Bishop Denis Hanrahan (1985-1987)

The bodies of two bishops lie side by side in Christchurch’s Bromley Cemetery. To read their headstones is to confront a riddle.

At left is the grave of the fifth Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, who died on the 5th June, 1988. At right is the grave of the 6th Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, who died on the 1st of February, 1987. The numbers and dates on the inscriptions are correct so you may ask yourself: how can this be?

Simple. In the left grave are the mortal remains of Bishop Brian Ashby. He had led the diocese for 21 years but was ill for more than two years before dying. In the right grave are the remains of Bishop Denis Hanrahan. He was consecrated in mid-1984 as an assistant to the ailing Bishop Ashby and succeeded him as Bishop of Christchurch when deteriorating health forced Bishop Ashby to retire.

So, the younger of the two died first. The sudden demise of 53-year-old Bishop Hanrahan was a shock to all Catholics. As the 6th Bishop of Christchurch, he had led the diocese for slightly less than 19 months.

So much did +Hanrahan share +Ashby’s views in areas such as ecumenism, Catholic education and lay involvement in the Church, arising from the 2nd Vatican Council, that his episcopacy could be seen largely as a continuation of Ashby’s.

Denis William Hanrahan was the first West Coaster to be made Bishop of Christchurch, the diocese that includes the West Coast. The son of Daniel and Eileen Hanrahan was born in Greymouth on 1st November, 1933. He had three siblings, William, Patrick and Margaret. He remained a proud “Coaster” and “Coasters” reciprocated this pride. According to the Catholic newspaper the Tablet, “a strong contingent of West Coasters” attended his consecration as a bishop. “They, of course, had a proprietary or paternal interest,” the paper concluded.

Hanrahan was known for his lively sense of humour and his sly delivery of witty quips. In casual times he projected a “blokey” image, perhaps intentionally but probably not. He enjoyed sport and played mid-week tennis regularly at the Elmwood Tennis Club courts.

#3442 Fr Hanrahan preaching from the pulpit

A newly installed Catholic school principal in Christchurch once accosted a shabbily dressed man wandering through the playground during the pupils’ lunchtime. The man in the bush-shirt turned out to be the bishop, just popping in to see how things were going.

Hanrahan shared a close friendship with Gerard Creagh who also became a priest of the Christchurch Diocese. The two forged a bond as fellow pupils of the Sisters of Mercy primary school and the Marist Brothers secondary school in Greymouth, and as fellow seminarians at Holy Cross College in Mosgiel.

A trinity of sorts was formed at Mosgiel when Hanrahan and Creagh chummed up with Auckland student Kevin Hackett. Later, as priests, the three remained in contact and met whenever possible.

The lifelong friendship with Creagh ended after a game of tennis they had been playing on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Between 5.30 and 6pm that evening Bishop Hanrahan died at his home from a heart attack. Fr Creagh then played a prominent part, amidst the mitred New Zealand Catholic hierarchy, in the requiem rituals for his West Coast cobber.

By this stage Bishop Ashby was very ill. However he showed his high regard for Hanrahan by delivering a eulogy. After remarking that Hanrahan’s death had come as a great shock to everyone, Ashby praised his contribution to the diocese in his short term as pastoral leader. “Bishop Denis has laid the foundations for many years of excellent service as the chief shepherd of our diocese. It has been pleasing for me to witness his dedication and enthusiasm,” Ashby said.

Those qualities showed from the time Hanrahan joined the seminary in 1952. He was ordained in Greymouth by Bishop Edward Joyce in July, 1957, and served as assistant priest in the parishes of Hoon Hay, Rangiora, the Cathedral, and New Brighton until 1970.

For much of this time he was assigned also to promote and encourage Catholic education for children not enrolled in Catholic schools. He visited parishes and schools throughout the diocese to help clergy and laity in the establishment and development of Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes.

