History - Cook Islands

15 Nov 2013

The history of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny in the Cook Islands is very closely linked to the history of the establishment and growth of the Catholic Church. In other Pacific Countries, the Catholic Church was established during the 1830’s and 1840’s. However the Cook Islands were under the religious control of the London Missionary Society (LMS), and no other form of Christianity was welcome, least of all, the Catholic Church. It was not until the Cook Islands became a British Protectorate in 1888 that the law guaranteed freedom of religion. The way was now open for Catholic Missionaries.

The Catholic Church in the Cook Islands was founded by Fr Bernadin Castanie sscc, who arrived in Rarotonga from Tahiti on 29th October, 1894. Less than a year later, on 14th July 1895, at the invitation of Fr Castanie, the first two Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny arrived from Tahiti. The Sisters were, Sr Lydia Berger, Superior, originally from France, and Sr Marie of the Holy Relics Hearn who was Irish. A third member of the community, newly professed Sr Cecilia O’Donnell, arrived from Ireland a little later in the year.

Two weeks after the arrival of the first sisters, on 29th July 1895, they opened St Joseph’s School with 78 pupils, all of whom had been attending the Protestant School. The school was situated on the main road in Avarua.

Although the Catholics were allowed to remain, they were still unwelcome, and the early missionaries had to struggle with prejudice and hostility, especially from the leaders of the LMS Church. However, the school that was established in Avarua attracted quite a number of students, and here the sisters taught their pupils the usual subjects as well as music, sewing and embroidery.

The Sisters also branched out into other areas in these early years. In February 1905, two sisters went to live in Arorangi, and opened a school there. They began with four students on the first day and gradually increased to 40. However, in 1909, the school had to be closed because of a lack of sisters.

Perhaps the shortage of sisters was due to the fact that, in the same year, a small community went to Aitutaki, to establish a school there, which opened on 23rd June 1909. The superior of the new community was Sr Joachim Farouel, who later spent twenty years in Rarotonga. Her companion was a newly professed Irish Sister, Sr Edmond Kenny.

The Aitutaki mission lasted for five years, until a severe hurricane struck the island in 1914, causing major damage to the convent, and other mission property. The sisters lost everything. Probably the decision not to return after the hurricane was influenced by the fact that the school seems to have been a real struggle – the sisters remarked that the attendance was poor, and that often parents kept the children at home to work the plantation or pick the oranges.

The First World War was a significant event for the growth of the catholic Faith in the Cook Islands, and for the Sisters’ School. The soldiers from the Cook Islands who served overseas, returned with a much more positive view of the Catholic Church, having encountered Catholic Priests as Chaplains in the forces, and sisters nursing in the hospitals. They realized that the biased view of the Church that had been given them by the LMS pastors was false.

Many influential families now sent their children to the Sisters to be educated. In 1911 there were only 78 students; by 1915 there were 120, and in 1922 the sisters remarked, “Our students are numerous, and we are often obliged, through shortage of personnel, to refuse those who ask for admittance.”

It was through the catholic education received, that conversions to the faith came. The sisters’ kindness and friendliness to all did a lot to break down prejudice and hostility. St Joseph’s School in Avarua was a major factor in the evangelisation of the Cook Island People. It has continued to play a significant role in the growth of the faith up to the present time.

Since education in general had not as yet been properly set up by the Government, the sisters were among the first to offer a rounded education for the young. It is thanks to those early sisters that the name of St Joseph’s continues to be held in deep affection even today.

Until 1940, the sisters in the Cook Islands were under the same Provincial as Tahiti, and they used to go to Tahiti at times for their retreats. In 1940, the year that the Cluny Sisters came to New Zealand, the Cook Islands became part of the Province under mother Ursula McCormack. The 1940s saw the building of a new school, on its present site, and also a new convent on the main road.

The principle apostolate of the sisters in the Cook Islands continues to be St Joseph’s School in Avarua, and they also gave music and typing lessons. In 1952 they opened a small boarding establishment for girls and some of the girls from the outer islands came to it. Care of the Church, and Church Music were other important aspects of their work.

In 1962, an attempt was made to establish a secondary school, but after a two year trial it had to be closed because of a lack of teachers. A Kindergarten started in 1963, was more successful, and it continues today, attached to St Joseph’s primary School.

In 1975, Bishop John Rogers established a Catholic Secondary School in Rarotonga – Nukutere College, just next to St Joseph’s Primary School.  Over the years since it began, a small number of Cluny Sisters have been members of the staff of the school.  In 1976 a new convent was built for the sisters, situated just opposite Nukutere College, and the former one became the present presbytery and Catholic Women’s League rooms.

While maintaining the original apostolate of St Joseph’s School, the sisters also branched out to undertake work in the fields of Religious Education of both adults and children, pastoral work, media, and secretarial and household assistance to the bishop.  Two sisters have been on the nursing staff of the Rarotonga Hospital at different times.

In 1986 when the Sisters of Our Lady of Nazareth withdrew from the island of Mauke, the Cluny Sisters, at Bishop Robin Leamy’s invitation, took over this mission, one as principal of the parish school, and one to do pastoral work.  In 1992, the school was handed over to lay leadership and the sisters now concentrated on religious education and pastoral work, not only in Mauke, but also in the neighbouring islands of Atiu and Mitiaro, with occasional missions in other islands.  A new development was working with disabled children.  In December 2001 it was discussed that this mission be closed and after careful preparation the mission was handed back to the Diocese and the two remaining Sisters were assigned to existing missions in the Province.

In 1994, Cluny sisters were also part of the planning and conducting of missions in various islands, as part of the preparation for the celebration of the Centenary of the Faith.  This centenary, and also the centenary of the presence of the Cluny congregation in the Cook Islands was celebrated with great joy in December 1994.  The Superior General, Sr Marie Noel Lefrancois, and Sr Rosalie Cota, General Councillor, were among the honoured guests.  A further smaller celebration was held in July 1995, to commemorate the actual date of the sister’s arrival, and the opening of St Joseph’s school.

In 2003, a Sister was attached to the Diocesan Pastoral Team and travelled to the outer Islands to instruct and prepare children and adults for various Sacraments in preparation for the Priest/Bishop.

Over the first 100 years of the Church’s presence in the Cook Islands, the Sisters of Cluny have thus been very involved in the life of the Catholic community, and in building up the faith of the people, a process which continues today.


Since the arrival of the first Catholic missionaries in 1894, the Catholic Church in the Cook Islands has developed numerically, and in other ways, but the faith is still very young.  According to the latest figures there are 3079 Catholics in the Cook Islands, i.e. about 17.5% of the total population.

The early Picpus Fathers were French, then Dutch, and more recently, there have been two Hawaiians.  The Bishops were formerly Picpus Fathers from Holland, but more recently they have been New Zealanders.  Three have been Marist Fathers.  In1987 the first two Cook island Priests were ordained.

One of the problems facing the church in the Cook Islands is the scattered nature of the diocese.  The Catholics are spread over the fifteen islands, and some of these do not have a resident priest.  In these situations, the catechist has a key role to play.

There are ten Cluny Sisters from the Cook Islands in the Congregation, seven of whom belong to our own Province, and two to the French Pacific Province.  The remaining one is a foundation member of the new community in the diocese of Alaminos in the Philippines.

The Cluny Sisters have been the only religious congregation of women in the Diocese until 2003 when three Daughters of Charity arrived to assist in the work of the Diocese.

We have one community of sisters in the Cook Islands, in Rarotonga.  Our main mission is to support and help build up the local Church in which there is a great need for the faith formation of both adults and children.