The Hanrahan Brothers


A pair of priests from a single family was not unusual in the 1900s. The Hanrahan brothers, Tom and Jim, were an example. Their story is unusual, for other reasons.

Frs Jim and Tom Hanrahan

Born 18 months apart at Oxford, North Canterbury, they were the youngest children of Patrick and Elizabeth Hanrahan. The newly-wed couple had emigrated from Ireland in 1872. Their eight children, seven sons and a daughter (the latter died in infancy) were all born in New Zealand.

The family lived briefly at Leeston, then at Oxford, finally settling on a farm at Dromore, near Ashburton. Tom and Jim grew up there. They became priests and served the Christchurch Diocese for a total of 98 years. Both were granted the honourable titles of Diocesan Consultor, Monsignor, and Domestic Prelate.

Avid historian (and relative) Michael Hanrahan says the family matriarch encouraged all the children in the Catholic faith. She looked forward excitedly to the youngest sons’ ordinations.  Sadly, she died in 1909, nearly two years before Jim’s ordination and six years before Tom’s.

Tom and Jim completed their schooling at Dromore and Ashburton. They both trained for the priesthood at Holy Cross College in Mosgiel. However, it was Jim, the younger of the two, who went there first. He was ordained in Christchurch’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, in 1910.

Mons James Hanrahan
Ellen (Nellie) Hanrahan, later Sr M St Abdon RNDM with her uncle Fr Tom Hanrahan in Ahaura
Mons Tom Hanrahan
Sandow dumbell belonging to Tom Hanrahan

Meanwhile Tom had worked on the family farm and in a shearing gang for several years.  He joined the Sandow international school of physical strength and fitness and won a gold medal. Then, realising his vocation, he entered Holy Cross. He excelled there and, in 1911, Bishop Grimes selected him for advanced studies at All Hallows College in Dublin. He was ordained there in 1915.

Fr Jim sought permission to travel to Dublin for his brother’s ordination. Bishop Grimes granted him 10 weeks leave. Jim’s father accompanied him to Ireland. After the ordination, their father spent time with Irish relatives while his sons set about exploring Ireland and the UK.

Michael Hanrahan recovered Fr Tom’s diary, along with postcards and photos relating to this period. They tell the story of prolonged travel by sea and land to the home of his forebears.

Michael has re-typed the diary and postcards for easier reading. He has arranged these, with other interesting items connected to the main story, in an impressive album. This now sits in the Archives of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch.

The diary reveals Fr Tom as a gifted narrator. He writes fascinating and detailed descriptions of his 1911 trip to Ireland and of meeting relatives in “the auld country”. He portrays imposing cathedrals and other ancient buildings, and geographic features at such places as Colombo, Port Said, Pompei, Genoa, London and, of course, the beauty of southern Ireland and its people.

He reveals his fascination in meeting and chatting with fellow passengers of all sorts, including  priests of several orders.

Fr Jim’s voyage with his father in 1915 was different. World War I was raging in Turkey and Europe so a different route was taken. The threat of German submarine attacks led his ship to exotic places. They crossed the Pacific Ocean and sailed around the feared Cape Horn, then up the eastern coast of South America before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Tenerife. During this stage Fr Jim heard of the German sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania. This outrage spooked fellow passengers who feared going further.

Approaching their destination, Fr Jim noted many signs of war: “swarms of submarine destroyers, hundreds of mine-buoys, great fortifications from Dover to the Mouth of the Thames,” he wrote.

Fr Jim and his father arrived in Dublin at last, just in time for Fr Tom’s ordination. After that, their father spent his time visiting families and friends, some of whom he had known many years before. The two priests then travelled together through Ireland to Belfast. They crossed to Scotland by ferry. After visiting Glasgow, Loch Lomond and Edinburgh, they went south by train through much of England.

The priests had planned to cross The English Channel to Paris and then go overland to Naples, where they could depart for home. However, they were told this was “not advisable” because of the war. They still hadn’t “given up hope” though.