#3139 Fr Hanrahan reading his office

In 1970 he undertook a year of higher study at the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila. Returning to Christchurch in 1971 Hanrahan was appointed Diocesan Director of Catholic Education. He took up residence with the Brothers of St John of God at Marylands, near Halswell. From there he continued his work in education, liaising with Catholic schools as well as supervising CCD until 1979 when he was appointed Parish Priest of Bishopdale, Christchurch.

Hanrahan’s passion for Catholic education drove the amalgamation of Christchurch secondary schools Sacred Heart College for girls and Xavier College for boys. Thus was formed the co-educational Catholic Cathedral College. The new school opened just days before the bishop’s death. Appropriately it adopted the motto from the bishop’s coat-of-arms, “To live by faith”.

An obituary in the Christchurch Star said Hanrahan had been “a force in Catholic education” at a time when increasing numbers of Catholic children were attending State schools. Hanrahan had applied himself to the training of lay teachers as numbers of priests and nuns began to decline, the obituary said. It then quoted him as saying the “pressure of work” and the “celibacy issue” were major reasons for the falling numbers of priests and nuns.

Hanrahan declared his delight at the warming of relationships he was observing between Catholic and Anglican communities. Like the five bishops he succeeded, Hanrahan would later develop an amicable relationship with his Anglican counterpart – in this case Bishop Maurice Goodall. He would become a frequent participant in ecumenical prayer groups with Goodall.

In similar vein Hanrahan told the Tablet in 1984 he could see “further development along the course of both Churches (Anglican and Catholic) leading towards amalgamation but still retaining their own identity”.

In his path to episcopacy Fr Hanrahan was elected chairman of the Christchurch Priests’ Senate, an office he held from 1970 to 1983. He served on a team of Consultors to Bishop Ashby from 1981 to 1984. His five fruitful years in the growing Bishopdale Parish must have added to Ashby’s high opinion of him. There must have been little room for surprise, among the clergy at least, when Hanrahan was chosen as Coadjutor Bishop with the right to succeed Ashby, in 1984.

#3754 Bishop Hanrahan’s consecration

The ceremony of Episcopal Consecration of Bishop Hanrahan on 6th June, 1984, was held in the Christchurch Town Hall. The choice of the civic location rather than the cathedral caused much comment. This decision might have been made with a view to the numbers of people expected to attend, or because the hall had superior heating for mid-winter, or both. In the event, an estimated 2500 people (including 200 priests) filled the venue. These numbers did not disappoint, though it should be noted the service of Hanrahan’s installation as sixth Bishop of Christchurch on 5th of August the following year was held in the cathedral.

Speaking at his consecration, Hanrahan echoed Ashby’s words that being a bishop was not an honour, but a function. He said it reminded him of St Augustine’s statement: “With you, I am a Christian. For you, I am a bishop”.

Little more than a year later Hanrahan became Bishop of Christchurch. Letters of congratulation poured in. These are stored in the Diocesan Archives. Clipped to each letter is a copy of his reply. For many replies he begins with the same standard paragraph expressing thanks for the confidence he has gained from the senders’ support and affirming his will to serve the diocese faithfully. He then adds a separate response pertinent to each letter received.

The over-riding sentiment in letters and cards congratulating the bishop is the confidence the writers state they have in him. No negative tone can be detected, though one woman does complain that, while visiting her mother in hospital, she judged the Catholic chaplain as not fit for the job. Hanrahan’s response is balanced, diplomatically phrased but straight to the point.

Some of his replies reveal his sensitivity. For example, two 12 year-old girls at the Catholic school in Methven wrote asking his views on a proposed All Blacks’ tour of South Africa, as part of a study of current affairs. Hanrahan’s comprehensive and lengthy reply is a model of clarity. It is written in terms the girls could reasonably have been expected to understand. His letter shows remarkable empathy with the pupils. For the record, Hanrahan explains that he joined the other New Zealand bishops in opposing the tour to a country where the Government’s policy of apartheid denied human rights to people of other races than European. The policy is contrary to Christian teaching, he writes.

Other letters, usually to people he knew well, reveal his humour. He labels his 13 months as Coadjutor (Assistant) Bishop as “my apprenticeship”.

