Pompallier (1842)

Printery for the Papists

The Church Missionary Society (see entries 9 and 13) had no monopoly on folly. Their ‘Papist’ rival Bishop John Baptiste François Pompallier could match them. Catholic missionaries had landed in the Hokianga in 1838 and, six months before the Treaty was signed, Pompallier established the headquarters for his grandly titled Vicariate of Western Oceania at Kororāreka, directly across the Bay of Islands from the rival Anglican mission at Paihia. The gullible bishop paid trader Benjamin Turner an exorbitant £370 for a cottage and a narrow beachfront section. On this cramped site, his Marists built a chapel, storehouse, outhouses and a printery.

This distinctively French-looking building is a monument to poverty and passion. Lacking money but working under lay missionary architect Louis Perret, the priests used traditional Lyonnais methods, pise de terre (rammed earth) for the lower storey and pan de bois (pise panels/ timber framework) for the upper one. Hōne Heke spared the compound when he sacked Kororāreka in 1845. After the Marists moved on it became a tannery (see the restored pits out the back), then a house for the Greenway and Stephenson families. With little sense of structural integrity and even less for spelling, they made ‘Pompalier’ into a grand Victorian house that gulled many into believing that it had been the bishop’s palace.

The government bought the old building in 1943 and after the war added much concrete and historical gloss to the ‘house that never was’. Truth seeped back slowly. Historian Ruth Ross exposed the bishop’s palace myth in the 1960s, but ‘Pompallier House’ remained a venerated fraud until structural instability caused by Hamlin Greenway’s chimney and Public Works concrete ‘adobe’ forced its closure. Pompallier reopened in 1993, expensively conserved. The grounds interpret its 19th-century secular history and a museum upstairs tells the story of the old place’s strange history. Downstairs the Virgin Mary watches over the Gaveaux printing press.

Further information

This site is item number 15 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

The mission station site is professionally staffed and fully interpreted. Russell has several other historic sites.



  • Kate Martin and Brad Mercer (eds), The French place in the Bay of Islands: essays from Pompallier’s printery, Matou Matauwhi/Rim Press, Russell, 2011

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Posted: 15 Jul 2019

This write up and account of Pompalier House, its history and background reflects no credit on the writer or New Zealand's regard and respect for its history. Disappointing!