Fr Jean Baptiste Chataigner SM

Pioneer priests of Canterbury had to be prodigious walkers. One who set the pace was Fr Chataigner SM. When all the South Island except Nelson-Marlborough was regarded as one mission territory, the French Marist priest made the 490km trek from Port Chalmers to Christchurch on foot.

All alone and new to the area, bearing just a small sack of provisions and an umbrella, Fr Chataigner scaled snow-capped ranges, got lost in drenching bush, and waded swift-running rivers in 1861. This was to carry out his pastoral duties to a small and scattered flock of Catholics who might not have seen a priest for years.

On this expedition, Fr Chataigner went by ship from Lyttelton to Port Chalmers, then walked to Moeraki to give the last rites to a dying woman. She was already dead when he reached her but he stayed a week to minister the sacraments to local Catholics. Then he set off again on foot, pausing only at Oamaru and Timaru, which he described in a letter to his brother in France as “two specimens of a village”. At the mighty Waitaki, Rangitata and Rakaia rivers he waited for ferries. Other rivers he had to cross alone, almost drowning in the Ashburton until a man on horseback dragged him to safety.

His later colleague and friend, Fr Jean Claude Chervier SM, made such walks too, though not as long as this one, before tracks were formed and horse travel became possible. The two priests shared such a dedication to their mission east of the Southern Alps that Christchurch Bishop John Grimes, who arrived in New Zealand 25 years later, would label them “the Apostles of Canterbury”.

Jean Baptiste Chataigner was born at Semur-en-Brisonnais, in Alsace Lorraine (eastern France), on the 4th of December, 1821. Little is known of his early life. Against his father’s will he trained for the priesthood and was professed as a Marist (in the Society of Mary) in 1847. His father had refused to give him money to travel to the seminary but he went anyway, walking the whole way and knocking on doors for food.

Fr Chataigner was ordained a priest in 1848. He felt drawn to missionary work in the Pacific so was annoyed to be appointed instead as spiritual director of the Marist college in Langogne. Next he was made Professor of Canon Law and Sacred Scripture at the Minor Seminary in Digne. Then he was sent back to Langogne as Superior. Finally he was made Head of College at Arles. As a Marist priest he had taken a vow of obedience but this was one step too many and he pleaded to be released for missionary work. At last he was successful. Assigned to New Zealand he arrived in Wellington in April, 1860. Remarks to his brother suggest the landscape and people of New Zealand were not exactly what he had expected when opting for the Pacific missions.

#D763 Fr Jean Baptiste Chataigner SM

Bishop Viard of Wellington immediately appointed Fr Chataigner and Fr Antoine Seon SM, also a French Marist, to establish and run a mission base in Christchurch. Fr Seon was 18 years older than Fr Chataigner and had toiled in primitive New Zealand since the 1840s. Perhaps because of his age and for the suggestion that he was not easy to get along with, Fr Seon was recalled to Wellington in 1861. In his short time in Canterbury, it was said Fr Seon had left most of the work to his young colleague. Certainly it was Fr Chataigner who said the first Masses, in a Lyttelton home and in Christchurch’s Royal Hotel. The latter attracted 60 souls, a good congregation for a hotel room in a colonial market town where most settlers were Anglicans. (The very first Mass in Christchurch had been said by visiting priest Fr Petitjean SM in 1857.)

A sense of urgency spurred Fr Seon and Fr Chataigner to cooperate at first. The Canterbury Provincial Government had granted the Catholic Church a block of land on Barbadoes Street, on the condition the Church occupy it for religious purposes within 10 years. The expiry date was only 14 days off when the priests arrived. With some quick action a floor of stones was laid and a wooden structure erected above it just in the nick of time. Finishing touches to this crude church were added in the following months. Three years later it would be replaced by a grand new church that would become the Pro-Cathedral when the Christchurch Diocese was established in 1887.

Marist Archives 133, Redwood Collection
The first church on Barbadoes St, later formed the central portion of the Presbytery, seen here in 1885

This new church cemented Fr Chataigner’s reputation as a master of raising funds from Catholics and Protestants, of securing government subsidies, and of “getting things done on the building front.” This reputation would influence his appointments after leaving New Zealand 26 years later. So too would cheeky references to his long bushy white beard and balding dome, which drew chuckling comparisons with artistic images of Moses.

