Page 1: Biography
Kavanagh, John Patrick
Catholic bishop, educationalist
This biography, written by Frances Mulrennan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Born in Hawera on 30 April 1913, John Patrick Kavanagh was the eldest of 10 children of Margaret Harris and her husband, Laurence Kavanagh, a farmer. He was educated at St Joseph’s School, Hawera, and then Sacred Heart College, Auckland, on a scholarship. There he displayed great ability in his studies, as well as in cricket and especially rugby. Kavanagh trained for the priesthood at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel (1932–36), and was ordained on 6 September 1936 at St Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington. He sailed the same week for Rome, where he took a postgraduate course at the Roman Pontifical (Lateran) Seminary, undertaking special studies at the Sacred Roman Rota. He acquired a double doctorate in law.
Kavanagh returned to New Zealand in 1940 and was appointed assistant priest in the parish of St Peter and Paul, Lower Hutt. In August 1944 he was transferred to St Joseph’s parish in Wellington, with residence at Archbishop’s House. He was appointed to the Diocesan Tribunal for Matrimonial Causes as defensor vinculi , canonist to Archbishop Thomas O’Shea and diocesan examiner. He also served as an army chaplain during the Second World War.
In 1944 Kavanagh was appointed by the bishops as their representative to care for 700 Catholic Polish refugee children brought to New Zealand. He worked with government officials and cabinet ministers and set up hostels in Lyall Bay and Island Bay. He was the children’s chaplain and in 1945 was appointed one of their legal guardians, taking care of welfare schemes, the purchasing of property and even requests for pocket money. Kavanagh was honoured in both New Zealand and Poland for his work; much later, in 1979, he accompanied Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to his native Poland.
He was consecrated bishop, at the early age of 36, in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Wellington on 30 November 1949. He also became apostolic administrator and coadjutor bishop of Dunedin, with right of succession. He succeeded James Whyte as the fourth bishop of Dunedin on 26 December 1957, following the latter’s death.
Kavanagh was a key figure in Catholic education for over 25 years, during the long struggle to achieve state aid for private schools. He was adviser to the Holy Name Society in its petition to the government in 1956. In 1960 he was appointed founding chairman of the Catholic Education Council for New Zealand and episcopal vicar for education, serving as spokesman on all Catholic education matters. Under Kavanagh’s chairmanship, the council made submissions to the 1960–62 Commission on Education in New Zealand, arguing that Catholic schools performed a public function, providing education to large numbers of children, fulfilling the state’s requirement of compulsory education and meeting its standards. However, the commission concluded that state aid to private schools was essentially a political question, and that Catholics or others had every right through political discussion and action to persuade the community that such schools should receive assistance from public funds.
Later, Kavanagh was a significant figure in the three years of intense negotiations leading to the passage of the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act 1975. The bishops welcomed the act as a historic milestone marking the end of long-standing division and mistrust. By accepting the act, the church was challenged to become a full partner in developing a national system of education, while retaining the Catholic character of its schools. Kavanagh’s ability to examine the implications of the legislation, as well as the clarity of mind and patience he brought to the negotiating table, were crucial to the outcome. He demonstrated intelligence, tenacity and courage in shepherding the Catholic school system through changing times, when insufficient funds and lack of teachers endangered its special character.
As bishop of Dunedin, Kavanagh’s term of office was marked by a considerable expansion of the Catholic secondary school system, as well as the establishment of the first co-educational secondary school in the diocese – St Peter’s College in Gore. He was a member of the Council of the University of Otago from 1968 to 1976 and chaired several of its committees. He was also responsible to the other bishops for Holy Cross College, Mosgiel. After his death Kavanagh College in Dunedin was named in his honour, bearing his own episcopal motto, Ipsa duce .
Intellectually gifted, practical and attentive to details, Kavanagh was a shy, kind and generous man. At the bishops’ conferences he was usually given the job of making a final summary after debate on contentious issues. Though he often agonised over this task, his conclusions were concise and decisive, reflecting his long experience, wisdom and humanity. His last years were marked by ill health, and he died in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Dunedin, on 10 July 1985.