Teaching orders in New Zealand

New Zealand, 1850-1900

Catholic schools, faith and a basic education

The purpose of Catholic schooling in nineteenth century New Zealand was to provide an education for the whole of life and to enable the correct development of a child’s whole character of mind and heart. The Church stressed the importance of the educative roles of parents, but they believed that Catholic parents lacked the education and expertise necessary to fulfill these responsibilities. Church authorities saw the provision of clergy and teaching religious as part of the work of catching up with the Catholics who had travelled ahead of the Church in the vast population movements of the nineteenth century. The migrants’ religious needs had to be ministered to and the structure of the Church, its institutions and crucially its discipline, had to be built around them.

While the foundation of the Catholic Church in New Zealand had begun with the arrival of French missionaries to convert Maori (1838), by 1870 it had become primarily an Irish settler church. The teaching orders that came to New Zealand from 1850 to 1900 were generally Irish or French in origin. Teaching orders that came from France included the Society of Mary (1838), the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions (1861), the Marist Brothers of the Schools (1876), and the Religious of the Sacred Heart (1880). From the 1880s Irish clergy and the teaching orders that accompanied the Irish migrations to the furthest corners of the globe predominated. Irish teaching orders included the Sisters of Mercy (1850), the Sisters of St Dominic (1871), the Irish Christian Brothers (1876) and the Brigidines (1898). The Sisters of St Joseph, founded in Australia, came to New Zealand via Sydney (1880) and Adelaide (1883). Nineteenth century teaching orders came with a particular educational mission: to ensure the maintenance of faith among Catholics of Irish descent and to provide a basic schooling for the children of the poor, one designed to promote pious practices and to prepare them for their humble state in life.

The Sisters of Mercy 1850

The Sisters of Mercy were involved in the education of the poor, the visitation of the sick and the protection and training of young women. Catherine McAuley (1778-1841) began the congregation in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831 drawing on her links with the Presentation Sisters in the teaching of her schools. In creating a religious institute whose members left the convent to go out into the streets to serve the poor she challenged traditional expectations regarding the enclosure of women religious. In the ‘poor’ elementary schools, Mercy Sisters promoted character formation, cleanliness and politeness; they worked to ensure that girls would acquire skills such as cooking, sewing and knitting that would help them in their future roles as mothers. It was a system of training that Mother Cecilia Maher (1799-1878) brought with her to the first Mercy foundation in Auckland in 1850.

These paintings in the narthex of St Patrick’s Cathedral' Auckland' show Mother Cecilia Maher (1799-1878), leader of the first group of Catholic Sisters to come to Aotearoa in 1850 and Mother Mary MacKillop, (1842-1909) the founder of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

These paintings in the narthex of St Patrick’s Cathedral’ Auckland’ show Mother Cecilia Maher (1799-1878), leader of the first group of Catholic Sisters to come to Aotearoa in 1850 and Mother Mary MacKillop, (1842-1909) the founder of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

At the invitation of Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier, the first Catholic Bishop in New Zealand (1836-71), Mother Cecilia and seven other sisters left St Leo’s convent in Carlow, Ireland, arriving with him in Auckland on 9 April 1850. They were the first Catholic Sisters to arrive in New Zealand. The initial mission of the Sisters of Mercy was to Maori and many of the first Sisters learned to speak the language fluently. However the rapidly expanding numbers of European settlers and the outbreak of the New Zealand Wars (1845-72) drove most Maori away from the centres of European settlement and resulted in the sisters increased involvement in teaching, religious instruction, caring for orphans, the sick and prisoners in the European settlements. In the years between 1850 and 1900 they founded one secondary school for girls and ten parish primary schools and orphanages in the Auckland diocese: St Patrick’s 1850, Hobson St 1851, St Anne’s Ponsonby 1855, St Mary’s College Ponsonby (1861): St Joseph’s Otahuhu 1862 (originally a Fencibles settlement [see Glossary below]), St John’s Parnell 1862, St Mary’s Coromandel 1862, St Joseph’s Onehunga 1864 (also a Fencibles settlement), Star of the Sea 1865 (orphanage and school), St Thomas’ Thames 1874, St Joseph’s Industrial School for boys 1894 (orphanage and school) and St Leo’s Devonport 1896.

