Celebrating the 140th anniversary of Aotearoa New Zealand Foundation in Whanganui: 24 April 1880

At the time of the 1980 Centennial celebrations marking the arrival of the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Whanganui, Aotearoa New Zealand, Mary Gullery penned the poem below to mark the occasion.

A past pupil of the Sisters of Saint Joseph and Sister Genevieve Greig’s sibling, Mary was a recognized writer and poet. In the Ballad of the Wakatu, she captures the founding spirit that was evident in those first four sisters who spoke of coming “gaily down from Bathurst to Sydney” to begin their journey into the unknown. She also captures the energy and anticipation with which the people of Whanganui awaited the arrival of the sisters.

With the passing of a further forty years, that energetic spirit captured by Mary still moves us to face a changing future.

The Ballad of the Wakatu by Mary Gullery

In your children’s houses light a candle flame.
Tell your children’s children how the first Sisters came.

How all the bells were ringing, the people still abed,
“Dear God! What can have happened?” the Irish mothers said.

 A messenger comes running, glad the news he tells,
News like wildfire spreading, with peal on peal of bells.

 “Rise up from your sleeping, sound the pipe and drum!
 The ‘Wakatu’ is berthing! The Nuns, the Nuns have come!”

 Mr Lloyd, the Band, Father Kirk, the Mayor,
It was hard to understand how fast they all got there.                    

Through the streets of Wanganui in the early morning sun,
Speedily assembled, a welcome was begun.

For the coaster had travelled sooner than expected,
And though the school committee was most hastily collected,

That night they held their concert, and it became their pride
That the hall was overflowing and a hundred stood outside.

The parents in the fledgling town had longed for such a day,
And begged this boon as often as they knelt down to pray.

The refinements that the Nuns could bring, the culture there would be, 
And religion to be handed down to all posterity.

Srs Teresa (standing), Hyacinth (Left), Joseph (right) and Clare (front)

From far away Australia came the answering of their prayer,
With Sisters Hyacinth, Joseph, Teresa and Clare.

Those first sisters are sleeping now, their work was truly done.
And others carry on the task so well begun.

 Their mark is on New Zealand right from shore to shore.
A hundred years have passed away. The bells ring out once more!

 All the bells are ringing for a Jubilee,
For giving thanks and begging grace on years as yet to be.

When heritage is vaunted and histories prevail,
Gather in the children close and tell again the tale,

How the coaster brought to harbour in those early years
A blessing on the sacrifice of Catholic pioneers.

John Bosco Kendall rsj