Time was running out now. They had intended returning to New Zealand as Chaplains on a troopship. Indeed, a photo shows Fr Tom in army uniform, with Irish relatives around him, taken shortly before heading for home. However, it is not clear how they travelled.

By this stage Fr Jim might have worried that he would exceed his 10 weeks leave. And so he did – by about five weeks. Soon after reaching home, he was transferred from Ross to Lincoln. A rumour grew that his removal was punishment for exceeding leave. Michael Hanrahan scotches the rumour, with good reasons. He notes that Bishop Grimes had died weeks before and his successor, Bishop Brodie, was yet to be installed. Surely wartime conditions were the reason for the transfer, Michael suggests. Or, perhaps Fr Jim unintentionally sparked the rumour by joking that he was being punished.

When their father, Patrick, returned is not clear, though a “Welcome Home” event was planned for him in Ashburton on November 25, 1915. He died at Ashburton in 1925, aged 79. By then sons Tom and Jim were well established priests in the Diocese of Christchurch.

Fr Jim started his vocation as curate at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in February, 1911. He was then appointed Parish Priest at Ross, a parish extending to South Westland glaciers country. Michael Hanrahan cites this as “a lonely and difficult assignment for a young man not yet 30 years of age”. Fr Jim travelled mostly on horseback over “the most arduous and dangerous trip…. once a year….with many rivers to ford”.

Fr Jim’s next parishes were: Lincoln, Ahaura, Darfield, Papanui (15 years) and Addington (21 years). He was noted as a beautiful singer and also played piano. As a Monsignor, the Right Reverend Fr Hanrahan acted on behalf of Bishop Joyce when the latter was absent from the Diocese. He died in 1960, aged 73.

Fr Tom’s first appointment also was as curate at the cathedral, from January 1916. His first move was to Ahaura as Parish Priest. He then returned to Christchurch as the Cathedral Administrator, for five years. During this time he visited the Chatham Islands. There he called on all the Catholics, travelling on horseback through tough terrain in mid-winter.

While he was Cathedral Administrator he travelled to Australia, in 1923. Sailing home across the Tasman Sea, Fr Tom showed his initiative as a surgeon. A ship’s engineer, a Norwegian, had slipped on a ladder and fallen into the engine room. A newspaper clipping of the event is in the Diocesan Archives. To quote this article:

(The man) was “seriously gashed and the covering of one lung was exposed. There was no professional medical man aboard….those on board were at a loss to know exactly what to do. The man was in a serious condition….something had to be done.

“Two passengers, at the captain’s request, stepped into the breach. One was Fr (Tom) Hanrahan of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, Christchurch, and the other Mr Somerset, a well known Canterbury sporting man.

“Mr Somerset was appointed anaesthetist and Fr Hanrahan took on the duties of Doctor. Putting the man ‘under’ was an operation attended to with the greatest care, so much so that the event took somewhere about half an hour. The wounds were patched up. It was found necessary to put in a number of stitches. The patient was then left to his own strong constitution….By the time the vessel reached Wellington, a day or two afterwards, he was fairly well on the road to recovery. He was then transferred to the hospital.

“It was mentioned by one of the attendants at the hospital, from which the man was discharged a couple of days ago, that the attention he received at the hands of the ‘doctors’ on the vessel undoubtedly saved him from what might have proved serious complications.”

An unknown source averred that a gin bottle snuggled inside the Norwegian’s shirt might have shattered as he crashed into some solid structure, causing his severe cuts. It is also said the chloroform was applied by being dripped through the top of a hat box crumpled into the shape of a funnel.

Such was the practical confidence of Fr Tom, ex-shearer, inveterate pipe smoker, keen angler. His final appointment was as Parish Priest of the new Riccarton Parish in 1924. He served there for 39 years, dying there in 1963 at the age of 78.


Michael Crean

With grateful acknowledgement to Michael Hanrahan.

Photos from the CDOC Archives Photographic Collection


Share on Facebook