Sisters of Mercy and pupils (1870-89). Established in 1863 schoolhouse in Onehunga was initially housed in a double unit fencible cottage. By 1864 this new building was built in Church Street. It was in use until 1960. Photographer Burton Brothers - Courtesy of ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries’ 7-A15771

Sisters of Mercy and pupils (1870-89). Established in 1863 schoolhouse in Onehunga was initially housed in a double unit fencible cottage. By 1864 this new building was built in Church Street. It was in use until 1960. Photographer Burton Brothers – Courtesy of ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries’ 7-A15771

By the 1860s the Sisters of Mercy had begun to spread to southern dioceses. At the request of Bishop Philippe Viard, a French Marist and the first bishop of the Wellington diocese (1860-72), three Sisters, Bernard Dickson, Augustine Maxwell and Marie Deloncle travelled from Auckland to establish five parish primary schools and one secondary school for girls. In 1861 they took over Sacred Heart Thorndon (established in 1850) and set up St Mary’s College for girls and Sacred Heart parish school. Parish schools were established in Blenheim (St Joseph’s Girl’s School 1885 & St Mary’s Boys School 1891) Lower Hutt (St Peter & St Paul’s 1891) and Reefton (Sacred Heart School) in 1896.

In the years following the gold rush on the west coast of the South Island (1864-1867), the Sisters of Mercy established a strong presence in this part of the Christchurch diocese. A letter from Father Philippe Martin, Dean of Westland and a French Marist missionary (1830-1906), asking the Sisters of Mercy to establish a school and convent in his largely Irish community prompted Mother Cecilia Maher to travel to Ennis, Ireland, where she convinced ten Sisters of Mercy to set up a community in Hokitika. Led by Mothers Clare Molony and Mechtildes Boland they took over St Mary’s School 1878 and established St Columkilles 1879 (a parish primary & secondary school for girls). In Greymouth they took over the running of St Patrick’s School 1882, establishing St Ursula’s Greymouth 1882, St Mary’s Secondary and Boarding School Greymouth 1882, Brunner 1886, St Joseph’s School Kaniere 1887, St Patrick’s School Ross, 1889, St Patrick’s School Kumara 1889, Hokitika Boys School 1892 and Westport 1894.

Three Sisters of Mercy travelled by boat from Greymouth, West Coast to set up four parish schools in Christchurch city and environs. Led by Mother Aloysius McGrath, one of the original pioneers from Ennis, Ireland, the Sisters established St Joseph’s Lyttleton 1890, St Joseph’s Papanui 1894, St Mary’s Christchurch 1894, and St Mary’s Colombo St 1894. In the same years they founded two secondary schools for girls. St Mary’s College Colombo St was established in 1893 and St Mary’s High School, a small secondary school for girls was established in Lyttleton in 1894.

The first foundation of Sisters of Mercy in the Dunedin diocese was in Gore. After a visit from Bishop Patrick Moran, the first bishop of Dunedin (1870-1895), six sisters travelled from Carrick on Suir via London. Led by Mother Brigid Murtagh, the superior of the new foundation, they arrived in Gore on 10 March 1890. At the invitation of Moran’s successor Bishop Michael Verdon (1896-1918) seven sisters travelled from Singleton New South Wales Australia arriving in Dunedin on 17 January 1897. Led by Mother Kostka Kirby, by 1900 the Sisters of Mercy had established four parish primary schools and one girls’ secondary school: St Mary’s School Gore 1890, St Patrick’s School South Dunedin 1897 (founded by the Dominican Sisters in 1878), St Philomena’s College 1897, Mosgiel 1898, St Vincent’s Orphanage for girls , Dunedin, 1898, St Thomas ‘Winton 1898, and St Peter’s Wrey’s Bush, 1898. They also visited the sick of the parish and became known as ‘the walking sisters’ due to their practice of walking the streets in pairs dressed in their black habits. The Sisters of Mercy were by far the largest teaching order in New Zealand. By 1900, more than 272 Sisters of Mercy from foundations in Ireland, Australia and across New Zealand, had set up more than 40 parish schools, secondary schools and orphanages across the four dioceses of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions 1861

The Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions – also known as RNDM from the French name Religieuses de Notre Dame des Missions – were founded in Lyon France in 1861 by Adèle Euphrasie Barber (1829-1893). The mission of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions focused on the education of women and children.

When Euphrasie learnt that the French Marist Bishop Philippe Viard (1809-1872) of Wellington was looking for religious sisters to teach in his diocese, she and a young English novice companion left London and arrived in Lyon on 15 August 1861 where the Marist priests encouraged her to begin a religious formation program for French women who wanted to join the Marist mission in the Pacific. The new congregation was registered with the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda in Rome in 1862. Euphrasie made her perpetual vows on 3 June 1864. On 18 August 1864, just three days after their first profession, the first four RNDM sisters (Marie des Anges, Marie St Anne, Marie St Jean and Marie St Madeleine) left France via England, for their mission in New Zealand. Soon after their arrival in Napier the Sisters began teaching the European children of the rapidly growing settler population and Maori girls.

Barbier visited her foundations in New Zealand on numerous occasions beginning in 1872, at the start of a 3ó-year stay in the Pacific, during which she travelled incessantly, despite poor health and a tendency to seasickness. She visited Lyttelton in December 1872 and  Nelson and Napier in 1873. In October 1883 she was again in New Zealand, visiting Christchurch and New Plymouth (1883) and Ashburton and Hamilton (1884). In May 1885 she established a foundation in Pukekohe near Auckland. Narrowly surviving a coach accident between Napier and Wellington, she left New Zealand for the last time in May 1886. By this time there were 92 sisters in New Zealand, with nearly 1,500 children in their schools and orphanages. Barbier was a woman of strong personality, determined to maintain her independence to develop and direct her institute free of detailed supervision by local bishops. Zealous and ascetic, she was an effective recruiter to her order and inspired loyalty, but her relations with priests and bishops were frequently stormy. Bishop Francis Redwood, while admiring her dedication, objected to her authoritarian approach and inflexibility.

Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions outside St Mary's School Nelson, date unknown https://www.stjosephsnelson.school.nz/our-story/ Accessed 2 July 2018

Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions outside St Mary’s School Nelson, date unknown https://www.stjosephsnelson.school.nz/our-story/ Accessed 2 July 2018

In the years before 1900 the order rapidly established schools in the Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch dioceses. In the Wellington diocese it started a parish school in Napier for the rapidly growing settler population (1865), established a school for Maori girls, first known as Providence (1865) and later renamed St Joseph’s Maori Girls College when it was relocated to Greenmeadows after the 1931 Napier earthquake. In 1871 the Sisters founded St Mary’s Girls High School in Nelson. In the Christchurch diocese they began a girls’ boarding school (1868) in Ferry Rd, later known as Sacred Heart College, and parish primary schools in Ashburton (1884) and Addington (1896). In the Auckland diocese they established parish schools and high schools for girls in Hamilton (1884) and New Plymouth (1884). They founded parish schools in Pukekohe (1885) and in Opotoki (1890). By 1900 there were 130 sisters in New Zealand with more than fifteen hundred children in the order’s parish primary schools, congregation-owned secondary schools and orphanages.

