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Mission Pompallier

Delphine Moise-Elise is the Property Lead / Kaiārahi Āhuatanga Ōkiko / at Pompallier Mission and Printery| Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga

Heritage New Zealand/Pouhere Taonga 

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“Rebuilding means building again what has been destroyed, restoring something in its original condition, imagining something differently, generally in a debatable manner like reinterpreting History… it is also rebuilding oneself, getting back to a stable condition after a trauma”. (Larousse Dictionary)

Rebuilding means to build again, to edify and with time and discourse, the model is built on reflection. If you would like to follow me in this evolutionary reconstruction, I am going to speak about a moment-monument somewhat unknown in our history. But it is linked to “te urunga mai o te iwi wiwi”, the arrival within the field of awareness in Aotearoa New Zealand, of the “iwi wiwi”, my tribe.

I think about this whakatauki, this proverb :“ka mua ka muri”, as I sit on the steps of the Pompallier Mission and Printery here in Russell. At the feet of this clay body, made with seashells and lime, with its pale and very french face looking out to sea, here in the Bay of Islands. This proverb speaks of a model of behaviour to uphold, it is about walking backwards towards the future - facing the past in order to better build everything to come... Isn't that the true subject of history?

The concept of time that I am referring to here is a perpetual movement, spiral or koru, which creates a nexus and helps to overlap and to reactivate certain nodes or knots in its flow.
As it happens, Pompallier Mission and Printery is conducive to such loops and returns; when our knowledgeable guides take you on a tour, naming and evoking what happened here, your passage is now possible, and the building breathes its history for whoever is willing to listen.

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The true Vine. Courtesy of Auckland Diocesan archives 

This trace, this sign, was deposited here by the French in 1842 - men of faith, the Bishop Pompallier of course (Epikopo Pomaparie under his Māori name,) and many Marist brothers and Priests from Lyon. This structure, born from the earth and the sea, compressed by hand, was built to house a machine of power, knowledge and faith - the latest technology produced by the industrial revolution, the famous printing press Gaveaux.

During many years, these men, supported and protected by rangatira and local hapū, published close to 40,000 books and booklets in Te Reo about the Catholic faith and its practice. These books were translated (from French and Latin into Te Reo), printed, bound and distributed for free. They still circulate within whānau, like the sap from a symbolic tree, “The True Vine” used by Pompallier to illustrate the whakapapa of his Church. These books will contribute to Māori utilising the written word at the critical moment when our people met in the Bay of Islands and when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. Indeed, very few people are aware of this, but Bishop Pompallier himself as a protégé of powerful rangatira, played a considerable part in the Treaty ‘powerplay’. Making the case for freedom of faith (including Catholic and Ritenga Maōri) in the Te Reo version of the text, referred to as Article 4.

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Kororareka, bay of islands. Courtoisie de la National Library, peinture de Peter Atkinson

At the end of the 19th century, this industrial building in pisé de terre (housing the printery and tannery to cover books), was sold to local families and transformed into a bourgeois Victorian house - even with British-style gardens and decorative balconies! So much so that the remembrance of its living face and elementary purpose was lost over the generations. When the government took over in the 40s, it renovated it in keeping with the then prevalent myth as the grand home of a flamboyant Bishop. It is not until the 80s, when tanning pits were accidentally discovered under a landslide at the back of the building that the original, spartan, French and bicultural nature of the site was restored and re-constructed.
Therefore, here at Pompallier, it is about re-building one of the facets of France’s engagement in the history of our nation, “te urunga mai o te iwi wiwi”, in this very place. This was a critical and symbolic moment of confluence between our people, cultures, languages and worldviews.
When the printery and tannery were restored and revealed to the public in 1993, a new dimension of history was opened to interpretation. The raw, rammed earth body of the building (stripped of its Victorian additions) showed its unique architecture. This was the spiritual place of writing and literacy in a linguistic melting pot, it knew the harshness of human and missionary trajectories. It witnessed the special nature of their relationships with tangata whenua and Maōri spirituality and their diplomatic and political role, in the major events of the period.

This is a little-known story, an obscured and distorted history, sometimes buried under successive layers of meaning applied by the generations that followed. Often these were aligned with the official national and colonial version held to at that point. What was revealed therefore are the implicit attempts erase or fossilise memory under the dominant narrative of the English and Protestant colonisers. The spiritual and political aspirations of the Catholic Frenchmen and their Maōri allies were nearly forgotten. 


 Crédits: Pompallier mission and printery HNZPT


 Crédits: Pompallier mission and printery HNZPT

So why re-building for the future?

At this very auspicious and favourable moment in Aotearoa New Zealand, when the national history curriculum is being reformed, there arises an opportunity to revisit the complexity of history. We need to weave together narratives for the generations to come, at the place of the drama, amongst the objects and the presence of the people who inhabited this monument. This is what we do here at Pompallier, day after day, in the shadow of the Gaveaux, as we hand-print on the metisse “kiwi wiwi” press, when we hand sew books, and share stories about this place…

For places nurtured with legends do tell indeed, they heal, they allow rebirth and growth beyond the very tangible historical traumas. Nothing was that simple, one must remember to lift the veils, listen to all the voices, particularly those hidden or harmed by the prevalent discourse, these voices which were not recorded in the tablets of colonial interpretation.  It is about softly letting pain find its expression, about the dark side of these invasions that continue to haunt destinies, but also about the light and beauty flowing under the sky of Kororāreka. It, unlike us, remembers it all…

In this world in transformation, let us now in a collective effort, re-build, re-link, re-interpret our memories, locally and globally, together, so we can live here, inspired, amongst these traces and these footprints, to build a better future.


Delphine Moise-Elise

Background about Pompallier Mission and Printery 

Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier was sent by the Vatican, departing from Fourvière in Lyon, arriving in the Bay of Islands with a few Marist Priests and Brothers in 1839. His mission was to promote the Catholic faith to the whole of Western Oceania..

The printery in Kororāreka was at the heart of a “war of words” between Churches and Nations. They were embarking on a conquest of souls and aspiring to establish a presence in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1840, at the time the Treaty of Waitangi. But most significantly the printery was a tool, skilfully used by tangata whenua to absorb and manipulate these competing powers and to control and interpret the written word, via the Gaveaux.

The story of the Gaveaux itself, tapu printing press (having only ever printed in Te Reo) is also looped and mysterious. It arrived from France in 1841, was dismantled during the battle of Kororāreka (its lead types could have been real bullets as well as paper bullets), was later sent to Auckland, before being used by King Tawhiao to publish the political magazine of the Kingitanga, Te Paki o Matariki. In 1967 Queen Te Atairangikaahu gave permission for the Gaveaux to return on loan to its own turangawaewae at Kororāreka, where it is cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.
The main character in this story, Bishop Pompallier, Epikopo Pomaparie, also returned. Many years after he had died in France, his koiwi or remains were claimed by Aotearoa’s Catholics and were brought back in 2002. They were laid to rest under the altar at St Mary’s Church Motuti in Hokianga….



 Crédits: Pompallier mission and printery HNZPT

Night of Ideas New Zealand is presented by the Embassy of France in New Zealand in partnership with Victoria University of Wellington, as part of La Nuit des idées, a worldwide initiative of the Institut français, Paris.

Participation of New Caledonian contributors is facilitated by the Delegation of New Caledonia to New Zealand.

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