Young French boy Marcellin Champagnat was regarded as an independent type with a strong sense of justice, but definitely not academic. He walked out of school and refused to go back. His aunt then taught him at home. A visiting priest detected Marcellin’s strong faith and influenced him towards becoming a priest. People who knew him scoffed silently. They doubted he would be capable of the study necessary for ordination. They were wrong. Marcellin toiled hard at the seminary and became a priest in 1816. He was 27 years old.
Dedicated to Our Lady, he joined a group of 12 friends with similar devotion. They wanted to found a religious order honouring The Blessed Mary. This group, headed by Fr Jean-Claude Colin and Fr Champagnat formed the Society of Mary in 1817. They became known as Marists. Fr Colin led the Marist Priests. Fr Champagnat, noted as a practical man, led the Marist Brothers in teaching and helping young people in trouble of any sorts. The Brothers lived in a converted old barn. As their numbers increased, Fr Champagnat built a large house, called the Hermitage.
The Catholic Church in 1835 sought missionaries to work in Oceania. The Society of Mary took up the challenge, with Fr Champagnat the first to volunteer. The Marists established missions at Wallis, Futuna, New Zealand and Samoa, from 1836 to 1845.
Fr Champagnat’s health suffered, and he died in 1840, aged 51 years. The Marist Brothers community by then numbered nearly 300. It is said all held their leader in “great affection”. He was canonized a saint in 1990.
The Marist Brothers reached in New Zealand in 1838. Their foremost mission was education. They worked mainly in the North Island. Then, having opened a school in Wellington, they answered the call for teachers on the West Coast. The Sisters of Mercy had established a school in Hokitika in 1878. The Marist Brothers arrived there 10 years later.
In the Parish Priest of Greymouth, Dean Carew, must have watched these moves closely. He was granted the honorary title of Dean and given the added task of overseeing all West Coast parishes as a deputy for the Bishop of the Christchurch Diocese.
Irish priest Fr Emmanuel Royer and a Catholic layman had started a small school in Greymouth much earlier, in 1866. It was the town’s first school. Taking boys and girls of all denominations, and with lay teachers, the school received strong community support. Pupil numbers quickly reached 75. Floodwater also reached the school which had to be moved to a higher site.
Bishop Grimes became the first Bishop of Christchurch in 1887. Almost immediately Dean Carew began insistent lobbying of the bishop, imploring him to ask the Marist Brothers to establish a school in Greymouth. The bishop, himself a Marist, seemed not to feel any urgency. In letter after letter, Dean Carew kept the bishop informed of progress being made towards a Marist Brothers’ school and asking when he (the bishop) would give permission. The letters were not answered. Dean Carew frustratedly groaned: “It would seem as if the old gentleman got irritated with this part of the world and was trying his best to prevent us bringing out the Brothers”.
A breakthrough must have been achieved though. At last, in 1892, three Brothers were sent from the North Island to Greymouth where they established the Marist Brothers’ School. This was a school for boys. Three of the Sisters of Mercy in Hokitika had opened a girls’ school in Greymouth four years earlier.
The Brothers’ school roll grew, meaning more staff, more secondary courses, and more buildings were needed. Major construction work was done in the mid-1920s. The Brothers, in 1924, changed the name of the school to The Dean Carew Marist School, in honour of the long-standing priest who had died in 1918.
The numbers of Marist Brothers and Mercy Sisters declined from the early 1970s. The two religious orders had to employ more lay teachers. The schools were adjacent to each other, which made operational agreements easier. By 1976 the two schools had resolved to share teaching staff, while remaining separate institutions.
But this separation was not for long. Four years later the decision was made to accept the government’s offer of integration of private schools into the State School system. This brought the two schools fully together. Another construction project was needed to meet the grounds and buildings code of the integration agreement. The result was a new, co-educational school with a new name – John Paul II High School.
That school remains, both in place and in high regard. But the numbers of Brothers have diminished. The last Marist Brothers left Greymouth in 2004.
The Society of Mary was highly influential in the Christchurch Diocese. Marist Brothers operated schools, not only in Greymouth and Hokitika. In Christchurch they taught at St Joseph’s, once a primary school tucked in behind the former Catholic Cathedral, and at Xavier College, a secondary school which opened nearby in 1946. Marist Fathers ran St Bede’s College in Christchurch and St Patrick’s High School in Timaru.
The word Marist refers to rugby and league clubs for sports-minded people. Certainly, Marist teams have made a mark in Canterbury and West Coast circles. Marist Brothers and Marist Fathers have contributed greatly to the prowess of Marist teams.
A prominent Marist priest of the late 20th Century with strong affiliations to the West Coast, Fr Jim Beban SM, applauded the Brothers’ work in Greymouth.
“The Brothers blended into the Coast scene,” he said, adding they had inherited their wholesome and practical approach to teaching from Fr Champagnat, “one of the most manly of all religious founders….he could turn his hand to anything.”
Michael Crean, author
Photographs from the Marist Brothers website. For more information on the Marist Brothers in New Zealand, visit their website https://www.maristbrothers.org.nz/