A 14-year-old boy heard the Bishop of Christchurch announce the New Zealand bishops’ decision to open a “minor seminary” in Christchurch. The seminary would function as a secondary school that would prepare teenaged boys for studies towards their ordination as priests of the Catholic Church.
The year was 1946. The bishop was Patrick Lyons. The boy was John Cunneen, a boarder at St Bede’s College. His reaction to the bishop’s announcement, which was made in a sermon during a Holy Name Society rally, was instant and enthusiastic. The young Cunneen decided on the spot that he would be a priest. So, in 1947, when still 14, he entered the newly opened institution. He was thus a foundation student of Holy Name Seminary, staffed by Jesuit priests, on Riccarton Road in Christchurch.
Sixty-four years later, after serving as a priest and a bishop, Cunneen died of cancer. In a eulogy his close friend and predecessor as Bishop of Christchurch, Bishop Basil Meeking, said of him: “His whole life from then (entry to the minor seminary) was given to the Catholic Church, yet in a quite remarkable degree, wherever he was, he was part of the human community too. He had a deep feeling for Canterbury and for the institutions and lives of the people of the province…..He was quite without any kind of personal or ideological agenda; he was a man with no concern for possessing money or material goods; he simply found in the priestly ministry his raison d’etre and his way of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
High praise it was, but well deserved. Stored in the Christchurch Catholic Diocesan Archives is an abundance of accolades for Cunneen. They came in letters and cards from all sorts of people. Of criticism or allegation, there is none. Fr Michael Hill, writing in The Tablet, called Cunneen “warm-hearted and highly intelligent”. Bishop Barry Jones characterised Cunneen as “happy and serene”. A fellow priest recalled Cunneen’s whimsical approach to borrowing and lending things; he once lent a car that ended up in Blenheim. Yet another mentioned the time Cunneen drove over his red bishop’s cap, picked it up, put it on again and drove off.
As for his contempt for money and possessions, another priest recalls with a giggle how Cunneen, when Parish Priest of Rangiora, drove a clapped-out Mini pitted with rust. After years on the road, the rust won its battle over British steel. Suddenly the combined weight of the driver’s seat and its plumpish occupant became too much for the car’s floor, dumping the humble Fr Cunneen on the gravel – fortunately at low speed.
John Jerome Cunneen was born in Christchurch on the 5th of May, 1932. He was brought up in Ashburton, where he attended St Joseph’s Catholic primary school. A neighbour and fellow pupil became a good friend. Basil Meeking was two years older but the pair remained close, as boarders at St Bede’s, as students at Holy Cross College (major seminary, in Mosgiel), as priests of the Catholic Diocese, and as fellow bishops. Even in retirement, the Emeritus Bishops resided in adjacent apartments at St John Fisher Home, next to Nazareth House.
Bishop Meeking acknowledged the pair’s friendship in his address at Cunneen’s episcopal ordination, when he proclaimed: “Divine Providence has brought us together all our lives”.
Cunneen was proud of his large extended family (he had 50 first cousins) and his historical connections with the early Church in Canterbury. He loved telling the story of his mother who, as schoolgirl Eily Poff, handed the family’s donation for the cathedral building project to Bishop Grimes while she was a boarder at Sacred Heart College. Eily excelled at music and, a little later, was invited to play the newly installed pipe organ in the new cathedral – the first person to do so.
After just two years at Holy Cross, Mosgiel, Cunneen took up a four-year scholarship for theological studies at All Hallows College, Dublin, in 1952. From there he grasped the opportunity to meet members of his wider family in Ireland. He also did some touring in Europe, from which fellow Christchurch priest Fr Pat Crawford benefited. Fr Crawford followed Cunneen on the same scholarship and said Cunneen was most helpful in providing contacts and travel tips for him.
Returning to Christchurch in 1956, Cunneen was ordained at Ashburton by Bishop Edward Joyce on the 8th of July. In the following 36 years he amassed considerable pastoral experience with service in eight parishes of the Christchurch Diocese. He also served as chaplain to the Carmelite Sisters and to the Samoan and Tongan Catholic communities in Christchurch. In addition he counselled many prisoners in the courts and at Paparua Prison. He became active in moves to help the unemployed, particularly Maori, as chairman of the Taua Mahi Trust. He worked with young people in difficulties, through the 6A Drop-in Centre. He was on the National Executive of the United Nations Association.
For 14 of his years as a priest Fr Cunneen was based at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, firstly as a curate to the Cathedral Parish and later as Cathedral Administrator. He served as Assistant Priest at the North Timaru and the Dallington parishes, before becoming Parish Priest consecutively at the Chatham Islands, Addington, Rangiora, Bishopdale and Burnside.
The high respect in which priests, religious and laity held Cunneen in recognition of this service must have made it simple for Bishop Meeking to choose him as his pastoral assistant. The bishop, seeking a priest who could share a workload that had became unbearably heavy, did so in 1990. He described Cunneen as a man of “unwavering pastoral charity”.
Just two years later, with approval from the Vatican, Fr Cunneen received further acknowledgement of his service with his ordination as Auxiliary Bishop of Christchurch. The retirement of Bishop Meeking brought about Cunneen’s elevation to Bishop of Christchurch at a service of installation in 1996.The demands of this position, which had been such a burden to Bishop Meeking, took a heavy toll on Bishop Cunneen too.
He was the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference Deputy for Ecumenism for more than a decade and led the Church’s involvement in the Anglican-Catholic Bilateral Dialogue.
As well as issues that had arisen earlier, he now had to deal with scandals involving a small number of his diocesan priests. While his skill in handling these has been criticised by some, his motives have rarely been questioned.
Through it all, he maintained a warm and friendly nature that endeared him to many. His health suffered from the pressure of work though and, in 2003, he had a major stroke. Even then, he carried on, under great difficulties, in the service of the diocese. As Bishop Meeking said, Cunneen gave himself “unstintingly, untiringly”, even though the stroke had “incapacitated him for months”.
Bishop Cunneen “soldiered on” for four years after his stroke, before retiring in 2007. But there was to be little time for him to relax. He was diagnosed with cancer in July, 2010, and died four months later.
His successor, Bishop Barry Jones, said of him: “Along with all of us I have the greatest admiration for Bishop John and for his leadership of the diocese. In the last three years he has given totally of himself with outstanding generosity, despite his physical affliction and diminished capabilities. He is a hero.”
“I think of him as a courteous and amiable soul, who had a great way of reaching out to persons for whom life had become difficult or who had made bad decisions…..(His) faith and trust in God never wavered, even when he was struck down suddenly by a stroke,” Jones said.
For a lay-person’s view, former university lecturer Betty O’Dowd wrote in The Tablet that Cunneen’s appointment as Auxiliary Bishop in 1992 was “the cause of heartfelt rejoicing to all those he has ministered to, or have worked with him.” That must have been a large portion of the diocese, she adds, “considering the breadth and variety of Bishop John’s pastoral ministry”.
“No man can ever have been appointed to work as a bishop in a diocese in which he was more thoroughly rooted and grounded,” O’Dowd suggests. That is a major claim, considering the universality of the Catholic Church.
Speaking at Cunneen’s Golden Jubilee, Monsignor James Harrington said of him: “As we all know he has been a good priest, a faithful priest, and a people’s priest through all the years”. Then, speaking directly to the subject, Bishop Meeking said: “Thank you for your devoted and practical pastoral heart that has given hope to many people.”
Thank you to the author, Michael Crean
Images from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Archives Reference: Unaccessioned Photographic collection