Education: Christian Brothers

The Irish-based religious order of Christian Brothers specialised in teaching. The Brothers arrived in New Zealand in the 1880s. Eighty years later they opened their first Christchurch school.  By then they had long been running schools in the Dunedin Diocese.

Logo of our Christian Brothers' school St Thomas of Canterbury College

Other religious orders had been teaching in Christchurch for most of those 80 years. After World War II, Catholic schools faced the challenge of a rapidly increasing birth rate. More teachers and more schools were needed. Catholic schools needed staff from religious orders as government financial aid to “private” schools was minimal.

Letters passing between the Christian Brothers’ Province in New South Wales and respective bishops of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch show a desire to establish a Christian Brothers’ school in Christchurch, for primary and secondary boys.

These letters are preserved in the Archives of the Christchurch Catholic Diocese. They indicate some strain in relations between Dunedin and Christchurch over the introduction of Christian Brothers to the latter diocese. Difficulties arose also in negotiations between consecutive bishops of Christchurch (Lyons and Joyce) and the Christian Brothers leadership in Australia. The issues concerned mainly land, buildings and other costs.

Other issues included the Brothers’ access to a regular chaplain for daily Mass, and the designs of the Brothers’ chapel. An example of uneasiness was Bishop Joyce’s refusal in 1961 to sanction the Brothers’ request for the altar in their chapel to be positioned so the priest saying Mass would face the congregation. (This later became the norm in Catholic churches.)

However, overall relations were mostly amiable and professional. Hence, an agreement was struck in late-1949 between Christchurch’s Bishop Lyons and Australia’s Christian Brothers for a school to be built at what is now known as Sockburn. At that time this area was still part of Riccarton Parish.

Letter from Bishop Lyons to Brother Tevlin inviting the Christian Brothers to run a school in Sockburn 30 October 1949 [2022.9.2]
Response from the Christian Brothers' Provincial expressing interest in the proposal 10 January 1950 [2022.9.2]

The Christian Brothers adopted a policy for starting in a new district. This involved beginning with a primary school, then promoting the senior class each year to a new secondary school. The secondary school would thus grow over five years to Form 7 (Year 13). Bishop Joyce issued a formal invitation to the Christian Brothers in 1960 to open a primary school, with a view to developing a secondary department.

The Sisters of Mercy were already running a primary school for boys and girls at Our Lady of Victories Parish in Sockburn. The Christian Brothers’ school, to be sited nearby, would enrol male pupils. Girls from OLV could spend their Years 7, 8 and beyond at the Mercy Sisters’ Villa Maria College, less than 1km away.

The primary school opened in 1961.  It consisted of Form 1 and Form 2 classes (now known as Year 7 and Year 8 – the “Intermediate years”). The Year 8 boys moved up to Year 9 in 1962 as pioneers of the secondary division. St Thomas of Canterbury College was officially opened that year, with the higher year-classes still to come.

When the first three Brothers arrived from Australia, accommodation for them was difficult to find. At one stage they had to live in small caravans. The community rallied round to help. An outstanding gesture was the bequest of prominent Christchurch benefactor Mrs Murray-Aynsley’s stately mansion which stood nearby.

The Christian Brothers were keen to build a national juniorate as well. This would be a training school for boys interested in becoming Brothers. Up to then, such training was offered in Australia. Letters in the Archives reflect a feeling among New Zealand Bishops that New Zealand boys training for their vocation with the Christian Brothers in Australia were being snapped up for teaching in Australian schools.

Morven, a township north of the Waitaki River in South Canterbury, seemed a suitable location for the juniorate. A Catholic convent and school there had recently closed. The teaching Sisters had left. The property was owned by the Christchurch Diocese. It was located near Highway 1 and beside the Main Trunk Railway.

Morven sat just south of halfway between Dunedin and Christchurch. It was nearer to Oamaru where the Christian Brothers operated the secondary boys’ school, St Kevin’s College. This would make it easier for Brothers from Oamaru to participate in the juniorate’s functioning. On the negative side, the once proud township of Morven was in decline economically. The loss of shops and services would become a problem.

Negotiations between the Brothers in Australia and the Bishops of New Zealand followed, as students for the juniorate were to come from all the dioceses. The Brothers chose Morven and moved to the site. There they greeted the first boys, numbering 13, from Dunedin, Oamaru and Auckland.

Documents in the Archives do not explain why, but the Morven situation did not last. Counter proposals were being discussed. One referred to land at North New Brighton, in north-eastern Christchurch, being available cheaply. The Redemptorist Fathers were building a monastery there, so having the juniorate in the neighbourhood would solve the problem of easy access to priests as chaplains.

This idea was overtaken by yet another proposal. It involved purchase of Otahuna Lodge, the palatial former home of public figure Sir Heaton Rhodes, near the town of Tai Tapu. It appealed as a quiet rural site, in easy distance from Christchurch. The Otahuna proposal was adopted in 1961.

The juniorate moved to Otahuna and operated there in 1962-1963, at least. Documents in the Archives mention plans for alterations to the lodge and show designs for the Brothers’ chapel. Hope was expressed that a priest from a parish in the vicinity would act as Chaplain, though the nearest parish priest was distant and already busy. The juniorate later moved to the North Island.

Another issue ongoing was the wish of all four New Zealand Bishops that the Christian Brothers in New Zealand could constitute a self-contained “Vice-Province”. This would mean the New Zealand Brothers were no longer subject to the Australian Province. After much discussion, Bishop Joyce in 1959 wrote to the Assistant General of Christian Brothers, Very Reverend Brother Duffy, in Ireland: “I am most anxious that the Christian Brothers establish a Vice-Province in New Zealand”. He added that he would be prepared to fund some incentives for this to happen.

Brother Duffy replied that he would take the issue to the Christian Brothers’ General Council to consider. A second reply soon after said the council had “decided to comply with (Bishop Joyce’s) wishes”. The matter would next go to the Holy See (at the Vatican, in Rome) for final confirmation.

In very quick time a letter from the Superior-General of Christian Brothers, in Dublin, arrived. It confirmed that a Vice-Province would be set up in New Zealand. Reaction from both Australia and New Zealand to the establishment of a “self-contained Province” was positive.

Letter from Brother Marlowe regarding the lack of playing fields at the school, 8 December 1960 [2020.8.11]
Number of boys attending St Thomas of Canterbury College and the parishes from which they came April 1961 [2020.8.11]

In 1962 the Christian Brothers formally took over St Thomas of Canterbury College. The Australian Province of Christian Brothers showed their goodwill with financial assistance for the buildings and the purchase of more land, opposite the college on Middlepark Road, to become sports grounds.

Most pupils came from south-west Christchurch parishes, with 78 first-year secondary students and 101 primary pupils enrolled in 1962.

At the laying of the Foundation Stone for the college, Bishop Joyce lauded the laity’s support for Catholic schools. Lay people faced the financial burden of “the building, staffing and maintenance of their schools”, so much so that “the impression could be gained that this is the only part of education in which Catholics are really interested”. However, the Bishop added: “It is true and ought to be more widely known that the Church is vitally interested in every aspect of education in New Zealand”.




Mike Crean, author

Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives



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