Catholic bishops make “ad limina” visits to Rome. These include an audience with the Pope to report on issues in their dioceses.
Bishop John Joseph Grimes SM set sail on such a mission in 1913. This London-born academic became the first Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand, when the Christchurch Diocese was established in 1887. It included all of Canterbury, most of the West Coast, and the Chatham Islands. The area had previously been part of the Wellington Diocese.
High in the bishop’s agenda was the building of a cathedral; “a suitable temple” as he described it. So, the much-loved Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, commonly known as the Basilica, was opened in 1905. Following severe earthquake damage in 2011, it was deconstructed in 2020.
Bishop Grimes was extremely diligent in building a faith community of some 20,000 Catholics scattered over a vast area. He also oversaw the planning and building of the cathedral. He fronted campaigns to fund the project. Raising money must have been hard work as many Catholics were poorly paid Irish labourers. So, the bishop might have seen a six-week sea-voyage to visit the Pope as a chance to “take a break”. But he was not interested in leisure. He used the time to seek more money.
Funding was required to pay for a new statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart, which Bishop Grimes wanted to stand at the front of the cathedral. He had “done a deal” with a Sydney purveyor of sacred art works. Now he had to pay for it. And he hatched a plan for raising the money.
In his cabin luggage was a list of organisations bearing the name of “Sacred Heart”: mission stations, schools, seminaries, convents, orphanages – all around the world. These institutions were the responsibility of one order – the Society of the Sacred Heart also known as Religieuses du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus RSJC. As the ship pitched and tossed, he took a stack of the shipping line’s postcards and wrote on the blank sides a plea for donations to the statue. These were mailed from ports where the ship called. With them went a prayer that recipients would react generously to a cause that would increase people’s love for Jesus of the Sacred Heart.
How many postcards the bishop sent is not known. However, a folder in the Archives of the Christchurch Catholic Diocese contains 52 letters of reply. They came from institutions as far flung as Buenos Aires, Havana, Tipperary, Boston, Ostend, Timaru, and others. Many were from England, France, Italy and the USA. Only one letter declined a contribution. Many expressed regret that theirs was “only a little offering” or “a humble subscription”. Some wrote: “We would love to be able to contribute more”. The total sum raised is not shown.
Timaru’s Sacred Heart Convent enclosed a cheque, with an apology for its “tiny offering” and a promise that pupils would hold “a fair in aid of the statue fund”. True to word, a cheque for 15 pounds arrived shortly after. A dozen replies included personal thankyou messages to Bishop Grimes. Senders recalled his helpfulness on visits to them. These visits might have been on his earlier ad limina trip, or when, as a priest, he had lectured in various countries and celebrated Mass in many locations.
As for the statue, in the 1970s it was removed from the Cathedral façade. But you can still see it – in the former Sacred Heart College (now part of Catholic Cathedral College), near the site where the former Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament once stood.
Mike Crean, Author
Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives [Folder 2021.12.14]