A new multi-purpose “Dominican Centre” has been opened and blessed in Cromwell in Central Otago.

The new facility, which will serve as a weekday Mass centre and a social service base for Central Otago, is incorporated into the Catholic parish hall next to the historic Church of Mary Immaculate and the Irish Martyrs.

Bishop Emeritus Colin Campbell, Fr Martin Flannery and Sr Cecilia Kennedy (centre) and parishioners at the opening.

On March 18, Dunedin Emeritus Bishop Colin Campbell concelebrated Mass with Cromwell’s parish priest Fr Martin Flannery in the church before blessing and opening the Dominican Centre.

After Mass, Bishop Campbell and Fr Flannery led the visitors, which included 15 Dominican sisters, and the Cromwell Catholic congregation from the church along the street and around the corner to the parish hall, where speeches were made.

Among those who addressed the gathering were the bishop, Sr Elizabeth Mackie of the Dominican Sisters; Greg Wilkinson of the Central Lakes Trust (which had made a big grant for the project) and Fr Flannery, who led proceedings.

In his address, Fr Flannery said in 1899 a group of Dominican Sisters from
Queenstown established themselves in Cromwell and took over the conduct of St John’s Catholic Primary School. Until a convent was built they lived in the local Catholic presbytery.

In 1901, the Dominican order purchased a property in Sligo St, next to the church. This became the Dominican convent for the next 70 years. However with a significant drop in the roll, the diocese of Dunedin closed the school. Sr Cecilia Kennedy was the last principal of the school and she was present at Cromwell for the Dominican Centre blessing and opening.

For the next 20 years the old convent was used for Church purposes and was also rented out to tenants. However it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1989.

However, the closure of the school was not the end of the Dominican connection with the Cromwell parish and the local district. In 1989, Sr Cecilia — now based in the Queenstown convent — renewed the association by becoming a pastoral assistant to Cromwell parish, and in 1999 came to live in Cromwell in community with Sr Noreen Murphy. Sr Noreen worked closely with local children and helped them with their school work. While Sr Cecilia had retired to Mosgiel in 2014, she had made a marked impact on the development of the Catholic Church throughout Otago and especially the Cromwell district.

According to Fr Flannery, Sr Noreen carried on her work in Cromwell after Sr Cecilia retired. ”She was not only a valued member of the Catholic community but also well respected by the wider Cromwell community,“ he said. Sr Noreen died on July 31 last year in Dunedin.

Fr Flannery told the gathering that the Cromwell Catholic hall stands on the site of the old Dominican convent. The hall building had been built by the then Ministry of Works as a dining hall for workers when the hydroelectric dams were being built in Manapouri and at Cromwell Gorge.

In 1991, it was bought by the Catholic Church and re-located to its present position. Since then it has been used extensively by Church organisations and community groups.

In 2017, the parish council decided this facility could also be put to other uses and the eastern end of the hall has been transformed into a parish office as well as a chapel/meeting room, interview rooms plus a modern kitchenette. The parish council was aware of how quickly the local region is developing.The Dominican sisters donated an altar cloth for use at Mass in the building.

Bishop Campbell blessed the new facility and declared it open. Fr Flannery pointed out that while local man, Bill Clarke, “had undertaken the main building aspects” of the conversion “many others from the parish have helped convert the building into a facility which will serve to enable people to pray meet together and also receive professional assistance if required”.

The parish council was unanimous in naming the conversion “the Dominican Centre”, said Fr Flannery, “to continue the wonderful legacy left by the Dominican sisters over many years”.

He concluded by thanking donors who assisted the project. Among these was a donation of $160,000 from the Central Lakes Trust; $20,000 from the Otago Community Trust; $10,000 from the Alexander McMillan Trust and a $10,000 donation from the Pub Charity that paid for new fitted carpets in the entire facility.

The function concluded with a luncheon and this was preceded by the 15 Dominican Sisters present singing their conventional grace before meals.