Story: Catholic Church

Page 3. Building a national Catholic Church

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Bishop Redwood

Surprisingly, one of the most outspoken New Zealand advocates of Irish nationalism was the English-born Francis Redwood. He was said to be the youngest Catholic prelate (senior church leader) in the world when appointed Bishop of Wellington in 1874, aged 34, and the oldest when he died in 1935, at the age of 95. Redwood was a strong advocate of home rule for Ireland, and later of Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist political movement. Prominent English Catholic families in 19th-century New Zealand included Petre, Weld, Vavasour and Clifford.

Kia ora, begorrah

References to the Māori haka in Irish author James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s wake probably derive from his sister Margaret, who served as a Catholic nun in New Zealand. In 1909, 25-year-old Margaret Joyce (who took the name Sister Mary Gertrude) arrived at All Saints Convent of Mercy in Greymouth with three other Irish novices (trainee nuns). Sister Mary Gertrude taught piano and singing at Greymouth, Rūnanga and Brunner until 1949, when she moved to the convent in the Christchurch suburb of Papanui, and began teaching at the Loreto School. She never returned to Ireland and retired from teaching just three weeks before her death, aged 80, in 1964.

Redwood’s appointment in 1887 as metropolitan (archbishop) was a recognition that New Zealand Catholicism was developing its own identity, separate from Australia. Another proof of this came in 1899 when Rome ordered the first provincial council of New Zealand to be held. The council agreed to set up a national seminary (school) for secular clergy (ministers who do not belong to a religious order), and Holy Cross College opened in Mosgiel in 1900. By then the Marist seminary in Hawke's Bay had been going for a decade. Both later transferred to Auckland.

Church schools

The Education Act 1877 introduced free, secular and compulsory primary education. Catholics set up a rival network of church schools, as separate education by Catholic teachers was considered vital to protect the faith of Catholic youth. Their schools were staffed by a host of immigrant religious orders, mostly from Ireland. The battle to build, staff and fund these schools gave the Catholic community a focus for its energy, as well as a burning political cause to win funding from the state. That cause failed, and the school system was sustained for over a century by the donated pennies of the faithful and the almost unpaid labour of hundreds of devoted men and women.

Leaders of the country

Joseph Ward was the most prominent early Catholic prime minister in New Zealand, but not the first. In 1864-5, Frederick Weld was premier of New Zealand (the title formerly used in place of prime minister). In 1935 another Catholic, Michael Joseph Savage, became prime minister in the first Labour government. National Party leader Jim Bolger became the first New Zealand-born Catholic prime minister in 1990 (Weld was born in England, Ward and Savage in Australia). In 2016, National Party leader Bill English became the second.

Other indications of vitality in the Catholic community were the large churches that dotted the New Zealand countryside. The most striking example was the huge cathedral designed by Francis Petre in Christchurch, which opened in 1905.

Prime Minister Joseph Ward

Another sign that Catholics were climbing the social and political ladders was the career of Sir Joseph Ward, the Liberal Party leader who was prime minister in 1906–12 and 1928–30. Ward was Australian-born but of Irish parentage. His political success was proof that a Catholic could rise to the highest position in the land. Ward was a lay spokesman for his church on the Irish issue. From the turn of the century Irish home rule was promoted as a means of ensuring the unity of the British Empire, and it won widespread support in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Rory Sweetman, 'Catholic Church - Building a national Catholic Church', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/catholic-church/page-3 (accessed 13 November 2018)

Story by Rory Sweetman, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 17 Jul 2018