by Bishop PATRICK DUNN
Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand. It comprises three coral atolls — Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo — lying 500 kilometres north of Samoa.
Tokelau has no airport and is serviced by a fortnightly ship from Apia, a journey which takes around 24 hours. The population of Tokelau is about 1400, but almost 7000 Tokelauans live in New Zealand, mostly around Wellington, Tokoroa, Taupo and Rotorua.
Nukunonu is almost exclusively Catholic, Atafu is almost exclusively Congregational Christian Church, and Fakaofo is a mix of both. “Moheniolo” (Monsignor) Oliver Aro, MSP, is the only priest in Tokelau and is based on Nukunonu. Before his appointment as superior to this mission, he was a parish priest in Auckland, where he had been based at Dargaville and then Papatoetoe. He is supported in Tokelau by permanent deacons, Pio Tuia on Nukunonu and Halehio Lui on Fakaofo.
For the celebrations last month on Nukunonu, the resident population swelled from 400 to more than 1000, with visitors coming from the other atolls,plus New Zealand, Australia and even further afield.
Congregational Church pastors and their people were also present. Archbishop Martin Krebs, the Apostolic Delegate to the Pacific, was accompanied by Cardinal Mafi from Tonga, Archbishop Mata’eliga from Apia, Bishop Peter Brown from Pago Pago, priests and sisters from Samoa, plus myself.
The first contact between Tokelau and the Catholic Church was triggered by a devastating hurricane that destroyed homes and gardens on Fakaofo in the 1840s. Dates are uncertain because this early history is preserved only in oral traditions. Most of the population set off in eight canoes to seek refuge in Nukunonu, but were blown off course. Eventually two canoes reached Wallis, where the Tokelauan refugees came into contact with French Marist priests and eventually became Catholic. One of these early converts was a chief from Nukunonu, Justin Takua, who would later introduce the Catholic Faith to Tokelau.
In the early 1860s, Bishop Bataillon in Wallis heard of the effects of further hurricanes, and resulting starvation in Tokelau, and commissioned a ship to sail from Apia with 16,000 coconuts to provide food for the Tokelauans. Justin Takua and other Catholic Tokelauans took the opportunity to return home and became the first missionaries to their own people.
Once home they also heard the sad news that Peruvian slave traders had raided the islands in the 1850s and had seized 247 of the active men. These raids had left Nukunonu with a population of only 80, mostly women and children, according to early mission records.
On June 10, 1863, Fr Elloy, later to serve as a bishop in Apia, baptised one adult and two children in Fakaofo, and on September 8, 1863, 12 people on Nukunonu.
In 1868, catechists from Samoa were appointed to Fakaofo and Nukunonu.
Tokelauans would occasionally sail to Apia for Baptism, or a priest would visit from time to time.
It was not till the 20th century that a priest was permanently appointed to Tokelau.
Tokelau has been served by Marist priests from the Oceania Province, and by priests from Apia. Msgr Patrick O’Connor from Wellington worked as superior for the Tokelau Mission for 22 years until he was succeeded in 2011 by Msgr Aro.
In 1949, the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (SMSM) began the St John Bosco School on Nukunonu and served there for 21 years. The Sisters of Our Lady of Nazareth continued this work until 1994. Children now attend the Government School, which has a roll of around 100.
The celebrations last month are proof that the seeds of faith planted 150 years ago continue to
bear rich fruit.
Bishop Patrick Dunn is the Catholic bishop of Auckland diocese.