The Sisters of St Dominic 1871

The Sisters of St Dominic, originally founded as a contemplative order by St Dominic de Guzmán (1206), left their motherhouse at Sion Hill convent, Dublin, for New Zealand in 1870. To preach and teach is implicit in the Dominican motto “Veritas” (truth). While preaching was generally the prerogative of male Dominicans, the Sisters engaged in the teaching apostolate. The nuns of the Third Order, whose rule of enclosure is less strict than Second Order Dominicans, are a pontifical order [see Glossary]. The educational mission of the New Zealand Dominican Sisters interwove eight hundred years of Dominican tradition with a strong Irish influence. Led by Mother Gabriel Gill and nine founder sisters they brought this cultural and scholastic tradition to their schools in Otago and Southland establishing St Joseph’s parish school and St Dominic’s primary school and secondary college at St Dominic’s Priory, Dunedin, in 1871. In 1882 they opened St Patrick’s parish school in South Dunedin and in 1895 Santa Sabina convent (later Sacred Heart parish school) in North East Valley Dunedin. In Oamaru they established St Joseph’s parish primary school (1882) and Rosary Convent private primary school (1882). This became St Mary’s High School (1899) and eventually Teschemakers (1912).

The Christian Brothers 1876

The Congregation of Christian Brothers (CFC) is a teaching congregation founded in Waterford, Ireland, in 1802 for the purpose of educating poor Catholic boys in the area. Its founder was Edmund Ignatius Rice, a wealthy local businessman. CFC stands for Congregatio Fratrum Christianorum (Congregation of Christian Brothers). The order is sometimes called the Christian Brothers of Ireland to distinguish them from the De La Salle brothers who originated in France and are also known as the Christian Brothers.

A group of Christian Brothers from Australia, led by Irishman Dominic Fursey Bodkin, the first principal, established a school in Rattray St, Dunedin, in 1876. Christian Brothers‘ (Standards 2 to 6) schools worked to provide a sound utilitarian vocational education that would fit boys for the civil service or even the professions. The low fees gave access to children of the working-class Irish, facilitating a much quicker upward mobility than might otherwise have been the case. The influence of their Irish educational inheritance was central to the Christian Brothers‘ approach to education and was evident in strict discipline, methodical teaching, extraordinarily hard work and devotion to examinations. The Christian Brothers applied those concepts vigorously in both Australia and New Zealand. Like the Marist Brothers, they utilised a monitorial system [see Glossary] to cope with the large number of pupils attending their primary schools. Nineteenth-century schools run by the Christian Brothers provided free education for poor children although the ‘pension’ school concept for aspiring middle-class boys was also utilised as a way of supporting the costs of supplying education to the poor. The first Christian Brothers‘ school in Dunedin was partly funded by fees of one shilling a week.

During the first ten years of the school, following the practice in secondary district high school departments, and in line with the 1877 Education Act, the curriculum was extended to include some secondary subjects including Latin, French, higher mathematics and bookkeeping. Selected boys began to enter for matriculation [see Glossary] although the move into secondary education was subject to some criticism that revolved around the appropriateness of providing secondary education for the ‘lower orders’.

The Marist Brothers 1876

Originally founded by Marcellin Champagnat in the Lyons-Belley area of France, the teaching order had, at Rome’s insistence, separated itself from the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers) in 1852, to run elementary schools for sons of the poor. FMS stands for Fratres Maristae a Scholis or Marist Brothers of the Schools. Like many other nineteenth-century congregations, the Marist Brothers utilized a monitorial system of classroom organisation developed by the De La Salle that enabled teaching Brothers to cope with the large number of pupils attending their primary schools. Children were taught how to read, how to pray and also how to behave – a religious education that focussed on the transmission of faith, culture and rudimentary instruction in a highly disciplined environment. The earliest Marist Brothers‘ schools in New Zealand, like their French counterparts, consisted of a single room, divided by movable partitions. The school in Barbadoes St Christchurch (founded in 1888) was 105 feet long by 30 feet wide, divided by two wooden partitions. Apart from the religious instruction which concentrated on rote learning of the catechism, the program followed the state primary school curriculum.

