So very little is known of the Koru Road Monastery today that its once proud existence has faded into a mix of monks, myth and history. But enough has been recorded over the years to bring most of it back through the mists of time.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Father Jean-Baptiste Rolland, an exceptionally energetic Frenchman. It has been said that perhaps Father Rolland was born before the world was ready for him.

Born in 1834, and originally from Sivry-sur-Meuse, in Verdun, France, Rolland studied for the priesthood at the Verdun Seminary where he fostered a dream of becoming a missionary in a foreign land. As soon as he was ordained, he sailed for New Zealand via Sydney and arrived in 1864, to a country unsettled by war.

For a year, Rolland held the post of curate at Napier, then a garrison town, where he worked with army families, baptising a dozen new babies born to the wives of military men. In April 1865, he moved to Taranaki, where he would remain for seven years.

A priest on horseback

In Taranaki, Father Rolland became an accomplished horseman. As the only Catholic priest in a large district short on parishioners, he administered not only to those in town, but also the scattered settlers in outlying areas and the soldiers in the many blockhouses that dotted the coastal landscape from New Plymouth to Pātea.

It was the time of the New Zealand Wars, and towards the end of 1865 General Chute inflamed conflict in Taranaki. Within six weeks of taking up command, his mixed force, which included kūpapa Māori (Māori who fought on the Pākehā side) had worked their way around the mountain and back down to Whanganui, engaging in battle with the 'enemy' and burning every village and pā in their path.

Father Rolland administered to the dead and dying militia at every battle. He gave last rites and helped haul the wounded from the bush. At the battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu on 24 August 1868, it is said he baptised the kidnapped three year-old, Ngātau Omahuru, later known as the Fox Boy, in fear he would not survive the fighting.

After the smoke died down, another major player in Taranaki history, the colourful Major Gustav von Tempsky, mercenary, painter and poet, penned this lasting tribute to the priest:

“On a grey and rainy morning, when the snoring waters of the Waingongoro were muttering of flood and fury to come, when our 300 mustered silently in column on the parade ground, one man made his appearance who at once drew all eyes upon him with silent wonder.

“His garb was most peculiar, scanty, but long skirts shrouded his nether garments and old water-proof shirt hung loosely on his shoulders; weapons he had none, but there was a warlike cock in the position of his broad brimmed old felt hat, and a self confidence in the attitude in which he leaned on his walking stick that said - Here stands a man without fear. Who is it? Look underneath the flap of that clerical hat, and the good humoured face of Father Rolland will meet you.

“There he was, lightly arrayed for a march of which no one could say what the ending would be. With a good humoured smile, he answered my question as to what on earth brought him there. On holding evening service he had told his flock he would accompany them on the morrow's expedition and there he was. Truly there stood a good shepherd.

“Through the rapid river, waist deep, along the weary forest track, across ominous looking clearings where at any moment a volley from an ambush would have swept our ranks, Father Rolland marched cheerfully and manfully, ever ready with a kind word or playful sentence to any man who passed him: and when at last in the clearing of Te-Ngutu-o-te-Manu the storm of bullets burst upon us, he did not wait in the rear for men to be brought to him, but ran with the rest of us forward against the enemy's position.

“So soon as any many dropped he was by his side. He did not ask 'Are you Catholic or Protestant?' but kindly kneeling, prayed for his last words. Thrice noble conduct in a century of utilitarian tendencies, Father Rolland at his side smiling at death - a living personification, a fulfilment of man a text preached?”

Fourteen days later, von Tempsky lay dead, felled by a bullet through the brow. After the fighting, Father Rolland returned to camp with several bullet holes in his hat.

In the battle's wake

By 1869, all but one of the British Regiments had left Taranaki and most of the soldiers demobilised. Father Rolland nurtured a new dream - that of building a local monastery to house boys and men interested in becoming Marist brothers.

The newly arrived Mr. J.N. Pinnfeld was appointed to relieve at the parish for the next few months, leaving Rolland free to travel to the South Island's west coast to try to raise funds for the venture - from gold-diggings and people he knew in the Reefton area.

Back in Taranaki around 1869, Father Rolland chose the site of his new monastery at Ōākura just a short distance from the junction of Koru and Plymouth Roads. It's hard to say if he bought the land or simply chose to build there, as the recording of land purchases by land deeds did not begin in Taranaki until 1884.

