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Sister Atawhai, a Methodist deaconess

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Sarah Christie
24 July, 2021

Rīpeka Huingariri Atawhai Wilcox’s (Ngā Puhi) correspondence, held at the Methodist Church Archives in Christchurch, reveal a valuable personal account of wider wartime experiences and the day-to-day adjustments to life made by Māori during World War II.

Rīpeka was born in 1907 at Waiomio in the Bay of Islands. In her early twenties she moved to Christchurch to train as a Methodist deaconess.[1] Deaconesses were female workers tasked with church outreach as well as welfare activities. As part of her deaconess preparations, she undertook tuition in district nursing and teaching.  Upon graduation she became the Methodist Church’s first Māori deaconess, known as Sister Atawhai, and was posted to the Waikato to work in the Māori mission.[2] During the early 1930s she spent time in Te Kūiti and Ōkaiawa before being sent to work in the Māori Mission in New Plymouth in 1935. In 1940 she was posted to the Hokianga before moving to the Bay of Islands in 1943.[3]

Sister Atawhai’s letters record anxiety about the future at the announcement on the 4th of September 1939 that New Zealand was officially at war with Germany. The proclamation of war came at a time when the Methodist Church’s mission in New Plymouth was planning for their Labour Day weekend camp. The Mission General Superintendent George Laurenson wrote to Atawhai to encourage the deaconess to continue with the camp in the face of the declaration. He urged that they should find reassurance in each other and take comfort in their work. ‘It will be’, he wrote, ‘a great thing for you all to stand together just now in a spirit of Christian co-operation’.[4]

In a letter to Laurenson, Sister Atawhai spelt out her ongoing concerns. With news of the death of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana on the 18th of September, Atawhai weighed her obligations for attending the tangi. In the end she decided against travelling to it as the ‘news of the war is too disturbing at present.’[5]

The uncertainty of the moment meant people looked to their community and faiths to provide them with comfort and encouragement, and despite worry over international events, local responsibilities still needed to be attended to. The coming Saturday saw Atawhai refereeing a Māori Basketball tournament her Sunday School girls were competing in. These young women were also ‘adamant’ that their planned ‘mountain trip’ would not be interrupted by events on the other side of the world and did proceed the following week. By December 1939 Sister Atawhai felt more confident travelling further afield again as she planned her summer holidays and a visit to the centennial Waitangi Day celebrations.[6]



Thoughts on how one might engage with the war effort started early and volunteer organisations were quick to start recruiting helpers. Volunteering for organisations were some of the few early avenues for young women keen to participate in the war effort - providing excitement and purpose, sense of duty and service that enlistment offered young men. Within two weeks of the announcement of war a number of Sister Atawhai’s Sunday School girls had already sent in their applications to become Red Cross Volunteers.[7]

Sister Atawhai with her extensive networks in the community and organisational skills was seen as an asset by numerous groups. She contemplated enrolling with either the Red Cross, or for the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), civilian nursing units that had provided care for soldiers overseas in World War I. By the end of September, she had already attended a Red Cross information lecture and been approached by two groups attempting to entice her to join their organisation. In the end she signed up for work with the Returned Services Association (RSA).[8] 

For those eager to contribute it was easy to become over committed to various causes and organisations.  Laurenson gently warned Sister Atawhai against these pressures. ‘You will find’, he counselled, ‘all sorts of suggestions being made to you about what you should do with this war situation…Watch that you do not get swung into too much.’[9] His letter illustrates that patriotic activities within the community were usually voluntary and undertaken on top of the jobs, both paid and domestic, that people were already engaged with. The pull of duty to community and nation had to be juggled with other responsibilities. Laurenson reminded Atawhai that she should ensure ‘her main job does not get too much undermined by all the other interests.’[10] In the end however the church left the decision on how best to balance her church and patriotic work up Sister Atawhai herself.

