James Michael Liston (registered at birth as Michael James) was born in Dunedin on 9 June 1881, one of a family of five children of Mary Sullivan and her husband, James Liston, a hotel-keeper. His parents were both from County Clare and had left Ireland in the wake of the agricultural depression of 1859–64. In Dunedin they belonged to a close-knit Irish Catholic community set belligerently apart from the Scottish Protestant majority and led by the pugnacious Irishman Bishop Patrick Moran.
Attentive at the altar, clever in his class at the Christian Brothers’ Boys’ School, quiet and intelligent, with devout, well-off Irish parents, James had all the qualifications for a priestly vocation. In February 1893, aged 11, he left for Sydney to attend St Patrick’s College, Manly. The seminary’s tough regimen undermined his fragile health and his parents soon demanded that he return. Bishop Michael Verdon, Moran’s successor in the Dunedin see, then arranged for him to attend his former seminary, Holy Cross College, Dublin. Although for the young Liston this was a return to the land of his fathers, it also meant leaving his parents forever, as both were dead by the time he returned to New Zealand.
Painfully homesick during his three years in Ireland (1897–1900), Liston enjoyed his subsequent time in Rome. He studied at the Irish College, graduating in 1903 with a doctorate of divinity. On 31 January 1904 he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Verdon in St Joseph’s Cathedral, Dunedin. The next 16 years were spent teaching scripture and dogmatic theology at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel, the national seminary established by Verdon in 1900. A colleague remembered him wrapped in a Roman cloak, seated in an uncarpeted, austerely furnished room, bent over his books preparing lectures, often until midnight. The hard scholastic years had formed his habits: solitary, disciplined, abstemious and dedicated. However, it was not all work and worry. For recreation Liston raced around the Taieri roads on one of the first motorcycles in Otago, a French belt-driven machine that caused great excitement when it reached 25 miles per hour.
After his appointment as rector in 1910, everyone at Holy Cross felt a new energy at work. A strict disciplinarian, Liston would allow no compromise with the rules, and was inflexible once he had reached a decision. The college was his home, its staff and students his new family. The first priests to receive their complete clerical training at Holy Cross had been ordained in 1909, and Liston’s personal vision was for a New Zealand-born priesthood along the best lines, which for him were Irish ones. He had no doubts as to the quality of the local product.
Verdon’s ill health thrust added responsibility upon Liston as spokesman for his church. He wrote occasionally in the religious and secular press on public issues, advocating grants for Catholic schools and greater Catholic representation in Parliament. The withdrawal of financial assistance from 1877 had encouraged Catholics to build a separate school system run on the pennies of the faithful and on the unpaid services of numerous religious teachers. The double taxation thus inflicted upon New Zealand Catholics had given them, in Liston’s view, a sense of stinging injustice.
During the First World War, organised sectarianism appeared in the shape of the Protestant Political Association. Catholics felt that they were being made the scapegoat for a host of wartime ills. Catholic leaders were alienated and radicalised over the application of conscription to seminarians and Christian and Marist brothers. In 1917 Liston attributed the government’s apparent betrayal over the conscription of these groups to a combination of bigotry, political cowardice and treachery. He vigorously refuted the charge of disloyalty levelled against New Zealand Catholics in the press.
Liston’s talents had long marked him out for episcopal promotion. In late 1918, on the death of Michael Verdon, he was the acknowledged favourite for the vacant see. However, the local clergy, considering that his faults outweighed his virtues, chose to reject him as their future leader. Instead, in April 1920, he was named as coadjutor to the ailing Henry Cleary, bishop of Auckland. He was consecrated on 12 December 1920 in St Joseph’s Cathedral.
This second reluctant farewell to Dunedin was followed by 10 uncomfortable years in Auckland. Liston’s tireless efforts to galvanise the diocese failed to impress Cleary, who was more concerned with his coadjutor’s unhappy knack of making incautious political speeches. The first came in 1922 during a St Patrick’s night address in the Auckland Town Hall. Speaking on the Irish question, Liston queried the worth of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, praised the dead rebels of 1916 (apparently saying they had been 'murdered by foreign troops'), and predicted a successful fight for complete freedom. The subsequent furore ended only when William Massey’s government announced that he was to be prosecuted for making seditious utterances. After a two-day trial in Auckland’s Supreme Court in mid May 1922, Liston was acquitted by an all-Protestant jury.
