Dozens of Irish priests left their homes in the Emerald Isle to serve in New Zealand. Many suffered from loneliness and bouts of homesickness. Tipperary man Fr Denis Carew SM spent nearly all his years as a priest in New Zealand. His loneliness, though, was relieved when two nieces followed him. Both became Sisters of Mercy in this southern outpost of Catholicism. Their proud uncle delighted in opportunities to share their company.
A poignant story appears in a set of reminiscences of former pupils of St Mary’s Primary School in Greymouth, where Fr Carew was Parish Priest. The ship Wainui was due to berth in Greymouth with Mary Carew on board. The children of the school marched to the wharf to greet her. Waiting on the wharf was Fr Carew. When the gangplank was in place the priest rushed up to embrace the petite niece he had not seen for 25 years. “Mary, you haven’t grown an inch since I last saw you in Ireland,” he exclaimed.
Fr Carew’s second niece arrived in Greymouth in 1915. She was professed as Sister Mary Patricia in the Order of Mercy in 1918. The ceremony was led by her uncle, Fr Carew. Only two weeks later, the good priest died. A nephew, Fr William Hyland, served in parishes around the Christchurch Diocese and became Dean of Rangiora.
A popular figure in the wider community, Fr Carew was a robust and straightforward character, a man of principle who never shrank from his duty or minced his words. In a letter to Bishop Grimes in 1888 he writes: “I am very much in need of a priest to assist me in Greymouth. The aid rendered by Fr Pertius is almost nil, whilst his strange personal habits render it almost impossible for him to reside with anyone”. (Less than a year later Fr Pertius was gone.)
Several times Fr Carew reprimanded fellow Irish priests for excessive revelries in local pubs. He asked the bishop to rid him of Fr Finerty for persistent drunkenness. Not that Carew was a wowser. He was seen visiting his friendly counterpart, Greymouth’s Anglican Vicar, with a bottle of whisky bulging from his pocket. He was, as The Grey River Argus newspaper said, “one who merited and enjoyed the respect and esteem of everybody, the gratitude of very many, and the enmity of none”.
In his 34 years as Parish Priest of Greymouth, 19 of them as Dean of Westland, Fr Carew helped steer the West Coast community through an era of growth, from the latter years of the goldrush almost to the end of World War I. As fellow Marist priest Fr Cecil Knight said of him: “He was loved by the people and known from end to end of the Coast”.
Denis Patrick Carew was born in Tipperary on the 20th of December, 1849. He attended primary school at Ballingarry and proceeded to the Monastery School at Mount Melleray. He studied for the priesthood at St Mary’s College, Dundalk, and at the Catholic University School, Dublin. He was professed in the Society of Mary (Marists) in 1872. Two years later he was ordained a priest. New Zealand Bishop Francis Redwood led the ordination service in Ireland, a sign that Carew was already chosen to serve in the New Zealand mission.
Arriving at Wellington in 1875, Fr Carew was posted to Napier. There he received a plaudit from the notable French nun Mother Suzanne Aubert, who declared herself “very much impressed by the new curate”.
“I have never seen a native of the Isle of Saints less a ‘paddy’ than he is. He is as well turned out as a Frenchman and has the manner of one…. (and) he is as strong as iron,” Mother Suzanne said. Fr Knight would have agreed with her. He recalled Fr Carew as “a big tall man, broad of build…. very matter of fact”.
Two years later Fr Carew was transferred to Reefton as Parish Priest. He was responsible for the building of the first church there. He won such affection in his seven years at Reefton that the local people protested strongly at his move to Palmerston North in 1883. He stayed only one year in the Manawatu town, but it was enough to build the first presbytery. He then shifted to Greymouth, which was still part of the Wellington Diocese, in 1884. He spent the rest of his life on the West Coast, receiving the honorary title of Dean at his silver jubilee (25 years a priest, in 1899) in recognition of his leadership of the Church in Westland. He died at Greymouth on the 11th of February, 1918, aged 68.
