On his 90th birthday on June 29, Pa Mikaere (Peter Michael) Ryan, MHM, had a ready explanation for his longevity — the fact that he still goes to gym every weekday. And when the gym is closed at weekends, he walks for an hour a day. And, he added with a smile, the fact that he gave up smoking 58 years ago — because he couldn’t keep up with the young people he was teaching at the time.

On his birthday, Pa Ryan was surrounded by well-wishers and aroha for a brief celebration after Mass at Te Unga Waka marae in Epsom. He is still working as parish priest at Te Whanau Tapu parish based at the marae.

On June 29, he recounted how his vocational journey started very early in his life, after six years of primary school in his native England. It was a story he had told before.

In the book Mill Hill and Maori Mission, by W. Tuerlings, MHM, published in 2003, Pa Ryan stated how he saw a little picture on a bench in a church with an invitation to be a missionary.

So he mailed an application to the rector, but forgot to put his address on it. Then he sent another application the next day.

He studied with the St Joseph’s Missionary Society of Mill Hill, to give them their full name, at their minor seminary near Liverpool and then at major seminaries in the Netherlands
and in London.

It was at Roosendaal, where he studied philosophy, that he picked up the Dutch language.

“It was so interesting to try and make yourself understood in another language,” Pa Ryan wrote in the Tuerlings book. “My Dutch was rough and ready, but I managed to pass my exam by writing a funny essay based on a wartime joke. This annoyed Fr Kuipers
no end, because he was sure I would fail, but he was honest enough to admit that I had done enough to pass. He never did have the slightest sense of humour anyway.”

One of 30 men ordained in Olympia Hall in London on July 12, 1953, Pa Ryan learned that evening that he would be assigned to the Auckland Māori Mission.

“I was a bit stunned, because I had studied for all the other missions in charge of Mill Hill, India, Philippines, Uganda, Kenya, Congo and even the Falkland Islands, but somehow I had only a very cursory idea about New Zealand,” he wrote in the book.

Arriving in Wellington in January 1954, aboard the Zuider Kruis Dutch emigrant boat, the only Englishman on board, he went to the Far North and had his first encounters with the Māori language.

Learning Te Reo was a multi-stage process and he had many helpers.

During a brief stay at Waitaruke, local Noema Tawiao helped him read aloud the Sunday Gospel in Māori. He would ask children to name things for him in the language — he still has a little notebook from this period in which he wrote down their answers. In his next
posting at Panguru, his housekeeper — Pirihira Ngarangi— was a great help with Māori sermons. Fr Theo Wanders, MHM, also assisted. An unlikely source of further help was during card-playing sessions with a local family.

In Rotorua, Pa Ryan’s capability with Te Reo was further developed with the help of experts like Lemi Morrison and Matt and Maku Whiti. But despite his growing proficiency in the language, when he visited the forestry industry settlement at Kaiangaroa, he sometimes
heard confessions in eight or nine different languages and did his best.

His proficiency in Te Reo Māori saw him take on a teaching role at Hato Petera College in Northcote, the start of an association he would enjoy for many years.

The author of many books, perhaps his most well known is his is his “Dictionary of modern Māori” — 648 pages, first published in 1995 and reprinted several times since.

He went on to do further studies at university, prepared courses on teaching Te Reo Māori and has been called upon many times to do translation work by both church — including helping with liturgical translations — and iwi.

“I was asked to translate iwi documents into Māori,” Pa Ryan wrote in the Tuerlings book, “I took it on as a challenge, and because they were my friends”.

“It is easier than it looks at first sight. Your translation doesn’t have to undergo the scrutiny of the legal profession, so you can turn the turgid officialise English that no-one can
understand into a reasonably chatty Māori version which is understood quite readily.”

But maybe his most prominent role was assisting in the visit of St John Paul II to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1986.

As he recounted in the 2003 book, “when the Pope visited Aotearoa, it was my voice that taught him the Māori prayers and greetings. I was against doing it when I was first asked by Father [Patrick] Brady, who was in charge of that side of things. I gave names and phone numbers of real Māori people to contact, but in the end when the deadline drew near he still had not managed to get a proper Māori speaker, so I did the job for him sounding as Māori as I could. The Pope’s Māori was pretty  good I thought, better than a lot of New Zealand priests. I still chuckle when I think of the Pope listening to my voice whispering in his ear.”

Speaking after a Mass at Te Unga Waka in 2013 marking his 60th jubilee of ordination as a priest, Pa Ryan quipped “The older I get, the better I was”, to much warm-hearted laughter from those present.

He might have a few more years of ministry in him yet — both of his parents lived past their 100th birthdays.

When asked by NZ Catholic about his vocational journey, he responded: “I’ve been pondering over some thoughts to express a ‘light up moment’ along the road to the priesthood. But instead of any headlights moment I
just have the tail lights which say ‘God has been good to you boy, and somehow you’ve kept on the right track’.”