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Story: McHardy, Emmet Charles

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McHardy, Emmet Charles


Catholic missionary

This biography, written by Hugh Laracy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Emmet Charles McHardy was born at Pīhama, Taranaki, on 27 June 1904, the third of four children of John McHardy, a Scottish-born farmer, and his wife, Mary Frances O’Reilly, the daughter of Irish hotel-keepers. It was an affectionate, lively family. There was also a wide extended family and despite the rural isolation, Emmet acquired an appreciation of human diversity that helped prepare him for a missionary career: his parents were Catholic, but his paternal grandmother was Presbyterian; he attended school and church with Maori; and he knew the French priests at Ōpunake. He also developed a liking for the outdoors and an interest in machinery, particularly motor cars.

From Pīhama, McHardy went in 1919 to St Patrick’s College, Wellington, where he became enthusiastic about photography, and then entered the Marist seminary, Mount St Mary’s, at Greenmeadows, Hawke’s Bay, in 1922. He took his first vows in 1923, the year his brother, John, was ordained; he was ordained priest on 16 December 1928.

After volunteering for the Pacific island missions, McHardy was in 1929 appointed to the ecclesiastical prefecture of the North Solomon Islands. He was the second New Zealand-born and -trained Marist to become available for overseas missionary work (the first was John Fotheringham, who in 1928 was appointed to Western Samoa). McHardy was posted to Tunuru, north of Kieta, on the island of Bougainville. His main tasks were to run a school for catechists and to evangelise a district that by 1931 embraced 11 coastal villages and their hinterlands and seven language groups. The school was opened in February 1930 with 33 boarders. Because of the language difficulties, teaching was mainly in English, and students and teacher struggled constantly against ‘tropical languor’. In 1931 McHardy made a promotional film, which has become of considerable ethnographic value, entitled Saints and savages.

Inland travel involving long hikes over mountainous territory was particularly strenuous, even for someone accustomed to climbing and tramping. On his first trip to the island’s rugged interior McHardy baptised 58 babies, commenting: ‘I just loved baptising their wee babies for many of them are suffering from TB and I will never see them again on this earth’. Other experiences, such as intervening in a wife-beating incident and becoming violently ill, were not so pleasant. His sense of isolation and loneliness was reinforced when he received news of the death of his grandparents and then his mother. Exaggerated accounts of Hawke’s Bay’s 1931 earthquake distressed him. He was a tireless worker, and pushed himself very hard, earning the nickname ‘No Short Wind’ from the locals. Poor food and malaria sapped McHardy’s health. Fit when he arrived, six feet tall and weighing 11 stone, in May 1932 he was sent to Sydney suffering from tuberculosis. After eight months in hospital he returned to New Zealand. He died, aged only 28, at Our Lady’s Home of Compassion, Wellington, on 17 May 1933.

Having served just three years as a missionary, McHardy considered himself ‘a failure’. His posthumous influence belies that judgement. Sitting at his typewriter at Tunuru, often late at night, he had written hundreds of letters (up to 60 every six weeks, when the steamer called by) about his work to his friends and family. Informal and cheerful, they present an engaging picture of a young man combining idealism with adventure. Emmet’s brother, John, recognised in them a power to stimulate Catholic piety and support for Marist missions, and commissioned the poet and writer Eileen Duggan to prepare a selection for publication. The result, Blazing the trail in the Solomons, was published in Australia and the United States in 1935 (and reprinted in 1950). Illustrated with McHardy’s photographs, it attracted a large, enthusiastic and enduring readership, especially in New Zealand, and is credited with having inspired many people to adopt religious vocations. Because of his youthful self-sacrifice and the influence of his book, McHardy has been regarded as a possible candidate for canonisation, particularly in Marist circles.

How to cite this page:

Hugh Laracy. 'McHardy, Emmet Charles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m13/mchardy-emmet-charles (accessed 6 June 2023)