Cathy Pelly
Cathy Pelly

A wise friend said to me: “Don’t idolize Cathy. Just try to meet her in her humanity.” That was good advice. Yet Cathy was an extraordinary person. She had done more in her short life than many adults, and gained a greater maturity. The reading from Revelation 21:1 – 7 at the funeral was chosen because it expresses the prophetic vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a new world in which all things can be made new, which Cathy discovered for herself in so costly a way.

I don’t think it would be to idolize Cathy to say that fundamentally she was a visionary with exceptional strength of character, a person with the courage and the ability, moreover, to act out her vision. The tragedy of Cathy is that all the promise so many people saw in her cannot now be realized in her own life.

Yes, Cathy had the strength and vision of a beloved child – because that is what she was from the moment she was born. I remember her as a little girl, barely able to walk, gathering together a heap of interesting muddy stones in front of the Sailing Club in Orford Suffolk. After a while one of us (Jo and Raymond) tried to persuade her to come home. Cathy resisted fiercely, refusing to budge and went on with what she was doing. Someone in the Sailing Club observing this scene said jokingly!: “That child will be the Prime Minister one day!” Cathy often seemed uncertain and unconfident on the surface. But underneath she had amazing strength and determination. I think I can honestly say I have never seen Cathy give up or let go of anything that really mattered to her.

Two other stories about Cathy come to mind. When she was at Primary School St.Thomas’, Kohimarama – she must have been about eleven or twelve – she discovered to her disgust that she, as a girl, was obliged to do cookery as an ‘option’ while the boys went over the road to the wood and metal workshops in Selwyn College. This not only outraged her sense of justice, it also affronted her vision of life in which boys and girls could discover who they wanted to be beyond their social roles and sexist stereotyping. So characteristically Cathy took action. First she politicized the other girls in the class. Then one day she led a walkout from the cookery class. She and the other girls went and stood in the passage outside the classroom. The teacher tried to persuade them to go back. They refused. The headmaster was called and he tried to get them back into the classroom. They still refused. Other threats were made. All to no avail.

Eventually they won a concession: the right to talk with the headmaster of the big Secondary School across the road where the wood and metal workshops were. Nobody thought they ‘d dare to do it. But with a little bit of coaching from home Cathy and some girls went and spoke with the headmaster. By their advocacy they persuaded him to alter the system. It was agreed for the following year that boys and girls could choose whether they wanted to do cookery for an option, or wood – or metalwork. It may sound a small incident. But the principle was profound viz: peoples’ right to self – determination even within a ‘system’; and it shows how Cathy expressed her deepest beliefs through actions which required courage and considerable political skills.

A further incident from the same period: Cathy was in a class where the teacher, a heavy smoker, was in the habit of using a strap to punish children, often for quite minor offences. The strappings were administered after school when the rest of the class had gone home. One girl, J., a particular friend of Cathy’s, was often ‘in the gun’. Cathy, again, was outraged and started to think how she could stop this violence in the classroom. She deployed a number of strategies. The first, and personally mostly costly, was to confront Mr. X, the teacher. To do this Cathy hid in the toilets after school one day when she knew he was going to strap J. Just as this was about to happen Cathy emerged into the classroom, stood between Mr. X and J and said: “Mr. X, do you think J. is going to learn if you treat her like that?” Other strategies she deployed were to hide, and eventually cut up, the strap; make representations to the headmaster; and finally to visit the homes of the children affected to inform parents of what was happening. When angry parents started arriving in the headmaster’s office, he realized the time to sack Mr. X. had come. Cathy was also talking of writing an article to be published in the local free hand-out paper. Here we perhaps see the combination of effective politics with compassion that was one of the hallmarks of Cathy’s character.

