Bishop Matthew Brodie (1915-1943)

Bishop Brodie’s Episcopal Crest

Piety, humility and generosity marked Bishop Matthew Brodie’s episcopacy.

Truly a “good shepherd”, he had to adopt the role of wise statesman too. For Bishop Matthew Brodie led his flock through tumultuous times, from one World War to another, via the Great Depression, beset by seething anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment.

With unshakeable humility, charity and consistency he faced political and economic upheavals. His 27 years as Bishop of Christchurch, from 1916 to 1943, ushered in a new era for the Catholic Church in New Zealand. The son of poor Irish emigrants, who had toiled on the West Coast goldfields and married in 1866 at Greymouth, became the first New Zealand-born bishop. He brought to his calling a selfless, amiable nature of the sort that is often thought of as “genuine Kiwi bloke”.

To these qualities could be added intellectual power, verbal persuasiveness and adherence to principle. Bishop Brodie successfully rallied support from diverse quarters. He won friends and admirers among all sections of society, amid a range of controversies.

These strengths would suffice to minimise his weaknesses, including an almost reckless neglect of property maintenance and lack of adequate record keeping. For instance, his 1925 diary, in the Christchurch Diocesan Archives, contains little more than occasional names of visitors or people he visited, scattered through a dozen-or-so pages, with no reference to the topics of their discussions. All the other pages are totally empty. Only few copies of his correspondence remain in the archives as, it is said, his custom was to respond to inward letters by writing quick replies on the reverse sides of the pages and posting them back to their senders.

Commentator Daniel Smith, in a history thesis, says bluntly: “His administration was inept”. However, his perceived weaknesses are ignored in a 1950 profile of Bishop Brodie in the Catholic newspaper Zealandia, which says: “If he had a fault at all, it was that he was too kind-hearted, too ready to believe the best in everyone”.

Bishop Matthew Brodie [Photographic Collection #35]

Matthew James Brodie was born at Driving Creek, Coromandel, in 1872. He was the fourth of eight children to Bridget, of Galway, and Patrick, of County Clare, Ireland. His father was a miner and the family moved from Greymouth to the Coromandel diggings when Matthew was a toddler. Matthew’s primary schooling was at St Joseph’s School in Coromandel, the beginning of his all-Catholic education.

The family moved to Grey Lynn, Auckland, in 1885. There Patrick Brodie ran The Family and Naval Hotel, while Matthew attended the Marist Brothers’ school. The hotel venture must have been successful as the Brodies were able to send Matthew to St Joseph’s School at Hunters Hill, Sydney, for higher education.

Matthew excelled as a student at Hunters Hill, while also playing in the cricket 1st XI and rugby 1st XV. On leaving school he anguished over the choice of a career in the law and a vocation in the Church. Having decided on the former, he was about to pay the first instalment of fees to the University of Sydney when his former teacher, Brother Leo, interjected. He urged Matthew go to the seminary instead.

After six years of study at St Patrick’s Seminary, in Manly, Matthew was ordained a Deacon at the end of 1896. He served at St Mary’s in Sydney until Bishop Lenihan ordained him a priest at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland, in July, 1897.

The 25 year-old priest began his service to the Auckland Diocese as curate at St Benedict’s Parish, Newton, and then at St Peter’s and St Paul’s Parish at Puhoi, North Auckland.  In 1901 he was appointed the first priest of the new parish of Waihi, Bay of Plenty, where he was to spend the following 13 years.

Waihi was a gold mining town with many Irish workers, so, given his background, Fr Brodie might have been deemed suitable for this assignment. However, there must have been more to recommend him. For Waihi was also a flashpoint of conflict with atheistic socialist members of the Federation of Labour (“Red Feds”) trying to insinuate themselves into Miners’ Union affairs.

The young Fr Brodie was already regarded highly by fellow clergy and was on friendly terms with future bishops Fr Henry Cleary and Fr James Liston. His fellow priests would later nominate him for consideration in the selection of the next Bishop of Auckland, to succeed Bishop Lenihan.

The 1912 Miners’ Strike at Waihi is a landmark in New Zealand’s industrial history. Employment relations deteriorated in the years leading to the strike. In this atmosphere Fr Brodie maintained a difficult diplomatic stance between support for the miners and condemnation of their atheistic element. In showing a socialist leaning he departed from the Church’s erstwhile conservatism in political affairs.