Meanwhile Fr Seon was replaced in Christchurch by Fr Chervier SM, another French Marist newly arrived in New Zealand. He and Fr Chataigner shared the workload fairly and amicably for eight years, when Fr Chataigner was transferred to Timaru. Before leaving Christchurch, Fr Chataigner had added churches at Lyttelton, Brackenridge (near Amberley) and Akaroa. While in Timaru he was responsible for the building of numerous churches around South Canterbury. Catholics there formed a much higher proportion of population than in Christchurch or North and Mid Canterbury.

Historian Mary Goulter refers to the “stream of French Marist priests” flowing into New Zealand from 1838. She says Fr Chataigner was “outstanding” among them. She adds that Fr Chataigner “must have known acute loneliness” ministering alone to minorities, living in an environment so different from urban France, and facing difficulty with the English language. Gauging his success, later historian B S Allom says: “Of all the French priests, Chataigner has attained a special place in Canterbury’s Catholic history”.

While “ecumenism” was a word not commonly heard in those days, Fr Chataigner established connections with people of all faiths and had a special rapport with Scottish Presbyterians. A Christchurch Anglican publication extolled the Catholic priest for toiling through great dangers for minimal reward except “friendship, kindness and grateful blessings”…..”beloved alike by Catholics and Protestants, Church of England and Presbyterians, gentle and simple”.

As a telling example of his character, Fr Chataigner had arranged for three Sisters of the Missions to teach in Christchurch. Through flawed communications, the sisters arrived a few weeks early. Soaking wet, starving and tired they knocked on the presbytery door. The priest opened the door and, barely noticing their plight, ushered them next door to the church where Fr Chervier was about to start Mass. The sisters prayed the full Mass and then Fr Chataigner announced to the congregation that these sisters had arrived and had nowhere to go and he didn’t know what to do with them. Immediately kind offers came from the faithful and the sisters were accommodated and swamped with provisions. But not before Fr Chataigner had offered them the presbytery, which they had respectfully declined.

With all his perilous trekking, building projects and sincere devotion to Jesus and Mary, he did not neglect the paper work. A visiting Marist auditor wrote of the Canterbury rural parish in 1864: “The worldly affairs of the mission are on a very good footing, which will not astonish you much, as you know how active and clever Fr Chataigner is”. Other reports suggest his superiors would have been aware of his reputed brusqueness and lack of diplomacy. Perhaps these characteristics were valued in frontier New Zealand. Whatever, Goulter suggests he probably “cultivated some diplomacy and won people over by his gentleness” once he realised their plight in the lack of religious contact.

Fr Chataigner loved his time in Timaru and being among the South Canterbury people. Equally he loathed a year he had to spend in Wellington to sort out the diocesan finances and administration. He expressed this feeling in strong terms. Strong enough at last to be allowed back to his “beloved Timaru” in 1878 for a further decade. There he established the Sacre-Coeur (Sacred Heart) convent in 1880. Then came a major change that would take him to positions in the USA, France and England. This was thought to have been ordered because of his advancing years and failing vigour.

At the age of 65 Chataigner returned to France for a break. Then, in his final working years, he became an ecclesiastical yo-yo, bouncing back and forth between France and the USA. First he was transferred to Louisiana to serve as chaplain to a convent. Back in Paris he was handed the demanding job of knocking the run-down Belley Scholasticate into shape. There he instilled some much-needed order and discipline, drawing from students such remarks as his “strong personality” and “rigorous discipline”. Next it was to Salt Lake City, Utah, before his final assignment.

Quite ironically, this appointment was as head of the Marist novitiate at Paignton in Devon, England, in 1888. Here he succeeded Fr John Grimes, lately departed to take up the position of Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand. Historian Mary Goulter says Fr Chataigner enjoyed regaling students spontaneously with tales of hazardous expeditions in New Zealand. She notes references to him as outspoken, blunt, impulsive and warm-hearted.

Physically, though, he had become frail. He retired to St Marcel and was then cared for at La Neyliere, near Lyon. There he died on the 16th of May, 1901, having declared he had always upheld his Marist vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – especially obedience he added with emphasis. He was 79.


Thank you to the author, Michael Crean

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


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