At the time Koru Road was simply a dirt track. The land either side had earlier been divided into sections for the proposed Koru township which never eventuated, with the majority of it passing into the hands of ex-soldiers of the militia. But with the help of a few associates, Rolland set about sawing wood on site for the construction of the buildings.

Details for posterity

In 1982 Pat George, keen to record details of the monastery before they were lost, made these notes from a photo owned by the Mace family, who took over the property long after Father Rolland was gone.

"The building was around 60ft long and 30ft wide [8.2x9.1 metres]. It was unpainted and had a veranda along the front and both sides. The board for the outer walls were overlapped and placed horizontally instead of the usual vertical and packed boards of that period. It had an iron roof, which I could just make out…

The windows were small and around four ft high, and 2ft 6in wide with several panes in each, common to that time. The two front corner rooms appeared to be approached through the adjoining rooms. There was one large fireplace in the common room and possibly a fireplace in the kitchen.

Behind the main building, they built a large wooden shed of vertical weatherboards and iron roof, about one foot lower than the house, and dug a well between 80 and 100ft deep. There was a macrocarpa tree beside the well and a limb still bore the scars from the bucket ropes in the 1960s. This tree, unfortunately, was chopped down for firewood about ten years ago."

A vineyard and orchard

Pat George describes in detail an orchard on the side of a steep northern-facing valley, complete with grape vines, and also the Koru cemetery, which at the time was surrounded by a wooden picket fence and contained six wooden headstones dating back to the 1890s.

"The cemetery was not looked after once the monastery closed, and soon deteriorated into disrepair. One lady recalls taking the palings from the fence for firewood when she was a little girl. There was also a large fire in the area around 1911, which I suppose finished off the wooden headstones."

Though it was hard to accurately determine the names of those buried in the Koru cemetery, George put forward this list, the stark details of which still carries a strong sense of tragedy.

“Carpenter, still born male, 7 July 1872, son of John & Hannah

Carpenter, Hannah, died 21 June, 1873, aged 30 years.

Carpenter, 4 day infant, died 22 June, 1873, parents John & Hannah.

Kelly, Mary, died 5 July, 1876, aged 55 years.

Costello, Catherine, died 26 March, 1885, aged 18 years.

Madgwick, Ellen, died 1891, aged 43 years.

McDavitt, (no further details).

Marin, Br.Elias Regis, died 24 or 30 April, 1872”

The Koru Monastery - so who stayed there?

It's said that Father Rolland's genial, cheerful nature easily pulled people to him, but it's hard to say exactly who he expected his monastery to attract. Though there had been talk of an orphanage and school for boys, it appears its purpose may have been to house bachelor and widowed Irish soldiers, lost and alone after the wars ended.

A gifted musician, Rolland was also a teacher of Latin and French, and would later offer his help to set up other schools and churches in the district. But perhaps his enduring hope was to convert his flock to Marist brothers to help spread the 'good word' in the future.

Possibly, if the 50 year-old priest had been able to keep Koru going longer, his dream might have been accomplished, but the monastery buildings were too small to accommodate large numbers of boarders - no more than a dozen at a time - though his intake did include two notable mentions.

Philip Putnam, ex-army drummer-bugler, and part of a musical family from Wellington, took up residence, as well as Brother Elias Francis Regis Marin, who quickly became Rolland's right hand man. Brother Marin was an excellent builder, gardener and vintner, and was very capable of stepping into Rolland's shoes whenever the priest was away on his frequent fund-raising trips.

Sowing seeds of faith

While New Zealand's Bishop Viard did not expressly approve of Koru - and bearing in mind that the following figures could well be wrong as in an earlier report he gives the number of Māori Catholics as 25 because most Māori in the province were already Wesleyan or Anglican - he wrote to the Marist Superior in France, informing him of Rolland's progress:

"Father Rolland deserves to be encouraged but he has need to be moderate and I have written to him in that sense two days ago. The Taranaki region has about 7,000 people; 2000 of them Maoris. There are 400 to 500 European Catholics and 500 Māori Catholics. The soldiers number 150, most are Catholics and Father Rolland makes much impression on them."

