Bishop John Grimes SM (1887-1915)

An East London slum dweller, son of illiterate parents, became the first Catholic Bishop of Christchurch.

Records of John Joseph Grimes’s childhood were so scanty that people believed for years he hailed from the decorous Kent village of Bromley. They got the name Bromley right, but the wrong Bromley.

It was a simple but erroneous presumption. It seems anyone who knew anything of England could not think for one moment that such a cultured, eloquent and intelligent bishop could have risen from grubby little Bromley in London’s East End. The Grimes family neighbourhood was a den of penniless Irish immigrants where unemployment was the norm and men would hassle for whatever jobs might come up in the raucous docklands.

More recent research by Fr Michael O’Meeghan SM for his centennial history of the Christchurch Diocese, Held Firm by Faith, and by local historian Michael Hanrahan for his centennial history of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, A Suitable Temple, have unearthed a more accurate picture of Grimes’s boyhood. As O’Meeghan established: Grimes grew up “in true Cockney territory, within hearing of the Bow bells”.

Grimes was born on 11th of February, 1842, the youngest of three children. He barely knew his father, whose occupation was noted as “seaman”. When John was only three years-old, his father was killed in a work accident. This left his family destitute. To survive, his mother “took in washing” for the better-off people, while his grandmother became a hawker of apples on the streets of London.

From this start, and against strong opposition, Grimes was chosen to be the bishop charged with establishing a new diocese in far-away New Zealand. Two factors were in his favour. Firstly, his mother was of Irish descent so he mixed freely with other Irish families, becoming familiar with their ways and traditions. This would prove useful in Canterbury and on the West Coast where Irish settlers dominated the Catholic congregation.

Secondly, although he received no formal education until he was eleven, his service as an altar boy convinced Marist Fathers at the local mission that he was a bright lad. They tutored him informally. Then, when Marist Brothers opened a primary school nearby, he was enrolled there. The school expanded into secondary classes and Grimes continued his education there. He must have shown great promise as he was next sent to the Marist secondary school at Bar-le-Duc in north-eastern France as both a student and a teacher. It is thought the Marist Fathers in East London arranged and paid for this.

The Marist influence remained strong throughout his life. O’Meeghan suggests that Grimes, who saw little of his family from the age of nine, came to accept the Church as his family. Surely then, deciding on a priestly vocation was a simple matter.

Grimes began studies for the priesthood at the Marist seminary in Dundalk, Ireland, in 1861. Though barely out of his teens, he also taught students at the seminary. He was professed in the Marist Order in 1867 and was ordained a priest in the chapel of Dublin University two years later.

Bishop John Joseph Grimes SM

The slum boy who had come a long way would now go further – to the American state of Louisiana. There he combined teaching with priestly duties in the position of Superior at Jefferson College, inland from New Orleans.

Hard work and a difficult environment damaged Grimes’s health. When “a savage bout of yellow fever”, as O’Meeghan describes it, laid him low he was forced to take leave. On recovery he was transferred to a teaching post at the Marist Scholasticate at Paignot in Devon, England.

Meanwhile, in far-off New Zealand, moves to split Canterbury, the West Coast and Chatham Islands from the Wellington Diocese were coming to fruition. Papal approval for the establishment of a new diocese based in Christchurch was granted. The search began in 1885 for a suitable priest to lead the way as bishop.

While in America, Fr Grimes had expressed his ambition to serve “in the missions” and even mentioned New Zealand as a possible destination. The Society of Mary (Marists) recommended him for the position. The Vatican seemed happy with this choice but, when word of it leaked out, opposition to Grimes’s pending appointment was sudden and shrill.

Opponents argued that Grimes’s appointment would run counter to the policy of providing Irish bishops and priests for areas of strong Irish influence. The considerable Irish representation in Canterbury, and especially in Westland, wanted an Irishman to lead them. Hanrahan writes that this desire was driven by a form of Irish nationalism that merged faith and politics in the minds of many. Meanwhile the secular clergy, bearing some antagonism towards the Marist Order, opposed Grimes’s appointment too. Opposition to Grimes grew into a “storm of protest”, O’Meeghan writes. However, it could not counter the Society of Mary’s solid backing for Grimes in Vatican circles and he was appointed.

The former slum boy returned to his childhood church of St Anne’s at Spitalfields, East London, to be consecrated Bishop in 1887. He then sailed for New Zealand.

