New Zealand Catholicism becomes Irish
The Catholic Church became the major vehicle for expressing Irish heritage in New Zealand.
Roman Catholicism in New Zealand was not an Irish import. The first approach had come from France under the leadership of Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier and the Society of Mary. But from the early 1860s, the vast majority of Catholics were people of Irish background.
With the appointment in 1869 of Bishop Patrick Moran in Dunedin, and of Bishop Thomas Croke in Auckland the following year, the New Zealand Catholic Church began to join the Catholic empire of Ireland’s Cardinal Paul Cullen. This had also occurred in Australia. For Moran, Catholicism and Irish identity were one and the same. There was a protracted effort in Christchurch and Wellington to move control from the Society of Mary to an Irish model of Catholicism with strong parishes and Irish secular priests. Although New Zealand Irish gradually lost their identification with other Irish institutions, they became stronger in their commitment to the Catholic Church.
Bishop Moran promoted the idea of the Irish church through the New Zealand Tablet, which he founded in 1873. He also led the fight for government support of parochial schools. The school was seen as a way of guaranteeing Catholic and Irish values into the next generation, and the principle of justice implied that people who paid taxes should have them spent on education of their own choosing.
The battle for state support of Catholic education became intense after the 1877 Education Act established secular state education. It was a long struggle, which did not achieve final success until 1975. But the process helped to define the Irish Catholic community. It led to the spread of parochial schools which taught an increasingly significant proportion of Catholic children. By the mid-20th century about three-quarters of Catholic children were taught in church schools.
Irish Catholic institutions
Church and school became the major ways in which Catholic Irish identity was perpetuated in New Zealand. Out of these grew other institutions – hospitals, orphanages, old boys’ and old girls’ clubs, Catholic scouts, and charities like St Vincent de Paul. There were also Marist sporting teams, but they played rugby, cricket and netball, not the traditional Irish sport of hurling.
New Zealanders who joined these groups had a clear sense of being part of a community, and some have argued that this community had distinctive values and habits with an Irish component. In her book Convent girls, New Zealand writer Jane Tolerton has noted that in the convent schools there was a concern for the individual and a vision of social justice which had their roots in Irish traditions. There was also a strong culture of sexual purity.
Increasingly this community and its values were less ethnic than religious. Being Catholic became infinitely more important than having an Irish background.