Sister Heeni Te Teira Wharemaru, MBE (1912-2007)
Deaconess and Tainui kuia Sister Heeni Wharemaru was a revered figure in the Methodist Church.
Sister Heeni gave decades of service as matron of the Methodist boys and girls hostels in Hamilton, Te Rahui Tane and Te Rahui Wahine. The hostels were built to accommodate young men and women from rural areas who came to the city to learn trades after the WWII.
Behind the scenes, Sister Heeni was also a key figure in the Kingitanga movement. She was the niece of Princess Te Puea Herangi and the aunt of the late Maori queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu. , and she was close to both of them. As a young woman Dame Te Ata lived at Te Rahui Wahine while she attended an Anglican high school and she maintained close contact with Sister Heeni during her reign.
Sister Heeni was born near Mokau on the King Country coast. Her mother belonged to the Tainui Maniapoto tribe and her father was from Taranaki. Both her parents were members of the Ratana Church and Sister Heeni enjoyed visiting Ratana Pa throughout her life.
Her work was to be in the Methodist Church, however. She was gifted to the Church to compensate for the 1869 murder of Rev John Whiteley by her great-grandfather.
From 1933 to 1935 Sister Heeni trained at Deaconess House, Christchurch and she was dedicated in 1937. From 1936 to 1941 she had stationing appointments in Hokianga, North Auckland, and Kawhia.
In 1941 she was stationed with the Maori Mission in Hamilton. When Rev AJ Seamer established the hostels after WWII, Sister Heeni became their matron.
As a teenager Te Taha Maori elder Evelyn Kingi was a hostel resident, and later she became a close friend of Sister Heeni. Evelyn remembers Sister Heeni as an authority figure. She wore the dark blue deaconess uniform and was strict on matters of proper appearance and manners but who was also a softy at heart.
“Sister was a stickler for the idea that cleanliness is next to godliness. On weekends the girls used to clean floors and boil sheets. I have never done more scrubbing and cleaning than when I lived at the hostel. But she always led by example.”
Evelyn says because of her social work and her standing among Maori, leading political figures of Hamilton such as Dame Hilda Ross, Kathleen Braithwaite, and Dennis and Anthony Rogers consulted with Sister Heeni.
Sister Heeni retired in 1974. In 1971 she was awarded an MBE.
After her retirement from church work she worked with the newly established Waikato Museum. Evelyn says this was also important work because her presence there created a bridge between the museum and the Maori community.
“Maoris used to troop up to the museum to see Sister. It was good for the museum and good for Maori because before that Maori didn’t give priority to the museum but when they saw the things that were there such as photos of tipunas they were over come and they could share stories about where things came from.”
Evelyn says Sister Heeni was very careful with her diet and did not eat much meat or frozen foods. She remained active until well into 80s and would catch the bus from her house to go to the museum or shop.
“Her life was dedicated to guiding young people, and it was always about giving, never about self.”