French-born Father Fauvel was Parish Priest of Temuka, South Canterbury, in the 1880s. At that time the whole of Canterbury and the West Coast was part of the Wellington Catholic Diocese.
Fr Fauvel had an ardent devotion to St Joseph. Whenever he faced a challenging situation he would rally with the call: “Go to Joseph”. And so, when he felt Temuka needed a Catholic school, it was to St Joseph that he prayed for one.
He also hassled Archbishop Redwood, in Wellington, to approve his plan for a school. St Joseph agreed, the Archbishop consented, and the new school opened in 1883.
Naturally, Fr Fauvel chose to invite Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (popularly known as “Josephites” or “Brown Joes”) to be the teachers. The invitation was accepted and in late October three Josephite Sisters stepped off the train from Christchurch, following a week’s voyage across the Tasman Sea.
Most religious orders in New Zealand had originated in Europe. The Josephites were different. Theirs was a thoroughly Australian order, founded in Adelaide by Mother Mary (McKillop) of the Cross in 1867. The order’s Mother House moved to Sydney in 1880. The order spread across Australia, into New Zealand and around the world. Mother Mary was canonised in 2010.
Temuka was the Josephites’ first New Zealand site. They must have liked it there because more Josephites arrived soon after. They established convents and schools in other South Canterbury towns. Young communities of poor Irish Catholic immigrants were growing in this rural region, most notably at tiny Kerrytown. The second school was built there. More schools and convents followed, at Waimate, Morven, Pleasant Point and Fairlie. All were staffed by the Josephite Sisters.
Other Josephites went to Auckland and founded convents and schools in several North Island sites. The order’s Dominion Provincial was then based in Auckland.
An important issue was the need for increased vocations to the religious order, so more schools could be built and adequately staffed by Sisters. Juniorates (training institutions for young women) were operating in Australia. The order spread its influence to Ireland in 1927, setting up a juniorate in County Cork to boost numbers of Sisters to teach in Australia and New Zealand. Later, the order launched a complex in the Christchurch suburb of Shirley. This included a juniorate on the site where Marian College later stood, until the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010-2011.
The Sisters bought the Shirley site in 1948. The agreed price of 6750 pounds rose slightly when various fittings were included in the purchase. Christchurch’s Bishop Lyons was involved in the negotiations. In letters he wrote to the Mother Superior in Sydney he extolled the Shirley property as if he needed to convince her to agree to pay the price. He did not have to worry. Mother Superior’s telegram in response was immediate and positive.
The Bishop’s descriptions included: “a very beautiful and valuable property….a well-built, two-storied house set in delightful grounds….about 2.5 acres with well-kept lawns, trees and shrubs, well sheltered from the street….a pleasant stream flows through the property…. an artificial pond with goldfish in it….the land is flat and suitable for building extensions….two garages and a tennis court.” The house was sold by Dr Louisson, a prominent Christchurch medical and sporting figure.
Not far from Shirley the Sisters taught at the nearby Dallington Parish School. In addition, they launched and ran a diocesan correspondence course in Cathechism, for children in rural areas where no Catholic schools were accessible. Also, from the base at Shirley, the Sisters worked in orphanages, hospitals and homes for young women.
At Bishop Ashby’s request the Sisters took over Hoon Hay Parish School in 1969. They were to have taught at the mooted Wairakei Parish (in west Christchurch) as well, but the parish did not eventuate and the Sisters launched a “motor mission” at the new Bishopdale Church.
By 1966, 22 Josephite Sisters were teaching in Christchurch Catholic primary schools. This was about one tenth of the numbers working in the whole of Oceania.
Most of the Sisters at first worked in schools as teachers and principals. Others undertook other work, much of it associated with education. The Sisters developed their postal correspondence courses, led CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), delivered courses during school holidays, visited state schools for lessons during the government-approved weekly half-hour religious sesions, and ran “motor missions” to bring lessons to remote places.
Numbers of Sisters and priests declined from the 1970s. Small schools, such as Kerrytown, closed. Schools increasingly became staffed by lay-teachers. Some Sisters took up positions as parish assistants, helping priests and congregations in a range of ways. Meanwhile, other Josephite Sisters pursued mission works in foreign countries, providing aid in education, health, housing, and human rights.
Fr Fauvel might find it difficult to understand all these changes. Well, he only has to ask St Joseph for some explanation.
Michael Crean, author
Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives’ Photograph collection