Peter Thomas Bertram McKeefry was born on 3 July 1899 in Greymouth, the fifth of seven children of Mary McAlary and her husband, Michael McKeefry, a police constable. His parents were both born in County Londonderry, Ireland. After living briefly in Christchurch, the family moved to Dunedin, where Peter was educated at the Christian Brothers’ Boys’ School. Then, inspired by the example of priests he had known, he began training for the priesthood in 1916 at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel. In 1922 he was sent to study for four years at the Urban College De Propaganda Fide, Rome. He was ordained priest on 3 April 1926 at the Cathedral Church of St John Lateran.
Arriving back in New Zealand in November that year, McKeefry initially served as a curate in the cathedral parish in Auckland. He was also engaged as secretary to Bishop Henry Cleary, whom he assisted with the diocesan newspaper the Month. After Cleary’s death in December 1929 his successor, Bishop James Liston (McKeefry’s former rector at Holy Cross), appointed him as his own secretary and as editor of the Month. Under McKeefry’s editorship the Month was succeeded in May 1934 by the fortnightly Zealandia , which was published weekly from June 1937, reaching a circulation of 14,000 the following year. In June 1937 McKeefry also became manager of the paper. After playing an important role in organising the 1938 celebrations to mark the centenary of Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier’s arrival in New Zealand, he spent 1939 overseas, mainly in Europe.
As editor of the Month and Zealandia , McKeefry maintained the apologetic and often triumphalist tone established by his predecessor, declaring, for example, that the Catholic church was ‘the only body whose moral teaching has not been brought to shame and scorn by corruptions such as divorce and birth control’. When discussing moral issues, however, McKeefry was primarily concerned with the need to apply Catholic ideals to contemporary society. While avoiding party politics in principle, he criticised the coalition government’s response to unemployment and exhorted readers to vote for candidates most likely to act in accordance with ‘Christian charity, justice and order’. McKeefry urged that capitalism be restrained, but also criticised the trade unions. He warned against communist influence in the New Zealand Labour Party and condemned some of its welfare proposals as threats to the autonomy of the family and the individual. He regarded the increasing power of the state as the most dangerous political trend of his time – a threat embodied in fascism, Nazism and, above all, in communism, to which he considered the only viable alternative was social reconstruction based on Catholic principles. Thus Zealandia ’s extensive coverage of the Spanish Civil War portrayed it, despite the involvement of the Axis powers, as a conflict between ‘the law of Christ’ and that of ‘atheist communism’. During and after the Second World War McKeefry advocated unyielding resistance by the Western powers to Russia’s expansionist ambitions.
In June 1947 McKeefry was appointed titular archbishop of Dercos and coadjutor archbishop of Wellington with right of succession to the 77-year-old Archbishop Thomas O’Shea. After a brief visit to Australia, he was consecrated in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland, on 19 October 1947 by Cardinal Norman Gilroy, archbishop of Sydney, whom McKeefry had known as a fellow student in Rome. Within a short time O’Shea, no longer capable of managing the affairs of the archdiocese, effectively turned its management over to McKeefry. When O’Shea died on 9 May 1954 McKeefry became the fourth bishop and third archbishop of Wellington. He was the first New Zealand-born priest to hold this position and the first secular bishop to take charge of the archdiocese, his three predecessors having belonged to the Society of Mary. At St Mary of the Angels Church on 10 November 1954, McKeefry was invested as archbishop by Bishop Liston.
By the time McKeefry arrived in Wellington the archdiocese’s development had long been delayed by the depression and the Second World War. Seeking to reduce reliance on the Marists, he benefited from many local vocations and recruited priests and religious from Ireland and elsewhere. Thirty-nine new parishes – most with associated primary schools – were established in the archdiocese between 1947 and 1969. Some newly introduced orders were selected for their particular expertise or spirituality, notably: the Cenacle sisters, who worked among Catholic women and managed a retreat house in Lower Hutt; the Capucins, whose friary in suburban Northland provided a university chaplaincy service; the Cistercians, whose monastery in Kopua, Hawke’s Bay, was intended to sustain the archdiocese with its prayers and to train young farmers; and the Assumptionist fathers, who originally worked among Dutch immigrants. Other congregations worked in more traditional apostolates, including education, health, and social welfare. With a view to the future division of the archdiocese, McKeefry founded institutions in provincial areas, such as the Holy Family Home for the aged in Hastings (run by the Little Sisters of the Poor) and the Diocesan Pastoral Centre in Palmerston North, a venue for retreats and courses.
