Mgr John Broadbent retiring from regular corresponding

Feature February 2014 Cecily McNeill A lifetime of learning and scholarship, pastoral work and adult education has given Mgr John Broadbent much to write about and Wel-Com readers have greatly…


February 2014

Cecily McNeill

A lifetime of learning and scholarship, pastoral work and adult education has given Mgr John Broadbent much to write about and Wel-Com readers have greatly appreciated this, judging by the response to last year’s publication of his book, Vatican II: Between the lines.

Mgr John has now retired from four years of regular writing for Wel-Com but will continue to contribute articles from time to time.

John Broadbent was schooled in Nelson and boarded at St Patrick’s College Silverstream in the 1940s.

A yearning towards the contemplative life led him to the Benedictine monastery at Prinknash which gave plenty of time for study. After three years, he was invited to New Norcia in Western Australia but left after a year for the seminary at Mosgiel. He was ordained in 1955 and appointed to Ss Peter and Paul parish Lower Hutt the following year.

‘I had seven wonderful years there under Mgr Fletcher.’ He started adult education in Lower Hutt, which he did wherever he went, and built a reputation as a preacher.

He also started the popular Capistrano Club for teenagers in 1958 offering table tennis and billiards, band music for dancing and a coffee bar ‘which was all the rage in the 1950s’ on Sunday afternoons. This attracted some 1400 people, necessitating a move to both the horticultural hall and the town hall.‘This gave me an opportunity to meet kids at that level many of whom weren’t practising Catholics.’

Moving to Waitara, Fr John’s ministry extended to collecting quickfire raffles in the pubs and he loved the interraction with the large Māori population.

However, after one year there, the suggestion of a world tour arose and he was off with the help of many generous parishioners (the priest’s stipend was 30 shillings [$3] a week out of which he had to buy – though not pay for the running of – his own car.) The ticket cost £480 which left £200 ($400) to live on for the year.

The young priest’s eyes were opened during some of the more challenging circumstances in which he found himself. In Jerusalem he hired a room in an Arab hotel. One toilet and washbasin in the basement served the 14 rooms. ‘During Holy Week using the toilet became tricky.

An Iraqi woman had come for Holy week and she tied the chicken that she was going to offer as sacrifice to the toilet seat.’

From Jerusalem, Fr Broadbent flew to Greece, then Rome for a month including Assisi and Monte Cassino where the graves of 400 New Zealand soldiers join those of more than a thousand Poles and the same number of Indians.

Then to Spain in time for the annual pilgrimage to the statue of the Virgin of La Macarena. On to Lisbon, Lourdes, Paris, England and Ireland where he met some distant relatives.

His mother’s family had come to NZ from Ireland 150 years ago. In the United States, a month’s parish work in New Jersey and hospital chaplaincy in Miami for three weeks earned him enough money to extend his ticket to visit the West Indies.

Once home, Fr Broadbent was sent to relieve in Westport with Fr Owen Dolan and was appointed to Palmerston North in 1965. In his two years there, he was able to study history and French at Massey. In 1967 he was sent to be administrator in Lower Hutt for one year. ‘We had a wonderful team, all under 40.’

Mgr John believes Lower Hutt formed the first elected parish council in the archdiocese at this time.

The longing for the contemplative life led him to Takaka and, after a year there, he gained permission to live for a year as a hermit during which he decided finally that he needed to use his talents for pastoral work and education. ‘I learned that I should go out and continue the active life I had been living.’

After three years in Johnsonville, building the church and chairing the National Council of Priests, Fr Broadbent moved to Nelson as the first diocesan priest in 133 years. The diocese had taken over the parish from the Marists in 1973.

With the Nelson parish settled, he was finally able to devote himself entirely to study. ‘The Todd family gave me a scholarship to [the Catholic University of] Louvain in Belgium.’

He spent two years writing a PhD thesis on the founding of a seminary in the Pacific during the 19th century. On his return, Dr Broadbent was invited to teach church history at the new seminary in Fiji in 1976. He taught for seven years at the University of the South Pacific and at the Pacific Regional Seminary whose roll rose from ‘only about 30 when I went there’ to 140 seven years later.

‘This was a worldwide pattern with numerous young men training for the priesthood during the 1970s. However, these numbers declined in the West when many felt that Vatican II was not being implemented.’

He thoroughly enjoyed teaching young Pacific students. Although many of the European missionaries had given them a conservative theology, they were open and wonderful to teach. He found supervising PhD students particularly rewarding as he watched their ideas develop.

Cardinal Tom Williams called him back in 1983 to be university chaplain and he also gave many retreats mainly to priests in different dioceses. He eventually stopped the university work to concentrate on retreat work. As rector of Holy Cross College Mosgiel for four years he enjoyed working with the students – the numbers had fallen to about 40, mostly New Zealanders.

In 1991 he was allowed to spend a year or two writing a book which was eventually published in 2000. Mgr John is now redrafting this book with the help and editing skills of Fr Pat Maloney in Motueka.

After relieving in the Hutt, he was again asked to teach at the Pacific Theological College for two years, 1996 and ’97, where he prepared many Protestant theologians for parish work in the Pacific. After again relieving in the Hutt, he was sent to Nelson where he was able to help the parish renovate one of the oldest churches in the country. Fr Garin had built it.

After a couple of years at Waiwhetu which he loved, he retired at 74 to live in Eastbourne and continue his writing and teaching. He is still invited to teach in the Pacific and, just two years ago, some 150 people attended his series of seminars on church history in the Hutt.

‘As well as being good at pastoral work, I believe I have the ability to make fairly abstruse matters interesting and accessible for ordinary people. I enjoy doing it. It’s a gift from God,’ he says.