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Early life and education
Peter McKeefry was born in Greymouth, the son of a police constable, both his parents were from Ireland. After living briefly in Christchurch, the family moved to Dunedin, where McKeefry was educated at the Christian Brothers’ Boys’ School.
He began training for the priesthood in 1916 at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel. In 1922 he was sent to study for four years at the Collegium urbanum de Propaganda Fide, Rome. He was ordained priest on 3 April 1926 at the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.
The Month and Zealandia
McKeefry initially served as a curate at the cathedral Auckland. He was also secretary to Bishop Henry Cleary, whom he assisted with the diocesan newspaper the Month. After Cleary’s death in 1929 his successor, Bishop James Liston appointed him as his own secretary and as editor of the Month. Under McKeefry’s editorship the Month was succeeded in May 1934 by the fortnightly Zealandia, which became a weekly from June 1937. McKeefry played an important role in organising the 1938 celebrations to mark the centenary of Bishop Pompallier’s arrival in New Zealand.
McKeefry was primarily concerned with the need to apply Catholic ideals to contemporary society. While avoiding party politics, he criticised the coalition government’s response to unemployment and exhorted readers to vote for candidates most likely to act in accordance with ‘Christian charity, justice and order’.
McKeefry urged that capitalism be restrained, but also criticised the trade unions. He warned against Communist influence in the New Zealand Labour Party and condemned some of its welfare proposals as threats to the autonomy of the family and the individual. He regarded the increasing power of the state as the most dangerous political trend of his time – a threat embodied in fascism, Nazism and, above all, in communism, to which he considered the only viable alternative was social reconstruction based on Catholic principles. During and after the Second World War McKeefry advocated unyielding resistance by the Western powers to Russia’s expansionist ambitions .
In June 1947 McKeefry was appointed titular bishop of Dercos and coadjutor archbishop of Wellington. He was ordained bishop in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland, on 19 October 1947 by Cardinal Norman Gilroy, archbishop of Sydney, whom McKeefry had known as a fellow student in Rome. Within a short time Archbishop O’Shea, no longer capable of managing the affairs of the archdiocese, effectively turned its management over to McKeefry. When O’Shea died on 9 May 1954 McKeefry became the fourth bishop of Wellington. He was the first New Zealand born and the first bishop from the diocesan clergy to take charge of the archdiocese, his three predecessors having belonged to the Society of Mary (Marists).
By the time McKeefry arrived in Wellington the archdiocese’s development had long been delayed by the depression and the Second World War. Seeking to reduce reliance on the Marists, he benefited from many local vocations and recruited priests and religious from Ireland and elsewhere. Thirty-nine new parishes – most with associated primary schools – were established in the archdiocese between 1947 and 1969.
In 1960 McKeefry had been appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission, which supervised the drafting of documents for the forthcoming Second Vatican Council (1962–65). During the council’s first session, in 1962, these very traditional statements were severely criticized. McKeefry had no sympathy for proposals to introduce vernacular languages into the liturgy. He did not attend the council’s second session the following year, although he returned to Rome for the 1964 and 1965 sessions, which he found rather tedious.
In 1962 Owen Snedden, who had assisted and then succeeded McKeefry as editor of Zealandia, was appointed auxiliary bishop of Wellington. He was largely responsible for liturgical matters, but, in these and other respects, was given little independence by McKeefry.
After the Council McKeefry established a hierarchy of parish and district councils culminating in the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Intended to promote the spiritual and material interests of Catholics and the wider community, these councils were arguably his most progressive achievement.
On 28 April 1969 McKeefry was proclaimed by Pope Paul VI a cardinal-priest of the Church of Santa Maria Immacolata al Tiburtino. He was the first New Zealand cardinal, a recognition by the Vatican of the maturity of the church in New Zealand and of its role in the South Pacific, as well as reflecting Paul VI’s policy of making the College of Cardinals more international. It was clearly also a personal tribute to McKeefry who was well known and respected in the Vatican. As a cardinal, McKeefry was appointed to two international commissions based in Rome: the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy and the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (also called the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith).
At six feet four inches McKeefry was very tall and slim, with a high forehead and large ears; as he grew older, his youthful good looks gave way to a rather grave and ascetic appearance. From his arrival in Wellington, carrying all his possessions in a few small suitcases, he lived at the Thorndon presbytery occupying only two modest rooms as his office and bedroom. Observing the frayed cuff of the cardinal-elect’s suit during a 1969 interview, a journalist reflected that it may have been the same one seen in similar condition by a colleague 22 years earlier. McKeefry’s simplicity and lack of pretension were not motivated solely by religion, but also reflected his West Coast origins – as perhaps did his lunchtime beer, heavy smoking, and consistent pronunciation of ‘my’ as ‘me’.
Although a scholar rather than a sportsman, he could talk knowledgeably about horse-racing, rugby, rowing, boxing and wrestling. He was also capable of forceful action when required: walking home late one night in Auckland, he buttoned his overcoat over his clerical collar and intervened decisively in an altercation between a lone policeman and three assailants in an unlit alley.
McKeefry’s lifelong interest in New Zealand history, and particularly the beginnings of the church in New Zealand, was reflected in his work arranging the Auckland diocesan archives and in editing Fishers of Men (1938), a selection of translations from the writings of Bishop Pompallier and his fellow missionaries. McKeefry’s writing as a journalist was informed by listening to late-night news broadcasts on shortwave radio. As a bishop he retained the habit of reading, working, or conversing late into the night – sometimes to the consternation of friends, who could match neither his limited need for sleep nor his exceptionally retentive memory.
McKeefry was quietly spoken and retiring, preferring to work out of public view, but he was recognised as friendly, approachable and compassionate.
Death and Burial
On 18 November 1973, while making arrangements by telephone at the presbytery for the accommodation of a convalescent priest whom he had just visited, McKeefry died suddenly, a cigarette smouldering between his fingers.
He was buried in Karori cemetery after a funeral attended by numerous civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries and amidst copious tributes from within and beyond his own church.no:Thomas Peter McKeefry