Welcome mat at South's vatican

22:26, Jan 04 2013
Rod McMeeken
Rod McMeeken

You would be surprised to find Vatican City in Dunedin. But there it is, a Catholic precinct standing proudly on the hill above The Octagon, in the Presbyterian Capital of New Zealand.

Tourist hotel keeper Rod McMeeken, a true-blue (and gold) Dunedinite, says the area is a "Catholic enclave" commonly referred to as Vatican City for as long as he can remember.

The nickname has meaning for him. He was born and grew up in the suburb of Andersons Bay and attended Bayfield High School. His family was Presbyterian. He had no contact with Catholics. Then he and wife Shelley bought the former Christian Brothers' house, on Rattray St in 2004.

The house is a grand edifice of three floors. It once accommodated 13 brothers who taught at St Paul's High School. It stands at the very heart of the "enclave", where Otago's early Catholics made their statement in striking architectural forms and religious rituals.

McMeeken notes the irony of "Vatican City's" existence. Colonial Dunedin, so stoutly Protestant that its Scottish fathers even frowned on the Anglicans erecting a cathedral in the Octagon, was far from welcoming of the Irish influx that began in the gold rush era of the 1860s. They were aghast that the Irish were bringing their usual "baggage" with them. Included in that was Roman Catholicism.

"But the Catholics claimed the high ground, " McMeeken laughs. Not wanted in or around the Octagon, they moved a few blocks up the hill. Since then, from the corner of Rattray and Smith Sts, the impressive stone frontage of St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral has gazed patronisingly down on this southern seat of Presbyterianism, this New Edinburgh, as Dunedin was styled.

Like a mother hen, the Catholic cathedral has gathered its chickens around it. Beside it is the massive and gaunt former Dominican Priory, once home to dozens of nuns who taught at some of the city's Catholic schools. Behind them is the modern Kavanagh College, on the site of the former St Paul's College. The new co-educational school was formed as an amalgamation of all Dunedin's Catholic secondary boys' and girls' schools in 1989.

Across Rattray St from this cluster of buildings is Bishop's House, the rambling former home of Dunedin's Catholic bishop and the priests who ran the cathedral parish. It is now a backpackers' lodge. Behind them stood the Catholic Diocese administration offices, since demolished to make way for new housing. Just above them is St Joseph's Catholic Primary School, still in operation.

And, in a commanding position above Rattray St, which winds up the hill from the reclaimed harbour land to the city's green belt, is the former Brothers' House, now a boutique hotel of 15 rooms.

It would be difficult to find such a concentration of buildings of one religious denomination in any other New Zealand town.

The McMeekens had worked in the tourism industry in Europe, Wellington and Arrowtown. When their children reached secondary school age, they decided to move to Dunedin. The last three Christian Brothers were about to leave and Brothers' House was for sale by tender. They looked at it and recognised the potential for a tourist hotel.

"It had a very nice feeling from the moment we walked in, " says Shelley.

They bought it and slogged for eight months converting it to an accommodation house that would "emulate the places where we had stayed in Europe", McMeeken says.

They have been pleased to receive, as guests, a couple of the Christian Brothers who once lived there.

McMeeken's only previous encounter with Brothers was when playing rugby against St Paul's on the field behind the cathedral. He remembers a Brother refereeing the game, trying to keep up in his long robes. He recalls the inevitable jokes about a secret tunnel under Rattray St allowing the Brothers and Sisters to meet. While gardening one day, he dug up a metal plate covering a hole. "Ah, the secret tunnel, " he thought. But it led nowhere.

McMeeken has seen a decline in Dunedin but still holds hope.

"Dunedin is struggling. The crux is employment. We need more people and for that we need more jobs." He says the university is "the city's backbone" but fears the appeal for young people from all over New Zealand to taste student life in Dunedin is fading.

"That social experience is diminishing, " he says.

On the positive side, Dunedin has excellent infrastructure. It could capitalise quickly on an upturn, such as will come when a start is made to exploit the vast oilfield off-shore, he says. Tourism prospects are bright, as Dunedin has more attractions to offer than any other New Zealand town: architecture, museums, Larnach Castle, the Catlins, Taieri Gorge Railway, Olveston, Tunnel Beach, harbour and peninsula wildlife.


Fairfax Media