Then I remember her at fourteen. To understand Cathy you have to realize that she sensed at a deep level that the energies to create a more just and more human world were coming especially from the poor, from indigenous peoples and from women. In New Zealand this for her meant identification with the Maori people. Some of her closest friends were Maori. Not only did she immerse herself in Maori language and culture, she also joined in the struggle to regain land which the Maori people had lost to the white settlers. At Bastion Point, close to St. John’s College where I worked as Warden (=Principal) and where we (Jo, Raymond, Monica – who later changed her name to Hester – and Aidan) lived, there is some disputed land on a beautiful promontory looking out over Auckland Harbour. The developers with the support of the then Muldoon-led National Government wanted to get hold of it to build expensive, desirable residences. The local Maori, the Ngati Whatua, organized an occupation of the land. Cathy went and camped with them. In the very early morning the police arrived with arc lamps, batons and riot-shields, paddy wagons, the lot. They warned the people that anybody still on the disputed land one hour later would be arrested. Some left. Cathy, a few pakeha and the Maori stayed and were duly arrested. She spent the rest of the day in the Central Police Station in Auckland. To survive she went and did Yoga in the toilet; and then she sat trying to persuade one of the policewomen to change sides. Some of the Maori activists graciously took it upon themselves to stand with her in that place. And many Maori people I have spoken with were deeply impressed with Cathy and knew that she was on their side. One of the telegrams Jo and I received after Cathy’s death came from three Maori activist groups and it reads: “Sorrow at loss of spirited fighter of Bastion Point. Kia Kaha = roughly “Be of good courage!”. All members of the family Arohanui”= approx, the kind of costly love that sustains community. Cathy’s courage and integrity that day didn’t go unnoticed nor will it be forgotten. It was out of this kind of experience that she wrote her song Crazy White Man.

At this point in Cathy’s life she went through what was truly a life and death crisis. I can only hint at what happened. All at once – and this was before her fifteenth birthday – she rejected everything: school, family, her old self, religion (on the dining – room table she carved the words “Fuck Easter!”), her class and racial background – everything. The day she ran away from home she left a note in my bed which said: “Dear Raymond, Please don’t send the police after me. I want you to trust me because from now on I’m taking responsibility for my own life.” Jo and I took her at her own word and for two weeks we didn’t know where she was. But despite our anxiety we managed somehow to trust and support her. Eventually we traced her to the Karuna Falls community in the Coromandel – named after a sacred waterfall said to have healing properties – where I spent a memorable few days with her. I brought her a thick sweater, some gumboots and other supplies. She agreed not to break the law and wind up in jail. In the year or so that followed, which was spent in an alternative life-style community, in time wandering around New Caledonia/Noumea, in a bach pronounced ‘batch’, Kiwi for a holiday cabin-cum-house at Piha, and in Auckland, everything went wrong – outwardly. Cathy’s sense of identity collapsed. She felt suicidal and disoriented. Her physical health broke down to the point where her life was at risk. She had ulcers on her legs, wouldn’t see a doctor, wasn’t eating properly. During this time she lived with people who were black or brown and mostly of her own age. I was away on Sabbatical at the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass., as a Visiting Scholar 1982/3 during part of this time. She spent some of it in an Alternative School in Mt. Eden, Auckland, where in Theo she met a friend and mentor. Theo is now a trustee of Cathy’s Trust. Cathy also at this time had up to eighteen street kids living Marae-style in the big upstairs bedroom in the Warden’s House at St. John’s. On the tarmac of the College she painted the words “Maori Land”…

However, what from a white, middle-class standpoint looked like a social and psychological disaster was in fact for Cathy a time of revelation and exploration of new life. The values from her background, which she outwardly rejected, were at another level being radicalized, recreated and acted out. It was as though she gave her old life away so that she could receive new life as a gift. In the moon and the stars, and in mother earth, she discovered a source of healing, empowerment, goodness uncontaminated by the corruption and violence of society. It was as if she had discovered for herself in a very costly way the overflowing grace and life of God pulsating through the universe. Symbolized by the way she sang and recited Maori karakia=prayers, invoking this life, as she knitted a thick woolly sweater for herself – weaving into the fabric what she was weaving into her own life. Is there any other way finally of explaining Cathy’s extraordinary strength and vitality? In the end I suppose I have to make use of Biblical language and categories to begin to do justice to her. It was as though she had given up her life in order to find it. Or, it was as though she had been driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God there to wrestle with the demons of our time. In that life and death struggle she won for herself the vision that in her writing, her artwork, her songs, and above all in her life she was strongly articulating and acting out. Like one of the great mythical heroes of the Pacific, Maui, it was as if she had gone fishing with a great bone hook baited with her own blood and pulled up a whole new continent, beautiful, fertile and teeming with life.