Shortage of money was a biding problem for Fr Carew in Greymouth. For much of his time he was engaged in negotiations to buy land for new buildings, then for erecting them – churches, schools, presbyteries, convents, a Brothers’ “monastery” – and later for repairing them as the wet climate wrought its damages. His constant call for money irked many parishioners, as Fr Carew admitted in a letter to Bishop Grimes, but it seems they continued to support the collections.
Papers in the Diocesan Archives reveal a spat between the builders of the main Greymouth church, the grand St Patrick’s, and its architect, Frank Petre. The builders claimed Petre’s specifications were inadequate, leading to financial losses for them. Fr Carew took advice from Petre that the builders’ claims were “exorbitant” and that the matter should be referred to arbitration, where success was virtually certain. The case was heard and, as Fr Carew reported bluntly to the bishop – Petre was wrong. The parish had to pay an extra £762.
The architect of Greymouth’s grand Gothic structure would go on to build Christchurch’s celebrated Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and several other notable churches. Once the spire was completed, in 1906, the Grey River Argus extolled the church as “a most imposing spectacle…. the principal aerial landmark of Greymouth”.
The new St Patrick’s Church was opened in 1888. Its splendour, even before the spire, bell-tower and porch were added, must have wiped the tears of parishioners who felt Fr Carew was always asking for money. An on-the-spot appeal at the church opening to help liquidate debt on the building raised £400 . Fr Carew’s personal donation of £100 was easily the highest. Sadly the spire rotted and had to be removed in the 1960s, partly because Fr Carew had insisted on the use of local native timber in its construction, rather than the Australian hardwood the builders had recommended.
The church headed a precinct of Catholic properties on a rise overlooking the centre of Greymouth and clear of the menacing Grey River. Fr Carew had dreamed of this concentration of buildings over several blocks of land and had received support from Bishop Grimes. However, he did not always get his way with Grimes’ successor, Bishop Brodie. From this point, as one commentator pointed out, the steady stream of letters to the Bishop of Christchurch stopped flowing. Nearly a century later the church was demolished and a new one built about a kilometre away.
The close relationship Fr Carew had with Bishop Grimes began when the Christchurch Diocese (including the West Coast) was established and Grimes was installed as the first Bishop of Christchurch, in 1888. The Irish-dominated Catholic population of the West Coast strongly opposed the appointment of the Englishman as their bishop. But Grimes and Carew were also Marist priests. Fr Carew was outspoken in favour of the new bishop and was influential in winning over the Irish Catholics of Westland.
Bishop Grimes left the Greymouth Parish in the hands of the Marist Fathers, as it had been from 1870 and would remain into the 1920s. All 15 of the priests who served as Fr Carew as assistant were Marists. Disregarding the persistent antagonism between secular priests and the Society of Mary, Bishop Grimes agreed to Fr Carew’s request to invite Marist Brothers to run Greymouth’s secondary boys’ school. The published history of the Marist Brothers, Marist Memories, states: “Records leave no doubt as to the fact that it was at the insistence of the Parish Priest, Fr Denis Carew” (that the Marist Brothers be invited).
As Dean of Westland Fr Carew oversaw the outlying parishes of Ahaura and Kumara, as well as his home parish of Greymouth. This involved visits to 20 churches in the area, plus contact with the Hokitika and South Westland districts. The Dean of Westland ranged over a far-flung domain, from Barrytown and Otira in the north to the southern glacier country, often as representative of the bishop.
This dynamic priest could be remembered for many reasons. One is his reputation as “a champion of Catholic education” for his record of building, staffing and supporting Catholic schools. How appropriate then was the naming of Greymouth’s Catholic boys’ primary school, built six years after his death, as the Dean Carew Memorial School.
Thank you to the author, Michael Crean
Images from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Archives References: Unaccessioned Photographic collection