His understanding of people and his charity to poor families won the continued loyalty of many in the Church, but alienated others.

Fr Brodie’s efforts towards conciliation and compromise during the strike may, or may not have achieved much. Commentator Daniel Smith says Fr Brodie’s “middle road policy between the miners’ leaders and the Government….won no friends on either side, although the Church took notice of his abilities”.

The Church took notice also of his wellbeing. The stresses of serving the Waihi Parish and dealing with the industrial situation had damaged his health. In 1913 Fr Brodie was sent on a convalescent trip to Australia. There he was lauded as a luminary at his old seminary. Back in Auckland he was made a Monsignor and appointed Cathedral Administrator. In 1915 he became Parish Priest of Parnell and Vicar-General of the Auckland Diocese.

It may be a mark of his humility that he twice turned down requests to accept the position of Vicar-General, before agreeing. No wonder his profile in the Zealandia stated: “Humility was among his greatest virtues”.

His standing among Auckland Catholics and his friendship with senior figures in the clergy would lead in later years to the Vatican seeking his views on the fall-out between Bishop Cleary and his coadjutant Bishop Liston. In a lengthy written response he exonerated Bishop Liston, explaining that Bishop Cleary’s sharp decline in mental health had caused him to make flawed decisions.

Later, too, Bishop Brodie would comment on the charge of sedition against Bishop Liston, who had spoken publicly in opposition to the treaty drawn up to settle the conflict in Ireland between Irish nationalists and the British Crown. His remarks drew the allegation that he was inciting further rebellion. Prompted by his friendship with Bishop Liston, and by the wave of opprobrium generated by a hostile media against Bishop Liston, Bishop Brodie derided the charge as an “outcome of hysterical bigotry”. After a two-day trial, Bishop Liston was acquitted.

News of Mons Brodie’s elevation to Bishop, to succeed Bishop Joseph Grimes in Christchurch, came late in 1915. He asked to have his consecration in Christchurch, saying he owed it to the people there. If that was a tactful choice, his next action was upsetting – but mostly to himself.

Invitation to the Consecration of Matthew Brodie as the
Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch on Sunday 27 February 2016

The Bishop-in-waiting asked Archbishop Redwood, Wellington, to lead the consecration ritual. Meanwhile he wrote to Apostolic Delegate Cardinal Ceretti, in Australia, inviting him to attend. The wording of the letter suggested he wanted the cardinal to preside, which His Eminence promptly agreed to do.

Great was Mons Brodie’s embarrassment at having then to explain to Archbishop Redwood that Cardinal Ceretti would lead the service. In a letter to Archbishop O’Shea, Mons Brodie confessed to “a humiliation of crushing intensity”.

Bishop Brodie with Cardinal Bonaventura Cerretti [Photographic Collection #3846]

Monsignor Brodie was consecrated in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on February 27, 1916. Bishop Grimes, the first Bishop of Christchurch, had served for 27 years. His successor would replicate that length of term.

Almost immediately the new bishop was pitched into controversy. Irish nationalists’ battles for independence from British rule had heightened anti-British sentiment among Irish settlers and their descendants in New Zealand. With Canterbury being an English and Anglican Church settlement, and amid the patriotic fervour of World War I, Christchurch became a hothouse of dissent.

Many Irish sided with the Irish separatist movement Sinn Fein, sometimes resorting to riot and violence, even in Christchurch. Citizens of British descent labelled Irish protestors as traitors. Some included Bishop Brodie in this charge.

Just as he had done at Waihi, Bishop Brodie worked to reconcile differences, while again standing firmly by his principles. And again he tried to step aside from controversy and dedicate himself to helping the poor. His attempts for conciliation between Catholicism and Protestantism were rendered more difficult by his attendance at a Sinn Fein meeting in Christchurch. The Press newspaper denounced this action as disloyalty to the Crown and to New Zealand.

Was the Bishop of Christchurch a traitor then? Of course not. Bishop Brodie denied it and called on Catholics to embargo The Press for making the implication. The newspaper was very much embedded in the British colonial ethos, so this stance must have alienated the Catholic bishop from many people.

Nevertheless, fair-minded people of all codes came to appreciate the bishop’s stand. Years later his Anglican counterpart, Bishop Campbell West-Watson, would remark on Bishop Brodie’s “kindness and unaffected charity….his deep human sympathy with all who were in trouble….the affection and regard (for him) of the citizens at large and of members of all religious communions”.

