Wiremu Hākopa Toa Te Āwhitu, the first Māori to be ordained as a Catholic priest, was born at Ōkahukura, near Taumarunui, on 28 July 1914. He was the third of 10 children of Tamakaitoa (Toa) Te Āwhitu and his wife, Katarina Toia Bell; Katarina also had four other children from her first marriage. The family’s main tribal affiliations were Ngāti Hāuaroa and Ngāti Maniapoto. From his large immediate and extended families Wiremu learnt the importance of sharing everything and working closely with others.
Te Āwhitu’s maternal grandfather was Alexander Bell, the first non-Māori permitted to settle in Te Rohe Pōtae (the King Country). It was a region steeped in Māori history and folklore, and a land of abundant food. The Ōngarue and Wanganui rivers teemed with eels and other fish; the surrounding native bush provided delicacies now rare and protected, as well as wild pig and deer, pikopiko (fern fronds) and kōmata (pith of the cabbage tree). Life on the family farm helped to shape a man of physical strength, mental tenacity and sheer determination. It also taught him the importance of hard work and left him with a very gentle nature.
Wiremu Te Āwhitu’s early education was at Ōngarue and Ōkahukura schools. The man who most influenced him was R. A. Watson, known to Māori as Te Miro Wātihana. Watson was an English convert to Catholicism and headmaster at the Ōkahukura School. He also gave the local children their religious lessons, working with the Mill Hill priests. It was to Watson that Tamakaitoa entrusted Wiremu. Through the efforts of Watson and the Mill Hill priests, Wiremu was able to attend St Peter’s Māori College, Northcote, Auckland, in 1931–32. Watson, also now living in Auckland, taught him to master English. Te Āwhitu practised Māori crafts and became a skilled carver and artist.
Te Āwhitu’s desire to become a priest was supported by Watson and the Mill Hill fathers. He attended St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, to begin the usual academic course preparatory to entering the seminary. At St Patrick’s he was an accomplished footballer and athlete and won the award for best Māori student. Here he met Father J. J. Riordan, of the Marist Māori mission staff, who did much to assist him, then and later.
In 1936 Te Āwhitu entered Mount St Mary’s, Greenmeadows, to commence studies for the priesthood. He took temporary vows at Highden in February 1938, and in March 1941 received minor orders. During 1942 he worked with the Marist Māori missioners on the Wanganui River and in Taranaki. In 1943 he recommenced his studies at Greenmeadows. He was ordained a priest in St Patrick’s Church, Napier, on 17 December 1944 and celebrated his first mass the following day in the church of the Immaculate Conception at Pakipaki.
Te Āwhitu spent the years 1945–46 at Otaki, then spent 11 years at Meeanee and Pakipaki in Hawke’s Bay. He was a member of the Hawke’s Bay Māori mission, and his pastoral area extended from Wairoa to Dannevirke. In 1958 he suffered a severe stroke which left him unable to speak. He spent his convalescence at Hato Paora College, Feilding, and by 1966 was able to resume his ministry. He spent time at Waitara and Normanby in Taranaki. In 1968 he moved to Jerusalem on the Wanganui River, and was there when James K. Baxter established his commune. He was one of the poet’s religious instructors, and in 1972 headed the priests celebrating Baxter’s requiem mass.
Wiremu Te Āwhitu retired to Ōkahukura in 1989. He was devoted to the priesthood and all it entails: prayer, hard work, a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a commitment to his people. He had a gentle, quiet presence, a big heart, a welcoming smile and a spirituality that sprang from the soul of a man at peace with his God and the world. In retirement he provided the impetus to establish Whānau Maria marae at Ōkahukura.
Wiremu Te Āwhitu died at Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, on 29 July 1994. His tangihanga was held at Ngāpūwaiwaha marae, Taumarunui, and his requiem mass was celebrated in the church of the Immaculate Conception, Taumarunui. He was buried in the family cemetery at Ōkahukura, on the banks of the Ōngarue River.