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Story: O'Shea, Thomas

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O'Shea, Thomas


Catholic archbishop

This biography, written by Christopher van der Krogt, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Thomas O'Shea was the son of Edmond Shea and his wife, Johanna Sullivan. Both born in Ireland, they married in 1869 in Charleston on the West Coast of New Zealand where Shea was a miner. The couple emigrated to California, and Thomas was born at San Francisco on 13 March 1870; they seem to have used the name O'Shea from this time. The family soon returned to New Zealand and began farming in Hawera. Thomas received his early education at the local convent school and the Marist brothers' school in Napier. He attended St Patrick's College, Wellington, from its opening day in June 1885 and taught there in 1889. He was an accomplished cricketer and rugby player, retaining a keen interest in the latter sport all his life, and as an adult also played golf.

In 1890 O'Shea entered the Marist seminary at Meeanee; he was professed as a member of the Society of Mary the following year and ordained on 3 December 1893. He taught philosophy at the seminary from 1894 until 1896, when ill health necessitated several months' recuperation in Australia. On returning to New Zealand O'Shea served in the Wellington parish of Te Aro; he was initially based at St Mary of the Angels Church and then at St Joseph's in Buckle Street. O'Shea was appointed vicar general of the archdiocese in 1907, and received the title of dean in 1912.

On 17 August 1913 – after protests from the secular clergy, who had not been consulted over the appointment – O'Shea was consecrated as coadjutor archbishop of Wellington. St Joseph's was made the headquarters of a separate parish over which he continued to have charge. Increasingly he took over responsibility for the affairs of the archdiocese from the ageing Archbishop Francis Redwood, and when the latter died on 3 January 1935 O'Shea succeeded him. During O'Shea's tenure, the archdiocese's traditional dependence on the Society of Mary was replaced by increasing reliance on secular clergy.

Committed to the cause of Catholic education, O'Shea chaired from its inception in 1912 the Wellington Catholic Education Trust Board, which was able to provide free tuition in the city's Catholic primary schools from 1929. A lifelong concern for social justice was expressed in his revival of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Wellington in 1906, and the promotion of Catholic social-study classes throughout the archdiocese during and after the depression. In 1936 O'Shea appointed a Church Music Commission to promote liturgical music in accordance with recent Vatican directives. Eschewing any public celebration of his episcopal silver jubilee in 1938, he undertook his second official visit to Rome (his first had been in 1922). He used the opportunity to secure international support for the forthcoming National Eucharistic Congress, which he hosted in February 1940 as a contribution to the national centennial celebrations.

Convinced that Protestantism was in decline, O'Shea saw communism and irreligion as the real threats to Catholicism and society. He therefore believed that his own church ought to co-operate as fully as possible with other denominations in matters of public concern. O'Shea was an early supporter of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, initiated by a leading Presbyterian minister, James Gibb, in 1921. In 1930 he negotiated an agreement with the Bible in State Schools League of New Zealand whereby the Catholic church would not oppose legislation to introduce Bible reading into state primary schools. Although O'Shea failed to ensure the acquiescence of the other bishops, who publicly repudiated the agreement, he continued to support the league's objectives. During the depression, he encouraged Catholic relief agencies to co-operate with those of other churches, and when the New Zealand Inter-Church Council on Public Affairs was formed in 1941 O'Shea appointed Catholic representatives. He enjoyed the respect of leading politicians, but had a particular affinity with the New Zealand Labour Party and a warm relationship with Prime Minister Peter Fraser.

O'Shea's diminutive stature, which contrasted with the more imposing Redwood, earned him the affectionate nickname of 'Little Arch'. Also commonly referred to as Tommy O'Shea, he was a popular figure in the community, and in the course of his regular walks in the city he maintained contact with a wide circle of acquaintances.

From the mid 1940s O'Shea increasingly suffered from senility, and by the time of Peter McKeefry's appointment as coadjutor archbishop in 1947 he had become quite unable to carry out his episcopal responsibilities. O'Shea was bedridden for the final years of his life and died at Calvary Hospital, Wellington, on 9 May 1954.

How to cite this page:

Christopher van der Krogt. 'O'Shea, Thomas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3o7/oshea-thomas (accessed 15 July 2024)