In 1881 a Māori holy man named Pāora Te Potangaroa told his people who gathered near Te Ore Ore on New Zealand’s North Island that the right church for the Māori had not yet come. When it did, he prophesied, they would recognize it because it would come from the east, brought by messengers traveling in pairs who would pray with their hands raised. Potangaroa’s prophecy was one of several made by Māori matakite, or visionaries. When early Māori converts first met Latter-day Saint missionaries, they saw in them the messengers foretold in the prophecies.
While the earliest converts and branches in New Zealand had been among Europeans, missionary work among the Māori took root in the early 1880s, flourishing in rural Māori communities, particularly on the North Island. At this time, many Māori had become dissatisfied with other Christian groups, and disease, war, and colonization had disrupted many Māori cultural and social institutions. As the missionaries traveled from village to village, they sensed the Lord was guiding them to people prepared to receive their message. They learned the Māori language, enlisted recent converts as tutors and interpreters, and appealed to rangatira (tribal chiefs), some of whom were baptized, followed by tribal members.
One of these was Chief Hirini Te Rito Whaanga, of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe. He and his wife, Mere, who lived in the Hawke’s Bay region of the North Island, knew of a similar prediction, made during Hirini’s grandfather’s lifetime. When the missionaries preached to Māori in the area in 1884, Elder William Stewart raised his hands to bless his hearers. Some in the audience recognized this as a fulfillment of prophecy, and more than 200 soon joined the Church. Mere and then Hirini were among those baptized. “On coming up out of the water, my heart was filled with love and understanding,” Mere later wrote.
Hirini and Mere desired to go to Utah like European converts, but because Hirini was the chief, his people understandably resisted his departure. He reminded them that the prophecy about the missionaries also said that one among them would return to the land from whence the missionaries came. In June 1894, Hirini, Mere, and five family members departed, leaving behind lives of prominence, as well as their beloved family and friends. “My heart truly ached,” wrote Mere. “I had never been separated from my parents, or brothers and relatives previous to this, nor they from us.” In Utah, Hirini and Mere were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple and performed temple ordinances for their ancestors. Over the years, they also performed many temple ordinances for the ancestors of relatives and friends in New Zealand.
Four years later, Hirini returned to New Zealand as a missionary at age 70. He was able to open doors that had been closed to other missionaries. A few years earlier, the missionaries had been driven from one village in which Hirini had several friends and relatives. “Trusting in God and without fear of their displeasure,” recalled Hirini, “I earnestly pointed out their shortcomings and false notions and they accepted my words gladly.” During just one month, Hirini and his fellow missionaries performed about 20 baptisms. In every area he visited, he gathered additional genealogical information from the locals so he could perform more ordinances for their ancestors when he returned to Utah.
After Hirini returned to Utah in April 1899, he rejoined Mere, and the two continued their service in the Salt Lake Temple. Hirini’s health declined, and he died in 1905. In 1907 Mere departed on her own mission to New Zealand, serving as an example of humility and faithfulness to the people. “The people honor her and her words mean much to them,” mission president Rufus Hardy said. “Her very presence … is a sermon.” Mere lived until 1944 and saw the Church in New Zealand grow to some 10,000 members, most of them Māori.