From Heritage New Zealand Winter 2007
by Michael Hooper
The links between Maori and Pakeha, New Zealand and France, Catholicism and the Bay of Islands have just become a little stronger.
Marty and marilyn Vreede with copies of their book, showing the first Marist medal uncovered during the Pompallier Mission conservation project.
Photo: Spotlight Media
The angel of death released Lyon from the grip of a plague in 1643 and, according to local stories, those who escaped gave their gold rings to be melted down, in thanksgiving, to gild the statue of Mary. Today, she still surveys the Rivers Rhone and Saône from atop the belfry of Basilique de Notre-Dame on Fourvière hill. It is from here that a cord of Catholic zeal has stretched as far as the Bay of Islands, wound its way to Whanganui and Wellington, and, in April this year, bound all these communities into a tangible expression of a common past.
One of the country’s pre-eminent historic places, Pompallier Mission, has been a conduit for the passion, a culminating point for the pilgrimage that has been manifested in an inspired collaboration. In 1835, Suzanne Aubert was born in Lay, to the north-west of Lyon. It was the year that, in Aotearoa, the Declaration of Independence was signed by a group of northern Maori chiefs. Parallel fibres had begun to lay themselves down.
The Pope, in that same year, recognised the Society of Mary, and charged it with missionary responsibilities in the Pacific. Within a year, the first Marist missionaries had left for the Pacific under Lyonnais Vicar Apostolic Bishop Jean-Baptiste François Pompallier. Soon, the Association of the Propagation of the Faith was sending pennies as well as prayers from its base in Lyon to his Kororareka mission headquarters.
Suzanne Aubert’s family moved into Lyon itself, where her mother received a documented miracle cure at Fourvière. Around this time, another Lyonnaise, Françoise Perreton, left for the missions in the Pacific. In 1859, there was a collect call in the connection, when Bishop Pompallier went home to Lyon to recruit for his Auckland Diocese. Suzanne Aubert was ready to answer that call and arrived, via a whaling ship, to run the Nazareth Institute for Maori Girls, her journeys throughout New Zealand eventually leading to the Whanganui River. In 1892, at Jerusalem/Hiruharama, she formed this country’s only indigenous religious order, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.
As a child, I became used to passing “the Homer Compassion”, so prominent on its Island Bay hillside in Wellington. The Home of Compassion, as I eventually learned to call it when my brain grew to match my ears, was founded in 1907. Here, Suzanne Aubert and her Sisters cared for young mothers and their babies, but Mother Aubert had much greater reaches to her repertoire; she even signed a contract with drug company Kempthorne & Prosser to market native remedies, a project that became so controversially successful that she halted it. The remarkable woman journeyed to Rome, where war isolated her, but where her charitable works earned her order their wings. Only when she was 85 years old did she come back to Island Bay, again to take charge of her order.
Pewhairangi, the Bay of Islands, is bathed in April sun as I stand beside Janine Béchu, Mother Aubert’s great-grand-niece, in the printing room at Pompallier Mission. Print lecturer and craftsman Marty Vreede and his bookbinding wife, Marilyn, have come from Whanganui with a taonga wrapped as if in swaddling cloths.
Respectfully welcomed by the Kororareka Russell people with karakia and waiata, inside a korowai of handmade flax paper tied with reed and rose, is a most special book. It is the fruit of the room where we are gathered; of artists, writers and historians who crammed in here last summer in what was to result, effectively, in the re-consecration of Pompallier’s Gaveaux press.
To understand the significance of what has occurred in this 2007 distillation of literature, devotion, art and invention, we need to visualise Kororareka Russell in the 1840s. Moveable type, what we now call drag-and-drop, has since been declared the most important invention of its millennium. It was not on a screen, but cast in letters of lead. The French Common Press that can be seen at Pompallier Mission is much the same thing that Gutenberg and Caxton used when printing was invented – the technology underwent only minor changes until the Industrial Revolution. Then came the Gaveaux Press, around which we are now all gathered.