In 1838 Brother Michel Colombon was the first Marist Brother to arrive in New Zealand, accompanying Bishop Pompallier to the early Catholic missions in Hokianga and Kororareka (Russell) in the Bay of Islands. Almost forty years would pass before Archbishop Francis Redwood invited a group of Marist Brothers of the Schools to the Wellington diocese. In 1876, Brother John Dullea, the first Provincial, arranged for four Brothers to arrive in Wellington to begin their scholastic work. Their names were: Brothers Sigismund (Director), Edwin, (Sub-Director), Francis and Valerian. They opened St Mary’s school for boys in Thorndon Wellington city (1876). In the years before 1900, Marist brothers established a total of four schools in the Wellington diocese: St Patrick’s Marewa, Napier 1878; an industrial school at Stoke Nelson (1889-1900) which had been established in 1874 by Fr Antoine Marie Garin SM (1810-89); and St Mary’s Whanganui 1894. The Marist Brothers arrived in Auckland in 1885 and took over a boys’ school at Pitt St in 1876. The Brothers moved to Ponsonby and expanded into secondary classes. That school became Sacred Heart College and moved to Glen Innes in 1903. St Paul’s College has been located on the Ponsonby site since 1955. The Marist Brothers expanded to the South Island in the 1880s, establishing three secondary schools for boys in the Christchurch diocese: Marist Brothers Timaru 1881, Barbadoes St 1888, and Marist Brothers High School Greymouth 1892. In 1897 Marist Brothers established Marist Brothers High School, a secondary school for boys, in Invercargill, part of the Dunedin diocese.

The Sisters of St Joseph 1880 & 1883

Unique among the ‘new’ nineteenth-century religious orders, the Sisters of St Joseph (RSJ, Religious of St Joseph) were determined to focus their efforts on providing a utilitarian elementary education for the children of the working-class, leaving to other religious orders those higher branches of learning with which their founder Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) believed the poor should have no concern. Mary MacKillop, together with the Reverend Julian Tenison Woods, founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (the Josephites) in South Australia in 1866. She maintained that poor children required an education sufficient only to earn a living, to write legibly, to add up and subtract figures and to communicate. The Sisters of St Joseph believed that the catechism should be the backbone of the curriculum and that prayers, hymns and classroom-based devotions should permeate every aspect of the day. The elegances and accomplishments were inappropriate for the development of a truly working-class woman and their inclusion would make poor children dissatisfied with life and the ‘true duties’ of their state in life.

Mary MacKillop’s uncompromising stand in defence of her desire to retain the autonomy of the Josephite sisters culminated in her excommunication by Dr Lawrence Sheil, Bishop of Adelaide (1866-71), and the expulsion of forty-seven sisters from the institute. This conflict led to the creation of two congregations (The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (pontifical) and the Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth (diocesan) [see Glossary]. In the 1880s both congregations were invited by Bishop Francis Redwood, the second bishop of Wellington 1874-1935), to work in the Wellington diocese, a move that caused ongoing difficulties for the Josephite order in its New Zealand foundations.

Between 1883 and 1900, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart established eleven primary schools: Temuka (1883), Kerrytown (1884), Meeanee (1886), Rangiora (1887), Remuera Auckland (1889), Matata (1890), Waimate (1891), Palmerston North (1892), Arrowtown (1897), Port Chalmers (1898) and Paeroa (1900). During the same period the Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth established seven schools in Wanganui (1880, 1899), Hiruharama (on the Whanganui River, 1883), Hawera (1885), Hastings (1888), Otaki (1894) and Waipawa (1896). They included ‘mission’ schools to provide a basic education to Maori children and a small number of boarding and ‘select’ schools.

