Background HISTORY

Catholicism in Rotorua started in the Maori lakeside village of Ohinemutu and was, from the  beginning, seen as a Maorimission. Consequently we were blessed with Marist and Mill Hill  priests, followed by four orders of nuns and one of brothers. There was a time, however, when the mission nearly ground to a halt.

1830s to 1840s

The Marist priests who were living at Maketu visited Rotorua as part of their mission. After Father Michel Borjon of Maketu drowned in a shipping accident, Father EulogeReignier was sent to Rotorua to open a mission station.

In 1843 this was established at Ohinemutu, where Bishop Pompallier paid for 3.5 acres on Pukeroa Hill at a cost of £10/10 shillings. Father Reignier built a wooden church, dedicated to St Joachim, on this land, and was therefore the first parish priest of Rotorua.[1]

1850s to 1890s

After Father Reignier’s departure in 1851, the church in Rotorua continued to be staffed by Marist priests. The Marists’ departure from the Auckland diocese in 1850 led indirectly to an uncertainty in the mission, and after Father Moreau left in 1867 there appears to have been no resident priest in Rotorua until the arrival of the Mill Hill Mission Fathers from Matata in 1888, led by Father John Becker.

 In that same year a piece of land, that had been set aside by Maori for the Church and which  had subsequently been taken by the  government for a recreational reserve, was returned to the Church. St Michael’s Church was opened the following year at a cost of £260 and was officially dedicated by Bishop Luck on 27 July 1890.

Father Becker was soon joined by Father Adrian Holierhook, and then Father (later Dean) Lightheart, and so Catholicism in Rotorua was established on a permanent basis.

Father Becker was soon joined by Father Adrian Holierhook, and then Father (later Dean) Lightheart, and so Catholicism in Rotorua was established on a permanent basis.

Father Becker lived in a raupo hut until a presbytery was built.

Conversion of the Maori was difficult for two reasons. Firstly, the Protestants had been there first – a fact that seemed much resented by the Fathers and, secondly, the locals had reached a level of materialism as a consequence of the tourism industry.[2]

1900 to 1950s 

The presbytery was enlarged by Father Charles Kreijmborg, and handed to the Sisters of  St Joseph so they could operate a school. 

A small church, called the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception and built by Father  Kreijmborg, was dedicated at WhakarewarewaMarae in 1904. Another church of the same  name, built by the same priest, was dedicated in Ngongotaha in 1915.[3]


As the Catholic population grew, it became apparent that a new church was required, and on 21 February 1954 St Mary’s Church in Ranolf Street was opened by Bishop Liston, the land having been gifted by Martin Hampson (a local lawyer), and the building constructed by Hugh O’Flaherty. (Prior to this, Midnight Mass was celebrated on 25 December 1953 by the new Parish Priest, Father Daniel McKenna.) However, Father McKenna was unaware until the Bishop’s announcement at the opening that he was to be the new parish priest.[4]

The first curate, Father Samuel Carney, was appointed on 24 March of that same year, and the two priests moved into the presbytery in January 1955. Father Anselm Wardle was in charge at St Michaels, assisted by Father Anton Timmerman and Father Adrian Geboers.

In 1960 a massive undertaking began on a new St Michael’s church by building around, under andover the original structure. This project took six years.

Over time, the population of St Mary’s outgrew the existing church, which was a very basic structure. Following the death of Father McKenna, which also meant the departure of the Mill Hill Fathers from St Mary’s, a new church was built and was opened by Bishop Edward Gaines on Sunday, 5 April 1987.

A further church, St Joseph’s, was subsequently opened at Owhata, and Father Timmerman of the Mill Hill Mission transferred there from St Mary’s.

Religious orders


Marists                                1843–1867 (approx)

Mill Hill                                 1888–present


Sisters of St Jospeh                1903–present

Sisters of Mercy                     1958–present

Marists                                 1995–present 

Tyburn Nuns                          2009–present 


Christian Brothers                   1962; departed Rotorua 1989 – now in Murupara

Built and staffed Edmund Rice College


The first Catholic school was St Michael’s, which was opened at Ohinemutu in 1903. The school was made possible by the Priests vacating the presbytery so the Sisters could have a convent. The school grew to such an extent that in 1924 staff and pupils moved to Seddon Street.

In 1954 St Michael’s School in Seddon Street was renamed St Mary’s, and a new St Michaels’ school in May Road was opened in October 1958. This school was staffed by an order of nuns new to Rotorua, the Sisters of Mercy. As the roll of St Mary’s became too large, the secondary department of St Mary’s was closed in 1957 and most pupils transferred to Rotorua High School.

McKillop College

Opened 14 February 1966

Edmund Rice College

Opened 12 February 1963 on land that had been partly gifted by a parishioner, Patrick Keaney.

Edmund Rice College was gifted to the Christian Brothers by the Diocese, who then gifted it back when John Paul College was formed.

John Paul College (a merger of the above) opened 1987[5].


In common with the rest of New Zealand, Rotorua formed a Commission on the Laity in 1970. This led to many changes in compliance with Vatican II, including Mass facing the congregation and the formation of a Parish Council.

Parish Finances

The parish was kept going by weekly “housie” evenings held in St Mary’s Hall (for the two parish schools), and Whakarewarewa Hall (for Edmund Rice College).

Although many parishioners disapproved of this method of fund-raising, enough help was available in the form of callers, counters and tea-makers to ensure a healthy income for both parish and schools. By the late 1980s, with patronage and numbers of willing assistants declining, this method of fund‑raising was abandoned.

Parish History compiled by Angela Cameron and Adrienne Forbes


[1] Notes from Waitangi Tribunal documents pp32-35

[2] Notes from “Mill Hill and Maori Mission” by W Tuerlings M.H.M. 2003.[3] Don Stafford “The New Century in Rotorua”[4] Conversation between Father Timmerman and Roy Arnerich[5] Notes from “100 Years Catholic Education in Rotorua 1903-2003”.Editor and Compiler: Bridget Anderson (Harrod). Printer: Dudfield Printing Ltd Rotorua.

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