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Sir Norman Perry, KT, MBE

1935-36 / NZBTI Diploma (Queen Street Campus)

Born at Tiniroto in the back blocks between Wairoa and Gisborne, Norman grew up in Christchurch, attending Christchurch Boys' High School. At age 18 he accepted Christ at the Ngaruawahia Easter Convention in 1933.

He began studying at the NZ Bible Training Institute in 1935. At the conclusion of his studies he accepted J. O. Sanders’ invitation to become the first worker of the United Māori Mission, and was based at Ōmāio in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. He became fluent in te reo Māori and deeply immersed himself in the spiritual and cultural life of the Māori people. In 1939 he married a fellow NZBTI student, Phyllis Conway, who had been born in China, and was the daughter of H. S. Conway of China Inland Mission.

The couple quickly gained acceptance amongst local Ringatū communities. By September 1939, a Māori Prayer Fellowship had been established to support the work, and Mahi Tahi (Workers Together) had been adopted as the Ōmāio work’s motto. They were strongly committed to developing indigenous churches. By 1939 Norman had established personal contact with Āpirana Ngata (later Sir Āpirana) and served as Ngata’s secretary to his ‘Tribal Work Party’ until 1950.

World War 2 interrupted the work, with Norman invited by the Māori Battalion to serve as their YMCA officer. He was the only non-Māori serving in the Battalion. Seriously wounded at Cassino, Italy, he was repatriated to New Zealand in 1944.

The Perrys lived much of their life in Ōpōtiki where Norman started a garment factory to help Māori into employment. Under his guidance Mahi Tahi became a Government-recognised Trust committed to introducing Māori prison inmates to their own culture as an essential step away from recidivism. He served in, and worked with, many Māori organisations.

Within the Presbyterian church, Norman became an inspiring lay leader, and was active in the New Life and Stewardship campaigns of the 50s and 60s. He gave significant leadership to the Māori synod of the Presbyterian church, and became only the third lay person to be elected Moderator in 1964. His involvement in world church affairs was extensive. He became a member of the International Laity Committee of the World Council of Churches (1955-58), and leader of the Ecumenical Church Vietnam Peace Mission and, in association with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, helped initiate peace talks between Buddhists and Christians in North and South Vietnam in 1965.

He served on local and Government bodies; being chair of the East Coast Development Council (1970-80), a member of the Ministerial Committee on Violence in the 1980s, and a member of the Roper Commission on Prison Reform. He was awarded the MBE in 1962 and knighted in 1977 for services to the community and to Māori.

Norman and Phyllis had two sons and three daughters. They were married for 64 years, with Phyllis passing away in her 91st year in 2003, and Norman dying soon after his 92nd birthday in 2006. The impact of his life and work on a wide cross-section of NZ society was seen in the mourners attending his tangi and memorial service – from fellow Dames and Knights, senior politicians and Māori chiefs, to Mongrel Mob and Black Power gang leaders.

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