Women in the Church: Dame Betty O’Dowd

The Catholic Church was in a deeply conservative and male-oriented phase in the period between World War II and Vatican II (the Second Vatican Council). The situation was disturbing many of the younger priests. They were in touch with the concerns of “grass-roots” laity but could find little support for change from senior priests and bishops.

A Catholic academic newly arrived in Christchurch in 1958 became a catalyst for change. She was Aucklander Betty O’Dowd. She would be a leading figure in the Christchurch Diocese for 50 years preceding the city’s 2011-2012 earthquakes. Her impact was profound among the clergy and intellectual lay people.

However, O’Dowd was no radical. While espousing change regarding the rights and positions of women in the Church, she remained a traditional and fervent Catholic. She was an authority on Church history, with a strong grasp of Catholic theology and liturgy. Regarding the “testy” issue of ordination of women priests she could be described as “counter reactionary”. A prolific speaker on Catholic issues, she was known fondly by many as “the lecture lady”.

The eldest of three children, of Edward and Leah O’Dowd, she was born and raised in Auckland. No reference to her date of birth can be found in the Diocesan Archives but it must have been about the late 1920s. Her brother Peter became Brother Emilian in the Marist Order. Her sister, Patricia Rogers, married and had two sons. Betty, who never married, doted on these nephews.

Edward was a well-known Catholic in the Port Chevalier Parish and wider Auckland. Of Irish descent, he was a friend of the redoubtable Bishop James Liston who became something of a patron for Betty. Leah was a convert to Catholicism.

O’Dowd attended the local Catholic primary school. She started secondary school with the Marist Sisters but shifted to Auckland Girls’ Grammar School for her final year. She admired her teachers at Grammar and retained great warmth for the Sisters who had taught her earlier. Proceeding to Auckland University she flourished as a History student and graduated with honours. Her greatest interest was Italian history.

As a top student she became part of the teaching staff of the university’s History Department. She socialised easily with such prominent historians as Bob Chapman and Keith Sinclair. Both men went out of their way to be helpful to her and they remained friends. When offered a position as lecturer in European History at Canterbury University, she accepted. She took also the position of Warden of Helen Connon Hall, a hostel for women students.

Soon after her arrival in Christchurch O’Dowd met and became friendly with several young priests, including Fr Basil Meeking, a future Bishop of Christchurch. +Meeking says O’Dowd “became a great friend”. She entertained a wide range of friends frequently with dinner and cocktail party invitations. She was a good cook and enjoyed stimulating conversations in the kitchen and over drinks as the evening wore on.

Her circle of friends included notable academics such as Neville Phillips, John Pocock and Charles Brasch, as well as several priests and religious. She maintained communications with her Auckland friends all the while.

History staff colleagues John Cookson and Marie Peters wrote in an obituary that O’Dowd “taught with great success” and “excelled in what we called the pastoral care of students”. Her “forte”, they said, was dealing with students in small groups and one-to-one.

“Only a few University staff experienced as much affectionate remembrance from ex-students as Betty did,” Cookson and Peters said.

In 1960 O’Dowd returned to Auckland. A good friend, Fr John Adams, understands her time away from Christchurch was to assist a friend. She resumed lecturing at Canterbury in 1965 and continued until her retirement in 1987.

+Meeking says running Helen Connon Hall in the atmosphere of 1960s morality and against the background of predominantly male, Anglo-centric and Anglican society was a challenge for O’Dowd. She grasped the challenge and quickly introduced changes. Cookson and Peters said her loosening of some regulations and her demands for greater respect and cooperation among residents caused controversy but were successful. They attributed this to her “pastoral warmth”, “affinity with young people” and “sense of supportive community”.

“Betty was an outstanding warden. Her encouragement extended the hall’s intellectual and cultural life,” said Cookson and Peters, adding that her parties were “a social highlight”.

+Meeking attributes O’Dowd’s success at Helen Connon Hall to her “intellectual capacity…her pleasant personality…her sense of humour”. Her age allowed her to understand what the students were going through. “She was a shoulder to cry on,” he says.

O’Dowd later became joint manager of Rochester Hall, a hostel for Catholic male students. When Rochester combined with Rutherford Hall, she was appointed to the board of management.

Through all this, O’Dowd attended Mass nearly every morning. When the university was still in the inner-city this involved a short walk from the Warden’s House to Rosary House, a Sisters of Mercy establishment along Park Terrace. Her regular appearance made her a familiar figure to even more priests and religious. When the university shifted to Ilam she moved to a house in nearby Bryndwr.