Pompallier manager Kate Martin, a woman with a mission, sets the scene of the days the press arrived, based on the letters from the original printer, Jean Yvert, translated (appropriately over Côte du Rhone) during a residency of artists, writers and historians in Russell last summer.
“In 1840,” recounts Martin, “he is still in France getting ready to come out here. Instead of the usual seven-year apprenticeship, he’s got three weeks to become a master printmaker and bookbinder. He’s talking about gathering up all the tools and equipment he’s going to bring out here, how he’s going to get here, about getting 42 crates of gear out onto the ships. Getting to New Zealand with storms and delays took him over a year.
“When he gets here, everything has to go into a storehouse, because he has to help design and build this building. He sets to work rebuilding the French Common Press, which is already out-of-date, but he’s been given it because he’s a missionary – give your rubbish to missionaries, go straight to Heaven and do not pass ‘go’! The first book he prints is called Ako Marama and includes the hymn which Pompallier has just written, and that everybody’s singing, called ‘Mo Maria’. That was the very first book printed on this Gaveaux press.
“One of the Brothers that Yvert trained to work was writing home, talking about how it was a long, hard job; they’ve got the statue of Mary above the press, and three young Maori girls come in. The Brothers decide they’re well behaved so they don’t have to stop work, but the three girls sit down and sing that hymn. It is 1842, Pompallier is working here and already his hymn has been picked up by Maori.”
The pervasiveness of the hymn “Mo Maria” today is illustrated by Sister Sue Cosgrove, present head of the Sisters of Compassion at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. “A group of us, Sisters, went onto a marae further up the Whanganui River. We were looking a bit bedraggled because we’d been canoeing. They welcomed us on and we had to sing a waiata, and the only one we knew in common was ‘Mo Maria’. This woman stepped forward and said ‘I don’t know who you are, but we do know you’re Catholics, because you know that hymn.’ From one end of the country to the other, it’s the most well-known hymn.”
So Marty and Marilyn Vreede, as Whanganui printers, decided they would pick up that hymn. They set the type and used the Gaveaux Press to print it. Their artwork that interprets each verse explores the relationship between Suzanne Aubert and Bishop Pompallier, Kororareka and Whanganui, and France. The shapes and fibres bind Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, Lyon on its twin rivers and Pompallier Mission on the Bay that baptised a nation.
The book sprang from a pressing need to weave these links more discernibly. The idea began when Marty Vreede read Jessie Munro’s book on Suzanne Aubert.
“I knew I wanted to do something in and around the journey that she had as she went from north to south, and east to west in New Zealand,” says Vreede. “I wanted to do a connection journey that mirrored where she had gone, and Pompallier was obvious as he had brought her to Aotearoa. Reading Jessie’s book, understanding that there was something to do here... and then ‘Mo Maria’ became absolutely obvious, because it was in that first printing, and we’re having the opportunity of printing again on this particular press. This is the first proper printing that the press has had after coming back to Pompallier Mission (it was at Ngaruawahia for some time). It was nice to have the same hymn that was printed in 1842.”
Some research showed that the simple booklet they had planned to print and illustrate the hymn would be a bigger project. “We thought that two verses and a chorus would take perhaps five images. Then we found there were 14 verses! It went from a five-page to a 40-page book; a visual interpretation of the verses of ‘Mo Maria’. We made the paper from harakeke, Marilyn made the korowai and bound the book.”
The Vreedes spent three intense weeks living and working with a team in residence at Pompallier Mission from the end of November. The project was joined by writer Jessie Munro, who had worked there from 2003 as a Royal Society Teaching Fellow. She brought Madeleine Lejeune, who was here over summer translating Munro’s award-winning biography of Suzanne Aubert for publication in France.
