The painstaking translation of letters written by French Catholic missionaries in New Zealand 180 years ago has led to Bert Sutcliffe resident Helen Sturm becoming Auckland University’s oldest graduate in the spring 2019 batch at age 77.
Helen donned red and gold silks and a floppy hat to receive her PhD in French during a ceremony held for nearly 600 graduates from the Faculty of Arts at the Aotea Centre late last month.
She celebrated the achievement with family and friends as well as fellow residents from the Birkenhead village where she has lived for nearly one year.
“People seemed to be more impressed by my age than the study itself!” she laughs.
Perhaps more remarkable was the length of time between completing her BA degree in English and French in 1962 and making the decision to embark on an MA.
“It had been 50 years from when I had done my first degree and I had no idea if I could reach today’s standards,” says Helen. “I was really nervous if I could do it at all.”
Helen is no stranger to education, working as a teacher in England, Australia and New Zealand before joining the Ministry of Education and later the Education Review Office, and was keen to return the focus on her own education in retirement.
“I retired at 70 and I thought I could be retired for 25 years! That’s too much time to waste on having coffee and lunches so I thought I’d really like to go back to university.”
Despite only spending a few days in France Helen had maintained her love of the language with a weekly catch-up with a fellow Francophile, reading French and watching dvds to keep up their skills.
She started with an MA, with her thesis being a translation of part of a novel written by a New Caledonian Kanak author.
“It was so much fun I really wanted to keep going and I got lucky with the thesis topic for the PhD,” says Helen.
The inspiration for the thesis title – ‘Culture, politics, religion and language in the letters of French Roman Catholic missionaries in 1840 New Zealand: An analysis and translation’ – came when her French professor had called round to pick up some books.
She told Helen about some letters written between 1836-1854 by French Catholic missionaries based in the Oceania region that had recently been transcribed and published in 10 volumes so that readers did not have to struggle with the original cross-hatched manuscripts.
Helen was immediately struck by the historical significance of the period and honed in on a series of letters from 1840, the year of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Many of the letters were written by Bishop Pompallier, the first Roman Catholic bishop in New Zealand, as well as his team of priests and brothers, to Father Jean-Claude Colin, the Marist superior general, who was based back in Lyons, France.
“There were some interesting letters about meetings with Māori and how Pompallier and the priests worked with the tribes and how they battled to baptise babies and convert people,” says Helen.
“Crucially, Pompallier was present for the discussions just before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and pushed for religious freedom to be recognised by the Treaty. He was trying to preserve Catholicism in New Zealand.”
The letters represent an important historical snapshot of the time, says Helen.
“We haven’t had anything like this before,” Helen says. “The Protestants would have written letters back to their families and friends but those letters would have stayed with the familes and been lost over time. The Protestant missionaries would have sent back reports to the Church Missionary Society, but these were different from the personal letters that the French missionaries wrote.”
While Bishop Pompallier often vetted what his men wrote, there were some significant letters written when the bishop was away for a while.
“By 1840 there were beginning to be signs of conflict between the priests and Pompallier. Some of this is expressed in the priests’ letters to Colin.
“As a result, from 1842, Colin didn’t send any more men to the Oceania mission and Pompallier was held to account in Rome – it was a huge upset!”
Helen said she found herself completely transported back to that time, and became quite involved in the progress of Pompallier and his men.
She loved being able to immerse herself in the subject in the comfort of her own home, with coffee on tap and surrounded by books on Māori culture, translation theory, New Zealand history, the Catholic church, and the Marists.
“You’re allowed 50 books out at any one time from the University library, but after a while that wasn’t enough so I asked for it to be extended to 100 books a time!” she says.
The whole thing took three years from the day of enrolment to the day she submitted her thesis and she loved every minute, from start to finish.
“It’s been an absolutely wonderful experience, I have really enjoyed it.
“To be absorbed in something all day long until you can’t work any longer at night is fantastic.”
And while she admits it is a big commitment that you have to be very motivated to do, Helen’s advice to anyone else thinking of further study is clear: “Go for it!”
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