The first Mass celebrated in the new settlement of Te Aroha in November 1880 was officiated by Father O’Reilly from Thames. Held in the dining room of Laurence’s Boarding House, the congregation comprised about 20 people.
Within two years, this growing Catholic community with much enthusiasm and commitment had built themselves a church, in Wilson St, high above the township. This was later shifted on to a section of flat land at Morgantown, and was sold for use as a dwelling.
Father O’Reilly ministered to the Catholic community of Te Aroha until Father Thomas Kehoe came to Te Aroha in 1897 as the first Parish Priest, having spent some years in Tauranga.
The Sisters of Mercy established a Convent and school in 1903, to serve both Catholic and non-Catholic children of the small town.
Father Kehoe was succeeded by Father James McGuinness in 1905 and a new wooden church, Saint Joseph’s, was opened in 1906. The first curate was appointed to the Parish in 1918, a young Father O’Connor. Father Mansfield succeeded Father McGuinness in 1921 and a year later Father W.J. Forde took over.
Many changes and advances took place under Father Forde – land was purchased and a new convent, school and hall were built. One notable pupil of the Catholic school in Te Aroha was Owen Sneddon, later Auxiliary Bishop of Wellington.
Father Murphy took over after Father Forde. He bought more land and built a new church in the small rural settlement of Springdale, opened in 1936: “Our Lady, Help of Christians.” In 1951, Father W. Sheely, one time a curate in the parish, returned as Parish Priest. A new church in Manawaru, St Patrick’s, was opened in 1954. Among Father Sheely’s many achievements was the completion of the present Church on its corner site, officially opened by Bishop Liston on 22nd September 1957. The outside surface of the church had pink marble chips included in the concrete mix, and the church glowed in the sun. The original altar, made of pink marble and purchased from Italy, was donated by Fr. Sheely’s mother as a gift to him for the new church, to commemorate his appointment to his first parish.
Father Sheely was succeeded in 1971 by Father J.J. Caulfield. A new modern convent was opened in 1978.
The development and progress of the Church in Te Aroha during its first century is a tribute to the energy and devotion of many able priests and dedicated lay people. The many different national groups that settled in Te Aroha, with an influx of Dutch people after World War II, have come together to form the strong community of the present day Saint Joseph’s, and their work has helped consolidate the church in Te Aroha through its second century.
The Mercy Sisters withdrew from the school and the parish in 1995.
In 1986 the Waitoa church was demolished, and, in 1996, both the Manawaru and Springdale churches were closed and sold.
In 1999, Father Brian Playfair commenced “Transparish Ministry”, caring for both Te Aroha and Paeroa Parishes. A characteristic of recent years has been the significant number of parish priests in a relatively short time.