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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


CLEARY, Henry William, O.B.E.


Sixth Roman Catholic Bishop of Auckland.

A new biography of Cleary, Henry William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Henry William Cleary was the sixth Roman Catholic Bishop of Auckland. From the time of his arrival in New Zealand in 1898 until his death, he was the country's most active Roman Catholic journalist. Cleary, the son of an Irish farmer, was born at Oulart, in the County of Wexford, on 15 January 1859. He was educated at St. Aidan's Academy, Enniscorthy (1874–76), and began his seminary training at St. Peter's College, Wexford City. He went on to Maynooth in 1878 and thence to the Pontifical Roman Seminary of the Lateran. From 1880 until 1883 he continued his studies at the Papal University of the Alpollinare. His studies were interrupted by recurrent illness, but he finally completed his training at the Seminary of St. Sulpice, near Paris, in 1884.

After his ordination at Enniscorthy on 11 January 1885, he continued to suffer ill health. He was first appointed to the House of Missions, then to parish work, then to his old college at Wexford, where he taught modern languages – he was familiar with French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. His health remaining poor, he was sent first to southern France and Spain and eventually to Australia. He arrived in Australia in November 1888 as an assistant priest for the diocese of Ballarat. During his 10–year stay in Australia he became an ardent controversialist in the press, and also published his first book, The Orange Society.

In 1898 Bishop Verdon of Dunedin invited him to become editor of the New Zealand Tablet. He held this appointment until 1910. During his editorship the paper received marks of Papal approbation. An Apostolic Blessing was granted by Leo XIII in 1900, and in 1908 Pius X conferred a Doctorate of Divinity on Cleary. During this period, too, Cleary published in Dunedin two more books, An Impeached Nation, dealing with the background of Irish agrarian disturbances, and Secular versus Religious Education. This latter was an elaboration of Cleary's contributions to a sustained controversy on religious education in the Otago Daily Times. He was also a contributor to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, published in the United States, during this period in Dunedin.

At the end of 1909 he left New Zealand on a trip which began with a visit to South America, where he established Catholic news agencies and linked them up with centres in New York and Australia. While Cleary was away, in February 1910, Dr Lenihan, the fifth Bishop of Auckland, died and Cleary was appointed to succeed him. He was consecrated at Enniscorthy on 21 August 1910, took possession of his see on 11 January 1911, and administered it thereafter until his death on 9 December 1929. During the period of his episcopate the Roman Catholic population of the diocese rose from 31,000 to 55,000, and the number of diocesan clergy, of parishes, and of primary schools increased more or less proportionately.

Certain groups of his people seem to have held a special interest for him: isolated rural Catholics, to whom he made long arduous visitations in the remote backblocks of his diocese; the Maori people, whose language he learned so that he could preach to them and catechise them in it, and for whom he established St. Peter's Rural Training College at Takapuna; and children, specially the orphans in the Star of the Sea Home at Howick. He was interested in collecting records of early missionary activity and went on from this to complete and order the diocesan archives. He was fascinated by the technological developments of his time and added a delight in aeroplnes and aeronautics to his passion for motoring and car engines. He was the first bishop in the world to use air travel for episcopal visitation and his flight in 1919 for this purpose was the first for any form of business travel in Australasia. He was a foundation member of the Auckland Aero Club and subscribed to the world's leading aviation journals, which he sent to the club's rooms.

In 1916 Cleary had to go abroad for medical treatment. On arrival in London he found that there was no Roman Catholic chaplain with the New Zealand Second Brigade in France. He volunteered as a chaplain and served in the front line for some months, and was reported as displaying conspicuous energy and courage. He returned to New Zealand in October 1917 and became a foundation member of the Returned Servicemen's Association. His response to the influenza epidemic of 1918 was warm and practical. As all the Auckland hospitals were full, Cleary converted three Catholic schools into temporary hospitals and staffed and equipped them for the use of all who needed them.

In 1918 he founded The Month, which he edited until his death. His avowed intention was to provide statements of the Catholic viewpoint on current events. The immediate and pressing need for such a journal he ascribed to what he declared to be the “campaign of defamation of Catholics” then being conducted in New Zealand. He intended the paper to be strictly non-partisan in party politics and he successfully adhered to this policy. The Month from 1918 on provides a record of Cleary's public activities and a full expression of his views on all the issues with which he was involved, since he wrote a great deal for the paper as well as editing it. At the time there were three issues of general interest in New Zealand with which The Month, under Cleary's editorship, was concerned. The first was the campaign to bring sectarian issues into politics. This began in the early years of the century, but entered a phase of much greater intensity in 1917 which lasted into the early 1920s. The influence of the Protestant Political Association on New Zealand politics in this period has not yet been investigated. But when the history of the association comes to be written, the early issues of The Month will constitute a major source of information and contemporary comment on some aspects of its activities.

On the licensing problem Cleary had a definite and frequently reiterated opinion. This was that the evils attendant on the drink traffic under the existing system were so great as to warrant the experiment of prohibition. He invariably emphasised very strongly that his views on this matter represented a personal judgment on existing local circumstances and were not to be regarded as official teaching or direction.

Throughout the 1920s the Bible-in-Schools League was active after a period of quiescence following its campaign of 1911–14. Cleary was the chief spokesman for the Catholic hierarchy in resisting the campaign, both in his voluminous and vigorous writings on the issue and as the representative of the hierarchy appearing before the Education Committee of the House on various occasions.

It is difficult at this stage to assess Cleary's significance in the social and religious history of this country. What should be noted is that the period in which he was active, both as a journalist and as a bishop, was one in which the Catholic community was necessarily particularly concerned with its position in New Zealand society. For the greater part of that period of over 30 years he edited one or other of the two Catholic journals. As these contain so much of his own prolific writing they constitute Cleary's contribution to the social education of the Catholic community, as well as being the most obvious expression of that community's attitudes, opinions, and preoccupations in the period.

Cleary's contribution to the institutional development of the Church was in no way remarkable. But by his temperament and interests, by the personal respect he won, and by his direct engagement in controversy, Cleary addressed himself to what was probably the most pressing problem of his own people at that time, their integration as a community into this society.

by Betty Mary O'Dowd, M.A., Warden, Helen Connon Hall, University of Canterbury.

  • The Month, Dec 1929
  • New Zealand Herald, 10 Dec 1929 (Obit).


Betty Mary O'Dowd, M.A., Warden, Helen Connon Hall, University of Canterbury.