Hanrahan states in several letters that “changes in the episcopacy (have) altered the South Island scene very rapidly”. This refers to Bishop Ashby’s retirement and Dunedin Bishop John Kavanagh’s death occurring “in the space of five and a half days”, with both being succeeded by their coadjutors, himself and Bishop Len Boyle.

“Suddenly we found the New Zealand Church bereft of coadjutors. Indications are that it may be dangerous to have them around,” Hanrahan quips. He adds that, with his fortnight’s experience as Bishop of Christchurch: “I was able to advise Len Boyle as to how he was to take up the reins (in Dunedin)”.

#2287 Bishop Hanrahan, Pope Saint John Paul II, and Bishop Len Boyle

Hanrahan and Boyle reflected together on the rapidity of their elevation from coadjutor bishops to Ordinaries – the title given to bishops in charge of dioceses. Joining their discussion, Cardinal Tom Williams, another prelate with strong West Coast connections, commented to Hanrahan and Boyle that: “Coadjutors are supposed to add 10 years to the life of Ordinaries. You two seem to have worked the other way”.

All this supports the national Catholic Education Office chief executive’s assessment of Hanrahan’s qualities. In congratulating the bishop, Pat Hoult highlights his “wisdom, good humour and ability to relax”.

Among issues that dominated Hanrahan’s episcopacy was one that no other New Zealand bishop had, or has since, handled. The only Papal visit to New Zealand occurred in November, 1986. The only cathedral Pope John Paul II entered on his three-day tour of the country was in Christchurch. And there Bishop Hanrahan welcomed him to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Following a national ecumenical liturgy in the cathedral, the Pope celebrated an open air Mass at the nearby Lancaster Park with a congregation of 40,000.

Planning for the Papal visit was a mammoth task that occupied many hands over many months. It required strong leadership from Bishop Hanrahan. In his centennial history of the diocese, Fr Michael O’Meeghan SM said Hanrahan “revelled in the Pope’s visit”, which was “successfully completed”.

No one could have appreciated Hanrahan’s success more than Bishop Ashby. He told the Catholic newspaper Zealandia that Hanrahan had handled much of the business of the diocese as coadjutor. He proved himself to be “very meticulous….he dotted his i’s and t’s….He had a very good way of dealing with people and was able to delegate very successfully….He had “the West Coaster’s down-to-earth ways”.

Cardinal Williams commented that: “Bishop Denis was emerging from that ‘running in’ period with an increasingly sure sense of direction”. This was evident again in his planning for celebrations to mark the centenary of the Christchurch Diocese in May, 1987. Hanrahan began the planning but did not live to see the outcome. He died nearly four months before the anniversary date. His sense of direction was revealed also in his initiative to “streamline various diocesan agencies” and his call for increased lay involvement in Church matters.

Diocesan Communications Manager Fr Ray Schmack told the Christchurch Star newspaper the community was stunned by Hanrahan’s death. It was “totally unexpected” as the bishop had not complained of any illness and had been following his normal routine. Schmack added that Hanrahan had great sympathy for those suffering injustice. He was popular among all Catholics and praised by his peers. “He remained close to his people”.

Cardinal Williams lamented that Hanrahan was “just getting into his stride” as a bishop. “There was so much promise for the Diocese of Christchurch through the pastoral leadership of Denis Hanrahan that I’m compelled to say his death was untimely,” Williams said. “(He) had earned the support of the communities and parishes in the diocese. He had worked amicably and effectively with everyone.”

Anglican Bishop Goodall said Hanrahan’s death was “a real loss to the whole Christian church in New Zealand”. General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand, Jocelyn Armstrong, said Hanrahan had led “significant advances” in church unity. She appreciated his “quiet presence, his openness and caring”.

All five predecessors to Bishop Hanrahan served the diocese for much longer than his 3½ years, with one of those as coadjutant. Yet the humble West Coaster left an indelible impression as a man of God and a man of the people.

D613A Bishop Hanrahan’s Memoriam card

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the author, Michael Crean

Photographs from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives Photograph Collection

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