His arrival in Christchurch in early 1888 was a subdued affair. Wellington Bishop Francis Redwood SM, who sailed with him from Wellington to Lyttelton, assured the faithful that Grimes was pro-Irish. Christchurch Pro-Cathedral Rector, the gloriously named Fr Theophile Le Menant des Chesnais SM, introduced the new bishop as an “honorary Irishman”. In spite of their recommendations, which were possibly taken lightly as both were Marists, ill-feeling towards Grimes persisted.  The welcome for the new bishop was courteously restrained, O’Meeghan writes. “Grimes had to face his formal welcome knowing full-well that his was an unpopular appointment.” However, O’Meeghan adds: “In three to four years he won acceptance, and then affection from his diocese”.

Bishop Grimes gave top priority to uniting the 19,000 Catholics and the nine diocesan priests (plus a few Marists) that constituted his new Christchurch Diocese. He set himself the task of visiting every corner of his realm, from the Upper Grey Valley to Fox Glacier, from the Clarence River to the Waitaki, and the Chatham Islands, by train and ship, horse-drawn and on foot. Whether he then agreed with Bishop Redwood’s declaration that this was “the snuggest diocese in all the Australasian colonies” and its people “the cream of New Zealand” can be left to surmise.

Following the Long Depression and the building of new churches, presbyteries and schools, the diocese that Bishop Grimes walked into was deeply in debt. Through all his trials he tried to maintain the cultured dignity in speech and dress that he himself had always expected from a bishop. This ensured a positive acquaintanceship with Christchurch’s Anglican Bishop, Churchill Julius. The latter, from an aristocratic background, had no class distinction difficulties with Bishop Grimes.

Bishops Grimes (on left) and Bishop Churchill Julius [#D51]

Other difficulties must have persisted in the early years of his episcopacy, though. Letters the bishop received fill several boxes in the Diocesan Archives. A friend and colleague at Paignton, G Margaret Parkinson, responded in October 1889 to a letter from Grimes in which the bishop must have complained about issues troubling him in his new diocese.

“I am grieved to hear of all your worries,” Parkinson writes. “I am quite sure you will gain much more real influence and power for good over your people by holding yourself free from the party strife of politics, than if you purchased a cheap popularity by joining in it. I cannot be altogether sorry that you have enemies. I look upon it as a sure sign you are doing a great work for God and Our Lady.”  Such sage advice must reflect the depth of the bishop’s concerns.

Meanwhile, lingering effects of the yellow fever he suffered in America, combined with the pressures of work, damaged Grimes’s health once more. Deeming him critically ill, his doctor insisted he take a voyage of convalescence to Europe in 1890. He recovered quickly while away and converted his trip into an official visit to Rome and a fund-raising drive through America. In Rome he was able to secure a private audience with Pope Leo XIII.  In a letter to Fr Stephen Cummings in Christchurch, he describes his discussions with the Holy Father in minute detail – and execrable handwriting.

The Pope, it seems, was aware of the bishop’s strong efforts to unite his new diocese in New Zealand. He encouraged Bishop Grimes to proceed with his good work. Hanrahan writes that Grimes was probably hatching plans for a new cathedral already but it would be a further six years and a later visit to Rome before he could discuss this with the Pope.

Of course Grimes could not mention his cathedral aspirations in the letter he wrote to Fr Cummings. He highlighted instead the Pope’s obliging response to his request for Papal blessings on religious items he was bearing.

Grimes reported that the Pope greeted him with: “Ah, here is the Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand. Come, come here and sit down” (in Italian) while pointing to a seat on his right. The conversation seems to have been characterised with ongoing hospitality and cheerfulness.

Perhaps news of this influenced Christchurch Catholics to view their bishop more favourably, for his return to Christchurch was very different from his first arrival. His greeting featured “A red-carpet welcome …. spontaneous and heartfelt”, O’Meeghan writes.

Strengthened by his growing support and his Papal endorsement, Grimes seems to have “come into his own”, allowing more facets of his character to emerge. The impression he gave was of a dapper, top-hatted “man about town”, riding gaily in his carriage, and later motorcar, with his coat of arms painted on the sides. He was admired as a gifted preacher and public speaker with a pleasantly neutral accent. He took much joy from inserting humorous tales into his dissertations and showed himself thoroughly modern by using a “magic lantern” device to illustrate his talks.

Bishop Grimes’ car with coat of arms on the door [#D50]

In one such story he told of visiting a small town (unnamed) on the West Coast. Loyal Catholics there insisted he take his seat on a throne they had erected on a wagon, to be drawn by decorated horses down the main street. The wagon and throne were bedecked with colourful drapings and ribbons. But as the bishop took his seat high above the street, the throne collapsed beneath him. The shambles this caused revealed the structure on which the throne sat. It consisted of whisky cases.

As a hobby Grimes was a serious collector of shells, bones and stones for his personal museum. He liaised frequently with Canterbury Museum in research and for making swaps. He kept a vast library containing books on an astonishingly wide range of topics, from Scottish folklore to German grammar, from Japanese art to Crimean history, not to mention the wealth of religious themes.

