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Chance Phone Call Sheds New Light On Pompallier Mission

A chance phone call between Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager Bill Edwards and retired solicitor Rick Norris has added a new layer of information about one of New Zealand’s oldest historic buildings.

“Rick had contacted me to talk about some of the historical events around the sacking of Kororareka which took place in March 1845. In the course of our conversation he talked about some of his ancestors he has been researching, including Sarah Cains who had arrived in Kororareka in 1839,” says Bill.

“The information he shared has a really interesting connection to Pompallier Mission – the historic printery and headquarters of Bishop Pompallier’s Marist mission to western Oceania in the 1840s, which is now cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.”

Both the Pompallier Mission printery and Russell’s Christ Church are the only two buildings to survive the sacking of Kororareka in 1845.

“Rick sent me a couple of obituaries which he had found through his family research – one from the Evening Star of 1889, and the other from a 1925 edition of the Auckland Star. Both contained information that has enhanced our understanding of what was happening at the time,” he says.

One obituary recounts the story of William Cains whose family had settled at Otuihu Pa. The homestead was quite exposed during the tensions leading up to the Northern Wars and beyond.

“The obituary written for Sarah Cains – William’s widow – records that ‘Mrs Kanes [sic] and her family were often in great danger of their lives’, and that their lives were saved only after ‘mediation of friendly Natives’,” he says.

“The obituary also records that a party of Ngapuhi built a six-foot palisade around their house as a protection.”

According to Norris family history, during the sacking of Kororareka, William’s daughter Phoebe took refuge in Christ Church. At the same time her father William showed extraordinary courage bordering on audacity.

One of the obituaries records that William purchased the sacred emblems of the Catholic Church from some of the ‘rebel Maoris’ preventing them from being destroyed or damaged, and returned them to the priests later on.

“The obituary records that the priests ‘repaid him by many kind attentions during his long illness prior to his death’,” says Bill.

“The Marist brothers were based at Pompallier Mission. They would have been very grateful that these sacred emblems were returned. You can imagine their sense of joy when they found that these taonga had been saved.”

The story, which would otherwise have been hidden in obscurity in an obituary written in 1925, is an example of how research is an ongoing process that never ends.

“The account of William Cain is a historical footnote in some ways – but sometimes these footnotes can provide some fascinating insights and shades of colour that enrich our understanding of history,” he says.

“The amazing thing is that these vignettes can come at any time including casual conversations; and the most unlikely sources, like obituaries published in the Auckland Star 95 years ago.”

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