by MICHAEL MORRISSEY
A man of medium height and of strong muscular build, in his mid 30s, is bounding up — or down — the stairs. A man who exudes energy and purpose, a man on fire with a new idea. A man who, when he lectures, seems not so much to write on the blackboard, as to attack it, peppering it with bright, differently coloured chalky shrapnel as he explains Thomistic theology with a fierce yet lucid authority that imprints on the mind and stays in memory nearly 50 years later.
Enter Fr David Sheerin, Catholic chaplain at Newman Hall, University of Auckland, vividly in action.
The softly spoken, rubicund-complexioned Sheerin was chaplain from 1958 to 1965, years that cover the vital time of renewal for the Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council.
“He had an enormous impact on me,” recalls Pat Lythe, coordinator of the Pastoral Services Group for the 67 parishes of Auckland diocese, based at the Pompallier Diocesan Centre in Ponsonby, Auckland. “He was an inspiration.”
Mrs Lythe’s husband David — of whose organisational ability Sheerin had a high opinion — remembers being “bailed up” by Sheerin and prevailed upon to organise whatever was ticking in the chaplain’s livewire mind.
Apart from his lunchtime lectures in theology, Sheerin was a powerhouse of a man who organised or set in motion many activities, such as three-times-a-year weekend retreats at Knock na Gree Camp, on 13 hectares of land in Oratia, bordering the Oratia Stream.
Founded in 1939, the camp was used to teach Catholic education to school students during holiday breaks for nearly 70 years — it was recently sold for $2 million because the success of school-based religious programmes meant it was being under utilised.
Sheerin also organised pilgrimages to the St Peter Chanel Shrine in Russell, Northland, and — more daringly — the first meeting between the Catholic Society and the largely Presbyterian SCM, or Student Christian Movement. Plus meetings with the Anglican Society and social evenings for the students. He also started and ran a local chapter of the Legion of Mary, a worldwide organisation of Catholic laity that today numbers some 10 million. Members perform spiritual and corporal works of mercy, although lawyer Peter Newfield says Sheerin saw the Legion of Mary as a means of “converting the world”.
n Newman Hall
Newman Hall was formerly Glenalvon, a private hotel owned by businessman Thomas Buxton, whose family donated it to the diocese in 1947. Originally it was Bella Vista, a structure composed of imported brick and with a portico of Bath stone, built for David Nathan, a successful businessman.
Constructed around 1863-1864, it was described as the “earliest of the city’s pretentious houses”. Prior to its spruce up, it had fallen on hard times. Newfield and I recall large purple snakes with extended forked tongues painted on the neglected walls, giving rise to the never-substantiated rumour that the former hotel had been occupied by Satan worshipers. A fresh coat of paint put paid to any lingering devilish ambience.
The five-storey building was opened as Newman Hall in 1962 by Archbishop Liston, mayor Dove Myer Robinson and vice chancellor Douglas Robb. Pat Lythe recalls the turnout of students was so disappointingly low — about 15 — that they ran up and down the fire escapes to make it seem there was a larger crowd.
Newman Hall soon acquired a much used cafeteria (often manned by lawyer Herb Romaniuk) immediately on the left of the main entrance. A student hostel was at the rear of the building.
Sheerin’s lunchtime weekly theology talks were popular and the formal outcome was a university-style three hour exam and a diploma. Although the course never had official university status, it was run at a level of sophistication comparable to campus courses.
Although most of us were quietly in awe, or at least respectful, of Sheerin’s encyclopaedic Dominican theological learning and his diamond-clear exposition, three of the male students, two of them later to become lawyers (law and Catholicism seem to sit well together), frequently challenged the chaplain’s arguments. I had the feeling that, rather than actually being sceptical of the theology, they were exercising their legal skills.
These student-Sheerin exchanges had a more amiable ambience than (say) the famous F.C. Copleston (Jesuit priest and professor of philosophy) versus Bertrand Russell (logician, mathematician and atheist) BBC debate on the very same subject — Aquinas’s five proofs of the existence of God — back in 1948.
Lawyer Paul Callaghan, who was president of the university Catholic Society in 1961-62, which had 500 members (about 10 per cent of the university population) does not now recall his precise line of questioning, but rather reflects that Sheerin’s lectures gave him a firm rational foundation for belief in God.
Newfield reflects that Sheerin’s Dominican style was entirely intellectual, and not spiritual in approach — hardly surprising, given that Sheerin was a passionate member of the order of St Dominic and, according to Newfield, believed that his order was the leader of the Church’s intellectual army, rather than the Jesuits, who were “second stringers”.
The Jesuits, founded some three centuries later, frequently roused official censure and, in some cases, expulsion.
Romaniuk, later student president, also spoke respectfully of the Dominicans as men of “significant intellect, often with double doctorates”. He remembers Sheerin as a “special person” yet also an ordinary man, “not august, who anyone could relate to”. David Lythe remembers Sheerin as a “human dynamo”, in contrast with the more “pastoral” style of other priests and chaplains.
The third student given to challenging Sheerin’s theological exposition (who prefers to remain anonymous), subjectively recalls “backing Sheerin into a corner” and that the chaplain’s response was to assert that all argument proceeded by use of analogy and that he (the student) did not understand analogy. (Newfield also remembers that a Sheerin putdown could be very sharp.) The same anonymous student was perturbed by the now somewhat dated style of piety shown by a female member of the Legion of Mary who sprinkled holy water on corpses in the morgue — an action vigorously applauded by those present, led by Fr Sheerin. This student subsequently left the Church, and thus far has not returned.
When I called on Callaghan to revisit his memories of those early 60s times, he presented me with a copy of IKTHUS, the Catholic student magazine. Among other items, it contains an article on the Oecumenical (note antiquarian spelling) Movement; a denunciation of Communism; an article on jazz-playing Jesuits (alas, no Dominicans mentioned) by Chris Reid, brother of historian Nicholas Reid, author of an exhaustively researched biography of Archbishop Liston — both sons of John Reid, a well known Catholic intellectual of the day; poems by Peter Newfield; plus an article by none other than Fr David M. Sheerin, OP.
In this article, which exhibits an unfashionably stern piety, Sheerin argues the case for the public adoration of God. He focuses on the saying of the rosary at Newman Hall and also makes an aside about the secular world: “It is a common fallacy to think that the state precisely as a social entity has no obligation to give public worship to God.” He does not, however, offer any specific example(s) of how this might be achieved. In today’s increasingly secular world, it is even harder to imagine what form this could take. Might Fonterra (perhaps) require their truck drivers to pull over at noon and say the rosary?
Sheerin’s main concern in this brief article was to stress the importance of the public action of saying the rosary together.
Both Callaghan and Newfield recollect a student-proposed Catholic congress with the provocative theme of “The Failure of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century” being vetoed by Fr Sheerin because of its negativity — and perceived inaccuracy. When Doug Kelly suggested pluralising it to failure(s), which was a softener, Sheerin would still not have a bar of it.
Sheerin left Newman Hall in 1965 and went to Buenos Aires, then to Rome, before moving to Chicago, where he left the Dominican order and married a nun (although Pat Lythe says this may be rumour only). Thereafter, the Sheerin trail goes cold.
An email to Dominican headquarters in Australia to establish if Fr Sheerin is still alive has not been answered. If he is, he would be 84. Pat Lythe says she heard he has died . . . but this remains not certain.
Fr Sheerin, human dynamo, wherever you are, may you be at peace. God bless.