Food Provisioning

Food, the growing of it and the sharing of it, played an important part in day to day life during the war. Despite acknowledging that she did not have a ‘special bent for gardening’, once she was settled in her house in Tāheke in the Hokianga in September 1940 Sister Atawhai planted out ‘rows of potatoes, onions and all sorts of vegetables.’[11]

Gardening was not simply about feeding oneself; food was shared around the community. Sister Atawhai was the recipient of a box of peaches in January 1941 which she spent time bottling (and no doubt gave some away).[12] In her turn Sister Atawahi sent a package of potatoes, cabbages and peas in a sugarbag by post from the Hokianga to Taranaki to friends for Christmas.[13] Despite rationing, visitors to the home needed to be fed. Sister Atawahi apologised for keeping one letter short, she was ‘weary’ she explained from a day of chopping wood, washing and ironing clothes and fixing dinner for the two workmen who came to fix her electricity.[14]

Food insecurity was, however, a reality for many of the families that Sister Atawhai worked with. She sought to find solutions to this, such as requesting church superiors reallocate her budget to enable her to buy food for the children in the Sunday school. She wished to treat them because ‘some of these children come from poor homes.’[15] In one letter Sister Atawahi highlights the plight of one family with nine children whose father was in the hospital with TB. Government assistance for low income families (earning less than £4) had been introduced with the Family Allowances Act (1926) which was paid directly to mothers who had more than two children aged under 15.[16] As Sister Atawhai pointed out however, ‘that just pays for their Kai and [the mother] has nothing to pay for clothes.’ She had to go ‘round from one place to another milking to earn something to clothe her little ones.’[17] Mobility for war-work was undertaken against a backdrop of Māori workers who were already mobile in search of seasonal work to support their families.

Travel difficulties

Rationing on petrol restricted travel during the war years. In rural areas there were extra difficulties. Unsealed roads and long distances between isolated communities were a challenge even before rationing was introduced and made cars even more of a luxury than they already were. The Methodist Church supplied Sister Atawhai with a car to visit scattered rural homes and church communities. Rationing of petrol had been introduced early in the war as the government took steps to protect against shortages due to possible disruption to international shipping. In 1940 private citizens were limited to between 8-12 gallons of petrol a month based on the size of their car.[18] In April of that year Sister Atawhai wrote to Mr Laurenson about her concerns that rationing was having on her work:

‘The car (engine) is running well, but am using a lot of benzine because of the stops I make when visiting. Visiting is I find a most important part of the job here,… The roads here are cruel. I do feel sorry for the car and therefore rarely tr avel more than 25 [mph] .’[19]

A typical Sunday for Sister Atawhai included travelling from Rāwene to Ōmanaia for a church service at 10am and then on to Waimā for a service at 1:30pm. From there she would travel back to Rāwene for an evening service, a round trip of at least 32km.[20]

Mysteriously, Sister Atawhai reported to Mr Laurenson that she was receiving a petrol ration of ‘30 gallons…and extra if I wish.’ She did not anticipate that this would last however as ‘Mr Wilson our fuel controller is leaving next month unfortunately – I suppose my allowance will be cut down.’[21]

It was not only petrol that was difficult to come by. With the war in the Pacific disrupting supply lines, rubber for tyres was also in high demand.[22] In June 1942 Sister Atawhai wrote to Mr Laurenson of her ‘tyre troubles’. He appealed to the Minister of Supply for tubes or tyres, but was not hopeful of a positive response as past entreaties to the Ministry the Church had been informed that deaconess work was not deemed ‘essential.’ Mr Laurenson therefore recommended that ‘for the time being we shall have to work simply on the equipment we have at the moment and make it go as far as possible.’[23] He advised Sister Atawhai to keep ‘the running [of the car] to the merest essential work so that there will be no danger of your being left stranded in an emergency.’[24]

