Page 1: Biography
Twomey, Patrick Joseph
Marist brother, meter reader, leprosy fund-raiser
This biography, written by Hugh Laracy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Patrick Joseph Twomey was driven by an intense religious concern to work for the relief of suffering among lepers in the Pacific islands. One of seven children, he was born in Wellington on 22 February 1892, of Irish-born Catholic parents Patrick Michael Twomey, a grocer, and his wife, Mary Walsh. Educated by the Marist brothers at Boulcott Street, he left school at the age of 13 and became a telegraph messenger to help stretch the family finances. To improve his career prospects he learned typing and shorthand at night school and later became a clerk in the Railway Department. Then, in 1912, he went to Australia, where, feeling a call to the religious life, he entered the novitiate of the Marist brothers at Mittagong, New South Wales. In June 1914 he took his vows of membership and soon afterwards, as Brother Mark Joseph, he was appointed to teach at the congregation’s school at Suva in Fiji. Ill health forced him to leave the brotherhood in 1919, and he returned to New Zealand, to Christchurch.
After a brief spell as a tram conductor, he joined the Christchurch Gas, Coal and Coke Company, initially as a meter reader, hoping the outdoor work would improve his health. Modest promotions followed but it was meeting Ben Pratt, a benefactor of the lepers quarantined on Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour, that determined his future career. Appalled by what he had seen of the disease in Fiji, Twomey began helping Pratt collect funds to provide ‘Christmas comforts’ for the lepers, and continued to do so when they were transferred to the leprosarium at Makogai in Fiji in 1925. In 1930, when age and ill health forced Pratt to withdraw, Twomey took sole charge of fund-raising. He determined to enlarge the operation. To this end he attended public-speaking classes and before long he initiated an annual nationwide appeal for funds. Twomey had married Christine Margaret Farrow at Christchurch on 30 January 1924; she firmly supported him in his work.
Such was the success of Twomey’s work that in 1939 the Lepers’ Trust Board was set up to oversee it, and requests for assistance began to come from other leper colonies. Accordingly, in 1942 Twomey resigned from his job to become the board’s full-time secretary, a position he held until his death. From 1942 canvassing was done in the name of ‘The Leper Man’, a sobriquet coined by a donor who once came to the gas company but did not know Twomey’s name.
Whereas Pratt had collected about £40 a year, under Twomey the board’s annual takings grew to £100,000. By 1963 almost £1 million had been raised through his efforts. By then the work had extended throughout the South Pacific, from Tahiti to Papua New Guinea. Twomey travelled regularly throughout this region, meeting officials, assessing needs and observing the board’s expenditure on hospitals, treatment centres, medical equipment, gifts, recreation material for the sick and the rehabilitation of discharged patients. In 1958 three 55-foot ships were given to the principal missionary organisations in the Solomon Islands for their medical work: Fauabu Twomey (Anglican), Mala Twomey (Catholic), Ozama Twomey (Methodist). A physiotherapy centre, opened at Ducos in New Caledonia in 1953, served also as a memorial to New Zealand servicemen who died in New Caledonia.
Twomey took ill in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) in 1963 and was transferred to Suva, where he died on 1 August, aged 71. Christine Twomey predeceased him in 1962. They were survived by three sons, one of them a Marist priest, and one daughter, a Dominican nun. Twomey was buried in Bromley cemetery, Christchurch.
Known throughout New Zealand and the South Pacific, Twomey received numerous honours, British, French and Papal, for his work. His name is remembered in the P. J. Twomey Memorial Hospital opened in Suva in 1969, and by the Patrick Twomey Society formed in 1986 by the Pacific Leprosy Foundation, which had succeeded the board in 1983. A tall, slightly built, naturally diffident man, Twomey’s commitment to this cause brought out in him a strength of character and a sustained enthusiasm that led him to become ‘one of the greatest publicity hunters’ in New Zealand, and the founder of a major charitable organisation. His enduring importance lies in his prominent position in the campaign that virtually eradicated leprosy in most of the Pacific.