His second gaffe came in December 1922 when he publicly rejoiced at the New Zealand Labour Party’s successful showing at the general election. ‘Thanks be to God, the Labour people, our friends, are coming into their own’. Bishop Cleary was Liston’s most severe critic for giving credibility to allegations of an underhand political deal. The breach between the two men was never healed, Cleary later making strenuous efforts to have Liston replaced as his coadjutor.
In December 1929 Liston became Auckland’s seventh – arguably its greatest – Catholic bishop, ruling in imperious style for over 40 years. During the 1930s he revitalised the down-at-heel diocese, seeing it through the economic slump, then hosting the 1938 centennial celebrations of the Catholic church in New Zealand. The apostolic delegate came from Sydney, and was joined by many Australian and American prelates in celebrations that greatly raised the profile of the Catholic church in Auckland.
Liston was a keen user of the new medium of radio broadcasting. He also transformed Cleary’s periodical, the Month, into a fortnightly newspaper, Zealandia. During the Spanish Civil War his outspoken opposition to communism was reflected in the hard line taken by Zealandia, which brought accusations of Catholic sympathy with the fascist powers. At the outbreak of the Second World War he appeared at most public gatherings associated with the war, often sharing the platform with ex-Mayor James Gunson, his principal critic during the sedition case.
Throughout his episcopate Liston championed the right of Catholic parents to send their children to the school of their choice without suffering financial or other penalties. In his first episcopal address in Auckland he expressed confidence that the innate fairness of his fellow New Zealanders would eventually result in the granting of state aid to Catholic schools. History has proved him right, although it would appear that he had doubts over the wisdom of integrating the schools into the state system.
Liston read widely and sponsored any initiative for the better formation of his priests, members of religious orders, and Catholic teachers and nurses. Loreto Hall was established in 1950 for the training of lay and religious teachers: by 1970 there were 118 schools, with 23,000 pupils, in his diocese. Twenty-three religious orders came from overseas, largely to staff the schools, while 80 new parishes came into being. He took a deep personal interest in planning and financing convents, churches, monasteries, schools, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged, retreat and rest houses. He helped to found Newman Hall, the centre and hostel for Catholic university students, and to set up the Auckland Diocesan Federation of Catholic Parent Teacher Associations, Catholic Social Services, the Catholic Youth Movement, and the Christian Family Movement. In 1944 he ordained the first Maori priest, Wiremu Te Awhitu. With the post-war drift to the city by Maori, he encouraged the Mill Hill fathers to establish two centres for their care, as well as fostering work of all kinds among the Maori people.
In 1954 Liston was given the honorary title archbishop, for his services to the church. He was also alive to the needs of the wider community and assisted many worthy causes. In later life, as his quiet contributions to community life became more widely appreciated, he was the recipient of several honours: he was made a CMG in 1968, and two years later received an honorary LLD from the University of Auckland.
As the Catholic population of his sprawling diocese grew, Liston found it hard to relax his personal grip. Decades of changing social patterns and values culminated in a final era of liturgical revolution and arguments on basic moral and doctrinal issues. There were sharp debates on the contraceptive pill, celibacy, the place of the laity in the ecumenical church, and of the clergy in public affairs. His last years of office were marked by controversy over such issues as the suspension of two anti-war priests and the removal of two editors of Zealandia. But even his critics on these issues acknowledged his devotion to his church and his city, a respect that transcended denominational boundaries.
In April 1970 it was announced that Archbishop Liston was stepping down from office because of old age. Despite his 88 years, it was still a surprise to his flock. Bowed and frail-looking, but with undiminished vigour, he moved to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, ‘there to reflect on the goodness of God to me and to prepare myself more intensely to go to Him for judgment’.
Accustomed to exercise power from an early age, Liston had an ingrained respect for authority and demanded the same unswerving loyalty for himself. In his relations with his clergy he never quite ceased to be the seminary rector. However, his courtesy and kindness in personal matters was legendary. No one was more thoughtful in his messages of sympathy or congratulations in times of sadness or joy, usually conveyed in brief notes in his spidery writing. His speech was equally distinctive: a nasal drawl that was much mimicked by clergy and laity. That he often shared the joke is a tribute to his own impish sense of humour. He died, aged 95, at the Mater Hospital on 8 July 1976.