Christchurch 1878 - Taking the Coast ‘To Her Heart’

Few Irish prospectors made their fortunes on the West Coast, but Marist Father Aime Martin must have felt he’d struck gold when he secured 10 Sisters of Mercy for his parish of Hokitika in 1878.

The group of eight sisters and two postulants set out from St Xavier’s Convent, Ennis, County Clare, in July that year, led by 34 year-old Mother Clare Molony. After a trip that took them via Plymouth to Sydney and Melbourne, they reached Wellington on October 3.

Their final week aboard a coastal vessel, with stops at Nelson, Westport and Greymouth saw them anchored at Hokitika’s bar, waiting 12 hours to moor at full tide.

Mother Clare Molony, with St Columbkille’s Convent in Hokitika, opened in 1879.

The sisters occupied a rented house until their convent was ready, visiting the town’s hospital and jail and calling on sick people in their homes. They were soon entrusted with a school of 105 girls, previously staffed by lay teachers, and began teaching religion in the church after Mass.

Their new convent—St Columbkille’s—was opened in January 1879. In one room they began the district’s first secondary school, preparing girls for public service, matriculation and teaching.

Like Hokitika, the township of Greymouth mushroomed after the discovery of gold. Its first Catholic church was built in 1865; the school which opened the following year was taught by lay teachers. A request to Mother Clare led to her arriving in 1882 with four sisters to open a branch house, All Saints Convent.

Travel from Hokitika involved a three-stage journey: a horse-drawn tram to Kumara, an ‘aerial tramway’ suspended by wires across the Taramakau River, and a coach over the last 30kms. Within the year, Bishop Grimes consented to Greymouth becoming a separate foundation.

In 1894, a community of four sisters from Greymouth led by Mother Xavier Fitzgerald established a house in Gisborne, where they staffed the parish school and opened a high school for girls. In 1904, the Gisborne community became part of the Auckland foundation.

At Bishop Grimes’s invitation, a community of three sisters from the West Coast arrived in 1890 at Lyttelton, where they took charge of the primary school with 90 pupils and opened a high school for girls. As well as visiting the sick, they also made regular calls on men and women in the town’s jail.

The first Sisters of Mercy to reach Christchurch came from Greymouth in 1894. Mother Mechtildes Boland, who had come to Hokitika as Mother Clare’s assistant before founding the Greymouth community, accepted an invitation to staff a school in St Mary’s parish, Christchurch North. Bad weather forced the group of six to sail to Lyttelton, rather than attempt the journey by road.

Until work on St Mary’s school was finished, the sisters began classes in their convent, visiting the sick in their homes, and travelling by horse and gig to teach at Papanui. The community continued as a branch house of Greymouth until 1899, when it became an independent foundation with Mother Mechtildes serving as superior for 15 sisters.

Following a request from Rome, and with assistance of the Bishop of the time, delegates from the four foundations of Hokitika, Greymouth, Lyttelton and Christchurch met in 1917 to consider the option of amalgamating. The four houses agreed to have one superior and council and in 1918 established a mother house and novitiate at Peer Street, Christchurch. In 1946 there was a decree from Rome which removed ambiguities regarding amalgamation of property and persons.

Mother Clare Molony died in Hokitika in 1931. She is remembered as a woman of deep faith, a born leader and a gifted teacher. “The rata flower has fallen at last, and we grieve for her,” was the message of sympathy from Māori of Arahura.

Mother Clare had an alert mind, with a skill for exciting interest in her students. An obituary notes that she took Westland and its people to her heart, never missing a chance to pour her own love of scholarship and learning into the hearts of the young.

“Her knowledge of the classics, her love of history, and her absolute joy in unfolding the faith made her a rare teacher,” wrote a former student. “Always she combined with her love of knowledge a love for her pupils.”