As a result of the restrictions the church rearranged the areas that the deaconesses covered and Sister Atawhai moved to Kaikohe, closer to her family.[25] She also decided to reserve the use of the car to Sunday’s and Women’s Meetings and turned to the community and her whānau to attempt to solve her tyre issues. War restrictions required resourcefulness: ‘my cousin’s husband fixed my old tyres up (even the ones I discarded) that my car is set for a few more months,’ she recounted.[26] People often ‘laid up’ their cars for the duration of the war, putting the vehicle in storage until they could run it again. Sister Atawhai had managed to gain an agreement from the school master at Ngāwhā that he would sell her the tyres from an old Hillman he was no longer using.[27]

Her deaconess work finishes

On the 8th of December 1944 Sister Atawhai, dressed in a ‘navy blue ensemble with cream and navy accessories,’ married George N. George (Hōri Hōri) at Waiomio. The service, taken in te reo by the Rev. Makarae Tauroa, was held outside due to the attendance of over 100 relatives and friends the Northern Advocate reported. Mention was made during the ceremony of the ‘splendid service rendered to the church and the Māori people’ by Sister Atawhai.[28] Sister Atawhai had resigned her role several months earlier due to church policy which at the time forbade married women from continuing to work as deaconesses. Marriage bars such as this meant that the Methodist Church lost a valuable worker but as was normal in such cases, she maintained her strong links with church activities and played an active role in her parish in Waikare.

With attitudes changed towards married women in paid work Sister Atawhai was employed again by the Methodist Church from 1960 to 1967. When the church finally amended its regulations, she was reinstated as an ordained deaconess in 1968 and worked for a further four years in the Bay of Islands.[29] Her lifetime of service was formally recognised in 1980 when she was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for Community Service.[30]  We are fortunate that the letters of this Māori wahine survive to provide testimony of the resourcefulness Māori communities demonstrated during the war years in order to maintain their day to day lives. 

Image: ‘Home Mission Report and Financial Statement for the year 1931’, Methodist Church of New Zealand Archives.



[1] Wesley Chambers, Not self – but others: the story of the New Zealand Methodist Deaconess Order, Auckland: Wesley Historical Society New Zealand, 1987, p.124.

[2] ‘Māori Woman Becomes Deaconess,’ The Star (Christchurch), 16 December 1930, p.10.

[3] Chambers, Not self- but others, p.124.

[4] Letter to Sister Atawhai, from Mr. Laurenson, 6 September 1969, Home and Maori Mission Personal Correspondence Files – Wilcox, Atawhai 1939-1948, D19, Methodist Church of New Zealand Archives (hereafter Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA).

[5] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 20 September 1939,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 20 September 1939 and Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai date unknown September 1939, A Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[9] Letter to Sister Atawhai, from Mr Laurenson 26 September 1939,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 18 September 1940,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[12] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 3 January 1941,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[13] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 18 December 1940,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[14] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 4 May 1942,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[15] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 3 April 1940,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[16] Melanie Nolan, Breadwinning: New Zealand Women and the State (Christchurch, Canterbury University Press, 2000), p.137.

[17] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 3 April 1940,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA

[18] ‘The Second World War at Home – Challenges’, NZHistory - New Zealand History online, accessed 15 July 2021,, p.2.

[19] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 22 April 1940,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[20] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 3 April 1940,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[21] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, 5 September 1940,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[22] ‘The Second World War at Home – Challenges’, NZHistory - New Zealand History online, accessed 15 July 2021,, p.3.

[23] Letter to Sister Atawhai, from Mr Laurenson, 10 June 1942,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Letter to Sister Atawhai, from Mr Laurenson, 3 July 1942,  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA

[26] Letter to Mr Laurenson, from Sister Atawhai, no date (between April and June 1942),  Home and Maori Mission – Wilcox, MCNZA

[27] Ibid.

[28] ‘Weddings, George – Wilcox,’ Northern Advocate, 22 December 1944, p.4

[29] Chambers, Not self – but others, p.124

[30] Supplement to the New Zealand Gazette of Thursday, 26 June 1980, No.70, Wellington, p.1909

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