A heart for service: a life story

WelCom June/July 2022 Pā Colin Durning had many callings in his long life: husband, father, dentist, professor, priest, kaumatua and friend. As his daughter notes, it was his ‘service heart’…

WelCom June/July 2022

Pā Colin Durning had many callings in his long life: husband, father, dentist, professor, priest, kaumatua and friend. As his daughter notes, it was his ‘service heart’ that led his choices through life. Pā Phil Cody sm reflects on the inspiring life of a dear friend.


Pa Phil Cody sm

A heart for service: a life story Archdiocese of Wellington
William Colin Mathew (Colin, Father Colin, Pā Colin) Durning. Born Timaru 18 January 1927 – died Dunedin 14 February 2022.

William Colin Mathew Durning died peacefully in Dunedin on February 14, 2022. He lived a rich life of 95 years. 

He was born in Timaru on January 18, 1927 to William and Winifred Durning, as one of a strong Catholic family. With many uncles and aunts carrying the tradition of the Durning ancestry, Colin had much to live up to.

He did in style, first at St Patrick’s High School, Timaru. He later went on to achieve great academic success as a Professor of Dentistry. His daughter states, ‘He never talked about that much. He had a service heart and that’s what led his choices through life.’

Colin married Eve Black in 1951. They travelled to America where he achieved a PhD in anatomy at the University of Chicago. Later he and his family went to Puerto Rico where he worked in the medical school. He also worked in Detroit.

Returning to New Zealand, he and Eve settled in Otago where he was Professor of Prosthetic Dentistry at the University of Otago Dental School. They moved to Invercargill where he worked with borstal boys. 

After time living at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, he shifted to Porirua. He found work among the psychiatric patients at Porirua Hospital and was there 14 years. As dentist, he cared for their teeth; as person he restored many to their mana.

Whānau was central for Colin. He and Eve had eight children. A son, Miguel, pre-deceased him. He watched their progress with pride. Colin also raised two additional children, Brett and Vaughn, when he moved to Porirua, as whangai children and part of the whānau. He lived in later life with his son Jamie and was very proud of Jamie when he won a top award, as NZSA Security Officer of the Year 2015, at the NZ Security Awards. 

A favourite memory I have is Colin, now a priest, leaning over at the end of Miha to bless his own mokopuna. His smile was wonderful and his love clear. 

Family were able to be near him in later days and it is fitting he returned to Dunedin to be with his daughter Pauline in Port Chalmers where he died. 

Always interested in reading and critique of life and Church, Colin found a companion and close friend in poet James K Baxter. Not long after Baxter took up residence in Jerusalem in 1969, he wrote a group of 39 poems for Colin, then living in Dunedin, and sent them to him as a way of maintaining his side of an ongoing conversation between them. They were published in book form in 1970 as Jerusalem Sonnets; poems for Colin Durning. 

As the final poem in the sequence shows, they are conversational in tone, focus upon shared interests and reveal a close, affectionate and trusting friendship:

In Auckland it was the twelve days’ garland,
Feast with friends and shouting in the streets;

Now it is the apex and the clean flint knife – 
Colin, if you meet him, give my love

To Patrick Carey, and if you have the time
Once or twice go out to Brighton

To visit my parents – easy to hang 
Imperatives on a good friend from a distance,

But I say, ‘If’ – one thing, how can the image come
At all to the centre where the mind is silent

Without being false? I had hoped for fifty sonnets,
But here are thirty-nine, my gift to you, Colin,

From Hiruharama, From Hemi te tutua.

A heart for service: a life story Archdiocese of Wellington
Fr Colin Durning (r) with Fr Steve Hancy (l) from Whanganui, pictured before the blessing of the Te Tumanako Whare (sleeping, meeting and ancestral house) on Te Pou o Rongo Marae at Ranana, along the banks of the Whanganui River. Te Tumanako Whare celebrated its centenary 23–24 January 2016. To mark the occasion, the whare was renovated and was formally blessed by Fr Colin and Fr Steve. Photo: Sue Seconi

James K Baxter was also known as an activist for the preservation of Māori culture. His work greatly influenced Colin and after Jim died, Colin lived for a time in Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. 

