Dean James O’Donnell

A priest who served 52 years in charge of one parish would surely remain in the collective memory. Such a man was Ashburton Parish Priest Fr James O’Donnell. Though he died in 1944 he is still remembered by old-timers and has become a figure of legend among the younger folk.

Many priests of his time built churches. Fr O’Donnell built so many that he was known as “the building priest”. His building career began on the West Coast, continued in the Selwyn district of Canterbury, and intensified in Mid-Canterbury. A notable aspect of his work was his success in raising funds for building, which allowed him to leave parishes in sound financial condition.

The readiness of people (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) to contribute to appeals for money must indicate a popular and powerful character. It may also point to his standing as a man in a man’s world, to the extent that alcohol began to play a dominant role in his life.

James Joseph O’Donnell was born at Darragh, in County Limerick, Ireland, on 1 November, 1856. He was educated by Christian Brothers and Cistercian Monks, then studied for the priesthood at All Hollows Seminary, Dublin. He was ordained in 1880 and sailed almost immediately for New Zealand.

After two years as assistant to Fr Laurence Ginaty SM in Christchurch, he was appointed resident priest at Waimate, South Canterbury, which was still part of the Timaru Parish. A reshuffle of parishes in the West Coast’s Grey Valley area brought his shift to Ahaura at the end of 1863.

His position as administrator of Ahaura’s scattered parish required him to cover seven churches and four Mass Stations, plus two schools. These numbers reflected both the strongly Irish population and the bush-covered terrain that made travel (on horseback) between churches time-consuming though distances were not great.

Fr O’Donnell’s four years on the West Coast were marked by his public association with the Irish Nationalist movement. Most Irish settlers applauded him for this, and endured long sermons condemning British colonialism in Ireland. But it did bring him into conflict with authorities. At last Bishop Redwood of Wellington, when most of the South Island was still included in the Wellington Diocese, moved him to Christchurch and demoted him to the position of curate in 1887.

Christchurch became a diocese soon after and its new Bishop Grimes quickly recognised Fr O’Donnell’s potential. The bishop appointed him to “create a parish” at Darfield, Central Canterbury. This parish stretched from the Waimakariri River to the Rakaia River; from the Southern Alps to the newly formed Main Trunk Railway. Fewer than 400 Catholics lived in this vast area of 1000 people.

D220 Dean James O’Donnell

One church existed already at Darfield but Fr O’Donnell had to live with his cousins Patrick and Mary Riordan, whom he had recently married, until he could build a presbytery. The people appreciated him though, and a public subscription paid for a trap and harness after he had injured a leg when his horse threw him off.

By 1892 the building priest had enlarged the church at Darfield, built a presbytery there and established several Mass Stations. Yet the parish accounts showed a deficit of only £63. At the same time some disastrous financial decision-making at the neighbouring Parish of Ashburton was worrying Bishop Grimes. His solution was simple – he swapped the respective Parish Priests.

As church historian Michael Hanrahan writes: “O’Donnell had a proven record in building and improving parishes and leaving little debt behind him”. The popular Irish priest moved to Ashburton in 1892 as Parish Priest and faced a $3000 deficit, while Ashburton’s French priest Fr Chastagnon shifted to Darfield.

Fr O’Donnell maintained his political stand for Irish Nationalism through these years. It seems Bishop Grimes, an Englishman, was prepared to tolerate it. The Catholic magazine, The Tablet, afforded Fr O’Donnell much positive publicity. It referred to him as “a most generous and warm-hearted Irishman and an earnest and thoroughly good priest”.

No time was lost in tackling the problems of the Ashburton Parish, which covered all of Mid-Canterbury. Fr O’Donnell started buying property, moving and extending existing buildings and erecting new ones. Hanrahan says Bishop Grimes must have “colluded” with the priest in these projects and the pair had probably begun planning them months earlier. The bishop also appointed a curate to assist the parish priest. Fr William Hyland joined Fr O’Donnell in 1873, forming what Hanrahan termed “a formidable team”.

Bishop Grimes was clearly impressed with Fr O’Donnell. He bestowed on him the title of Dean in 1895, the year of the priest’s silver jubilee.

In spite of all the building projects, the parish debt was halved by 1896 and wiped by 1905. Prominent among new buildings were the Rakaia (1895), Methven (1903) and Hinds (1912) churches. The grandest of the buildings would eventually include the Ashburton convent, which was greatly extended, the splendid new Ashburton presbytery (1907) and the much later Ashburton church.

Fr O’Donnell continued striving to keep parish debt at manageable level. So relations with the bishop deteriorated when Ashburton parishioners were called on to help fund the new cathedral in Christchurch and to support other causes within the universal church. About this time Fr O’Donnell’s health seemed to suffer from stress, depression and possibly excessive drinking. He went so far as to request the bishop to release him from the diocese so he could join a religious order. This did not eventuate.

A later curate, Fr Patrick Cooney, wrote several letters to the bishop complaining of Fr O’Donnell’s frequent drunkenness and what scandal it was causing. Hanrahan’s research, however, has shown that, while the priest liked a drink, and while he publicly opposed the national vote on prohibition, the charges against him were probably no more than hearsay.

Recognising the heavy workload on Fr O’Donnell, the bishop split the Ashburton Parish in 1912. The inland area, from Rakaia to Mt Somers, became a separate parish. People in this area expressed their fondness for Fr O’Donnell in lavish farewells and generous gifts.


This move reduced the amount of travel required of Fr O’Donnell, though he still had to cover a large area and no longer had a curate. However, he “seemed more relaxed and started to play a greater part in the affairs of the wider community”, Hanrahan writes.

His community involvement ranged from literary and debating clubs (Catholic and otherwise) to the Automobile Association. Hanrahan notes that parishioners gave him money to buy a car as a silver jubilee present but he bought a buggy and two horses instead. However, sometime around 1909 he must have taken up motoring, as he narrowly avoided being hit by an express train while driving his car over a railway crossing.

Though a staunch Irish Nationalist, Fr O’Donnell supported New Zealand’s involvement in World War I. He spoke strongly and in various forums of the need for defence against Germany – for New Zealand rather than for Great Britain.

In 1919 the new Christchurch Bishop, Matthew Brodie, appointed Fr O’Donnell as Vicar General of the diocese. The bishop was called to Rome in 1920 and Fr O’Donnell was in charge of the diocese for the duration of Brodie’s absence. Perhaps the Ashburton priest did not enjoy this assignment, as he resigned soon after the bishop’s return.

One major building project still lay ahead for the ageing priest. Ashburton’s very grand Italianate-style church was built. The Church of the Holy Name, designed by Christchurch Anglican Henry St Aubyn Murray, a drinking buddy of Fr O’Donnell, was opened in 1931. Fr O’Donnell had waited nearly 20 years for this moment. He had withheld construction until the parish debt, boosted by so many other projects, could be minimised.

After this Fr O’Donnell reduced his activities in church and civil affairs. By the time of his 60th jubilee as a priest, in 1940, he was visibly ill, though he lived on until 1944. Then, he entered Lewisham Hospital, in Christchurch. He died there on 23 March, 1944.

D217 Gravestone of Dean James O’Donnell in Ashburton


Mike Crean – author

Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – unaccessioned photograph collection


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