Monsignor James Kennedy

Canterbury Catholics’ last link with their 19th-Century pioneers was broken by the death of esteemed priest Monsignor James Kennedy. He served the Christchurch Diocese from his ordination in 1900 until his death in 1963.

Framed portrait of Mons Kennedy, by James M Harrington (later Mons Jim Harrington)

Fr Kennedy was active as Parish Priest until the day he died, aged 85. The then Cathedral Administrator, Fr James Harrington, in a eulogy labelled him “the last link with the pioneers”. To explain this, Fr Harrington added: “Before the death of Fr Chervier, who had established the Catholic Mission in Barbadoes Street, James (Kennedy) was a priest of the diocese. He was saying Mass and administering the sacraments before the foundation stone of the Cathedral was laid. He lived to see the diocese grow through 63 years, under all four bishops (of that period)”.

This historic link was not the only notable aspect of Mons Kennedy’s vocation. Few Parish Priests received as many accolades and honours as he. Yet he remained a humble man, never seeking personal advancement, always helping others. He was a guide and adviser to members of the clergy. His mind was a trove of memories that he would draw on to chat with parishioners he had served many years earlier.

James Henry Aloysius Kennedy was the eldest of four children of James, a Londoner of Irish descent, and Ellen (nee Waters), from Waterford, Ireland. The couple arrived at Lyttelton in 1875. No indication of whether they were married before or after emigrating can be found in archival files. What is known is that James (junior) was born in 1878 in a small cottage on Scott Street, Sydenham. He would become one of the few New Zealand-born priests at the turn of the 20th-Century.

He was still a toddler when the family moved to Invercargill, where he started school at the Dominican Convent. The family moved again, to Greymouth, where he continued his education at the Catholic Boys’ School. Little is known of the monsignor’s early years. From notes he wrote by hand 80 years later, it seems his father took up a small farm at Oteramika. That district lies some 20km to the east of Invercargill, and in such untamed country at the time that it must have been difficult to send a five-year-old child to the city for schooling. Nevertheless, the notes tell that young James “attended the infant school there” –  the Dominican Sisters’ school in Invercargill. Sometime later he moved up to “the boys’ school”. By then he was an altar boy. A favourite memory was serving the visiting Bishop Redwood at Mass.

Notes he made for his memoir provide no reason for the family’s move to Greymouth in 1888. They do, however, tell that the father went ahead of the family, while the rest undertook a marathon to get there. This entailed travelling by train to Dunedin and sailing from there in a small steamboat to Wellington, calling “at all the ports enroute”. They then sailed to Nelson and, at last, to Greymouth, where their father met them on the wharf.

Mons Kennedy’s rough notes end there. No memoir appeared. Former archivist Fr Kevin Clark explains that Monsignor Kennedy had been asked by many to write his life story. He started the task unwillingly and left it unfinished two years before he died. The most prominent aspect of his notes is the reverence he showed towards the priests he encountered in his early years – the pioneer clergy of the Catholic Church in Southland and Westland.

While barely a teenager, Kennedy sensed his calling to serve as a priest. He was an outstanding student. His academic precocity and religious fervour must have impressed his teachers, mostly Australian priests, who urged he be sent to St Peter’s College in Manly, Sydney. This would provide secondary schooling and preliminary training for the priesthood.

Money was a problem. His father’s occupation in Greymouth is unclear, though a letter he wrote, that is in the Archives, was sent from the “gas works”. Whatever, he was unable to pay the full fees to St Peter’s. So complimentary were reports of the lad that the college agreed to a fees reduction for him. Mr Kennedy promised to pay the difference in instalments over future years – and he did. So, at 13 years, the boy left home to board at Manly for four years. During school holidays he stayed at the school, coming home, it seems, only at Christmas.

The future priest’s abilities led to his nomination for advanced theological studies in Rome. He was accepted and moved to the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda, Rome, still a teenager, in 1895. He graduated Doctor of Divinity and was ordained in Rome at 22. Fr Harrington later wrote that Dr Kennedy retained “a tremendous love for Rome, and for all that it stood for”. He frequently talked about Rome and his experiences there, through the rest of his life.

#467, Fr Kennedy

Dr Kennedy then returned to Christchurch. His first appointment in the diocese was as Assistant Priest at the Pro-Cathedral in 1901. Later that year he was transferred to Ashburton as Assistant Priest. Then, after only two years a priest, and at the early age of 24, he became Parish Priest of Akaroa in 1902.

