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  • Writer's pictureB.M. Allsopp

Naililili: Fiji's cathedral on the delta


Colourful Punts at the Naililili crossing, Rewa R. Fiji
Punts at the Naililili crossing, Rewa R.

Not far from Suva, we reach the flat delta lands and board a narrow punt to cross the Rewa River to Naililili Island. For a few minutes, banana and coconut trees hide our destination, one of the most remarkable of Fiji's buildings. Around the bend, two square towers emerge first, then a cross, next a rose window, like a Venetian church revealed through the mist. Shafts of sun pierce the grey clouds to bounce flashes of colour off stained glass.


The Roman Catholic Church of St Joseph the Husband of Mary, known more widely as Naililili 'Cathedral', is not at all ethereal close up. I squelch across the grass, impressed by the structure's weighty mass, pressing into the flat estuarine earth. This grand church would surely stand strong in cyclones and floodwaters. Like Venice, it may be stained, damp and peeling, but it was built to last.


Facade of St Joseph's Church at Naililili, Fiji
St Joseph's Church at Naililili Source: Fiji Museum

Father Patrice Emanuel Rougier

Young Fr Rougier sailed from France with Marist Father Julian Vidal, who had been appointed the first Roman Catholic bishop of Fiji in 1888. As the priest of the Rewa district, Rougier's vision for his parish, where most people had been Wesleyans (Methodists) for decades, was ambitious. As he saw it, the best way to develop a congregation was to win over members of the Methodist churches. At that time, the Methodist mission schools only taught literacy in Fijian, but Rougier believed Fijians would welcome a school where village boys could also learn English. Bishop Vidal backed Fr Rougier, who was proved right when many Methodists enrolled their sons in the 'English' school at Naililili Mission. Staffed by three Marist Brothers, the school opened in 1899.


photo of Fr Rougier, builder of Naililili church, Rewa
Fr Rougier (date unknown)

Fr Rougier's fierce competitive spirit created resentment, culminating in a notorious incident when he persuaded a Methodist chief, Tui Namosi, to become a Roman Catholic. Eight hundred of the chief's subjects followed him. The priest asked the converts to hand in their Methodist hymn books and Bibles, took them to Naililili and burned them. Fr Rougier denied this accusation, claiming only damaged and useless books were burnt. Witness reports differ, but the resulting hostility between the churches was long-lived and bitter.


A dream becomes reality

Fr Rougier may have been provocative but he also had the gift of enthusing others. Even his bishop often laboured beside him to build their shared dream: the presbytery in 1896, the convent in 1897, the school and finally, the grandiose church which Fr Rougier wanted to become Fiji's Roman Catholic Cathedral. By this time Fr Rougier was fluent in Fijian and had a good rapport with the people, without which such an ambitious project requiring a host of workers could not succeed.


Fr Rougier probably designed the church himself using a French model. The structure was of coral limestone, cut and hauled upstream by barge, along with timber and all other materials. The energetic priest reached out to his prosperous friends and family in France, who supplied a steam-powered brickmaking machine, 25 stained glass windows with unique Fijian inscriptions, a bronze clock and two bronze bells. Today, the clock no longer works, the tower roofs are gone, and some windows destroyed by cyclones, but the bells still call the congregation to mass.


Click on the arrows in the slide show below to see the interior images.




When my eyes adjust to the dimness, I'm taken aback by the size and detail of the traditional French interior. Despite 120 years of attack by tropical weather, the peeling paint and plaster, the smell of damp, the scale of Rougier's project is incredible. The church is cared for with love by its priest and congregation, but they know this is not enough. Naililili 'cathedral' needs a fund raiser of Fr Rougier's calibre so that it continues to astound boat passengers as they round the bend of the Rewa River.


View this brief video from a mass in April 2024 to see the church filled with worshippers. https://www.facebook.com/100001911664238/videos/pcb.1775848346243196/1080378206564374


From priest to king

Fr Rougier's dedication and drive made Naililili Mission one of the most effective in Fiji. However, Bishop Vidal had no choice but to suspend him from the priesthood just six years after the completion of his great church. The catalyst for his downfall was the arrival in Fiji of an alcoholic Frenchman, Gustav Cecille, released from the penal colony of New Caledonia. Fr Rougier befriended 62-year-old Cecille, and helped him claim a fortune he had inherited. Cecille gave his power of attorney to Fr Rougier on condition the priest promised to look after him and his young Fijian wife, Katarina, until they died.


Suspicions of financial impropriety were aroused when the priest purchased land in his own name and set his brother's family up in business in Fiji. This was compounded when in 1906, Fr Rougier travelled to France with both his brother's family and the Cecilles, without his Bishop's permission. After he ignored warnings from his superiors, his friend and supporter Bishop Vidal suspended Fr Rougier in 1907 for breaking his vows of both poverty and obedience.


On the heels of his disgrace, Fr Rougier bought Fanning and Washington Islands (now part of Kiribati) at auction in Suva. While his brother went to Fanning Island to manage the copra business there, Fr Rougier travelled to France to appeal against his suspension to the Marist Order. His appeal was denied. He returned to Fiji, sold his assets there and made another trip to France. On Cecille's death in 1912, Fr Rougier became sole Trustee for Katarina Cecille. He sold Washington Island and bought the leasehold of Christmas Island (now part of Kiribati) from Lever Bros Plantations in 1913, settling there to manage operations.


Business must have boomed, because in 1916, at the age of 50, Fr Rougier retired to Tahiti , where he became known as the 'King of Christmas Island'. He bought a three-masted schooner to tour his realm, as befitted Pacific Islands royalty. It's no surprise that rumours buzzed about the nature of his relationship with Katarina, but whatever the truth there, it seems she may eventually have returned to Rewa, possibly remarrying and having children. Rougier continued to send her letters and money until his death in 1932. Just like his Naililili 'cathedral', Fr Rougier is a colourful, intriguing puzzle, perhaps out of place and time.


Note on Sources: Here are my main sources, which vary considerably in their interpretation of Fr Rougier's actions.

Pacific Islands Monthly, August 1958,

The Fiji Times, and Fiji Sun, various dates,

J. Siers, Naililili Cathedral, Fiji Islands, French Embassy Suva, 1999

The First One Hundred Years: the story of the Marist Brothers in Fiji, 1888-1988, Suva 2006


If you have friends interested in Fiji or Pacific islands in general, I encourage you to share this post.

I look forward to hearing from you!


Bernadette


B.M. Allsopp



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