With such esoteric leanings it is not surprising the Bishop had only a tenuous grip on economics and finance. Many regarded him as naive. His unworldly tendencies might well have been behind his propensity to explode with wrath when losing arguments with people better informed in realities.

The building of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament was Bishop Grimes’s major project. It was also the subject of greatest acrimony with architect Francis Petre and sundry craftsmen.

Tucked away in the Diocesan Archives is a typewritten review of Grimes’s episcopacy. Sadly, no author’s name is attached but it is likely a priest of the Cathedral Parish wrote it. It is also undated but clearly was penned about the time of the bishop’s death in 1915.

The article stresses the importance of the cathedral to the Bishop and to his flock. It states the cathedral “owes its existence to the inspiration, energy and devotion of Bishop Grimes”, who was “a man of great organising and administrative ability”.

“It was a marvellous achievement for one man …. to plan, erect and complete a magnificent building of this kind …. Bishop Grimes collected all the money necessary for its erection. No wonder the cathedral would always be looked upon as the great monument of the first Bishop of Christchurch,” the article claims.

While the bishop was eager from the start to get “a suitable temple”, as he referred to it, the process of realising his dream really began with his second audience with Pope Leo, in 1897. He expressed to the Pope his concern about his scattered diocese of mainly poor Irish working class Catholics. The Pope’s response was to encourage the bishop to proceed with plans for a cathedral. So positive was the Pope’s support that Bishop Grimes later said Pope Leo was “the prime mover in forwarding the work of the cathedral”.  Thus buoyed, the bishop sought subscriptions wherever he went in Europe, Britain and Ireland. On his return trip to Christchurch he swept through America raising £3000 along the way.

This was a large sum of money for those times. It formed the nucleus of the Cathedral Fund that the bishop established. He then asked Dunedin architect Francis (Frank) Petre to prepare ideas for a building. Petre suggested a basilica style of building with seating for 2000 people at a cost of about £15,000.

Sketch of a Cathedral Plan in a letter from Frank Petre to +Grimes, 6 February 1899

Petre was New Zealand-born but had learned about steel-reinforced concrete construction in the same London docklands where Grimes had grown up. More than that, Petre had worked for the same construction firm that Grimes’s father had been working for when he was killed in an accident. Grimes might, or might not, have known about this connection.

A building committee was formed in 1899. A huge bazaar was held to launch a period of intensive fundraising, in which the bishop visited parishes all over the diocese seeking donation and pledges of money.

Meanwhile Petre’s completed drawings were presented. With them came a much inflated price. The cathedral would now cost £100,000, though it would seat 3000 people. One can barely imagine Bishop Grimes’s chagrin at the inflated price. The committee asked Petre to make cuts that would bring the price down to £35,000. Petre was able to reduce the cost to an estimate between £32,000 and £40,000.

So Bishop Grimes commissioned Petre to design the cathedral. Tenders were called to build it and local firm J and W Jamieson was awarded the contract. By then the price had crept up to £40,300.

Before building could begin, the wooden church that had stood on the cathedral site had to be moved in one piece some 60 yards north, to the corner of Barbadoes Street and Ferry Road. This church, designed by notable architect Benjamin Mountfort, had served as the Pro-Cathedral since Bishop Grimes’s arrival.

Laying of the foundation stone was done amidst great pomp and ceremony, in the presence of dignitaries both sacred and civil, and thousands of lay-people. It must have been hoped that this demonstration of faith would attract more donations. If so, it was successful. More than £2000 was raised in subscriptions, while a basket containing 500 guineas in gold was handed over.

Further issues arose during construction. These included subsidence in the soft ground. This alarmed the bishop, causing a row with the architect. However, Petre placated Grimes with calm assurances that subsidence had been expected and the structure would not sink any further.

Costs rose again, especially with difficulties in the supply of suitable limestone from Oamaru and with the prices of zinc and steel for coatings and strengthening that had somehow been omitted from original estimates.

The £19,000 that had been raised was soon exhausted, with much work still required. This caused the bishop and his committee to consider seriously the abandonment of the project in 1903. What a blow the mere mention of this must have been to Grimes.

To the rescue came the Premier of New Zealand, Richard John Seddon. He promoted a bill through Parliament that would allow the diocese to raise a loan for £20,000. And so, in early 1905, the cathedral was completed. It had cost just over £52,213 and left the diocese with a debt of £20,483.

Were there political undertones in Seddon’s action? Maybe. After all, the basis for Seddon’s electoral support was in Westland’s Irish dominated goldfields area. It might have helped also that this Lancastrian Protestant’s deputy was a practising Catholic, Joseph Ward of Southland. Both men attended the Pontifical High Mass which was celebrated with the ceremonial dedication and opening of the cathedral on 12th February, 1905. Again many celebrities attended, including Governor-General Lord Plunket and Lady Plunket.