But I’m anticipating. It was a year ago 1983? that, having exhausted the possibilities of gaining an education in New Zealand, and totally alienated from institutions, she arrived at Dartington Hall alternative school, near Totnes, Devon. On the river Dart in which she drowned. Here I want publicly to pay tribute to the school. In a remarkable way the Staff at Dartington sensed (I believe) something of who Cathy was. Without laying anything on her in the form of curriculum and discipline, which would only have driven her more deeply into her alienation, they managed to get alongside Cathy, give her the support and encouragement she needed, provide her with the resources and skills she required to get into her own life and vision. I only wish she could have had another year at Dartington to continue the process. Academically Cathy was in ‘catch-up’ mode and going like a rocket. Each week she would ransack the school library for another armful of books, which she read avidly. She was into painting and music and many other things. Her mentor, Elizabeth Cabot, a teacher for an extended professional life, said of Cathy at a memorial function that she was “one of the two most remarkable children she had ever seen”.

So how would I like to remember Cathy? I remember her as a person who had already discovered a fullness of life incredible in a person of her age: in her relationships she carried on an extensive correspondence, her art and music, her politics, her vision of life at once so spiritual, so spirited, and so concrete. I remember her taking a week-end off from Dartington to camp with the anti-nuclear women at Greenham Common; and as an active member of the anti-nuclear movement in New Zealand whose efforts may well result in New Zealand being the first nation to break out of the nuclear trap. (It did!)  I remember Cathy reaching out to people of other races with respect and without patronage. I remember her with a horse and cart collecting seaweed on a Coromandel beach to lay it in trenches on a clay landscape where it would turn into mulch and eventually soil – she cultivated and loved Mother Earth. I remember her as a strong and uncompromising feminist and yet with a lively and realistic appreciation of men – sensing peoples’ troubles and inviting them to change. I remember her as a person who had no hesitation in inviting street kids and the poor to live with her in our house in Auckland. And much more.

Cathy was truly a visionary – not a dreamer. She was a person who acted out her vision no matter how unconventional. She had moved from words to action. She burned with a passion for justice and for new life – and in that, I believe, she was very close to the spirit of Christ.

Right now I am under no illusions that Cathy is dead. We visited her in the morgue in Plymouth. Her body was held for three weeks by the Police while they completed their – inconclusive – investigations into the circumstances of her death. Flies buzzed around the room as we stood and prayed with her. Yet in another way Cathy for me – and I know for others – is intensely and disturbingly alive. Full of life – as always.

Inevitably, I suppose, in middle age we start to pass on the torch or baton of life to others. (I was 46 at the time of her funeral in 1984.) I know I had invested many of my hopes in Cathy. What is happening now is that I can hear her pounding up behind me, thrusting the baton of a visionary life into my hands and saying: “I’m dead; you are alive; you pick it up; you do it brother. Move! ‘Move’ was the cry of NZ police squads as they did baton charges on the crowds during the 1980 protests against the Springbok Tour. Cathy again was heavily involved. At the final, Eden Park, Test, Cathy entered the ground with chains twined around her body under her coat. She was intending to run onto the pitch and chain herself to the goalposts as a way of disrupting the game. Only a barbed wire barricade prevented her. The story of Cathy must go on because now she is part of the life of God. It is as though she being dead needs us who are alive; and as though we who are only half-alive need her overflowing life and vision.

There is one picture of Cathy I should like to leave you with. In a small country Marae =Maori settlement and meeting house near Gisborne (Whakato) there is a magnificent modern stone statue of a young woman made to look like the figurehead on the prow of a ship. This is what it symbolizes: When a newly carved meeting house is completed it is too sacred to enter. It is tapu = sacred, holy, in Maori. Before the people can enter, the tapu has to be broken. This is done in Maori custom by a young woman who has been suitably consecrated walking alone, ahead of the tribe, into the new house where the people will live out all the significant events in the life of their community. Cathy, I believe, is in some small way for all of us that young woman, visionary and consecrated, who enters that realm of life which belongs to all of us, her Father’s and Mother’s house, and somehow makes it safe and accessible to us all.

Raymond Pelly
St. Bartholemew’s Church
Orford, Suffolk

27th July, 1984
At Cathy Pelly’s Funeral, with some additions later