Kate Martin says it was an industrious time. “While I was doing my daytime job and Marty and Marilyn were working the printery, these two were poring over letters and translations.” It’s not surprising that the successor to Mother Aubert, Sister Sue Cosgrove, was also among those who participated in the creative project that would resurrect the press.“The Pompallier and Aubert families are old friends from way back,” says Kate Martin. “The Bishop had missions on the Whanganui River while Kororareka was still his headquarters.”
The smells of those early printery days would have included the urine used as a tanning precursor but, during this summer’s sessions, Sue Cosgrove was able to sit in the attic under sheets of drying paper with the more genteel scent of ink and handmade paper. “It was so quiet and gentle. For hours, we were in that printing room, and found it a wonderfully reflective time, just as it would have been for the Brothers who were there before us.”
The focus was on the book, but the Vreedes also took the opportunity to run papermaking workshops at local Russell gallery Just Imagine. It is one of many examples, says Martin, of today’s historic place engaging with the community.
“We do know that, if you were producing just one of the original books (it had 648 pages, and 6000 copies were made), there would have been a lot of paper hanging out for the ink to dry. That book was printed octavo, which means there were 81 plates, double-sided, and so a quarter-of-a-million pieces of paper would have been produced for one edition. We know of 12 different books that were produced. What people come to in the printery today is nice and tidy and sanitary rather than what it would really have been like in the old days. The tannery would have been in full production with Brother Basil slaughtering animals out the back, and the whole mission alive with the sounds of English, Latin, Maori and French. It was the supply house for the whole of the western Pacific. Having that paper drying there last summer just gave us a little clue.”
All of the books originally printed here were in Maori. Nearly 40,000 Maori language books were produced by people who were French and Catholic and therefore under deep suspicion by the British and Protestant – tribal enemies from way back. These were active participants in the Treaty at Waitangi.
The creation of the 2007 book mirrored the historic practice in another way. Because there is no electricity inside Pompallier, the book was made only during daylight hours, which Marty Vreede says left them very tired. “There was about 18 hours a day. As we found our way out after dark, the outside of the place would be lit up and a kind of spirit would come through from this building; it glows and pulsates.” One of the images portrays that radiance; others are religious, such as the Archangel Gabriel but, emphasising Aotearoa, interpreted as the Raukura of Taranaki.
“To unravel the story from the perspective of sitting here, looking out, was important. I can remember sitting in the window and seeing a pohutukawa flower on the tree just outside, and we were talking about the birth of Jesus. I thought, ‘That’s the Christmas flower,’ and it just had to be there. When we relaxed and looked around, things would suggest themselves, really. Having 14 verses instead of two was much better for me in allowing the stylistic approach to start to develop – having a bigger landscape and more to say. Times are open in something like this; it’s not something I’m doing, it’s something I’m part of.”
The 11 hand-bound editions (six boxed books and five boxed sets of prints) will be spread out: two at Pompallier Mission, another two at the convent at Hiruharama, one will rest with a devotional group at Whanganui, another joins the Catholic archives in Wellington, and the Vreedes will keep one of each. Following the blessing at Pompallier Mission, the delegation left to deliver another book and set of prints to Motuti Marae in the north Hokianga, where Bishop Pompallier’s remains were interred five years ago, on the very same day. The reception there on that brilliant April afternoon, says Kate Martin, was overwhelming.
Pompallier Mission has the opportunity to become a focus for many more projects, says Marty Vreede. “Get artists clued into that space and, like me, they’ll just beaver away at all sorts of different things. The sky’s the limit in what can be done with that place so long as there’s the putea to make things happen. Marilyn and I bankrolled a lot of this because there’s no money to do anything but, when the reason for doing it is so important, you just have to commit to it and figure out the rest later. We’ll try to get some back by selling separate autographic prints from the book.”
There is a plan for co-operation with Pompallier Mission and PrintNZ-Training, says Vreede, to produce facsimile copies for sale for fund-raising. “All of these things are just like a river that keeps flowing, and a lot of the time it feels like you don’t even have to paddle the waka.”