+Grimes with dignitaries at the opening of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, 12 February 1905 [#3124]

Neither was the cathedral the only “big-ticket” price item. Other costly building projects Bishop Grimes undertook included 60 churches, 35 schools, many chapels, presbyteries and other small buildings, the establishment of Mt Magdala Home and the preparations for Lewisham (later Calvary) Hospital.

Pope Leo’s optimism about growth in the Christchurch Diocese proved to be well placed. For Grimes succeeded in drawing the necessary funds from his indigent flock without incurring any substantial resentment. Rather, he prospered even more in the people’s affection.

A letter he wrote to all the clergy and laity of the diocese in 1900, when cathedral fundraising was underway, shows the bishop’s style in seeking money. This letter was timed deliberately to coincide with the beginning of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Canterbury Settlement. It was typeset, elaborately printed and adorned.

In the letter the bishop summons feelings of loyalty and respect for the forebears who had journeyed to these shores and through labour and love established comfortable homes, raised industrious families, launched prosperous farms and businesses and implanted the Catholic Faith in a new land.  All should now praise God for their prosperity and comfort, and show “some tangible proof of their gratitude and delight”, he writes.  He cites his second visit to Pope Leo who “urged us to do our utmost …. to erect a temple more worthy of the abiding presence of Our Dear Lord”. He quotes the Pope further, saying: “Fear not, you will succeed”.

He begs his people to follow the example of “our saintly forefathers by erecting architectural monuments of their zeal and piety by erecting churches and cathedrals which adorn the principal cities of Europe”.  Bishop Grimes ends the letter with a plea for the laity to make wills that will leave bequests to the Cathedral Fund.

Of course, not all the letters associated with Bishop Grimes in the Diocesan Archives shine such a light on the man. Among the hundreds of letters, many are in French, Italian or Latin. Many are just plain illegible. Most are mundane. A short miscellany may illustrate the variety.

Lest anyone should think Grimes was always asking for money, there are numerous thank you notes for kind donations he has made. Many personal letters come from overseas, often from people he had met on his travels or in his work before coming to New Zealand. Requests are made for his assistance with church matters. One such seeks a bending of church law to allow a marriage to a non-Catholic but elicits instead the bishop’s curt response: “Impossible. We do not handle such grave matters in that way”.

There is a request from an Australian convent for support in the beatification process for one of their late sisters. There is an apology, in quasi-English, from a man for not having repaid some money the bishop had lent him and promising to do so as soon as possible. There are a few crisp words from eminent Christchurch architect Hurst Seagar to accompany his drawings for the proposed St Bede’s College building on Main North Road in February, 1911.

A letter from Fr Le Menant des Chesnais SM advises the bishop of “a sad accident”. The bishop was out of town and a priest had borrowed his carriage to make a visit in Opawa. The priest had left the horse standing while he entered the house. “The horse then ran away, capsized the buggy against a gatepost, smashed it in pieces, broke the harness and cut his two legs”. A replacement horse had to be hired at 15 shillings a week, while repairs were estimated to cost eight pounds.

Then there is this short letter from Thomas Riordan in Southbridge, 60km south of Christchurch. Dated 12th January, 1911, it reads:

“By this afternoon train I am forwarding a few trout which I hope you will accept and trust they will reach you in good order.”

Which do you think arrived first, the letter or the fish? Well, at least the letter would have remained odourless on this mid-summer day.

In spite of Grimes’s delicate health he served the diocese for 28 years. In the course of time he won almost universal esteem. At his silver jubilee in 1912 he received an illuminated address from the faithful, in praise and gratitude for his mighty efforts. With it came a cheque for £1,020.  He promptly deposited the cheque in the Cathedral Fund. The amount owing on the cathedral by then had reduced to about £5,000.

The bishop’s health deteriorated over the following two years. His last public appearance was on 21st February, 1915, when he laid the foundation stone of the Lewisham Hospital on Bealey Avenue. He was already quite ill. Soon after, he set sail for Sydney. Doctors there performed an appendix operation on 13th March but it was unsuccessful.

Bishop Grimes died on 15th March, 1915, in Sydney. His body was brought back to Christchurch. There it was interred, most appropriately, in “his” cathedral.

A scoffing sceptic once posed a rhetorical question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

One trusts it would not be sacrilegious to paraphrase that with: Can anything good come out of east London’s dockland slums?

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop Grimes’ suitable temple.


Thank you to the author, Michael Crean

Images from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Archives References: Unaccessioned Photographic collection

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