by PETER OWENS

A shortage of priests to serve the Dunedin diocese has led to the possibility of merging the four parishes to a base at St Mary’s in central Invercargill.

Fr Chris O’Neill,  parish priest of St Mary’s,  said the proposal is in the early stages of discussion, but noted that if it is implemented, it would mean a totally revised Sunday Mass schedule in the city.

St Mary’s Basilica in Invercargill. Photo credit: Rev Vaughan Leslie.
St Mary’s Basilica
in Invercargill. Photo credit: Rev Vaughan Leslie.

He also pointed out that although there was a chronic shortage of priests in the diocese, the Catholic Church in New Zealand has always relied on overseas priests ministering to the faithful.

From the beginnings of the Church in this country, there were always a large number of Irish priests all over the country. After World War II, there were also a significant number of priests from the Netherlands working among the faithful in New Zealand.

While priests from Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines are now working in New Zealand, Fr O’Neill said there are currently no men studying at Holy Cross Seminary, Auckland, with a view to serving in the Dunedin diocese after ordination in the near future.

“We have two men preparing to enter the seminary this year, but it would be at least seven
years before they would have completed their training, ” he said.

Robert Tait, a Catholic layman, is chairing a “steering committee” studying the implications of the proposal and reporting to Dunedin Bishop Colin Campbell.

He agrees with Fr O’Neill that nothing definite has been decided and that it would be a long time before anything was.

A proposed merger has been well received by many of the Catholics of Invercargill. They are aware not only of the growing shortage of priests in the diocese but other factors as well.

These include an awareness of the growing costs of administering the church in the
city and changes in lifestyle.

More and more people are mobile and spend fewer weekends at home. Coupled with this is the undeniable fact that most parishioners have access to their own vehicles. These are less expensive to operate and the situation is in marked contrast to the immediate postwar
era when far fewer people had access to vehicles and they walked or cycled to church on Sundays.

Invercargill is the southernmost and most westerly city in New Zealand. Among its population of about 51,000 people there are many Catholics. Indeed, there has been a strong Catholic presence in the Southland region since the 1850s.

At that time, the Catholics of Southland and Otago were part of the Wellington diocese and in 1861, Bishop Viard appointed Fr Moreau, a Marist father, to minister to the Catholic population in the deep South.

When the diocese of Dunedin came into being under the first Bishop, Patrick Moran, a parish system evolved in Southland and Otago, and in the early 1860s, the first St Mary’s church was built in Tyne Street Invercargill and served the whole of the city.

In 1905, the present St Mary’s Basilica, designed by the celebrated Francis Petre was opened on Tyne Street and there it remains. It has a Grade 1 Listing from Heritage New Zealand and is by far the most prominent building in Invercargill, although it is set well back from the central business district.

Other parishes were formed in the city over the years, as well as Mass centres, served by local priests. At present there are four parishes in Invercargill, Sacred Heart Waikiwi (1916); St Teresa’s, North Invercargill (1947); St Patrick’s, Georgetown (1949) and of course
the first established parish, St Mary’s.

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