by Fr Nicholas Dillon
As a child growing up in Winton, it was always a big deal to go on holiday to Dunedin.
We would stay at my grandparents’ house in Kenmure Rd. In the spare bedroom hung a picture over the chest of drawers. It was a sombre image of a large stone cross in what looked to me like public gardens. I had no idea what it was, but the image remained in my memory.
In the same room hung an old photograph of my Great Uncle Jack — John Joseph Bryant. It pictured him in uniform and was a quiet reminder that he had gone to the First World War and never returned.
John Joseph Bryant was the son of Joseph and Eliza Alves Bryant of Kenmure Rd. He had been a lieutenant in the Hibernian Defence Cadets and then a trooper in the Wellington Mounted Rifles. He embarked from Wellington on April 17, 1915, to join the New Zealand forces in the First World War in the campaign at Gallipoli. It turned out to be a one way trip. There, on the other side of the world, at the age of only 24, Uncle Jack died. The date was December 3, 1915. He had become ill and the medical records state that he died of enteritis.
Not much was said about Uncle Jack’s death — at least, not much that I remember from my childhood. All I knew was that he died during the First World War and was buried in Malta.
Many years later, I was researching the location of his grave. It turned out to be the Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery.
When I found some photos of the cemetery, I was suddenly transported back to my childhood, as one picture showed the exact image of the large stone cross surrounded by trees that had hung in my grandparents’ house. It was then that I realised the photo was to commemorate the place where John Joseph Bryant had been buried — his resting place so far from home.
In January this year, 2015, I was in Rome to attend a clergy conference. Following the conference I had planned to go with other priests to spend a week on holiday in Sicily. It occurred to me that Sicily is close to Malta and, having realised that this year would be 100 years since the death of J. J. Bryant, I thought it opportune to make the trip to visit his grave.
On January 16 I caught an evening flight from Catania to Malta. The trip is so short that I spent longer checking in my luggage than actually in the air!
As we descended into Malta, knowing that a relative lay buried on the island I had a deep sense that part of me was already there.
The next day I made my way to the Addolorata Cemetery and searched for the grave. Eventually I came across the large stone cross marking the Commonwealth War Graves. It was quite an extraordinary sensation to stand before this very spot, so close to where John Joseph Bryant is buried, seeing in reality what I had seen in a photo as a child.
I searched the tombstones and finally found Uncle Jack’s grave. I knelt and said some prayers and pondered on how many family members never had the chance to say a proper farewell to him.
On Monday January 19 I returned to the Addolorata Cemetery and at 11am in the cemetery chapel offered a requiem Mass for Uncle Jack’s soul.
It was a great privilege to be able to visit his grave; an even greater privilege to offer the true sacrifice of the Lord’s Body and Blood for the soul of one who sacrificed his life for the good of others.
That evening, my last night in Malta, I attended a concert performance of J. S. Bach’s St John Passion in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. I had lined up before the concert hoping I would be able to purchase one of the limited tickets. As it happened, a very kind lady came and offered me a spare complimentary ticket, meaning I got in for free and early enough to get a good seat.
Sitting in the beautiful co-cathedral, savouring the wonderful musical meditation on the Lord’s Passion from St John’s Gospel, seemed the perfect conclusion to my visit commemorating John Joseph Bryant. The translation of the final chorale was particularly appropriate:
“O Lord, let thy dear angels carry my soul when my end comes to Abraham’s bosom; let my body in its resting chamber gently repose, without pain or grief, till judgment day! Awaken me from death, that my eyes may behold thee in all joy, O Son of God, my Saviour and my Throne of Grace! Lord Jesus Christ, hear my prayer, I will ever praise Thee!”
Fr Nicholas Dillon is a priest of the diocese of Dunedin on loan to the archdiocese of Melbourne, where he serves as parish priest of St Philip’s Parish, Blackburn North.
by Fr Nicholas Dillon