Akaroa is the site of the first Mass and first Catholic Church in the South Island. It is the cradle of Catholicism in the South Island.
The founder of the Catholic Church in New Zealand was a young French bishop, Jean-Baptiste François Pompallier. Born in Lyons, France on 11 December 1801 he was ordained a priest in 1829 and in 1836 was appointed the first Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania which included New Zealand.
The Bishop sailed from France in December 1836 with a missionary group of four priests and three brothers of the Society of Mary. The first Mass was celebrated in New Zealand at Tōtara Point on 13 January 1838.
With the arrival of new Marist missionaries, +Pompallier was in a position to establish other missions in New Zealand including a mission in Akaroa.
In September 1840 Bishop Pompallier and Father Tripe arrived in Akaroa on the schooner “Sancta Maria’. +Pompallier sailed on to Port Chalmers and then returned to Banks Peninsula where he visited the Māori tribes in the area. When +Pompallier and Pezant returned to the North Island, Fathers Comte and Tripe remained at Akaroa. Fr Comte, who spoke Māori, was made Rector of the Akaroa station with the Māori people in his care. Father Tripe, was to care for the settlers.
Bishop Pompallier returned to Akaroa through 1841 seeing first-hand the difficulties of the priests based there. He himself was in severe financial difficulty and relied on the Governor Captain Lavaud to help look after the priests, who despite the settlement itself being impoverished was able to provide them with food.
Their first church, a wooden structure with clay walls, was built in 1841 but burned down and a subsequent church was built in 1843 and while more durable than the first, it was blown down by a storm in 1848.
The mission had not developed as hoped and early in 1842 Fr Comte returned to the North Island, leaving Fr Tripe, who due to age returned to France in 1843. It was many years before there was a resident priest in Akaroa, although Fr Comte did visit occasionally.
The Diocesan Archives is fortunate to hold a notebook maintained by Bishop Pompallier wherein he registered baptisms, marriages and funerals in the Akaroa area from 13 September 1840 to 24 April 1844. The first baptism was that of Isidore LIBAU who was baptised on 13 September 1840, daughter of Joseph Libau and Madeleine Chauvet.