish. The few Catholics who were settled at Upper Hutt came down with a trap every Sunday to Lower Hutt – 12 miles – to hear Mass. Every Christmas Eve, all the Catholics of Upper Hutt came down to hear Midnight Mass. One family travelled, there and back, eight miles by foot and 24 miles in the trap.
“It was never a question with the old settlers how far it was to go to church; we had to find out when Mass was to be said, and we went there.
“In the matter of sick calls, it was quite common for people to travel 50 or 60 miles to bring the priest to prepare the sick for death . . . That showed the faith the young people had in the olden days. We see lots of young, strong people now who think it is too far to go to church if it is half a mile away. I have known people to go from Upper Hutt and the Wairarapa, travel all day and all night to Wellington to get a priest for a sick call, and the old Marist Fathers would start off at once and travel all night, sometimes to the far end of the Wairarapa. . . .”
James Brown’s sister Elizabeth would marry Alexander Gordon Martin, and they were to have 12 children. Alexander and Elizabeth’s daughter Emma was a great grandmother of Michael Otto, the editor of NZ Catholic newspaper.
The challenges faced by Catholics in Wellington in the mid-19th century were significant. It is interesting to observe that, more than a century ago, people were worrying about the faith commitment and practice of young people. It seems to be a recurring issue in the Church.
Many of the challenges in the Church today are different from those of our ancestors in the faith, but they are formidable nonetheless. With Archbishop Paul Martin, SM, now installed as Archbishop of Wellington, NZ Catholic wishes him well in his ministry.
(Photo: Elizabeth Martin (nee Brown) who arrived in Wellington from Scotland as a child in 1840. She is the great, great grandmother of Michael Otto, editor of NZ Catholic)