Pā Wiremu Te Awhitu SM: why is he important in NZ Church history?

Perhaps Fr Te Awhitu’s main place in the history of the Catholic Church in Aotearoa / New Zealand is that he is the first Māori to become a Catholic priest. He was ordained in 1944 when 30 years old by Archbishop O’Shea.

Wiremu Hakopa Toa Te Awhitu began his life near Taumarunui on 28th July 1914. He was born into a family who became Catholic, Katarina (nee Bell, called Toia) and Tamakaitoa (called Toa) Te Awhitu of Ngāti Haua.

He was one of twelve children!

Wiremu has been described as a true son of the King Country.

An accomplished footballer and athlete and a great singer, he also practised Māori crafts and was a skilled carver.

An English immigrant, Robin Watson, who was a teacher at the local Okahukura Maori school, won the respect of the locals who named him Te Miro Watihana.

Wiremu was given to him in sacred trust as a foster son and Robin took him with him to St Peter’s Māori Rural Training School in Auckland.

Wiremu felt called to the spiritual through the influence of Mill Hill Religious who had been close to his parents and family. They found a place for him at St Patrick’s College Silverstream (1932-1935) and if was from there Wiremu went to train as a Marist Religious and Priest within the Society of Mary.

Various appointments followed his ordination, beginning in Ōtaki (1945) then Hawkes Bay (1947-1958), where he was based at Pakipaki near Hastings. His ministry covered the large area from Wairoa to Dannevirke.

In 1958 he suffered a major stroke leaving him unable to speak. Moving to Hato Paora College, Feilding, it took him eight years regain his speech and basic health.

After a short time in Taranaki (1966-1968) the next twenty-one years of his life was spent at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River.

There he was closely associated with the Sisters of Compassion.

His daily routine included reciting the Rosary, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass in the little Church of St Joseph.

All this combined that with the maintenance of the church and its surroundings.

In 1989, in what turned out to be his final move, he went to live with his sister in Otara, and then to his home marae at Okahukura (just north of Taumarunui) where he worked to set up a family marae.

Wiremu named it after Mary, Whānau Maria (‘Mary’s Family’) with the intention to provide a place to strengthen family ties and faith. Each year this is the focal point of an annual celebration of his life which takes place on the last Saturday of July.

Pā Wiremu Hakopa Toa Te Awhitu died on 29th July 1994, aged 80 and in his 50th year of Marist Priesthood.

Pā Wiremu Te Awhitu SM with Bishop Tākuira Mariu SM

Why is his life important?

His nephew, Wiremu Te Awhitu, captures his importance for us.

“Uncle bravely linked being fully Māori with being fully Christian”.

“In an age that continues to search to be true to being indigenous and to Faith, Pā Te Awhitu provides a model”, his nephew says.

His courage and determined patience enabled him to take up ministry again. He provides inspiration for those who suffer from some disability and gives hope to those who suffer a stroke or face some major setback in life.

What do people say about him?

The late Bishop Tākuira Mariu SM described Pā Wiremu as a “prayerful, hard-working person, devoted to Mary, committed to his people, gentle, big-hearted and welcoming. He had a spirituality springing from someone at peace with God, the world and himself”.

That conviction is echoed by the late James K Baxter. “Te Atua sends me a good instructor in Father Te Awhitu.His few words have the weight of wedges splitting timber. His soul speaks of God because it is at rest in God”, Baxter said of Pā Te Awhitu’s reflections,

Bishop Steve Lowe, Bishop of Hamilton Diocese, sees Fr Te Awhitu as a source of faith and inspiration for the country. “I like the picture showing Fr Te Awhitu smiling. He inspires us in that he could smile despite the cross he carried”.

Robin Watson, his foster father and tutor, speaks of Pā Te Awhitu’s love of Mary. “The Mother of God must have had something to do with this Vocation”.

Father David Gledhill SM, who was his Marist community and ministry leader at Whanganui, notes, “When I attended Eucharist with Pā, he showed an awareness of the very special presence of God in the Eucharist. He had an extraordinary insight into the Eucharist”.

What heritage does Fr Te Awhitu leave us?

Fr Te Awhitu brings us a challenge.

It took 100 years from the time of Bishop Pompallier’s first Mass in the Hokianga to ordain a Māori as a Catholic priest. We need his example and intercession to discern and support other vocations among Māori.

Pā Te Awhitu is a person of whom tangata whenua can be proud.

He is one of their own.

He can call us to select and support Catechists among Māori and to seek candidates for religious and priestly life.

These personal characteristics along with his position as the first Māori pries were echoed by Archbishop Liston at Fr Te Awhitu’s first Mass in 1944! “May many other Māori come to the altar of God…”

Bishop Lowe speaks of the legacy of “our own Pā Wiremu Te Awhitu.

A courageous priest and person of faith, a legacy deeply rooted in the soil of generations past, present and most surely to live on in generations to come”.

Not least for his down-to-earth holiness, some argue Pā Te Awhitu is an Aotearoa saint waiting to be fully recognised.

Or from Pā Te Awhitu himself: “All I can say is that my whole life shall remain an act of thanksgiving to God who in his infinite mercy has chosen me to be his priest.. for His glory and for the salvation of my own dear people, the Maori race”. (Pa Te Awhitu at his first Mass).

A proverb quoted by a kaumatua at the time of Pā Te Awhitu’s ordination captures the heritage of Fr Te Awhitu for us.

To seek the peace that comes from sensitive and sincere meeting across cultures.
Te ihu me te rae tukuna

Houhia te rongo
When persons meet (hongi)

Peace holds sway.


See also: The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Additional reading

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