Many Catholic women in the Christchurch Diocese were taught by Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions. The first Sisters of this order to arrive in the city were a lesson in themselves – a lesson on the virtue of forbearance.
Three Sisters sailed from England in 1867 to establish a community in Christchurch. They were young (in their 20s), of French nationality and barely literate in English. They travelled lightly, carrying little more than the clothes they were wearing. As Bishop Ashby said a century later, “they were true missionaries”.
Arriving at Lyttelton in 1868, the “true missionaries” received a strange greeting. Their sailing ship had berthed weeks earlier than expected, so local Catholics were unprepared for them. Their only welcome was heavy rain.
The Sisters became thoroughly soaked as they stepped onto the wharf and walked to the Lyttelton railway station. There they boarded the train to take them through the recently opened railway tunnel to Christchurch. They might have dried out a little by the time they reached the city but they would soon be drenched again. Finding no one to meet them, they sloshed up Barbadoes Street with directions to the house of the local priest, Fr Chataignier. He too was French. He had invited the Mission Sisters to send some nuns to start a Catholic school. Now he had to tell them their convent building was not ready for them.
News that the Sisters had arrived sparked the people to find a temporary house for them, clean it and provide food and furniture. The gallant Sisters made no complaints; they remarked on the generosity of the Christchurch Catholics, most of whom were Irish.
These Sisters were the second group of their order to arrive in New Zealand. Three years earlier a group had come to Napier. In the years ahead more French Sisters would arrive from France, including four who established primary and secondary schools at Ashburton as early as 1884.
The order of these Sisters was the “Congregation des Religieuses de Notre Dame des Missions” (Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions). The order was founded in France in 1861, so was only six years old when it sent these Sisters to Christchurch. Here the order became commonly known as the Mission Sisters.
The foundress and leader was French woman Mother Euphrasie Barbier. Her aim was to educate girls and women in the Catholic faith and general school subjects. More than that, she would promote full missionary work in poor countries, especially with nursing and other health services.
Headquarters of the international congregation (the Mother House) was in France until political and economic pressures brought a shift to Hastings, England. Mother Euphrasie died in 1893. In the years since, efforts have continued to have her canonised as a saint. At least one New Zealand Sister took part in researching archival items to support the case.
The congregation spread to many countries. Each group, such as Christchurch, was based around a Mission House. At the time of the order’s centenary, New Zealand had 35 such Houses. Canada had 17 and Australia 12, while Houses in other countries’ were numbered in single figures.
The Congregation developed a constitution, as required by The Pope. It included a ranking system for governance of the order. Steps in the ranks rose from Sister Delegate to Superior Delegate, to Provincial Superior, to Former Superior General, to Secretary/Bursar, to Assistant General, and to Superior General.
Two Mission Sisters with strong Christchurch connections stand out as examples of the order’s objectives.
Mother Mary St Domitille is one. She was born in 1882 in Taranaki where her father had served with the Armed Constabulary in the later stages of the Land Wars. She moved south and studied history at Canterbury University, graduating MA with first class honours. She went on to gain her PhD in Literature – the first woman in New Zealand to do so.
Mother Mary St Domitille had run a kindergarten. On a visit to England, she had a meeting with Madame Montessori, a world-famous developer of education systems for children. She studied the Madame’s methods and established a Montessori School in Christchurch. As a teacher for many years, she was described as “inspirational”. She died in 1953.
The second example is renowned linguist Sister Beverley Grounds. Born in Christchurch in 1928, she was taught by Mission Sisters at the Addington Convent School and at the Mission Sisters’ secondary school, Sacred Heart College, which stood between the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and Ferry Road.
(Sacred Heart merged with the adjacent boys’ school, Xavier College, to form Catholic Cathedral College in 1987.)
As a secondary student Sister Beverley felt enlightened by the Mission Sisters and chose to join the congregation. After a year of study at the order’s Novitiate, under the name of Sister Mary Annetta, she took her vows and was fully professed in 1955.
Six years of teaching in various schools prompted her interest in Māori. She started learning Te Reo Māori and became Principal of St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ School in Napier. She undertook full-time study at Canterbury University and completed her BA degree, majoring in French and German. Her next position was as Head of Languages at Sacred Heart College. There she became Deputy Principal and Acting Principal.
In 1973-74 Sister Beverley visited France and Germany and “immersed herself” in their languages. Fluent in French, German, Māori and English, she then served in leadership positions in various Mission Sisters’ secondary schools around New Zealand. In 1988 she moved from teacher to pastoral worker as prison chaplain and industrial chaplain.
Her skills in languages brought a call to work at the Congregation’s archives in Rome. Her linguistic skills (having added Italian to her fluency list) led to various leadership positions.
Sister Beverley, described as “a true linguist”, translated archival documents regarding the life of Mother Euphrasie Barbier, to further the Mother’s case for canonisation. On return to New Zealand in 2007, she continued her work, living in the Mission Sisters’ Addington convent. Illness required a move to the Nazareth Community of Care. She died there in 2018, aged 90.
Many other school-leavers from Sacred Heart College became Mission Sisters. Soon the numbers of “Kiwi” Sisters meant French Sisters were no longer needed to staff convents and schools. However, numbers fell from the 1980s and lay-teachers dominated.
The first Mission Sisters opened a girls primary school near the then pro-cathedral, at the corner of Barbadoes Street and Ferry Road in 1868. The school roll grew rapidly, and new buildings were continually sought. At last, in 1921, a whole new school, St Joseph’s, was built behind the new cathedral. Boys were enrolled also by then. It was closed in 1971 for financial reasons.
Sacred Heart School was re-named Sacred Heart College in 1927 and became a secondary girls’ school with a boarding hostel. Most impressive of the buildings in this complex was the chapel. Its architectural grandeur was greatly admired by people of all faiths and none.
After Ashburton, the Sisters opened primary and/or secondary schools at: Addington, Woolston, Beckenham, Sumner, New Brighton, Dallington, Leeston, Rangiora, Kaiapoi, and Kaikoura. And yet, teaching was not the sole mission of the Sisters. Older Catholics of the Christchurch Diocese will, however, remember them as dedicated teachers.
Michael Crean, author