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Republic of Kiribati

Nonouti Island is in the southern Kiribati group and has an area of 29.2 square kilometres and the population recorded in the 2002 census of 2,303.

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Nonouti is a typical atoll. It is the third largest in the Gilberts and it has an average width of 700 metres. The island is bow shaped with a half loop at each end. From Temotu to Rotuma, it runs north and then curves sharply west. This is not at all favourable to navigation. To get back from the northern point, you have to struggle against the prevailing southeast wind, a problem that applies to most of the island. The irregularly shaped lagoon at Nonouti is fifteen kilometres across at its widest point.

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It is sprinkled with rocks and sandbanks. A cleft in the reefs near the middle, only allows access to ships of less than a thousand tons. The northern part of the island is cut off by several passages, forming a series of islets that is very difficult to reach. Canoes can only reach the shores on high tides. The lagoon waters ebb a long way, uncovering blindingly white beaches.


Most Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) people believe that their ancestors were spirits, some created in Samoa and some in Kiribati, and that it was the movement from Samoa that populated the Kiribati Islands for the first time. Modern researchers would agree that a recent migration did probably occur from Samoa to the Gilberts about 500 to 600 years ago.

According to the legends of Beru and some other islands Te Kaintikuaba, was made from the spine of Na Atibu. It was a tree, in Samoa, which was the home of spirits who, together with Nareau the Wise, made the islands of Tungaru (the Kiribati islands). It is a legend that has many variations.

As one legend goes, Nareau the Wise was in Samoa, procreating with the spirits there. One day, he decided to trace the whereabouts of his two children who left Te Kaintikuaba. He left Samoa, heading north, and on his way he created a resting place by trampling the sea and uttering powerful magic. Behold, land was formed with spirits inhabitants on it. This land is now called South Tabiteuea. Feeling satisfied with his marvellous work, he left and went further north. At last, he sighted Tarawa. He stayed on Tarawa and started his work of creating new lands. He used his power to create Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang, Maiana, Kuria, Abemama and Aranuka. These are now referred to as the islands of North Kiribati.

When Nareau the Wise had enough of these visits, he changed his name to Tematawarebwe and returned to Samoa with three of his sons, Kourabi, Namai and Buatira. On reaching Samoa, he told his sons and some of the inhabitants to carry Te Kaintikuaba away to a place he would show them. The spirits who usually inhabited Te Kaintikuaba were left behind as they were absent during its removal. The tree was carried northwards until it arrived at a village on Beru Island. The next thing that Tematawarebwe and his carriers took was the Umananti (literally house of spirits). This was carried and placed in the central part of the island. This was the maneaba (meeting house). Tematawarebwe ramained on Beru.

The removal of these two things from Samoa affected the remaining members of Te Kaintikuaba. They left Samoa and tried to follow the route that Tematawarebwe and his group had taken. Some of them took the eastern route, some the western and some the central part. Some flew, some swam on the surface of the sea and others swam below the waves. A few of them never reached their destination but created and settled on a number of islands including Nonouti.


Among the people recruited in the 1870's as workers to Tahiti were Betero and Tiroi from the island of Nonouti. During their stay in Tahiti, they became members of the Roman Catholic Church. Their belief was so strong that when they returned to Nonouti in about 1880, they started to convert the people of their island. A number of people were converted and baptized by Betero and they decided to build churches in their villages; they built eight small churches altogether. When the churches were completed, Betero and Tiroi sent a request to Samoa for missionaries to be sent to Nonouti.

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Father Joseph Leray

In response to the request, three missionaries from the Sacred Heart Mission, which had its headquarters in France were sent in 1887 and arrived at Nonouti in 1888. They were Father Joseph Leray, Father Edward Bontemps and Brother Conrad Weber. Father Leray was later appointed as the first Bishop in the Gilberts.

After the first Catholic Mission had been established on Nonouti the priests visited other islands trying to spread their faith. Other priests and later some nuns arrived to help them. Because of the strength of the London Missionary Society in the Southern Gilberts, the Catholic Church could not make much progress there, but in the Northern and Central Gilberts, where the American Mission were reducing its efforts, the Catholic Church won many followers.

In 1913, Nonouti celebrated the silver jubilee of the first mass set on the lagoon in 1888 in the presence of fourteen missionaries and two thousand Gilbertese, Mgr Leray recalled the various stages of the mission's work and urged the people of Nonouti to remain steadfast in their faith.

He pointed out six graves behind the apse of the church. First, there was Father Gaillard's grave. He was a fine old man who came to Nonouti when he was already sixty, rather late to learn a new language. He did what he could for five years, busying himself with manual work so as to be useful.

The Mission's founder died in the same year as Father Gaillard. Next there were two brothers and two sisters, taken one by one, before they had even become acclimatized. From the occupants of these graves had come the beginnings of the Catholic faith in Nonouti.

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Jane Resture
 (E-mail: -- Rev. 13th February 2004)