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Escape to historic Akaroa 

Fr Brian O’Connell sm and Br Hugh Peacock sm

Fr Brian O’Connell sm and Br Hugh Peacock sm - Mass at Little River

Last year I was in Christchurch on 23 December visiting family when there was a swarm of earthquakes from 4.5 to 6.1 on the Richter scale. Apart from the solidarity I felt with the locals who been living with this stuff for two years, it was not what I wanted in a summer break. The car was splashed with liquefaction, and my nerves jangled. So when the call went out for assistance with Christmas services in Akaroa , I jumped at the chance.

Akaroa is situated on a large harbour on Banks Peninsula about 80kms from Christchurch, just beyond the faultlines that have been shaking the nearby city. It was the first French settlement in NZ, and the scene of the first attempts to plant the Catholic faith in the large South Island of NZ. The struggle to implant the faith here made the missions in the North seem like a walk in the park.

My first stop was Little River, a small farming settlement near Lake Forsyth, and nearby Lake Ellesmere. Christmas Eve Mass was scheduled on the lawn next to the stone church destroyed in the first big quake in September 2010. The weather held,  and over forty attended. It was moving to recall the pioneers who had worshipped there, including a branch of my family who ran horse coaches over the steep peninsula roads, and later farmed land in Puaha valley.

The road into Akaroa is like driving over the lip of a volcano into the crater – in fact it was just that  - 10 million years ago. Place names like Duvauchelle and French Farm keep the French Connection in mind. When the first group of  54 French settlers arrived in the schooner L’Aube  on 15 August 1840 they found to their surprise two French priests and a brother waiting for them.

It was too good to last, and so it proved. The following years saw the Catholic missionaries forced to leave three times, after suffering extreme culture shock and the cold shoulder from the English settlers and most of the French settlers who understandably gave priority to eking out a living for their own families in a hostile community.


In 1857 Fr Petitjean wrote to his superiors in France “Poor Akaroa, like the rest of the province it is without priest or chapel, and I must say it with sorrow,…the inhabitants of this Bay seem to frozen by indifference, hardened or paralysed by human respect. Five persons only made their Easter duty. Let us leave Akaroa and go to Otago.”

Nevertheless, by 1867 a handsome Church was built (the third in the town since 1840) and is still in use in 2012; the parish again staffed by the Society of Mary by one priest Fr Vince Curtain, a veteran School principal, and the redoubtable Brother Hugh Peacock.

Akaroa in 2012 is a popular holiday resort and tourist destination. For the nine days I was there the weather was fine, and almost every day large cruise ships anchored in the harbour and disembarked passengers. Lyttelton Harbour the main port for Christchurch is earthquake damaged, thus causing a bonanza for Akaroa shops and tour operators.

Akaroa’s isolation and spectacular geography were the reasons for the difficulty for the early missions, but now are part of its charm and unique niche in the history of the church and the province.

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