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Moore, Nicholas

by Claire Hills


Nicholas Moore was a well-known figure in Masterton for 55 years and was the oldest priest in New Zealand when he died in 1985 at the age of 98. He was born in Kilmoganny, County Kilkenny, Ireland, on 16 September 1887, the youngest of 17 children of Anne Brennan and her husband, Thomas Moore, a farmer and publican. Throughout his life he celebrated 17 September, the day of his baptism, as his birthday. The Moores were an intensely religious family; four of the sons became priests and two daughters became nuns. Nicholas always emphasised the importance and power of prayer, a lesson instilled by his mother in childhood.

Moore studied for the priesthood at St Kieran's College, Kilkenny, and was ordained on 12 June 1912. His first appointment was to the industrial city of Bradford, England. There he realised there was continuous work to be done in visiting homes and institutions. He was also confronted with what poverty and illness meant in daily life. Home visiting was always an important part of his ministry. He also served in Leeds and Manchester.

In 1913 Moore met Monsignor John McKenna, parish priest of Masterton, New Zealand, who was on a return visit to Ireland. Both men were from the same parish. Moore volunteered for the New Zealand mission, was accepted, and sailed for New Zealand with McKenna. He stopped off in Perth for six months to visit his favourite sister, who was a nun there.

He arrived in New Zealand in early 1914 and was appointed a curate in New Plymouth. In 1915 he became the first parish priest at Ohura and Whangamomona, in the King Country, where he stayed for four years. This was regarded as the last of the mission stations; it covered a huge area. There was no motor transport and Moore travelled his parish on horseback.

Soon after Moore's arrival the local bank manager expressed his concern about the church overdraft. A few days later Moore advertised in a Catholic paper for financial help. His appeal raised enough money to pay off the debts and build the Ohura church. Moore then spent six years as parish priest at Eltham, establishing schools there and one at Kaponga, followed by four years at Patea.

After the death of Monsignor McKenna in 1930, Moore was appointed parish priest of St Patrick's Church, Masterton. He had enjoyed life in Patea and was not enthusiastic about his new appointment. His first years in Masterton coincided with the depression. He was aware of its effect on his parishioners, and made no secret of his support for the social welfare legislation of the first Labour government.

Moore was dedicated to the cause of Catholic education, and it was his conviction and energy that led to the establishment of a Catholic boys' secondary school in Masterton. In 1944 he approached the parish priests of Carterton, Eketahuna and Pahiatua. They agreed on the need for such a school, but there were no funds available. Undeterred, Moore began the fund-raising by donating his life insurance policy. He organised King carnivals, art unions and a jam factory in the presbytery garage. He sold shares in the college and issued share certificates, while explaining that no dividends would be paid in this world. He found a way round the restrictive raffle laws so that he could offer attractive prizes.

St Joseph's College, Masterton, began life on 6 February 1945 with 52 boys, covering forms one to three, in temporary classroom space. During the year a suitable block of land was purchased. Moore then persuaded Prime Minister Peter Fraser and other ministers to make available buildings that had been used as a training camp for American marines. The college was officially opened on 17 March 1946 with a roll of 81 students, including 21 boarders. It also served as a memorial to Catholic servicemen killed in the Second World War.

Improving facilities for girls was not forgotten. St Bride's Convent School, run by the Brigidine Sisters, was extended, and a music academy and a hostel were built. In 1970 the new St Bride's College was built. The two colleges amalgamated to form Chanel College in 1978; the chapel is named after Father Moore.

Moore was appointed a monsignor in 1960. Thereafter he was affectionately known in the parish and beyond as 'the Mons'; fellow priests knew him as 'Old Nick'. He remained parish priest until 1974, when he was made pastor emeritus. In 1970, when parishioners celebrated his 40 years among them, fund-raising began for the Monsignor Moore Education Trust, designed to help pay for the Catholic schooling of Maori and Pakeha children from poor homes. He regularly donated money to this from his old age pension. His work for education was the only thing for which he wished to be remembered.

At the celebrations on 12 June 1972 to mark the 60th anniversary of his ordination, Moore was accorded the rare honour of being declared a rangatira by local Maori, who presented him with a feathered cloak. In 1979 he was granted the title of protonotary apostolic. Moore wore his honours lightly and refused for many years to buy or to wear the robes of his office. (Before the parish centennial, parishioners arranged for these to be made in Australia, but Moore wore them only on special occasions.)

Moore placed great importance on visiting the sick or bereaved, people in hospital and anyone who needed someone to talk to. Many people observed that long before a doctor or undertaker arrived at a home Moore would be there. He would come down from the altar during Masses for schoolchildren and stand in front of the pews to talk to them about Christ. He was able to establish an instant rapport. He made a point of recognising the contribution that women, both nuns and laity, had made to the development of parishes and Catholic schools in New Zealand. In 1945 he formed a branch of the Catholic Women's League of New Zealand from volunteer workers who had been instrumental in establishing and maintaining the boarding facility at St Joseph's College; he remained the league's spiritual director.

Moore remained intellectually and spiritually acute in his old age. When his eyesight failed he used a big-print edition of the missal for saying Mass. When he could no longer pick out even the large-sized letters he relied on his memory. He spent hours listening to tapes of modern theological works, subscribed to the talking books service, and was an avid listener to the radio, especially broadcasts of Parliament. He established a reputation for holding his own in discussions on a great variety of subjects. A fellow priest said, 'The wisdom to be gained by listening to him was very great'.

As a young man Moore had represented Kilkenny in Gaelic football. In New Zealand he played rugby for Whangamomona and was the first patron of the Masterton Marist Rugby Football Club. In his later years he played golf and was an enthusiastic player of indoor and outdoor bowls, winning a club junior indoor bowls competition at the age of 91. After a stroke prevented him from driving, he rode a bicycle, wearing a white coat and red baseball cap. He visited Ireland four times; on the last occasion, in 1982, he was the oldest living graduate at the bicentennial celebrations of his old seminary.

Monsignor Nicholas Moore died at Masterton on 19 September 1985. On the day before his burial he was accorded a tangihanga at Te Ore Ore marae. More than 100 priests, members of Catholic religious orders, representatives of other denominations and civic and parliamentary dignitaries joined over 600 other mourners. In his panegyric, Cardinal Thomas Williams recalled that three generations of Masterton Catholics 'had received his ministry, been nourished by his preaching, encouraged by his counsel and leadership and inspired by the manner of his life'. He was 'one of those rare personalities who surpass the ordinary scales by which we judge our fellows'.

Links and sources


    Hills, C. The story of Catholic education in the Wairarapa. [Masterton, 1995]

    Keegan, L. 'The Mons: a priest's story'. Wairarapa Times-Age. 17 Sept., 18 Sept. & 19 Sept. 1985

    Keegan, L. Monsignor Nicholas Moore, 1887--1985. [Masterton, 1985]

How to cite this page:

Claire Hills. 'Moore, Nicholas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)