Education: Edward O’Connor

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Building Committee, February 1905 (Edward O'Connor standing on the right in back row)

Fifteen years after the first settlers arrived, Christchurch still had no Catholic school. Young Irish immigrant Edward O’Connor soon changed that.

Nineteen year-old O’Connor left his Galway home in 1864 and arrived at Lyttelton in January, 1865. With an educational certificate he opened St Joseph’s Primary School for boys just four months later. Lessons began with two pupils in a rented cottage on Lichfield Street. The roll increased quickly and steadily, so a larger building was necessary.

Christchurch was not yet a diocese but came within the Wellington Diocese. Missionary priest Fr Chataigner supported what was commonly known as “the O’Connor School”. He raised money to buy land for a larger building, near the Catholic church on Barbadoes Street. Catholic newspaper “The Tablet” wrote (in 1925) that “eighty-five children marched to the second school,” which took the new name of St Patrick’s.

Girls were admitted too, and the number of “400 students of both sexes” was quoted in an early inspection of the school. The number of boys on the roll kept increasing, reaching 275 by 1888.

A woman teacher was employed, with the government agreeing to pay her salary. However, the Mission Sisters came to Christchurch and opened a school for girls in 1868. The O’Connor girls then transferred there.

The Christchurch Diocese was established in 1887, headed by Bishop John James Grimes. The following year Canterbury school inspectors visited to check the school’s records and pupils’ progress. The inspectors were “satisfied” and rated the school as “an efficient unit”, according to Church historian Fr Michael O’Meeghan SM.

Also in 1888, the Marist Brothers came to the new Christchurch Diocese and opened a new boys’ school. As with the girls, O’Connor is said to have “handed over” the boys to the new Marist School. However, some say O’Connor was relieved of the boys (or “simply pushed out”, as one man said), implying some dissatisfaction with him.

With all his pupils gone, and after more than 20 years as a teacher and principal, O’Connor retired from teaching – but not from education. Out of concern that few young Catholics were attending Mass, he joined the Christian Doctrine Association (1877) and was elected president a year later. Among other activities O’Connor and the Mission Sisters operated Sunday Schools to teach the Faith.

Interested also in adult education, O’Connor opened and ran a Catholic Bookshop where visitors could discuss Faith issues. This stood on Barbadoes Street, opposite where the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament would later stand. Older Catholics in Christchurch may remember the shop which lasted until the 1970s.

Inter-denominational rancour in the late 19th– Century would have made O’Connor’s life and work difficult at times. Religious bigotry was rife, though not all Christians approved it. A major issue of debate was government funding for Catholic schools. With little financial assistance O’Connor’s staff and parents would have “scrimped and saved” to ensure their children had a Catholic education. Gaining a government-paid salary for his female teacher must have been a boon.

Historical sources explaining the harsh differences between some Catholics and some Protestants are plenty. Following are two examples taken from documents in the Archives of the Christchurch Catholic Diocese. They show the level of quibbling and quarreling that broke out.

An opponent to State funding of Catholic schools complained that all the teachers at the nearest State school happened to be “Roman Catholics”, so “we are forced to have our children taught by Roman Catholics, while the Roman Catholics will not allow their children to attend the State school at which their own adherents are teachers.” This was a common but one-eyed view that neglected many aspects of the situation.

In a different tone, a Catholic submitter wrote that the bishop was bound to protect children’s faith and morals, alleging that, in State schools, these virtues “are undermined by Godless Education”. The reference to State schools as “Godless” is an unfair slur.

Wading through such waters in these times did not faze the school founder, teacher and principal. Instead, O’Connor launched himself into other good works for the Church. He became Secretary to the Christchurch Diocese, working closely with Bishop Grimes. In execrable handwriting he composed a letter to the bishop denouncing an article in The Press newspaper, in May 1909, and imploring him to do something about it….

 “This servilious, low and anti-Catholic effusion appears in ‘Our Saturday Corner’. Where, I ask, is the literature in this unanswerable attack on a nation? That it is original I won’t deny, but it’s false, and I also allow, it has been selected to insult and irritate the Catholic body throughout the civilized world,” he writes.

O’Connor was a proud Irishman, living among recent Irish immigrants, many of them in relative poverty. He took steps to help them. From information available in the Diocesan Archives, it seems he was a founder of the first St Vincent de Paul Conference in Christchurch, and possibly the first in New Zealand. The Conference was, and is, a major organization for the assistance of poor and needy people. O’Connor went on to serve the Conference in various roles, including as secretary and long-standing president. His dedication to St Vincent de Paul showed further when he welcomed the Conference to work in part of his school.

In addition, O’Connor joined the Hibernian Australasian Beneficial Society. Again, his fund-raising expertise would have been a boon to this Irish-based society’s work of helping the poor and needy.  And again he served as vice-president and president.


Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament
Edward O'Connor, Secretary of Building Committee

O’Connor seems to have had rapport with Bishop Grimes. This was shown by O’Connor’s valiant effort as a leading fund-raiser for building the new cathedral. The cathedral, which opened in 1905, was a most important project for Bishop Grimes. Though the bishop was born and raised in London, he had acquired good understanding of the Irish through studying and lecturing in Ireland as a student and a priest.

Other projects in the new diocese required skilful fund-raising too. O’Connor’s expertise in this field was applied, particularly in the building of Nazareth House retirement home in Sydenham, Christchurch.

Home life for O’Connor was as normal as many in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was “closely identified“ with work for the Church. His first wife died and he remarried. He left seven sons and three daughters when he died in 1911, aged 66.

So highly was O’Connor esteemed that a handsome “illuminated address” was presented to him shortly before his death. The address marked his: “47 years of faithful service, of devotedness and generosity which can scarcely be surpassed.” These were the words of Diocesan Administrator Fr T Price, shared by Bishop Grimes. A large congregation supported and applauded this gesture of gratitude.




Michael Crean, author

Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives Photograph Collection


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