At length, even The Press would concede: “He (Brodie) fulfilled his onerous duties with tireless energy and to the greatest benefit of his people. His government was inspired by fatherly kindness, consideration and understanding. He held up to his people the highest ideals as Catholics and citizens”. Grudging praise? Not really. A little late though, as these words appeared in an obituary for Bishop Brodie, two and a half decades after the Sinn Fein affair.

Was he a pacifist then? Again, no. Bishop Brodie received a call-up to the army in February, 1917, while World War I was grinding on. Exercising his legal right as a bishop, he sought an exemption on grounds of local Catholics needing their leader to be among them. The exemption was granted. He then applied to work as a military chaplain and was accepted in December, 1917. However, his appointment as “an officer in the Land Forces as chaplain” was to become effective in December, 1918. By then the war was over.

Meanwhile he had been active in providing a recreation and meetings building for Catholic soldiers training at Burnham Camp. Bishop Brodie was a long-time member of the RSA.

During the war he also joined the New Zealand bishops in a campaign to allow exemptions from military call-ups for all Catholic clergy and for students in seminary training. A dispute on this matter dragged on and heightened anti-Catholic sentiment. Bishop Brodie lamented this as: “stirring up sectarian strife”.  

The Great Depression revealed the bishop’s determination to aid and care for the poor. He contributed generously to relief measures to help them. Two examples demonstrate this most starkly. Firstly, although he led the building of new churches, schools, parishes and institutions (such as Nazareth House, St Bede’s College and Lewisham Hospital), he let maintenance of Church properties slip by deflecting funds intended for this purpose towards payments to charitable causes. One result was the sad, even unsafe, state that some buildings fell into, including the cathedral. It was left to his successor, Bishop Patrick Lyons, to catch up on deferred maintenance and to set the diocese on a sound financial footing.

Bishops Whyte, Brodie and Liston [Photographic Collection #36]

Secondly, Bishop Brodie dispersed most of his personal finances in grants to the poor and to Church building projects. His estate was boosted significantly by his mother’s bequest. (His father was already deceased.) As the family hotel and other business run by Brodie Properties Ltd had been profitable, the value of his inheritance (equal to that of each of his five surviving siblings) amounted to 8200 pounds. According to the Reserve Bank inflation calculator, that would be worth about $800,000 today. Yet, when the bishop died, his estate value was virtually nil, and this in spite of his Spartan lifestyle.

So Spartan indeed that when he received a letter from the Commissioner of Taxes, in 1922, demanding he furnish his annual return of income from all sources, the Diocesan Secretary replied on his behalf that: “His Lordship receives no personal income from any source. His living expenses are considerably less than 300 pounds a year….defrayed out of the Cathedral House accounts”.

On further examination, the taxman accepted this was the case. So where did the money go? On a scan of the letters of gratitude in the archives, it is clear that he donated sizeable sums to many charitable and Church causes and building projects, and helped innumerable needy people. That is taking into account that the volume of letters retained is likely a fraction of those received during the bishop’s 27 years of service.

In addition to these measures, Bishop Brodie was an active member of the Citizens’ Unemployment Committee. Working with people of all faiths, and none, he helped to raise funds from many sources and to direct the money to the most appropriate causes.

The building of community was another area in which Bishop Brodie was involved. He supported community groups, from sports clubs to the Catholic Women’s League, which he established in Christchurch.

He sat on the board of the St John Ambulance Society for many years. His work there was tireless and won great respect. Christchurch City Councillor, and later Mayor, Sir Ernest Andrews was one who praised Bishop Brodie for his work with the needy. The two became firm friends, with Andrews referring to the bishop as: “A great and gracious Christian gentleman”.

As a man educated solely in Catholic institutions, Bishop Brodie took a close interest in Catholic schools and education generally. In a strange irony, he was a firm ally of St Bede’s College and a friend of its staff of Marist Fathers, while maintaining a feud with the Society of Mary (Marists) over their right to run parishes in the diocese. It was said his division of the Papanui Parish, then run by Marist priests, into smaller parishes was a move to weaken the Marists’ hold in northern Christchurch.

Bishop Matthew Brodie [Photographic Collection D53]

Bishop Lyons continued the feud with the Marists but did not continue the friendship with St Bede’s.

