Wellington’s Catholic pioneers: Dr John Patrick Fitzgerald

Features Msgr John Broadbent2 February 2013 The beginnings of the Church in Wellington owed much to lay Catholics who, for the first three years of the Port Nicholson colony, met…


Msgr John Broadbent
2 February 2013

The beginnings of the Church in Wellington owed much to lay Catholics who, for the first three years of the Port Nicholson colony, met on Sundays to pray; Bishop Pompallier came from Auckland for confirmation.

The parish which even included a choir was run by an outstanding young Catholic lawyer and his committee.
In Auckland, the Catholics were often soldiers and their families from Ireland. Wellington by contrast, had its Irish minority, but there were a number of English families, many of whom had suffered for the faith at home in penal times and were generous to the little struggling parish.

The descendants of the Petres, Vavasours and Cliffords, in whose homes the Sunday prayers were often said, are still living here.

Occasionally, there would be Mass – for example, when several Marist missionaries arrived from France on their way to Bishop Pompallier in Auckland.

In the 1840s, New Zealand had one Auckland-based diocese until Rome divided it into two in 1848 – Auckland and Wellington. Bishop Viard was appointed Wellington’s first bishop and the diocese covered the southern half of the North Island and all the South Island for the next 20 years until Dunedin diocese was formed in 1869 and Christchurch in 1887.

Despite Society of Mary founder Fr Jean-Claude Colin’s generosity with his priests and brothers, Bishop Pompallier was stretched. But because he perceived Wellington to be a thriving Catholic community in pioneer terms, he sent Father Michel Borjon SM and Brother Déodat SM to Wellington in 1842.

The Eleanor left Auckland for Wellington on 1 August but was not sighted until its wreckage washed up on the shores of East Cape. Fr Borjon has the honour of being the first priest appointed to Wellington although he never served his parish.

Onward and upward
The little parish continued on. Its tireless leader, Dr John Patrick Fitzgerald, born in Ireland and trained in medicine in Scotland and London, arrived on one of the earliest ships, the Oriental, which berthed in Wellington in January 1840. He soon gathered the little congregation to pray on Sundays.

Fitzgerald’s committee included Sir Charles Clifford, who later became the first speaker of the first New Zealand Parliament, hotel proprietor Thomas, Baron Alzdorf, William Vavasour and some of Wellington’s Irish Catholics – McCarthy, Rowland, David, Richard Barry and Thomas McHugh. Within weeks of Fitzgerald’s arrival, they met at Barrett’s Hotel.

Mrs Sharp, the harbour-master’s wife, proved an energetic choir mistress. With a steady collection the community was able to buy a property on Hinau Street, the site of the present St Mary of the Angels church.
Fitzgerald later became superintendant of Wellington Hospital which accommodated 16 patients. He was ultimately ousted from his job – many believe he was a victim of anti-Catholic feeling – and went to the Cape of South Africa, eventually dying in England.

For three years, the lay committee successfully ran the parish until the arrival of Father Jeremiah O’Reily in 1843.

Meanwhile, let’s pray for those first good lay people who planted the faith in our fair city.