McKeefry also encouraged movements that cultivated lay spirituality and inculcated Catholic teaching, one of the most successful being the Guild of St Luke and Saints Cosmas and Damian for Catholic physicians. Conversely, he decided not to actively promote the Christian Family Movement because overseas it had been associated with criticism of the church’s teaching on contraception. After the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), McKeefry established a hierarchy of parish and district councils culminating in the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Intended to promote the spiritual and material interests of Catholics and the wider community, these councils were arguably his most progressive achievement.
In 1960 McKeefry had been appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission, which supervised the drafting of documents for the forthcoming Vatican Council. During the council’s first session, in 1962, these very traditional statements were severely criticised but McKeefry had no sympathy for proposals to introduce vernacular languages into the liturgy. He did not attend the council’s second session the following year, although he returned to Rome for the 1964 and 1965 sessions, which he found rather tedious. In 1962 Owen Snedden, who had assisted and then succeeded McKeefry as editor of Zealandia , was appointed auxiliary bishop of Wellington. He was largely responsible for liturgical matters, but, in these and other respects, was given little independence by McKeefry. The latter’s gradual implementation of the liturgical reforms initiated by the Vatican Council reflected the caution of a convinced but dutiful conservative whose training had emphasised humility and obedience.
On 28 April 1969 McKeefry was proclaimed by Pope Paul VI a cardinal-priest of the Church of Santa Maria Immacolata al Tiburtino. He was the first cardinal in New Zealand and the first New Zealander to hold such a title. Its conferral signified a recognition by the Vatican of the maturity of the church in New Zealand and of its role in the South Pacific, as well as reflecting Paul VI’s policy of making the Sacred College of Cardinals more international. It was clearly also a personal tribute to one who was well known and respected in the Vatican. As a cardinal, McKeefry was appointed to two international commissions based in Rome: the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy and the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (also called the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith).
At six feet four inches McKeefry was very tall and slim, with a high forehead and large ears; as he grew older, his youthful good looks gave way to a rather grave and ascetic appearance. From his arrival in Wellington, carrying all his possessions in a few small suitcases, he lived at the Thorndon presbytery in Guilford Terrace as a permanent guest of the parish priest, occupying only two modest rooms as his office and bedroom. Observing the frayed cuff of the cardinal-elect’s housecoat during a 1969 interview, a journalist reflected that it may have been the same one seen in similar condition by a colleague 22 years earlier. McKeefry’s simplicity and lack of pretension were not motivated solely by religion, but also reflected his West Coast origins – as perhaps did his lunchtime beer, heavy smoking, and consistent pronunciation of ‘my’ as ‘me’.
Although a scholar rather than a sportsman, he could talk knowledgeably about horse-racing, rugby, rowing, boxing and wrestling. He was also capable of forceful action when required: walking home late one night in Auckland, he buttoned his overcoat over his clerical collar and intervened decisively in an altercation between a lone policeman and three assailants in an unlit alley.
McKeefry’s lifelong interest in New Zealand history, and particularly the beginnings of the church in this country, was reflected in his work arranging the Auckland diocesan archives and in editing Fishers of men (1938), a selection of translations from the writings of Bishop Pompallier and his fellow missionaries. McKeefry’s writing as a journalist was informed by listening to late-night news broadcasts on shortwave radio. As a bishop he retained the habit of reading, working, or conversing late into the night – sometimes to the consternation of friends, who could match neither his limited need for sleep nor his exceptionally retentive memory.
McKeefry was quietly spoken and retiring, preferring to work out of public view, but he was recognised as friendly, approachable and compassionate. A sometimes direct manner of speaking his mind belied a genuine concern for people in difficulty and the Society of St Vincent de Paul acknowledged its president of honour as a strong supporter of its work. His concern for the Maori people was evident in, among other expressions, his close association with Hato Paora College near Feilding. However, it was above all his clergy who experienced McKeefry’s paternal care. Priests scheduled to say midday mass on Mondays at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and therefore unable to play golf on what was meant to be their one free day, were often relieved when the archbishop offered the mass in their stead. On Sunday 18 November 1973, while making arrangements by telephone at the presbytery for the accommodation of a convalescent priest whom he had just visited, McKeefry died suddenly, a cigarette smouldering between his fingers. He was buried in Karori cemetery after a funeral attended by numerous civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries and amidst copious tributes from within and beyond his own church.