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McKenna, John

by Claire Hills


John and Thomas McKenna were born to Patrick McKenna and his wife, Margaret Wallace, who farmed in Newpark, Kilmaganny, County Kilkenny, Ireland. John is said to have been born on 20 February 1860 and Thomas on 21 December 1864. The brothers attended St Kieran's College and trained for the priesthood at St John's College, Waterford, and at the Knocktopher seminary.

John McKenna was ordained in 1883 and volunteered for the New Zealand mission. For a time he assisted at St Mary's Cathedral, Wellington, then in 1887 he became the parish priest of St Patrick's Church, Masterton. The Catholics, few in number, were mainly of Polish or Irish origin. Within weeks of his arrival McKenna realised that there was far too much work in the district for one man: the parish stretched from Pahiatua to Featherston and Martinborough. Thomas McKenna, who had just been ordained at St Mary's Cathedral, Kilkenny, was on his way to New Zealand. When he reached Wellington on 2 March 1888 his brother was there to meet him, and they travelled up to Masterton on the same day. Within a fortnight Thomas was appointed as curate in Masterton. He served there until 1891, then was stationed at Patea until 1894.

John and Thomas McKenna were able administrators and outstanding pastoral priests who together laid the foundation of the Catholic church in Wairarapa. When Pahiatua was established as a separate parish in 1894, Thomas returned as its first priest. The parish included Woodville, Pahiatua and surrounding country districts. He travelled widely in a gig across an often wild countryside of rough bush tracks and fast-flowing rivers to deliver instruction and offer Mass and the sacraments. When the Pahiatua church became too small, he joined his parishioners in clearing a new site. A church was built at Woodville and another at Hamua on land provided by the prominent Wairarapa Maori leader Nireaha Tamaki. John McKenna successfully overcame the financial difficulties of his parish, and oversaw the creation of a separate parish south of Masterton in 1900. He enlarged St Patrick's Church in 1902 and built new churches at Eketahuna and Mauriceville. In his 43 years in Masterton he trained 23 curates.

In the 1890s Catholic education in Wairarapa was still in the hands of lay teachers. John McKenna obtained six sisters of the Congregation of St Brigid from Australia in 1898, and from 1899 secondary education for girls became available at St Bride's Boarding and Day High School (later St Bride's College); co-educational primary education was already available at St Patrick's School. Thomas McKenna established a branch of the same order at Pahiatua in 1906. He offered them the use of the presbytery as a temporary convent, and moved into a small cottage in Tyndall Street until the convent was built in 1912. Catholic education in Pahiatua started in the old Anglican church in Sedcole Street, which was leased for the purpose until St Anthony's Convent School was built in 1918.

In 1928 a new St Patrick's School was opened in Queen Street, Masterton. John McKenna contributed £1,000 towards the £5,000 cost. With an astute eye to the future he acquired the large Chapel Street property known as The Fish Ponds, which had originally been used for raising trout. The new St Bride's College was built on this site in 1970; it was later to become the third St Patrick's School.

John and Thomas McKenna were known for their ability to mix easily with people of widely varying backgrounds and for their lack of sectarianism. Wellington's rabbi, Herman van Staveren, was a personal friend of John McKenna, and McKenna stated that no attempt would be made to alter the religious beliefs of any non-Catholic children who happened to attend St Bride's school.

Thomas McKenna left Pahiatua in 1919 for St Anne's parish in Newtown, Wellington, and later ministered at New Plymouth. John became a prominent figure in the hierarchy of the Wellington diocese. He was made a dean in 1899 and vicar general of the archdiocese in 1913, with the title of monsignor. He was created domestic prelate in 1915, and in 1926 became the first national director of the Work of the Propagation of the Faith.

Both John and Thomas McKenna were famous throughout Wairarapa as enthusiastic sportsmen and able athletes. They represented Wairarapa at rugby, playing under their mother's maiden name, and Thomas refereed the first representative game between Wairarapa and Marlborough at Pahiatua in 1894. Both were excellent players of tennis and cricket. John was patron of the Wairarapa Rugby Football Union and the Masterton Lawn Tennis Club, a founding member of the Wairarapa Amateur Athletic and Cycling Club in 1893 (he broke the cycling record between Masterton and Carterton in 1895), and a member of the Masterton Gymnasium committee. He also played hockey and bowls. Community cultural organisations benefited from his participation and support: he was at various times vice president of the Masterton Operatic Society, the Masterton Juvenile Amateur Operatic Society and the Masterton Private Band.

Thomas McKenna died at New Plymouth on 8 July 1923; John McKenna died at Masterton on 13 April 1930. Their work and devotion to duty had earned them the affection of all sections of the Wairarapa community.

Links and sources


    The cyclopedia of New Zealand. Vol. 1. Wellington, 1897

    McGlone, V. J. Fruits of toil. Carterton, 1957

    Obit. [J. McKenna]. Wairarapa Daily Times. 14 April 1930: 4

How to cite this page:

Claire Hills. 'McKenna, John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)