Fr Chervier SM – “Apostle of Canterbury”

Few Canterbury people today know where New Headford is. Or rather, where it was.

Yet it was once the base for a widespread Catholic parish and mission centre. New Headford was established near the intersection of Shands Track and Boundary Road, south-west of Christchurch.  At its busiest it comprised a church, a presbytery, a school and a mission and retreat centre. All are long gone.

D1373 Church of the Blessed Sacrament at Shand’s Track, New Headford opened in 1871

Irish immigrant farmer Patrick Henley named his Shands Track property after his family home in Galway. In Henley’s home Fr Jean Claude Chervier SM began to say regular Masses for Catholic families in the surrounding area, in the 1860s. As the congregation grew, a church was built in 1871 and Fr Chervier moved there from Lincoln. A larger church was erected in 1880 and the earlier one became a school for 70 pupils. Such was the missionary zeal of Fr Chervier.

A prodigious traveller, Fr Chervier several times traversed the whole area of his responsibility. His mission was bounded by the Hurunui River in the north, Rangitata River in the south, Alpine peaks in the west and Pacific shore in the east, excluding Christchurch city. He brought the Mass, the sacraments and his wise counsel to widely scattered Catholics, mostly Irish settlers. In early days he walked, bearing a heavy pack, crossing unbridged rivers, scaling steep hillsides, threading his way through bush and scrub, getting lost and retracing his steps, in all weathers. He survived many near tragedies.

With no roads, sparsely-spaced poles indicated the existence of tracks through the vast plains. The people he met in this frontier land were hospitable, whether Catholic or not. Often Fr Chervier sought directions from them and many a time was offered free accommodation.

D764 Fr Jean Claude Chervier SM

Communication was difficult. Born and raised in France, Fr Chervier had limited fluency in English and struggled to understand the broad brogue of Irish speakers. In a letter to a family friend in 1862 he described a nightmare trek to tend a dying Maori man at Port Levy. Arriving there he found the man already dead. Exhausted, he stayed a while with the man’s family but could not converse as the family spoke only Maori. Fr Chervier said in his letter how he would love to learn the Maori language.

Encouraged by Wellington’s Bishop Viard (Canterbury then was part of the Wellington Diocese), he did learn Maori. He became sufficiently fluent for people to say he could communicate better in Maori than in English.

Most of the pioneers had trouble pronouncing the priest’s name. So he was nicknamed, and became generally known as, Chivers. The common use of this indicates the warm respect they held for him. Later, as his mission was flourishing and other priests arrived to work under him, he was given the title of Dean.

The Christchurch Diocese was established in 1887 and the first Bishop, John Joseph Grimes, took office in 1888. After Fr Chervier’s death, in 1901, the bishop labelled him “the devoted apostle of Canterbury”, along with his colleague, Fr Chataigner SM.

Jean Claude Chervier was born in Lyon on the 3rd of January, 1833. The son of pious Catholics, he was taught by Marist (Society of Mary) priests and was attracted to their missionary work in far-off places. Following his ordination in 1857 he completed academic and pastoral training at St Anne’s College, London. There he met and developed friendship with fellow student John Grimes. He could not have imagined that in a few years he would be working under Bishop Grimes in the infant Diocese of Christchurch.

D1343 Fr Chervier SM

Fr Chervier’s sea voyage to New Zealand took five months. He reached Christchurch on the 1st of April, 1861, and was appointed curate to Fr Chataigner, also a French Marist and Parish Priest of Christchurch. All of Christchurch was one parish then. The pair worked well together and were popular in the whole community. Fr Chataigner helped his curate in serving country districts and they took turns in trekking monthly to Timaru.

The transfer of Fr Chataigner to Timaru in 1869 left Fr Chervier briefly in charge of the Christchurch Parish. Then he took on responsibility for the rural districts of Mid, Central and North Canterbury as Parish Priest and moved to Lincoln. The following year he moved again, to New Headford, regarding it as an ideal mission base. Better roads then were allowing Fr Chervier to travel more by horse. He was known as a skilful horseman, both in riding and driving.

As rural population increased and travel became easier, more people moved into country towns, such as Ashburton, Rakaia, Southbridge, Leeston, Kaiapoi, Rangiora and Oxford. More priests became available and Fr Chervier became busier in building projects. In all he “built” 10 churches, several presbyteries, convents and schools.

The growth of towns and formation of new parishes caused New Headford’s decline. In 1880 Fr Chervier moved from there to Leeston, where he was appointed Parish Priest. He catered for Leeston’s growing congregation with new buildings, including a stately new church, a school, a convent and a presbytery into which he moved in 1891.

Fr Chervier suffered failing health in the 1890s.  Requiring full rest at last, he was sent to Blenheim to recuperate. He died there on the 27th of January, 1901, aged 68.

Acknowledgement of this energetic priest includes the Chervier Centre, beside Rangiora’s church, and a cairn at the site of the former New Headford mission base.

Situated near the corner of Shand’s Rd and Boundary Rd, this cairn marks the site of Fr Chervier’s first Country Mission Church

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Reader, please note – Some historic documents in the Diocesan Archives, from which I have drawn information for this profile, are contradictory. Some dates and spellings differ and the northern river boundary of Fr Chervier’s territory is variously listed as the Hurunui and the Conway. Michael Crean


Thank you to the author, Michael Crean

Images from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Unaccessioned Photographic collection


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