The founder of the Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand was a young French bishop, Jean Baptiste François Pompallier. Born in Lyons, France on 11 December 1801 he was ordained a priest in 1829 and in 1836 was appointed Vicar Apostolic (‘Bishop’) of Western Oceania which covered a huge area of Polynesia and Melanesia, including many Pacific Islands and New Zealand.
The Bishop sailed from France in December 1836 with a missionary band of four priests and three brothers of the Society of Mary. One priest died at sea. A priest and a brother were left at each of the islands of Wallis and Futuna to begin mission work there. After brief stays at Tahiti, Tonga, Rotuma and Sydney, he arrived at the Hokianga harbour on 10 January 1838. The first Mass was celebrated at Tōtara Point on 13 January 1838.
Bishop Pompallier travelled extensively by schooner around both North and South Islands, setting up mission stations, sixteen in all, by 1844. This was made possible by the arrival of more missionaries – priests, sisters and seminarians – from Europe and by considerable financial aid from France.