Fr Jan de Bree was born in Utrecht 1908, youngest of ten children. At age 15 he began six years of study at a Mill Hill college, then two years at Rosendale studying philosophy and science. After a further four years with the Mill Hill order in London he was ordained in 1935. The day after ordination he and three other priests were appointed to the Auckland diocese in faraway New Zealand. On arrival in New Zealand he was sent to the far north, to Pawarenga, to learn the Maori language. On later visits there Wattie and Daphne Maunsell were his hosts. His pastime of hooking eels replaced chess and trout fishing.
In those days Maori people spoke little English and their children were forbidden by the Education Department to speak Maori on the school grounds, in an effort to foster the English language.
Fr de Bree’s first appointment was to Ohura in the King country. He recalls that Dean Martin Al ink, the then Superior of the Mill Hill Fathers, cautioned him that he was only to be in Ohura temporarily. It was not the Dean’s habit to appoint a young man, only twelve months ordained, as a parish priest. During his stay, which was to last twelve years, Fr de Bree attended to Catholic Maori throughout the King Country. Father often commented that he was never a curate and took on full responsibilities of a priest right from the start. After his long spell in Ohura he moved to Waihi during 1949 and 1950. He treasured associations he had there with Sir Hepi Te Heuheu, Hiri and Martha Mariu, Joe Hoko, the Dempsey family, Tutereina and Bernard Hepi.
After 15 years in New Zealand Father returned to Holland for eight months leave, during six months of which he lectured to would-be Dutch immigrants about New Zealand. The governments of both countries sponsored the lectures and enthusiasm was great among the Dutch people to learn about New Zealand. Between 1950 and 1974, Dutch immigrants to this country numbered over 36,000.
He arrived back in New Zealand in August 1951 and after three months in Waitaruke (Northland) was given responsibility for Taupo. He had many tasks ahead of him. His ability was amazing. During his ministry the population of Taupo rocketed from just under 1500 to over 13,000. His was the responsibility to cope with this growth. Today, thirty years later, the population has reached 25,000.
Owen Delany had this to say at Father De Bree’s 50″ jubilee in 1985:
In a quiet and unobtrusive way Father was a law unto himself when managing the Parish affairs. He was not partial to committees but preferred to gather round him people who were experts in their field with whom he could talk and exchange ideas and come to a quick decision. I am pretty certain that Fathers hip pocket -as far as he was concerned, was the only bank in Taupo. He had to buy and sell land, move the church to a new site in Opepe St, build a presbytery, a Convent and a hall but he did all of this with very little money.
In 1956 four acres of land in Opepe St was bought to resite the church and to provide the land on which to build a convent and a much needed presbytery.
The first need was eleven hundred pounds to move the church to the Opepe street site. The Sewing Circle was the answer! Stacia Steen and Dorrie Crowther, and later her daughter Theresa enlisted the aid of a team of women. New aprons, tablecloths, and masses of children’s clothing were made. Old clothes were collected, washed, mended and sold. Mrs Stacia Steen, the moving force in the Circle for almost forty years, and the late Mufti Daley were the two most involved at that time. An annual fair was a time for the whole parish to get together and raise money and at the same time have some fun. In those days, the Sewing Circle met weekly. In later days they met monthly but members busied themselves at home and prepared for the next annual Fair. When Taupo Primary school started its monthly Flea Market, Mrs Steen set up a stall there and stocked it for years, in fact until her death in 1994!
In 1953, a branch of the Catholic Women’s League was formed under its first President Mrs Hilda Peart with Mrs Nancy Watson also very involved. For some time, apart from church collections, the League and the Sewing Circle raised the bulk of the money needed for the parish. Without much publicity the Circle survived and lived on until the late nineties.
At a League Diocesan Conference in Taumarunui in 1971 Lorna Tritt delivered a paper on “Preparing Our Children For Living in the Seventies.” Time marched on! At the next Conference an interesting remit was considered.
That because the liberalisation of Licensing Laws has resulted in hotels becoming places for social meeting and entertainment, the age for legal drinking be reduced to eighteen.”
It took until the year 2000 for the law to be changed. In hindsight, after ONE YEAR, was it wise?
A prime concern of the Catholic Women’s League in the Seventies was raising funds for a Mission Station at Pago Pago, Samoa. After Dawn Caird ‘s busy year Loraine Ross became President and with the help of Norma Logan and Jean Wacker presided over twenty-one members. Other duties were church cleaning, providing a substantial lunch when Father had meetings of his fellow Clergy from surrounding districts, and food for First Communion and Confirmation times. Grinding out the monthly newsletter on a temperamental old duplicator at the convent was another rostered duty. As times changed and young mothers rejoined the work force, it was more difficult to attract members and a lack of desire to serve on committees meant closing down the branch in the early eighties. The Mission Circle continued for a while longer.
Father de Bree established the Legion of Mary to help meet the spiritual needs of the parish with the assistance of three foundation members; Frank Habib, Dorrie Crowther and Doris McBeth who all remained active until their deaths. Their duties involved reciting the Rosary daily as well as other Legion prayers, attending weekly meetings and doing work in the community allocated by Father de Bree. Members attended monthly regional meetings in Rotorua and every summer a picnic was held for all members in the region at different locations. Active members delivered a Rosary statue to Catholic homes where it was left for a week. In pre-TV days, many families would invite others into their homes during this week to say the Rosary. A large group of auxiliary members said the Rosary and Legion prayers daily.
Father de Bree took an initiative that led to the start of an important group. Rosaleen McBrayne reports:
With the rapid growth of Taupo, all the churches combined to take up a census among the new arrivals. A voluntary Social Welfare Committee was organised with members from all ranks in the community to keep abreast of the growing needs of the expanding population. Representatives from the churches, medical profession, child welfare department, headmasters of schools, district nurses and police attended a general meeting, sponsored by Fr de Bree. The meetings were held regularly at St Patrick’s hall from 1961 to discuss concrete proposals, such as truancy at schools, advising on Maori housing and any other urgent proposals and problems affecting the community.
This body of voluntary welfare services was to act as intermediary between the various government departments in a capacity of preventive rather than punitive assistance. At these monthly meetings the reports stressed the need for voluntary cooperation in the community. The public began to realise that through voluntary cooperation a large amount of ‘potential’ crime and subsequent prosecutions could be prevented and avoided.