Religious of the Sacred Heart 1880

Founded in 1800 by Madeleine Sophie Barat (1779-1865) in the turmoil of post-revolutionary France the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ, Religieuses du Sacré-Coeur de Jesus) focused on providing schools for the poor as well as boarding schools for young women of means. In New Zealand the Sisters were commonly known as the Sacré-Coeur sisters. On a visit to France Bishop Pompallier asked Madeleine Sophie, then superior general of the order, to send teaching sisters to New Zealand. In 1880 Suzannah Boudreaux, a native of Louisiana and five sisters founded a parish primary and girls secondary school in Timaru. Schools were later established at Erskine Island Bay, Wellington (1905) and Baradene in Auckland (1908).

Society of Mary 1885

St Patrick’s College Wellington 1893. Names on photo identify 8 students who became priests. https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/29285/catholic-schools-st-patricks-college-wellington

St Patrick’s College Wellington 1893. Names on photo identify 8 students who became priests. https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/29285/catholic-schools-st-patricks-college-wellington

The Society of Mary was founded by Father Jean Claude Colin in Lyon, France, in 1836 and was commissioned by Pope Gregory XV to bring Catholicism to the western Pacific. Members of the Society of Mary, also known as Marist Fathers, accompanied Bishop Pompallier to New Zealand in 1838 and played a prominent role in the establishment of the Catholic Church in New Zealand. The Society of Mary comprises ordained priests and professed brothers – not to be confused with the Marist teaching brothers (FMS). The first Marist Fathers to become involved in education were Irish Marists who came from Dundalk, Ireland. They established eight secondary schools for boys in the Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington dioceses, the first one being St Patrick’s College, Wellington in 1885.

Other teaching orders

Other orders to establish schools in New Zealand included the Brigidines who were founded in 1808 in Carlow, Ireland. In 1899 six sisters came from Cooma and Coonamble, NSW, Australia, to Masterton in the Wairarapa to establish a parish school and a secondary school for girls. The Marist Sisters, founded by Jeanne-Marie Chavoin (Mother Saint Joseph) and Jean-Claude Colin in Cerdon France in 1824, established a secondary school for girls in Mount Albert, Auckland, in 1928. Anne-Marie Javouhey founded the Congregation of Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny in 1807 in Chalon, France. In 1940, at the invitation of Bishop James Liston, Mother Ursula McCormack, superior of the Congregation in the Pacific Islands came from Fiji to establish a community in Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty. The sisters were involved largely in education, opening a school in Tauranga in 1942. Nano Nagle founded the Presentation Sisters in Cork, Ireland, in 1777. In 1950 six sisters left Ireland for New Zealand establishing primary schools including St Michael’s Taita, Lower Hutt and St Peter Chanel Green Island near Dunedin.


Diocesan order: A religious order, or sacred congregation that comes directly under the authority of a diocesan bishop.

Fencibles: The Royal New Zealand Fencible corps was made up of retired soldiers from Britain and Ireland, often referred to as ‘Pensioners’, who enlisted as a military reserve to act as a ‘defence force’ for the protection of the early settlers in the fledgling town of Auckland, New Zealand. Fencible settlements were made in Onehunga, Otahuhu, Panmure and Howick. The Fencibles were provided with a cottage and an acre of land that after seven years service they would own http://www.nzfenciblesociety.org.nz

Matriculation: Students sat Matriculation (later University Entrance) in their third or fourth year of high school (Year 11 or 12 in New Zealand). In order to qualify for a Higher Leaving Certificate, which covered university fees, and to try for university scholarships, most stayed on for a fourth year.

Monitorial system: This system of teaching was practiced most extensively in the early 19th century. Older or better scholars taught the younger or weaker pupils. It proved to be a cheap way of making primary education more inclusive and enabled larger class sizes.

Pontifical order: A religious order, or sacred congregation that is responsible and accountable to the Pope. It is not under the direct authority of a diocesan bishop.