Tokelau celebrates 150 years of Catholic life

Last month the Catholic Church in Tokelau celebrated 150 years of Catholic life.

The celebration took place on the island of Nukunonu.

It was attended by visitors from the other two islands that make up Tokelau, Atafu and Fakaofo, and from New Zealand, Australia and even further afield.

Those who travelled to Tokelau for the occasion include Archbishop Martin Krebs, the Apostolic Delegate to the Pacific, Cardinal Mafi from Tonga, Archbishop Mata’eliga from Apia, Bishop Dunn from Auckland, Bishop Brown from Pago Pago, and priests and sisters from Samoa.

Tokelau is one of the most isolated places on earth.

It is made up of three low lying coral atolls surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean.

It is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand is comprised of three coral atolls lying 500 kilometres north of Samoa.

There is no airport and the only way of getting there is on the fortnightly ship from Apia, Samoa, a journey of around 24 hours.

The Superior to the Mission is Monsignor Oliver Aro MSP, the only priest in Tokelau based on Nukunonu whose population is almost exclusively Catholic.

Oliver previously served as parish priest in Auckland based at Dargaville and Papatoetoe.

He is supported by two permanent deacons.

The beginnings of the Catholic church in Tokelau are unclear because early history is preserved only in oral traditions.

It seems Catholicism first came to Tokelau as the result of a devastating hurricane which destroyed homes and gardens on Fakaofo in the 1840s.

Most of the population set off in 8 canoes to seek refuge in Nukunonu, but were blown off course. Eventually two canoes reached Wallis where the refugees came into contact with French Marist priests and eventually became Catholic.

One of these early converts was a chief from Nukunonu, Justin Takua, who would later introduce the Catholic Faith to Tokelau.

In the early 1860s the bishop in Wallis heard of further hurricanes and resulting starvation and commissioned a ship to sail from Apia to Tokelau with 16,000 coconuts to provide food for them.

Justin Takua and other Catholic Tokelauans took the opportunity to return home and became the first missionaries to their own people.

Once home they heard the sad news that Peruvian slave traders had raided the islands in the 1850s and had seized 247 of the active men. These raids left Nukunonu with a population of only eighty, mostly women and children, according to early mission records.

Tokelau has been served by Marist priests from the Oceania Province, and by priests from Apia. Monsignor Patrick O’Connor from Wellington was Superior for the Tokelau Mission for 22 years until he was succeeded in 2011 by Monsignor Oliver Aro.

In 1949 the SMSM Sisters began the St John Bosco School on Nukunonu until 1970 and the Sisters of Our Lady of Nazareth continued this work until 1994.

Children now attend the Government School, which has a roll of around 100.


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News category: Asia Pacific.

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