Dame Betty O’Dowd

Socialising was important to O’Dowd. So were her cats, for whom she built a safe outdoor playground to enjoy while she was away from home. But more important was her contribution to Church affairs, in mentoring, guiding, talking, writing, lecturing and active membership of working groups.

The Second Vatican Council ran from 1962 to 1965. It was a milestone in O’Dowd’s life. She attended some of the sessions in Rome and took a deep interest in the Council’s deliberations. Testament to this are the piles of documents and papers she left and which are held in the Diocesan Archives.

Boxes of her files are packed with pages cut from multiple international publications and marked with pen strokes she made to highlight and comment  (sometimes cryptically) on important points. Drafts of articles and speeches occupy hundreds of sheets of A4-sized paper. Handwritten in a sprawling scrawl that allowed only five or six words per line, her tenets come tumbling out. The handwriting is slightly shambolic but the clarity of thought unfailing.

Realising the importance of Vatican II decisions and changes, she made it her mission to communicate these to all who would heed her message. In one of her countless speeches O’Dowd described the compulsion that had led her to take up this task – 

“My chief preoccupation was to try to discover what theologians and later the documents that issued from the Council were saying in ordinary terms, in non-technical language and to communicate this to other lay people who were interested but did not have the time, or the taste, for wading through the original (texts) …… This is particularly necessary since theology is fruitless unless it flows through the lives of the people of the Church and speaks to them about the revelation God has made of his love for us in Christ,” she said.

O’Dowd took exception to fellow Catholics making spurious claims about the meaning of some Vatican II decisions when it was clear they had not read them properly. She agreed with many of the views held by the ardent feminist movement of that time and she pursued the case for change in the roles women could take in the Church. However, she explained clearly, from theological and traditional sources, why women could not be ordained priests.

+Meeking says a group of Catholics who protested against the decision not to ordain women caused “a tense atmosphere – all very worrying” to him as Bishop. He admits “Betty’s help got me through”.

Her output for many years included regular articles for magazines, such as the diocese’s Inform magazine, countless talks to interest groups, and learned papers published in international specialty journals. She delivered lectures to student priests at Holy Cross College seminary in Mosgiel. She taught and guided pre-seminary students in their “formation” as potential future priests, at Good Shepherd House in Christchurch. She was an active and long-term member of the Christchurch Diocesan Commission on the Liturgy. She advised consecutive bishops and their committees on issues such as raising standards in Catholic schools to meet requirements of their 1976 integration into the State school system.

Retiring from the university in 1987, O’Dowd remained prolific in researching, reading, writing and speaking on these issues. Just as her university days had been noted for one-on-one mentoring, she continued this work with a wide range of respondents over a broad age band.

+Meeking says O’Dowd had a “strong professional sense” and was “always ready to help people understand about the Church”. She emphasised “the Church as it is called to be”, not the Church as it is sometimes seen, he says.

“She was quite a mentor for many of us,” +Meeking adds, referring to the young priests of his time. Being of similar age she could relate to them. She shared their commitment to the Church. “She clearly loved the Church and wanted to uphold (it)”. She raised questions about it, but was not a dissenter, he says.

Adams says O’Dowd was “a great mentor to me and a wonderful person”. She had high standards and would not tolerate foolishness, though she was also a great party host and a good cook. She had no time for people who argued against Catholic beliefs or practices without having taken the trouble to learn about them.

In 1994 O’Dowd received the Papal honour of Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great, for services to the Church. She was the first New Zealand woman to be so honoured. She went on to give more of herself, even after moving into a retirement complex.

Then came the earthquakes. Much of the retirement complex was badly damaged. Along with other residents, O’Dowd had to be evacuated. She was shifted to a small retirement home near Nelson. 

She enjoyed living there but felt more isolated from her brother, sister and nephews in Auckland. So she was shifted again, to St Joseph’s Home in Auckland. There she was placed under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor. She settled in happily and received frequent visits from priests. However, she was still badly affected by the trauma of the shaking earth. She was afflicted with advancing blindness and reduced mobility. She died in June, 2013.

Emeritus Bishop Basil Meeking, Fr John Adams and Fr Michael Pui travelled from Christchurch to concelebrate her Requiem Mass with three Auckland priests. A friend, Sr Margaret D’Ath, says Fr Adams’ sermon rightly stressed Betty’s “fine spiritual and intellectual interests and her service to the Church”. To which Sr Margaret adds: “Nobody mentioned what a great cook and hostess she was in Christchurch, enticing friends to stimulating conversation in her home and garden”.


Mike Crean, Author

Photo of Betty O’Dowd from the Marist Messenger © https://www.maristmessenger.co.nz/2013/08/01/dame-betty-odowd/ 


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