by JEFF DILLON
On November 9, a large congregation filled St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin to farewell, Michael Francis McConnell, a well-known member of the parish and the wider community.
It was apparent from the outset that people had come to pay their respects to Mr McConnell who had touched their lives in diverse ways from his involvement in teaching to his dedication to his faith and his love of music. Not only was the cathedral choir in full voice, but the Dunedin RSA choir was present also.
Fr Vaughan Leslie, a friend of Mr McConnell’s, was the principal celebrant of the Requiem Mass and was assisted by Fr Nicholas Dillon, Msgr John Harrison, Fr Tony Harrison, Fr David Hercus, Fr Michael Hill, IC, Fr Merv McGettigan and Msgr Vince Walker.
In his homily, Fr Leslie picked up on a theme in one of the readings which noted that God has no favourites but loves and cherishes everyone the same. Mr McConnell did likewise. He did struggle with some people, but struggles are supplied by God to refine us, perfect us and make us whole.
“The Church was a huge part of [Mr McConnell’s life and through that his love of music.”
Fr Leslie explained that Mr McConnell was first and foremost a follower of Christ and also a teacher. Mr McConnell was determined to teach everyone even if they didn’t want to learn. He had this great desire to lead people to learn more, sometimes through a challenge, sometimes through reverse psychology.
To much laughter, Fr Leslie explained that whenever they had a disagreement between the two of them then Mr McConnell would always end the argument with “Well you have always been weak in scripture and theology and liturgy and English ” . . . . there was not much left.
Noting that Mr McConnell had the strength of his convictions and a passion for what he believed in, Fr Leslie pointed out that we do need people to support our passion. He noted the good woman behind Mr McConnell was his younger sister, Moya McConnell, who was there to offer strong support and help as needed.
Near the end of the Mass a series of tributes were offered.
Older brother, Lou McConnell spoke on behalf of the family. He said that his younger brother was academically gifted and had little inclination for sport. His intellectual gifts gave him his love affair with music and deep interest in Latin.
However his younger brother could be oblivious to some realities. He once bought a car only to discover that he needed a licence and that he would have to learn to drive. The car got parked in the garage and there it remained.
He observed, however, that his brother was practical in other ways. Michael McConnell designed a new New Zealand flag long before John Key raised it as an issue. He obtained a copyright on the design and obtained permission to have some made. One of these flew from his flagpole at his home in Pacific Street. It incorporated historical perspectives and cultural values.
In conclusion he noted that his brother would have been humbled by the crowd at his funeral.
“He was a very modest man.”
Don Whelan, Christchurch Catholic Cathedral choirmaster, spoke of their warm friendship. He identified Mr McConnell as a custodian of cultural heritage. He treasured the past and traditional liturgy and Gregorian chant but could also enhance the present. He was recognised by church authorities and became an Associate of the Royal School of Church Music and received the papal Benemerenti Medal for his 41 years as choirmaster at St Joseph’s Cathedral. He even played the historical part of a bishop arriving in full regalia at Port Chalmers as well as having a cappa magna secreted in a cupboard at his home.
Representing Kavanagh College, Shayne Flanagan spoke of being a pupil in Mr McConnell’s first year teaching in 1965 and his own interest in history was sparked while learning Latin from him. In 1983 Mr Flanagan renewed the association when he returned to St Paul’s as a history teacher himself and they co-taught 7th form history together. He fondly remembered him as the senior master.
Mr McConnell’s 20 years (1993-2013) as choirmaster of the Dunedin RSA choir, was recalled by Kevin Tansley. He noted that Mr McConnell was a very precise person and would explain things and what he wanted. “We were treated like 4th formers.” As a tribute to Mr McConnell, the local RSA will fly his designed flag every year on his birthday. The RSA choir then sang two hymns, Finlandia and Nearer My God to Thee.
Following the final commendation his coffin was carried to the front porch where Kavanagh College pallbearers were then substituted to carry him down the steep front steps to the waiting vintage hearse.
As his coffin was carried down the steps Kavanagh College pupils lining the steps on both sides performed a stirring haka.
In that moment it was possible to imagine the spirit of M. F. McConnell intone in response: “Ite, missa est. Deo Gratias.”