Story: Kennedy, David

Page 1: Biography

Kennedy, David

1864–1936

Catholic priest, astronomer, teacher

This biography, written by Hugh Laracy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

David Kennedy was born at Lyttelton, New Zealand, on 27 April 1864, the son of Duncan Kennedy, a labourer, and his wife, Mary McCarthy (known as Bridget). His parents, she a Catholic from Ireland and he a Presbyterian from Scotland, came to New Zealand from Melbourne in 1863. Duncan Kennedy became a Catholic in 1883.

From about 1870 the family lived at Papanui, Christchurch, where David attended local schools. From an early age he showed a keen interest in both theology and science and he was to pursue both these disciplines with distinction throughout his life. In 1878, aged 13 or 14, he was sent by the Marist fathers to study at their college at Dundalk, Ireland. In 1884 he entered the Marist novitiate at Paignton, England, and in 1886 he obtained a BA at the Royal University of Ireland in mathematics and science. For the next two years he taught at Dundalk, during which time he wrote a textbook, Natural philosophy for junior students, covering a variety of scientific topics including mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, gravity and motion. It was published in Dublin in 1891 (and went to a 10th edition in 1926). Kennedy had continued his theological work, studying in France and Spain, and was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1891. There he studied at the Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, completing degrees in canon law and divinity in 1892.

In 1893 he returned to New Zealand and was appointed to the seminary opened by the Marists at Meeanee near Napier in 1890. Student numbers were small (in 1907 there were still only 15), so despite his teaching duties Kennedy found time for scientific pursuits, on which he used to give public lectures illustrated with lantern slides. He was interested in entomology and was adept at microscopic photography, and from 1905 to 1909 he operated a meteorological station. He was appointed to St Patrick's College, Wellington, in 1909, where he was rector until 1917.

Kennedy's primary interest, however, was in astronomy. Royalties from his book had helped fund an observatory he built at Meeanee. In 1905 this, together with the original six-inch telescope, was sold, and he launched an appeal for funds to build a new and more advanced facility. Accordingly, a nine-inch photo-visual refracting telescope was purchased, as was a spectroscope. Opened in July 1907, the Meeanee observatory was the best equipped in New Zealand. A month later it was used to study Comet Daniel, making a unique appearance from deep space.

In 1910 Kennedy had his greatest success when he and two seminarians, Joseph Cullen and Ignatius von Gottfried, whom he had trained for the task, photographed Halley's Comet. Some of their photographs were among the best in the world during that visitation, and were republished in the United States by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1986. In 1911, when the seminary was shifted from Meeanee to neighbouring Greenmeadows, the observatory went too, but it was destroyed in a storm in 1912. Kennedy was rector at Greenmeadows from 1918 to 1920, but lacked funds to re-establish the observatory.

As a schoolmaster, too, Kennedy was respected. He gave evidence before the Education Commission of 1912, and while at St Patrick's College generated enthusiasm for the study of science. One of his pupils, James Bronte Gatenby, in 1920 became the first recipient of a DPhil degree from Oxford University, and was later professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at Trinity College, Dublin. Kennedy's own achievements brought him fellowships of the Royal Astronomical and Royal Meteorological societies.

It was as a seminary teacher that Kennedy did the main work of his career: at Meeanee, at Greenmeadows, and at Highden, near Palmerston North, where a novitiate house was opened in 1923. During the 44 years of his priesthood he helped train 130 Marist priests. He himself was the first New Zealand-born Marist priest, and, from 1929 to 1934, the third New Zealand-born provincial superior of the Society of Mary. In this capacity he oversaw the opening of several Marist houses in Australia, then part of the Marist Province of New Zealand.

Kennedy was admired for his skill as a cellist and for his patient endurance of pain (as a student in Rome he had suffered a serious leg injury playing football, and thereafter walked with the aid of a stick). His popular reputation as a scientist also won him widespread admiration. More importantly, he made a significant contribution to turning the Catholic church in New Zealand into a firmly rooted local institution. He died at Wellington on 10 March 1936.

How to cite this page:

Hugh Laracy. 'Kennedy, David', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3k8/kennedy-david (accessed 22 November 2018)