Page 1: Biography
Cleary, Henry William
Catholic bishop, editor, army chaplain
This biography, written by Rory Sweetman, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Henry William Cleary (baptised William Henry) was born on 15 January 1859 at Oulart, County Wexford, Ireland. His Catholic father, Robert Cleary, a farmer, came from the neighbouring county of Wicklow and settled in Wexford after marrying Susan Wall, a convert from Anglicanism.
Despite a weak constitution Cleary had a brilliant scholastic career before entering the Royal College of St Patrick, Maynooth, in 1878 to train for the priesthood. Two years later he was sent to study in Rome at the papal seminary, where academic success was achieved at the price of a breakdown in his health. This pattern was repeated in 1884 during his brief period at the Séminaire de Saint Sulpice in Paris.
After ordination in Ireland on 11 January 1885, Cleary commenced his priestly career at the House of Missions, Enniscorthy. Parish work followed, then his appointment as professor of languages at St Peter's College, Wexford. Continuing health problems prompted a move to a warmer climate, and in late 1888 Cleary went to Australia with Bishop James Moore of Ballarat on what was intended to be a temporary mission. Ten years of strenuous work in the backblocks of Victoria were accompanied by journalistic work refuting anti-Catholic propaganda. Cleary also published a book, The Orange Society. This activity impressed Michael Verdon, bishop of Dunedin, New Zealand, and in January 1898 he appointed Cleary editor of the Catholic weekly, the New Zealand Tablet.
As editor of the sole Catholic organ in New Zealand, Cleary was well placed to further the church's policy of gradualism and integration. He believed that Catholic rights would best be won by educating public opinion through moderate exposition and defence of Catholic beliefs. He was allowed generous space in the columns of the secular press for what he described privately as 'missionary work' on a host of issues. Catholic views on gambling, mixed marriage, prohibition and Sabbatarianism were carefully explained. Cleary refuted accusations of an undue Catholic representation in the public service by publishing statistical surveys of employment by religion in the Railway Department and the post office.
Education provided the impetus for Cleary's career. In 1904 the Catholic hierarchy needed to formulate a public statement of opposition to the campaign for Bible reading in the state primary schools. It turned to the talented editor, who drafted both of the joint episcopal declarations issued that year. Cleary carried on a lengthy correspondence in the daily press defending the Catholic position. His disarming courtesy won many friends among his fellow journalists. In 1909 the management of the Otago Daily Times encouraged him to publish in book form correspondence on the debate which had appeared in the newpaper's columns.
Awarded a doctorate of divinity by the Pope in 1908, Cleary in 1910 undertook a lengthy tour to South America with the intention of establishing Catholic news agencies. While there he was selected to succeed Michael Lenihan as bishop of Auckland. He was consecrated in Ireland on 21 August 1910.
Cleary's appointment brought new life to an ageing Catholic hierarchy. With inexhaustible energy and a relentless sense of purpose Cleary immediately threw himself into the fight against a revived Bible in schools movement. Catholics feared the 'Protestantising' of the state education system and were relieved at the movement's failure in 1914 to secure legislation in its favour and to influence the result of that year's election. Cleary interpreted this as reward for his conscious courting of the secular press and a tribute to the fair-mindedness of the non-Catholic majority. By 1914 an impressive list of successes had been achieved by the Catholic church: the state inspection of Catholic schools, free rail travel for teachers in Catholic religious orders and the right of Catholic pupils to compete for state secondary scholarships and, if successful, to take them out at Catholic schools.
Cleary recognised that interdenominational harmony was essential to furthering the interests of his church. Most of the Catholic clergy strongly supported Irish nationalism, and Cleary displayed a delicate touch in explaining these views to his colonial audience. As Tablet editor he exercised a discreet censorship over the Irish issue, avoiding anything that would give offence. With the enthusiastic participation of Protestant Irish clergy, he carefully managed the centenary commemoration of the 1798 Irish rebellion. Cleary refused to support fund-raising tours by Irish nationalists until the split caused by the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell was healed. He then oversaw the visits of three successful delegations in 1906–7, 1911 and 1914. A compilation of his articles in defence of his native land was published in 1909 under the title An impeached nation.
Cleary's determination to present the loyal face of New Zealand Catholicism was best seen during the First World War. He went to Europe in mid 1916 intending to resign his see due to ill health, but instead chose to spend three months doing chaplaincy work in the Flanders trenches during the severe winter of 1916–17. In the front lines he displayed a bravery bordering on foolishness, while making sure that his exploits were well advertised in the colonial press.
Returning to New Zealand in October 1917, Cleary was shocked by the extent and ferocity of sectarian conflict raging over the issues of papal neutrality in the war, the conscription of religious teachers, and the New Zealand Catholic Federation's campaign for state aid to Catholic schools. The Tablet, under its fiery Irish editor, Father James Kelly, adopted an aggressive stance, particularly over Ireland. Cleary became a relentless opponent of the new policy. In July 1918 he founded a rival Catholic paper, the Month. He reconciled advocacy of Irish national rights with effusive professions of loyalty to empire. Cleary preferred to expose the weakness of the anti-Catholic case put forward by the Protestant Political Association, rather than to indulge in the competition in abuse favoured by the Tablet.
By refusing to allow the advocacy of Sinn Féin in his diocese and by attempting to curb Kelly's uncritical commitment to Irish politics, Cleary sacrificed his reputation as a patriotic Irishman. He banned the use of provocative Irish flags, emblems and mottoes in his diocese. While defending Sinn Féin violence as a justifiable response to outrageous behaviour by British forces in Ireland, Cleary preferred that his clergy pray for Ireland rather than campaign for her. He also opposed the identification of his church with any political party, whether in Ireland or New Zealand. Although he resisted a series of post-war legislative measures calculated to harm Catholic interests, Cleary kept up friendly correspondence with several prominent Reform Party politicians, including the Ulster-born prime minister William Massey. His war service and his personal sacrifices during the influenza epidemic were recognised in June 1919 by his being made an OBE.
Cleary's tactics were difficult for his people to understand. Accusations of wounded vanity, jealousy, and an arrogant desire to dominate were levelled at him. His highly-strung nature had not been improved by his time at the front and questions were asked about his mental balance.
Cleary was not concerned solely with the politics of New Zealand Catholicism. He took an active interest in Catholics in isolated rural areas, making long visits to them. He learned Maori in order to teach Maori people in their own language, and was responsible for establishing St Peter's Rural Training School for Maori boys (later known as St Peter's Maori College and Hato Petera). He took an active interest in the Catholic orphanage at Howick and oversaw a substantial rise in the number of Catholic school pupils in his diocese. The steady increase in Auckland's Catholic population necessitated the appointment of a coadjutor bishop, James Liston, in 1920. Personality clashes between the two, exacerbated by Liston's tendency to act independently of his bishop, caused Cleary in 1929 to attempt to have Liston replaced as his coadjutor.
Photographs of Henry Cleary suggest a man of mild scholarly disposition. He was, nevertheless, determined and resolute and possessed something of a spirit of adventure, using cars and aeroplanes at an early date to travel his diocese. He died at Auckland on 9 December 1929 and was accorded a huge funeral. The effusive press accounts of his career betray signs of inspiration from the material he had been in the habit of supplying to journalists. Warm tributes from the leaders of other denominations testified to his success in reducing sectarian tensions and in beginning to bring the Catholic church firmly into the mainstream of New Zealand life.