WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Catholic pioneers Fr Jean Etienne Pezant SM

Church history

Mgr John Broadbent

Fr Jean was the son of a French farmer born in Chanonat in 1811 and worked for many years in both the dioceses of Palmerston North and Wellington.

We are often inclined to forget the great debt we owe to the French Marists – priests and brothers – for their pioneering work in our two dioceses.

Jean studied for the priesthood at St Sulpice in Paris and was ordained for the diocese of Clermant in 1835. He felt a calling to be a missionary and joined the Society of Mary four years later and, after profession, left for New Zealand on board the French corvette L’Aube with the fourth group of missionaries in 1840.

The ship sailed to Akaroa where Fr Jean served for several months in the French settlement, accompanying Bishop Pompallier on his voyage to Otago Harbour and then on to Wellington and Mahia.

Bishop Pompallier replaced Philippe Viard in Tauranga with Fr Pezant who had an extensive parish in the Waikato and down the Mokau River to northern Taranaki.

After three years, Fr Pezant replaced Fr Séon at Matamata but soon made his base at Rangiaowhia where he built up a large Māori community. It became the most successful Catholic mission and by 1850 had recorded 1042 baptisms and 198 marriages.

In 1850 Bishop Pompallier returned to New Zealand from Europe and the Marists left Auckland to take over the rest of New Zealand south of Taupo based with Bishop Viard in Wellington.

After a brief posting in Otaki, from where he visited Taranaki twice, he was sent in 1852 to be Whanganui’s first parish priest. His parish extended from the Rangitikei River in the south to the Mokau River in the north.

His main missionary effort was among Nga-Rauru and Ngati-Apa. He was by now widely acknowledged as one of the best Māori scholars in New Zealand. He was not a controversial figure but would speak out when he thought it necessary, opposing, for example, Pompallier’s refusal to use Māori translations of biblical names if formulated by Protestants.

He proved himself a good administrator and built the first St Mary’s church in Whanganui (1857) and the churches in Ruakipika (Waitotara Valley) and Turakina.

The Pai Mairire (Hau Hau) movement ended his mission work in the mid- to late 1860s.

In 1868 he became assistant priest to Father Sauzeau in Blenheim and the first parish priest of Picton and the Marlborough Sounds three years later.

Fr Pezant died in 1880 at Riverlands, south of Blenheim and was buried at Picton.

May his industrious and pastoral soul rest in peace.