The story of the Josephites in Aotearoa New Zealand began in the late 19th century as two threads, which developed separately for a considerable period of time, then began to intertwine in varying degrees, until finally emerging as one in 2013.

In 1880, from the Diocesan foundation at Perthville, New South Wales, four Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart came to Whanganui, Aotearoa New Zealand. The parish priest, Father Kirk, who had met Father Woods in Sydney and learnt of the work and spirit of the sisters, convinced Bishop Redwood to arrange for them to come.

In 1883, as a result of repeated appeals by the parish priest of Temuka, who had also met Fr Woods in Sydney, Mary MacKillop sent three Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart from Melbourne for a foundation in the South Island.

This is a brief story of both groups of Sisters as they spread and their ministries grew and developed across Aotearoa New Zealand.

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In 1880 in Whanganui, the Sisters were to take over a primary school from lay teachers and establish a girls’ secondary school with boarders. In 1883, three of these Sisters went up the Whanganui River to the Māori settlement of Hiruharama, where two of them would remain for several months. Accompanying them was Suzanne Aubert, a French missionary and a Māori language speaker, later founder of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, the first New Zealand Catholic order.

The Sisters soon grew in numbers and were teaching in other areas in the lower North Island. In 1885, after the arrival of the sisters at Temuka in the South Island which, like Whanganui, was in the Wellington diocese at that time, Bishop Redwood insisted that the two groups were to be distinct. The Whanganui Sisters of Saint Joseph were to change their name – to Sisters of Saint Joseph of Nazareth – and the colour of their habits – from brown to black. This was the origin of the former distinction between “black” and “brown” Josephites in New Zealand.

Both groups of Sisters expanded in membership and in outreach, especially through teaching, the “black” Josephites in the lower North Island, and the “brown” Josephites in other areas.

Both groups have worked in partnership with Māori people. In 1890, the first of three early Māori missions was established at Matata, with three Sisters coming from Sydney especially for the mission. More recently, and to this day, the Whanganui Sisters in particular have put into practice a strong commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi and bi-culturalism.

After Vatican II there was a call to all Sisters to return to their original spirit and mission. There followed a gradual move away from the traditional work of teaching (starting in the 1970s for the Whanganui Josephites and the 1980s for the “brown” Josephites). Sisters now serve in  a wide range of ministries, e.g counselling, chaplaincy, spiritual direction, eco-spirituality, education, social justice, budgeting – focusing on the needs of the “oppressed and powerless.”

It was in the 1980s and 1990s that “both congregations began to realise that the inspiration behind their foundation was the shared dream of Julian and Mary.”[1] Growing interchange and closeness led to the decision of “fusion” celebrated in Whanganui on 24 August 2013. Onward as one!

[1] Strevens, Diane: “In Step with Time”, p. 184


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