by MARTIN de JONG
Kiriahi McKee, a Year 12 St Catherine’s College student from Wellington, was among New Zealanders at commemorations for military chaplain Fr James Joseph McMenamin at Messines in Belgium in June.
Kiriahi is an Army cadet, and was one of three young cadets — one from each branch of the armed services — chosen to accompany the New Zealand Defence Force to commemorations.
Her grandfathers served at Gallipoli and the Western Front — though not at Messines.
She described the service for Fr McMenamin at St Nicholas Church in Messines as incredible. Celebrated in Flemish, French and English, she said, “Despite the different language, I was amazed at how it ran exactly as a Catholic Mass does here and I thought it beautiful that religion can be carried half way across the world — and it’s still held true the same.”
During her eight days in Belgium, she and the other cadets visited memorial sites at Passchendaele and Ypres, and numerous small cemeteries dotted around the battle fields.
“At one point we were laying poppies on New Zealand’s soldiers’ graves — we had a massive bag of poppies, and we did that, and we had a lot left over, so the people in charge said ‘Put them on the unknown soldiers’ graves’ and what was moving for me was . . . on one row of about 20 headstones, I would use a whole pocketful of poppies and it was very upsetting to see so many soldiers had gone in to war and sacrificed so much, and their names weren’t even recognised.”
She was also moved by photos of Belgian towns “absolutely demolished” by the war 100 years ago, when now there were green fields and solid brick homes.
Reflecting on her experience, she said, “When you look at these places where World War One took place, you wonder how could people do it again? Why would you want to start another war when it was just so disastrous.”
She herself wishes to join the Army as a medical officer.
“Since I was younger I always wanted to help people: It started out be an ambulance driver, then a nurse, then a doctor. But I also really enjoyed the military lifestyle, especially the Army — I love how traditional it is.”
Coincidentally, at the main New Zealand commemorative service for the Battle of Messines, held on June 7, she was chosen to read an extract from the diary of an officer studying to be a medic, who died on the first day of the battle.
“He was a beautiful writer — very poetic,” she said. “It felt very moving that on that day on the 7 June that I was reading something that a man had written a hundred years ago.”
She also laid a wreath on behalf of the youth of New Zealand.
Belgian and German youth were also represented, and she made friends with a Belgian girl at the commemorations. “Part of the culture there is the stories passed down from relatives down the line about World War One and every generation there is expected to be grateful for what happened.”
Sharron Cole, parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Petone — where Fr McMenamin left from to go to war — felt very privileged to finally meet the Belgian people she had been working with over years to get the special chalice to Belgium. They had wanted to acknowledge the Fr McMenamin connection as part of a “100 New Zealanders at Messines” exhibition remembering the battle.
The special chalice, gifted to Fr McMenamin by Petone parish when he went to the war, has formed part of the exhibition for a few months.
Ms Cole said Fr McMenamin was among the first class of seminarians to graduate from Holy Cross College in 1909, and came to Petone as parish priest in 1912. He volunteered to services as a chaplain as soon as war broke out.
Ms Cole said the records show nothing but praise for Fr McMenamin both before and after his death. “He was a man of huge courage and integrity and faith . . . It didn’t make any difference whether you were Catholic, Protestant, Jew or whatever, he still exercised his pastoral duty. He was an enormously brave and dedicated minister.”
Currently, the chalice is in Passchendaele where it will be used in services on October 12 — when New Zealand suffered one its worst days in military history 100 years ago with 2700 casualties, including 842 deaths.
Fr McMenamin’s chalice will be returned to the Petone church community by New Zealand Defence Force personnel at Sunday Mass on November 5, when it will once again resume “normal service”.