Education: Holy Faith Sisters

Catholic schools struggled with growing numbers of pupils in the 1950s-60s “baby boom”.

They received almost no financial aid from the Government. They could not afford to pay teachers anywhere near the rates that teachers in State schools received. They relied on religious sisters, brothers and priests who would work for a pittance.

As school rolls boomed, New Zealand bishops were forced to seek more teaching sisters from overseas. Bishop Edward Joyce of the Christchurch Diocese asked the Irish order, Sisters of the Holy Faith, to help. As a result, six members of the order arrived in Christchurch in November, 1954.

More sisters were to follow. The Holy Faith order was hard-pressed financially but, thanks to Bishop Joyce and the Catholic parishes, the sisters did not need to worry about money. Instead, they could concentrate on their mission: to educate Catholic children at all levels and to imbue in many of them a call to become Sisters themselves, so the need for foreign teachers would eventually cease.

Sisters of the Holy Faith is a religious order founded by Margaret Aylward in 1867. Its Foundation was at Glasnevin Convent, in Dublin, Ireland. Through the 1950s and early 1960s the Mother-General was Sister Mary Monica. A sheaf of letters between her and Bishop Joyce are in the Archives of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch. They show her to be a humble, practical and considerate person.

Sr Monica to Bishop Joyce 24 August 1953
Formal invitation by Bishop Joyce 14 October 1954

Just as communication in the 1950s was by post, so transport from Ireland to New Zealand was by ship. The first sisters travelled by sea for several weeks. The last leg of their journey, from Auckland to Christchurch, was by air. An important part of the sisters’ mission was to teach music. They brought three pianos and other baggage, which required the chartering of a plane.

The total cost of bringing the first six sisters and their equipment to Christchurch was nearly £900 (NZ), which converts to about $1800 (NZ) – an amount that would have bought a small house at that time. Both Sister Monica and Bishop Joyce considered the costs deeply. The bishop assured the sister that all would be well. He stressed constantly that the people of the Innes Road (St Albans-Mairehau) parish, where they would be based, were generous and hospitable.

His assurances proved correct. The sisters were heartily welcomed and lovingly treated. A comfortable home had been built for them. Every item they could have wanted was supplied. So well did everything work out that Sister Monica wanted Christchurch to host the New Zealand Foundation of their order. She was “surprised” that Auckland was chosen for that role.

Another group of sisters voyaged to Christchurch in 1956. Shortly after their arrival, a letter from the Department of Health advised that two passengers on their ship had contacted the dreaded poliomyelitis, a disease that was epidemic then. The sisters who had been on that ship were barred from teaching for about three weeks.

Among this group were 12 postulants (trainees). As they progressed towards fully professed sisterhood, thoughts arose of establishing a novitiate in the Christchurch Diocese for local women considering a religious vocation. As down-to-earth Bishop Joyce put it: “A kind of glorified high school for young ladies wishing to try their vocations after primary school”. And so a Holy Faith novitiate was established in Christchurch.

Increasing numbers of sisters allowed Holy Faith to operate in other areas, notably Timaru and Pleasant Point in South Canterbury, and Halswell. The sisters were teaching in primary schools but realised the need to teach secondary as well. This would enable them to attract senior school girls to join the novitiate. They had already started training a few young women. At least one New Zealand novice was chosen to extend her training at Glasnevin, in Dublin. She was professed there and worked for many years in the Christchurch Diocese.

Clearly, New Zealand women were needed as sisters to bolster the order’s work in education and music. As Sister Monica, in Dublin, put it in a letter to Bishop Joyce: “We have been finding it very difficult to keep up the supply of sisters for New Zealand”. She noted that accommodation on the ships so far had been “unsuitable”, implying she was not keen to send any more sisters.

The Holy Faith order agreed to pursue the idea of running a secondary school. In the early 1960s they researched the possibility of taking over the inner-Christchurch secondary girls’ school, St Mary’s. However, the Mercy Sisters, who ran St Mary’s, continued there until the school closed a decade later.

Discussions on establishing a larger Holy Faith Novitiate caught the attention of Hawarden’s Parish Priest, Fr Colin Curnow. He suggested one be built in the small North Canterbury village. He pointed to a 9-hectare site that the parish had bought, close to the church and the presbytery.

Bishop Joyce’s response was favourable. More talks were held and the idea of a national novitiate sited in the idyllic rural spot seemed positive. The Holy Faith order in Christchurch and Ireland agreed. However, the land had been bought by Hawarden parishioners and was farmed by volunteers to provide a regular income for the parish. Conditions in the purchase would have made it difficult to release any of the land for other purposes.

In addition, some of the neighboring parishes were unwilling to provide funds for a novitiate at Hawarden. They feared ongoing costs would be too high. The sisters, the bishop and other parishes were still keen. At last an alternative plan was proposed and adopted. This was the building of a convent beside the church in Hawarden, on land which a Catholic farmer had offered as a donation.  Three or four Holy Faith sisters would reside there. They would adopt a new scheme that had been successful in Australia.

This scheme became known as the Motor Mission. The sisters would travel to State schools around much of North Canterbury, teaching religion lessons there. Primary schools in those days could “close” for an hour a week for ministers of Christian denominations to teach. Catholic priests took a full part in this, except that they taught only Catholic children.

Bishop Joyce sent details of the proposal to Sr Monica in Dublin. In his letter he claims this “new venture is causing great interest all over New Zealand”.

#2233 Holy Faith Sisters' convent on Innes Rd
#2389 Holy Faith Sisters visiting the newly finished presbytery at Twizel 1991

Christchurch’s successor to Bishop Joyce, Bishop Brian Ashby, was a prominent figure in a new age of ecumenism. With his backing, agreements were reached for the sisters to teach Christian religion, not only to Catholic children but to those of all denominations, in some of the State schools. The travelling sisters made a positive impression on pupils and parents in general. Bishop Ashby labelled the system the “ecumenical apostolate”. It was better known as the North Canterbury Motor Mission.

The importance that Sisters of the Holy Faith had always put on music also impressed. The itinerant sisters of Hawarden were gifted musicians and taught individual children and adults professionally. The payments they received helped meet the costs of living and driving.

State funding for private (including Catholic) schools was hugely increased in 1975. All Catholic schools then began the process of integrating with the State education system. This meant Catholic schools could afford to pay more lay-teachers as numbers of religious staff declined. By the end of the 20th-Century very few religious teachers remained. The Motor Mission had closed. No Sisters of the Holy Faith are now working in Christchurch Diocesan schools.





Mike Crean, author

Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – 2022.98.1 Holy Faith Sisters correspondence with Bishops; and Diocesan Photograph Collection 


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