While always linked with Church, when his wife died in 1995, Colin felt called to be a priest. 

He was commissioned as Katekita (Catechist) by Pīhopa Tākuira Mariu sm. He was ordained by Cardinal Thomas Williams at Holy Family Church in Porirua in 1996. The occasion was marked by a rousing haka performed by pupils of Hato Pāora College. He was then nearly 70! Colin served people for 25 years mainly out of the Parish Personal to Māori, Te Ngākau Tapu, Porirua. He was the founding parish priest there, appointed by Cardinal Williams.

Colin was not always the easiest person for leadership to accommodate. However, he proves an example of the value and place of a once-married person given formal place in Church. He was an ‘elder’ kaumatua having a huge contribution to make. 

Pā Colin leaves a legacy. One aspect is a great love of all humanity. He would often say respect and mana of each person really matters. He said, ‘If the Church spent the time it does on trying to sort out sexual ethics on advancing and enhancing humanity, we would all be much better off.’

Another legacy element is love of Māori, illustrated by his devotion to te reo Māori and the persons of Te Ngākau Tapu. Long before Colin became a priest he was given some advice by Kahu Ratana from the Whanganui River who said, ‘Na te ngākau’ (‘From the heart’). Kahu was basically telling him you will never have problems or get into trouble if you always speak from the heart. 

Colin showed deep interest in each person. He delighted in ‘chewing the fat’. As the proverb has it, Ko te kai o te rangatira te kōrero! (‘Nourishment for a chief is to be able to share in conversation’.) I used to love talking with him – and listening. Always, after the conversation finished, I felt more positive and happy. Colin also listened, and was indeed a man who shared much wisdom with so many over the years.

One of Colin’s favourite quotations was, ‘I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding’, [John O’Donoghue]. 

Colin certainly had lots of ‘unfoldings’; as husband, father, dentist, professor, priest, kaumatua and friend.

So, dearest Colin, your time has come. A great innings of 95 years. We are indeed better persons for having shared your company.

Haere. Kia ū ki te awa o te oranga tonutanga ā, kia tau ki te takutai o te rangi. Ā tōnā wā. 

‘Go now! Travel securely on the river of eternal life, and draw up your waka on the shores of heaven. Till we meet again in due time’.


William Colin Mathew Durning

Born Timaru 18 January 1927 – died Dunedin 14 February 2022

Educated at St Patrick’s High School, Timaru

BDS (NZ) 1949 (distinction in prosthetic dentistry)

Zoller Fellow and Graduate Student, prosthetic and general dentistry, University of Chicago Clinics and Billings Hospital 1952–1957

Served with the RNZDC 1950–1960

Lecturer in Basic Sciences, University of Otago Dental School, 1957–1960

PhD anatomy (Univ Chicago) 1958

Acting Head, Department of Basic Sciences, University of Otago Dental School 1960

Anatomy Department, University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine 1960–1961

Director of Research and Associate Professor, School of Dentistry, University of Detroit 1961–1964

Professor of Dentistry, University of Otago Dental School 1964–1971

Assistant Director, Marysville Rehab. Centre, Invercargill 1971

Chemist, Glendermid Tannery 1972–1973

Director, Dental Services, Porirua Hospital 1973–1986

Locum Senior Dental Surgeon, Wellington Hospital 1973

Part-time university studies 1986–1993

Dip Grad (Otago) 1992

Ordained as a Catholic priest on 30 November 1996

Assistant, Holy Family Parish, Porirua 1997

Parish Priest, Elsdon Parish 1998

Parish Priest, Te Ngākau Parish, Porirua 1999–2003

Source: Capital & Coast District Health Board