A recall to the Cathedral as Assistant Priest came in 1908. Four years later he was appointed Parish Priest of Methven-Rakaia. Then came a second recall to the Cathedral, in 1916. This time, though, he took the position of Administrator. He next move was to Hokitika as Parish Priest, from 1920 to 1927, before yet another recall to the Cathedral. He was Administrator there from 1927 to 1930.

Shuffling to and from the Cathedral and various parishes might have moved Dr Kennedy to suggest a desire to “settle down”. For, in 1930, he became Parish Priest of Beckenham, in southern Christchurch. There he stayed for 33 years. And there he died.

Dr Kennedy served the diocese under its foundation Bishop, Grimes, and successive Bishops Brodie, Lyons and Joyce. The latter three in particular showered him with gratitude for his helpfulness and petitioned the Pope to grant him honours and awards.

First came the title of Vicar Capitular, in 1943. This entailed “filling in” as leader of the diocese after the death of Bishop Brodie until the arrival of Bishop Lyons, while continuing to run the Beckenham Parish. In 1945 he was awarded the title of Domestic Prelate, as urged by Bishop Lyons’ appeal to Pope Pius II. The bishop wrote: “Dr Kennedy is an outstanding priest, admired and respected by Bishops and priests alike, a prudent and valued advisor”, adding: “(He is) universally esteemed by every section of the community”.

Bishop Joyce used Dr Kennedy’s 50th anniversary as a priest to seek a further honour for him. His plea to the Pope included the description of Dr Kennedy as: “a shining example of priestly life” and referred to his “exercising of the Sacred Mysteries with special zeal”. The Pope accordingly appointed Dr Kennedy a Protonotary Apostolic.

How Dr Kennedy felt about all this acclamation is unknown but a clue may lie in his refusal to have a celebration for his jubilee. The illuminated Papal certificates he received for his awards sit among a sheaf of documents in a box at the Diocesan Archives. They show no sign of ever having been framed or mounted.

The following year, 1951, Bishop Joyce appointed Dr Kennedy a Diocesan Consultor, referring to him as “A veritable tower of strength”, with “50 years of golden service”.  By then, it seems, Dr Kennedy was the bishop’s “right-hand man”, deputising for him at many functions and ceremonies. Further evidence of Bishop Joyce’s regard for his priest was in granting him the title of Monsignor, in 1956, and again, his appointment as Vicar-General of the Diocese, in 1963.

With the extra tasks and duties these awards demanded, Monsignor Kennedy still ran the Beckenham Parish. He oversaw the design and building of the brick St Peter’s Church on Fisher Avenue in the 1950s. Meanwhile he remained a devoted member of his family and was a staunch supporter of nuns in religious orders. One such was his sibling, Mother Theresa, Prioress of the Good Shepherd Community at Mt Magdala (in south-west Christchurch). Ironically, Fr Harrington referred to him as “the good shepherd”.

Mons Kennedy did not have a driver’s licence, so depended on the good will of others to transport him to and from various destinations. For several years a devoted woman picked him up at 5am each weekday and delivered him to St Ann’s Convent on the Cashmere Hills to say Mass for the Sisters.

Fr Harrington lauds Mons Kennedy’s “eloquent sermons and addresses …. (that) will long be remembered”. However, a former parishioner objected to the length of his sermons and the overbearing style in which they were delivered. John Kennedy, then editor of Catholic newspaper The Tablet, questioned the choice of Mons Kennedy to deliver a eulogy for prominent former Government Minister and Mayor of Christchurch, Dan Sullivan. “Could he be restrained from going on and on?” the editor asked.

Perhaps the quip was rhetorical, as John Kennedy added that the “seven-minute panegyric (was) superbly delivered”.

Other comments by Fr Harrington, referring to Mons Kennedy, include: “He was one of the best loved and most respected priests …. throughout the whole of New Zealand”. And more –

“He sought no preferment, aspired to no honours in his service of his master and, when honours came his way, he rejoiced that the priesthood and his people had been honoured in his own humble person.”

To the bishops he served under, “he showed the greatest reverence and respect. They all found in him a loyal collaborator, a trusted friend and a wise and helpful fellow-worker for Christ”.

“To his fellow priests he was a true friend to all without exception, giving to them unreservedly counsel and advice and helping them cheerfully in all their difficulties.”

“He did not want the goods of this world; if he had any he was never happier than when sharing them with the needy.”

Caricature of Mons Kennedy, outside St Peter’s in Beckenham – drawn by Fr Jim Harrington

Acknowledgements: Michael Crean, Author ; Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Photographic Collection


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