Dean Nicolas Binsfeld SM was “an intrepid missionary” and “a pioneer priest”, according to a 1923 edition of Catholic newspaper The Tablet.
Pioneer priests in New Zealand had to be intrepid, such was the country’s untamed nature. In his early years on the mission fields, Fr Binsfeld faced frightening challenges that would have fazed men of lesser character. His later appointments, in Rangiora and Ashburton, would bring calmer experiences.
Born in Luxembourg on 5th July, 1834, Binsfeld studied at nearby Treves, in Germany. He was ordained a priest in 1859. He wanted to work in foreign mission fields, so joined the Society of Mary (Marists) in 1861. Further preparation followed at London and Dundalk (Ireland).
His first missionary posting was to Louisiana, in the United States. There he worked with the impoverished Black population at a time when pressure was mounting for the abolition of slavery. An epidemic of yellow fever broke out and he contracted the disease. He became seriously ill but recovered and was transferred to New Caledonia.
In 1869 Fr Binsfeld was posted to New Zealand, where he would remain until his death in 1923.
Soon after arriving in Wellington, Fr Binsfeld was appointed to the war zone of Taranaki. There he served as temporary replacement chaplain to soldiers of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. These men, many of them Catholic, were involved in fighting Maori warriors over the competing land rights of indigenous people and immigrant settlers. In his memoir, the priest writes with natural modesty. He says little of his experiences in Taranaki, with nothing about the fighting. However, he enlarges on the subject of the soldiers’ tendency to liquor, lock-ups and brawls.
His second challenge, in 1871, was in facing a band of Catholic miners on the West Coast gold diggings who had turned hostile to the Church. Dotted around in almost impenetrable bush country, the diggers were protesting the executions of three Catholic miners in England. They demanded the Church take action against the British Government, which the Church refused to do. One priest did criticise the hierarchy openly and he was stripped of his priestly rights. Miners placed this ex-priest on a pinnacle as they demonstrated against the Church.
Fr Binsfeld describes how he tramped through dense bush on horseback and on foot. He crossed raging rivers and climbed steep hills to reach the mining settlements. At some of these he was met by Catholics who threatened him and told him to leave. He stood up to the angry diggers and was able gradually to conciliate them.
In his memoir he says becoming closer to the Irish diggers made him realise how well educated and capable most of them were. He learned that most came from well-off families, as these were the only ones who could afford the cost of emigration to New Zealand.
His appointment to the West Coast was as a chaplain to the gold diggers. His memoir speaks lyrically of his travel hardships. He describes how he reached Greymouth in a small boat lowered from a steamer to cross the Grey River bar in turbulent waters. Greymouth then, he says, was primitive with no real streets. From there he took Mass and the Sacraments to his scattered congregations where there were no roads or bridges. His region extended from the Taramakau River to the Buller area, from the Southern Alps to the Tasman Sea.
Perhaps it is no wonder that, by 1871 Fr Binsfeld’s health had weakened again. Unable to continue his rigorous service, he was transferred to Nelson as assistant priest to the legendary Fr Garin. There he initiated the establishment of a Catholic orphanage.
Restored once more, he was appointed first Rector and resident priest in Rangiora, in 1873. Numbers of Catholics were increasing in North Canterbury and Dean Binsfeld responded to their need. The area between the Waimakariri and Conway rivers, the Southern Alps and Pacific Ocean, was not yet a separate parish but would become one in 1877. Fr Binsfeld laid the foundations. He established churches at Rangiora, Kaiapoi, Oxford and Hawarden, plus a presbytery at Rangiora. For his work in North Canterbury he was granted the title of Dean.
It was not all plain sailing, though. When the Ashley River, close to Rangiora, was in flood, Fr Binsfeld nearly died. The horse pulling his buggy through the river stumbled and drowned in the rapid current. His buggy was wrecked but he managed to reach the bank.
Canterbury-West Coast was split from the Wellington Diocese, in 1887. With the formation of the Christchurch Diocese, Dean Binsfeld was appointed Administrator of Ashburton. This encompassed the whole of Mid-Canterbury. In his memoir he mentions how the Ashburton congregation appeared to him as “a veritable republic where everyone wants to dictate and none to obey”. Sadly, he does not explain this feeling.
However, if the parishioners were troublesome, the Ashburton church was in worse condition. The timber building was the area’s second church but it had been weakened already by incessantly strong nor’westerly winds. Then came a shuddering earthquake that rendered the church unstable. Fr Binsfeld organised the buttressing of the building. This fix could be temporary only, which meant a new church would be required, with all the work and all the fund-raising that would entail. The very thought prompted Dean Binsfeld openly to lament that the Dunedin architect and the Dunedin builder of the church “had no experience of Canterbury nor’westers”.
In his 70’s the Dean’s health suffered again. He recuperated at Hanmer Springs, then returned to Wellington for a short time. Nominally retired, he refused to rest. He served briefly in several North Island parishes, also at Reefton, Timaru and Blenheim, and as Procurator of the Marist seminary at Greenmeadows, Napier. In 1916, at the age of 82, he ceased missionary work and settled at the Marist Seminary, Greenmeadows. Even there he continued to work – toiling in the vineyards owned and tended by the seminary.
The Marist community, and many others, celebrated Dean Binsfeld’s Diamond Jubilee (60 years as a priest) in 1919. At this time, and until he died, at Greenmeadows on 19th April, 1923, he was still saying daily Mass.
Some letters he wrote in his Rangiora days are held in the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives. Scrawled on scraps of paper, they reveal a caring priest eager to tackle the problems that arose. While English must have been at least his second language – even his third or fourth – his style, vocabulary and grammar are excellent. His directness and the absence of “fluff” must have been appreciated by the good rural folk.
His obituary in The Tablet remarked on his “frail bodily health during the earlier years” and that “he seemed to grow more robust in old age”. His memoir notes how his health, smitten first by yellow fever and then by the “indescribable fatigues and hardship” of the West Coast, greatly improved as he grew older.
His obituary concludes: “Dean Binsfeld was a man of high scholastic attainments and with great humility….. broadminded in his views….. a bright and kindly nature (with) deep sympathy with all in distress.”
Author: Mike Crean
Images: Marist Archives