Catholic Work

The inauguration of our new Catholic Prime Minster today reminded me of the rather sad, and, in the end, futile letter written by Catholic architect John Sidney Swan, in protest at the appointment of an Anglican architect to design the new St Mary of the Angels in Wellington.

He wrote in 1918 to the priest of the parish, Father Mahony:

In these days of sectarian strife and bitterness … when any Catholic layman in business (especially in professional practice) finds it difficult to make a living simply because of the strong opposition that he meets with because he is a member of the Catholic church … we say without hesitation that all things being equal a Catholic should be employed for Catholic work.

The architect who was appointed was Swan’s previous employer and then business partner, Frederick De Jersey Clere, the designer of over one hundred of New Zealand churches.  Clere had given Swan his start in architecture, and they had been partners until 1902.


When Swan wrote that letter, he had already had a very successful architectural career, including designing a number of important buildings for the Catholic church, including St Gerard’s Church in Mt Victoria (1910, picture above, to the right), Erskine College in Island Bay (1909), and the Sacred Heart Convent in Wanganui (pictured below).

Sacred Heart Convent, Wanganui, 1912

However, his comment was written in the context of a very unpleasant period in New Zealand history.  Catholics, as a minority, and because they were associated with Irish and French culture and with Irish nationalism, and as a result of a number of conspiracy theories about Catholic control over business, had often had a difficult time in New Zealand.  This reached its zenith during and directly after World War One, even though many Catholics served in the war, as some New Zealanders blamed them for the start of the war.  A Protestant Political Association was formed in 1917, which successfully lobbied for anti-Catholic measures to pass through parliament, and which had up to 200,000 members.  This was the same year that Swan attempted to win a place on the Wellington City Council, but was not elected.

Cartoon from 1919, arguing the Protestant Political Association’s position that there was a connection between Joseph Ward, Catholics and Bolshevists.  At this point Ward had been Prime Minister once, and returned to the position in 1928.   New Zealand Truth, 27 December 1919, p. 5

As for De Jersey Clere, St Mary’s of the Angels eventuated into being his most impressive church, and indeed one of the finest in New Zealand, a beautiful example of Gothic architecture in concrete.


From here, Clere went on to design a number of other Catholic buildings.  Strangely enough, one of those was the St Gerard’s Monastery, next to Swan’s St Gerard’s church which had been built two decades earlier.  Together these two buildings now appear to be a cohesive whole, and are some of the best-known pieces of architecture in Wellington.

Our first Catholic Prime Minister (called Premier then) was Frederick Weld, although he held the position only briefly, for one year in 1864-65.  The fact that he was able to attain the position was significant, since Britain had then only recently given the right to Catholics to sit in parliament at all (and still to this day has never had a Catholic Prime Minister).  Another was Joseph Ward, who was Prime Minister twice, with a significant gap in between, firstly from 1906–12. As shown in the cartoon above, the Protestant Political Association campaigned hard against him, and had been so powerful for a time that it successfully managed to have him unseated from his electorate seat in 1919.  After around 1922, anti-Catholic sentiment waned.  Even so, as one historian, Rory Sweetman was written ‘Over the next two decades the Catholic Church seemed to isolate itself from the rest of the country, bruised by what it regarded as institutional bigotry’.  Nevertheless, Ward became Prime Minister again from 1928–30. And perhaps our most significant Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, was also a Catholic.  He served from 1935 until his death in 1940.

(As an aside, I note that in the 2013 census, the Catholic faith became the largest Christian denomination in New Zealand, overtaking the Anglicans, which had held the position prior to that).


Sources: Susan Maclean, Architect of the Angels: The Churches of Frederick de Jersey Clere; Geoff Mew and Adrian Humphris, Raupo to Deco: Wellington Styles And Architects 1840-1940; Rory Sweetman, ‘Catholic Church’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 December 2016); Christopher van der Krogt. ‘Elliott, Howard Leslie’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 December 2016).  Letter quoted in Maclean, p98

Images: Wanganui Covent building, Tesla Studios Collection (PAColl-3046); Reference: 1/1-021229-G, Alexander Turnbull Library.  Main image: Andym5855, Flickr, 


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