Jean-Baptiste Rolland was born probably in Sivry, Verdun, France, on 8 December 1834. His parents' names are not known. After his ordination as a Catholic priest in 1861, he joined the Society of Mary (the Marists).
Arriving in New Zealand in 1864, Rolland was appointed to Napier to learn Maori and English under Father Jean Forest. He also acted as chaplain to the Irish Catholic soldiers of the 14th (Buckinghamshire) Regiment of Foot who were stationed there, some with their families. He became competent in English, but had too little contact with Maori people to progress in their language.
In April 1865 Rolland was made rector of the New Plymouth mission. In visiting the widely scattered families throughout Taranaki he became chaplain (at least unofficially) to the soldiers keeping the uneasy peace in the area after Major General Trevor Chute's 1866 campaign around Mt Taranaki. Major Gustavus von Tempsky, in his report of 21 August 1868, singled out Rolland for his exceptional courage under fire. Rolland tended the wounded on the battle line at the savage skirmish preceding the abortive attempt on 7 September to subdue Te Ngutu-o-te-manu pa, where Titokowaru was making a stand against imperial and colonial troops. Rolland was also present when Tempsky was killed at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu.
In 1869 Rolland bought a farm at Koru, 10 miles south of New Plymouth, where he established the first Catholic school for boys in Taranaki, and a monastery-style home for widower and bachelor soldiers. Between 1869 and 1873 Rolland travelled the West Coast goldfields canvassing for funds for these two projects, but the death of Bishop P. J. Viard in 1872 and Rolland's transfer to Westland in 1874 put a finish to them both.
Rolland was transferred to Ahaura in the Upper Grey River valley to take charge of a day school for boys and girls and girl boarders. The school, which in 1873 had a combined roll of 43, became known locally as Rolland's Academy. Rolland added a boarding section for boys and extended the syllabus for boys beyond primary to matriculation level. In 1883 he began to enlarge the school with a view to developing the girls' section to the same academic level as the boys', but the school did not open for 1884. It would appear that Francis Redwood, the bishop of Wellington, decided Ahaura was too remote to be considered financially viable for a boarding school. He thought it better to cut losses and concentrate resources on St Patrick's College, Wellington, which he opened in 1885.
In January 1884 Rolland transferred to Reefton, where he endeared himself to the people of the district for 19 years as their indefatigable parish priest. He died there on 13 July 1903. During his life several friends had tried without success to gain official recognition for his military chaplaincy work in Hawke's Bay and Taranaki. His funeral, at Reefton, with full military honours, was a belated recognition of this service to his adopted country.