Fully organized Relief Societies outside of the stakes of the Intermountain West were unusual at the turn of the 20th century. One of the first mission-wide Relief Societies organized and fully staffed by local sisters rather than the wives of missionaries was inaugurated in the New Zealand Mission in 1901. There mission president John Ephraim Magleby called three Maori sisters – Takare Aperata Paewai Duncan (1868-abt. 1950), president; Mere Te Hauerangi Meha (1858-1943), 1st counselor; and Ani Matenga Renata (1856-1921), second counselor – to organize Relief Societies in the branches of the mission
Very few train tracks had been laid in those early years, and roads were often poor. Where roads could be depended upon, the three women traveled by horse and buggy; in rougher regions, they traveled by horseback. The distances sometimes required that they camp by the roadside for one or two nights between branches. Their work was two-fold: to teach Gospel principles and anchor the women more solidly in their faith, and to teach practical skills of cooking and the production of clothing in the changing economy of the island, and sanitation and healthcare required by modernization.
President Duncan, who had been baptized in 1887, made two trips to Salt Lake City with her husband Wiremu – the first in 1913, to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. They, with three fellow Maoris, traveled around Utah visiting missionaries they had known in New Zealand. In Brigham City, Brother Duncan was asked to speak.
He is a splendid specimen of manhood, standing nearly six feet high and built proportionately, a countenance that beams with intelligence and human kindness, and he had not uttered ten words until the audience was convinced that a great heart throbbed beneath his expansive bosom. In excellent English having a slight accent that was easy to understand, he told of his gratitude in being privileged to come to Utah, the land of Zion as he termed it, for the purpose of working in the Temple for himself and some of his kindred dead. he referred to the work of the missionaries in New Zealand, and pointing to the young missionaries who had previously been called to seats on the stand, told the audience that they were men of God even though they were mere boys when laboring among the Maoris in far off New Zealand.
Maddeningly, the journalist recorded no similar description of Sister Duncan. However, when the group went to Richfield to visit former (and future – he served again 1928-1932) President Magleby, Sister Duncan was called upon to speak.
Remarks were made by Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, the latter speaking in the Mahroi (Maori) language, Elder Magleby interpreting, and by Mr. Mahaa. All testified to the faithfulness of the elders who had labored in New Zealand, and the benefits that the natives had received from the introduction of the gospel among them. not only had they been taught sacred truths, and right living, but they had been instructed in temporal affairs, … The Mormon church had established an agricultural college in the island, and not only were the members of the church admitted to this school, but all native children were extended this privilege. …
A delightful lunch was served by the members of the Relief societies of the three wards of Richfield, the honor of promoting the affair being placed in their hands on account of Sister Duncan being a presiding officer in that society in her home land.
I have not yet identified the date of the Duncans’ second Utah trip, when “they were called by President Joseph F. Smith on special Temple work.”
Unlike Sister Duncan, first counselor Mere Meha did speak English fluently, one of the very few women of her generation, according to sources, to do so. In May, 1931, Sister Meha, age 76, joined a temple excursion to Hawaii. The New Zealand Relief Society raised money to assist the Saints making that trip (13 went that year), but Sister Meha, having carefully saved $225.00 over the preceding several years, was able to pay her own way. She was described as “the ‘Life’ of the temple party.”
Another member of that 1931 temple excursion was second counselor Ani Renata, with her husband. In addition to serving for several years in the Mission Relief Society presidency, Sister Renata was president of the Tamaki Branch Relief Society for 12 years.
In the 19teens, it became customary throughout the church for the mission president’s wife to serve as mission Relief Society president, aided by two local sisters, and Sisters Duncan, Meha, and Renata were released. But they had started the work successfully, under conditions that many mission presidents’ wives would have hesitated to undertake, and they left a legacy of dozens of healthy branch Relief Societies bettering the lives of the local sisters and their families.