The Bible in Schools movement, which was pressing the Government for religious teaching in State schools, riled Bishop Brodie. He saw it as an attempt to turn State schools into Protestant schools. He argued on behalf of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops that Catholic taxpayers deserved better than having their contribution to State revenue used in such a way, when Catholic schools received minimal State assistance. His campaign to defeat the move was messy, but ultimately successful.

These were times of antagonism between Catholics and those of other faiths. Bishop Brodie never shrank from opportunities to counter wrong information on Catholicism, expressed in the language of calm and polite logic. In spite of his early tiff with The Press, he contributed thoughtful reflections on religious and humanitarian topics through the media.

He continued his interest in industrial relations. A breakdown in negotiations between Christchurch tramway workers and the tramway board turned nasty, leading to strike action. Riots became a distinct possibility. Then Bishop Brodie intervened. Once more, his tact helped to end the strife.

A strong interest in Catholic clubs and societies was part of the bishop’s mission for his people. However, his connection with the Marist Brothers Old Boys Rugby Club, of which he was the patron, pitched him into a right ruckus.

Generally known simply as Marist, the club was strong and its senior side was usually to the fore in the Christchurch competition. The team won the championship in 1923, thus qualifying to play for the Payne Trophy, a newly instituted fixture against the top Dunedin side, which that year was University. Huge interest in the forthcoming clash ensured a big crowd at Lancaster Park for the match. However, a row broke out over Marist’s intention to fill gaps caused by injuries with two players who had not played that season. The Otago Rugby Union found about this and “cooked up” allegations of “importing” players. Otago demanded the two players be omitted and the Canterbury union agreed. But Marist refused to budge. After fruitless discussions, the club was suspended. The big match was cancelled.

Bishop Brodie had stepped into the breach but his attempts to conciliate had failed. Owing partly to his intervention, the rift between the Canterbury union and the Marist club had become a national issue. When Marist then decided to withdraw its teams from Christchurch rugby competitions and enter them in the rival code, rugby league, Bishop Brodie maintained his support. In a snowball effect, Greymouth Marist followed suit, while Auckland Marist came close to doing likewise. Marist clubs in other towns considered the move too.

Marist’s venture into rugby league lasted just eight years. By then another Catholic rugby club was active in Christchurch – Athletic by name, but Marist by nature.

Was this fiasco a case of anti-Catholic bigotry? Sports historian Des Woods says: “It is difficult not to accept that there was an extent to which sectarianism and culture drove this issue”. He quotes supporting references in Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Woods also says Marist club members acted stubbornly. “Their best advocate was their bishop,” he adds.

In all of these matters, spread over a quarter of a century, Bishop Brodie became a well-known personality around Christchurch. His friendly demeanour endeared him to many. He took frequent walks through the city, alone but always ready to greet people with a wave and a smile, ever inclined to stop for a chat and ask how things were going.

“The impression of sincerity was so real as to give his words a double power,” the Zealandia said.

Marking his silver jubilee in 1941, Bishop Brodie was honoured with the awards of Assistant to the Papal Throne, and Member of the Papal Household.

The letters of congratulation that poured in included one from Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, Campbell West-Watson. He wrote: “My personal gratitude for your many kindnesses….You have set us all a great example of large-heartedness and sympathetic service in the things that concern truly the moral and material well-being of Christchurch”.

A declaration from the Diocesan Clergy on his jubilee states: “(In you) God gave us a pastor after his own heart.

For a fitting image of this bishop, see a man in the pulpit who draws crowds to the pews by the measured enunciation of his preaching; see the lengthy line of penitents waiting outside the confessional box where he sits ready to hear their sins.

By the time of his jubilee, Bishop Brodie’s health was failing. Letters from his sister, Mary, which he kept, refer often to, and with increasing concern for his health. Clearly concerned himself, but for his people rather than his own situation, he offered his resignation, or at least his acceptance of a coadjutant bishop to assume his duties.

After a year-long and painful illness, during which he received radium treatment indicating he suffered from cancer, Bishop Brodie died at the hospital of the Little Sisters of Mary, on October 11, 1943. He was 72. According to his wishes, his body was buried in the crypt of the Convent of the Good Shepherd at Mt Magdala, near Halswell, Christchurch.


Thank you to the author, Michael Crean

Images from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Archives References: 2018.17 Papers of Bishop Brodie ; Unaccessioned Photographic collection

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