The Right Reverent Monsignor Power of Hāwera had more heartening words to say in his history of the Catholic Church, published in 1925:

"Many of the disbanded soldiers joined this new Father-abbot. Some of them, turning their swords into ploughshares, tilled the land after the manner of the monks of St Benedict; others would spend their days instructing the boys who were sent there from many parts of the colony."

End of days

Yet, sometime around 1874, Father Rolland closed the Koru Monastery doors and never reopened them. It could be that the death of both Bishop Viard and Brother Elias in 1872 marked an unsettled period, or it might have been lack of funds and Father Rolland's need to travel to find them, that lead to the end of Koru's days. But that year, Rolland transferred to Westland and there he stayed.

Ten years later the first land deed for Koru appears, signed in 1884 year by Wi Kamokamo, Oreivia Rua, Hura Tanaki, Mirika-Motuia Arakoa, Arakia and Peina. The land was then leased in 1895 to Mrs Fanny Meredith. As a footnote, Mr Edgar Meredith was the well-known publican of the Ōkato, Royal, and Breakwater Hotels until his death in 1945. In 1913, the lease passed to Frank Aroa, and then to the Mace family.

In 1915, the main building - used by the Mace family as a farm house - caught fire and burned to the ground. Soon all that remained of Koru Monastery was a hollow in the ground, one stone base from the fireplace and the remains of the well, though, come spring, a few violets would sometimes poke their heads out of the ground to signal where the garden once grew.

By the time Pat George recorded notes for posterity in 1982, only a single pear tree stood in the gully, the grape vines had grown wild or died, and just a few cherry trees survived. Pat George: "Mrs Hoskin (the Mace's daughter) recalls her mother filling up the cart with cherries to be taken to town and the driver causing the horse to rear, which in turn tipped all the cherries onto Mrs Mace and the road. Mrs Mace senior managed to salvage enough for a cherry pie."

And then…

Rolland made Reefton his home, and was subsequently chosen as the man to save Ahaura College in the Upper Grey River from collapse. Housed in the Wellington Marist Archives is a memoir written in 1945, by a former boarder at the college. James R. MacCormick offers this glimpse of Father Rolland when the priest was in his prime around 1876, and teaching at the college:

"Father Rolland was of slender figure, taller than the typical or average Frenchman, with blond complexion, blue eyes, black hair. He had an active gait and possessed a good sense of quiet humour. Away from the Presbytery and grounds at Ahaura, when he usually wore soutane and biretta, he usually appeared in frock coat and bell topper, the costume usually worn even in those far off days and in that isolated part of the world by an appreciable number of professional men. This costume with the addition of black leather gaiters was also his equestrian garb.

"He spoke good English with apparent facility and with less Gallic accent than usually displayed by French speakers. I think it was himself I heard tell the story that when he was learning English, the soldiers took a great delight in advancing this part of his education by making him acquainted with the principal 'cuss' words in the language."

On 13 July 1903, Reverent Dean Jean-Baptiste Rolland, indefatigable parish priest, died in Reefton of cancer, and was given a funeral with full military honours. During his lifetime, several friends had tried to gain official recognition for his military chaplaincy work, but to no avail.

In 1961, the site of the Koru Monastery was investigated by the Taranaki committee of the National Historic Places Trust to determine how many human remains were buried there, and exactly what the history was, but nothing much came of it.

Though notes left by Mr. E. Lysons, surveyor, who lived at the old monastery while owned by the Mace's, and interview tell of a 1830s raid on Te Koru by Te Rauparaha and a subsequent cannibal feast, this story can be dismissed. "The poor defenceless monks were killed and a cannibal feast took place on the spot. What the raiding party could not eat was carried away on their backs. Exeunt the monks!" The first Catholic priest did not arrive in New Zealand until 1838, the dates do not add up.


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Young, R., with Curnow, H., King, M. (1982). G.F. von Tempsky: Artist & Adventurer. Martinborough: Alistair Taylon.

Cowan, J. (1955). The New Zealand wars: a History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period. Wellington: Government Printer.

Belich, J. (1986). The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. Auckland:  Auckland University Press.

Stowers, R. (1996). Forest Rangers. Christchurch: Whitcoulls.

Cowan, J. (1996). Hero Stories of New Zealand. Wellington: Southern Reprints.

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