Francis William Redwood was born on 8 April 1839 in the parish of Tixall, Staffordshire, England, the son of Henry Redwood, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Gilbert. The family emigrated to Nelson, New Zealand, on the George Fyfe in 1842. Henry took up farming at Waimea West.
When Father Antoine Garin came to Nelson in 1850 he saw Francis's potential, and in time the boy became a boarder at the small secondary school in the presbytery. In December 1854, after evincing a firm desire to be a priest, he was sent to France for further education. In May 1855 he entered St Mary's College at St Chamond, some miles from Lyons. Despite homesickness and internal struggles, Francis entered the scholasticate of the Marist fathers at Montbel, near Toulon, in 1860, pursuing a very successful course of studies. He was later appointed professor of Latin and Greek at St Mary's College, Dundalk, Ireland, where he also had to complete his own theological studies. After his ordination at Maynooth in 1865, he served as a priest in County Kildare.
After three years' teaching, Redwood contracted severe bronchial troubles and was sent to Rome to rest. There he met Philippe Joseph Viard, bishop of Wellington, who was attending the First Vatican Council. Viard was sufficiently impressed to suggest Redwood as his coadjutor. Before the appointment could be made, Viard died; after a considerable delay, Redwood was appointed his successor in January 1874. It was said that he was the youngest Catholic bishop in the world; on his death at the age of 95 he was said to be the oldest. After consecration by Cardinal H. E. Manning in London on 17 March, Redwood spent his time appealing for funds in France and personnel in Ireland before returning to New Zealand in November 1874.
The diocese of Wellington, covering the North Island south of Lake Taupo and the South Island north of the Waitaki River, was short of both personnel and money. Redwood energetically set about establishing new parishes, and personally visited all of the diocese. The bishop's house, which Redwood described as 'not many removes from a Maori whare', was replaced at a cost of £2,400.
Redwood became closely involved with Catholic education. The Education Act 1877 made schooling wholly secular and, in spite of the strenuous efforts of Redwood and the fiery Bishop Patrick Moran of Dunedin, made no provision for funding parochial schools. Some provincial governments had provided limited funding for the employment of lay teachers; under the centralised system this ceased, at a time when the number of Catholic schools was multiplying. With the generous support of the laity, Redwood brought in religious teaching orders from Ireland, France and Australia. He never ceased to champion state aid for Catholic schools. Perhaps his greatest triumph was opening the first permanent Catholic boys' secondary school in New Zealand – St Patrick's College – in Wellington in 1885; it was staffed by his own Marists from Dundalk, where he had taught. He contended that if Catholics were to find their rightful place in society, educated and committed Catholic laymen were essential. He encouraged the Marist fathers to open a seminary at Meeanee, Hawke's Bay, in 1890 to ensure a supply of New Zealand priests; it later moved to Greenmeadows. His interest in education was not confined to that of his fellow Catholics: from 1877 to 1903 he served on the senate of the University of New Zealand.
Redwood's concerns extended to social welfare. He agreed that drink was one of the evils of the day, but unlike some he advocated temperance rather than prohibition. He supported the great American apostle of temperance, Father Patrick Hennebery, who campaigned around his diocese in 1877. He resolutely resisted pressure to support prohibition, and a pastoral letter of 1911 urging Catholics to vote against prohibition was widely believed to have been responsible for the defeat of the measure in that year.
Redwood encouraged his old mentor, Father Garin, to open orphanages for boys and girls in Nelson. He supported Mother Mary Joseph Aubert in her work among the Maori, and helped her to start St Joseph's Home for Incurables in Buckle Street, Wellington. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd were brought to Christchurch in 1886 to care for abandoned women.
The overwhelming size of the Wellington diocese led to a decision from Rome to create a new diocese comprising Canterbury and Westland. At the same time a metropolitan archdiocese was to be created. Redwood favoured the appointment of his fellow Marist John Grimes as bishop of Christchurch, but in 1885 the first Plenary Council of Australasian bishops recommended that the appointment go to a secular priest and that Dunedin be the new archdiocese. This would have strengthened the largely Irish secular clergy at the expense of the Marists, who successfully petitioned Rome to overturn both recommendations. In 1887 Grimes became bishop of Christchurch and Redwood archbishop of Wellington and metropolitan of New Zealand. Moran was furious, and kept up continual criticism of Redwood in the pages of the New Zealand Tablet. The controversy did no lasting harm to Redwood's standing in the church.
On Moran's death in 1895 Redwood became the senior New Zealand bishop. In the same year New Zealand was constituted an ecclesiastical province separate from Australia, with Redwood at the head of the episcopal hierarchy. In January 1899 he convened the first New Zealand Provincial Council.
Necessarily much of Redwood's time was occupied with pastoral duties: the placement of priests within the diocese, the staffing of schools, superintending the Maori mission and overseeing the collection of diocesan funds. He published frequent pastoral letters, and his considerable oratorical ability meant that he was in demand as a speaker throughout Australia and New Zealand. From 1913 he had the assistance of Archbishop Thomas O'Shea as coadjutor.
Redwood tried to keep a balance between the Irish sympathies of most of his flock and loyalty to the Crown. His English birth and his Irish teaching experience gave him a background for effecting this uneasy balance. He had founded the short-lived Catholic Times (1888–94) in Wellington, because among other things he deplored some of the strident and anti-British rhetoric of Moran's Tablet. But he gave his ready support to Irish causes such as home rule, famine support, and help after the 1916 rising.
Despite his growing popularity Redwood had to face sectarian bitterness many times. Allegations of mistreatment of the children at the Stoke orphanage led to an outburst of anti-Catholic feeling, and the eventual resignation of the Marist brothers from the institution. There were public controversies with the Orange Lodge and Protestant Political Association over the church's new mixed marriage laws of 1908, and the church's insistence that religious teachers should be exempted from military service during the First World War. In the 1920s and 1930s Redwood was forced to lead a divided episcopate on the contentious question of Bible study in schools. He was also called on to clarify the church's attitude to socialism and the growing labour movement: his initial conservatism on this issue was gradually modified.
The grand old bearded patriarch, whose recreation was playing his violin, celebrated his golden jubilee as bishop in 1924, when he was appointed assistant at the pontifical throne, a rank next to that of cardinal. He had gained great popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike by the stately way he comported himself, by his balanced views and his eloquence both in the pulpit and on the platform. His many pastoral letters were read with great interest and respect. He lived to see large numbers of New Zealand priests, brothers and sisters not only staffing the parishes, schools and works he had founded but also leaving as missionaries for the Pacific and further afield. When he died on 3 January 1935 his life had spanned the transition from a missionary church to an established institution. He was buried at Karori cemetery in Wellington.