Cathedral's past big part of Timaru

19:48, May 27 2013
Sacred Heart
Thinking About Heaven


A History of Sacred Heart Parish, Timaru

By Sean G Brosnahan, $35

The near-destruction of Christchurch's Anglican and Catholic cathedrals in the February 22 earthquake has left Timaru's basilica as one of the most important examples of religious architecture in Canterbury.

So it is extremely appropriate that a highly readable history of the Sacred Heart parish, including a detailed account of the basilica's construction, has been published to coincide with the building's October's centenary celebrations.

The author is well qualified to undertake the task of tracing the history of Catholicism in Timaru from the mid-19th century to the present day.


Sean Brosnahan, who is descended from South Canterbury pioneers, was born and brought up in the Sacred Heart Parish, attending all the parish schools. He also has impeccable qualifications as a historian as he is now curator at the Settlers Museum in Dunedin and five years ago he wrote the history of the Celtic Rugby Club.

Brosnahan traces the parish from its beginnings, when religious feelings ran deep and Catholicism was not well received in Canterbury, through to the present day when Timaru's different faiths are much more ecumenical in outlook.

The book examines the factors lying behind a religious riot in Timaru in 1879 when the Irish rivalries between Protestant and Catholic spilled over during an Orange march – an event seen by Catholics at the time as a provocative reminder of the oppression they had suffered back in Ireland.

The Orangemen were donning their ceremonial sashes and scarves when they were surrounded by about 150 Catholics determined to prevent the march.

Timaru's police inspector, Peter Pender, courageously rode his horse between the two groups. He was supported by police officers on foot and was no doubt relieved when 20 police reinforcements arrived by train from Christchurch (trouble over the march had been anticipated for days).

But the relief was short-lived as another train arrived with more than 100 Catholics from Waimate.

The Orangemen set off on their march but the "Hibernians" broke into their ranks. The marchers, some of whom drew their ceremonial swords before being quickly quelled by the police, eventually decided to give up the march.

But the Protestants were not about to take their "defeat" lightly and soon both sides were planning to bring in reinforcements for another encounter on New Year's Day.

Things reached such a pass that a detachment of the Armed Constabulary was sent to Timaru from the North Island and the local military volunteer unit was deployed on nightly guard duty in the town. In addition 300 special constables were sworn in and armed with batons.

A huge battle seemed to be looming for New Year's Day. But the parish priest, Father Jean-Baptiste Chataigner, stepped in and at Mass two days after the initial skirmish told his congregation to ignore the Orangemen and indulge in no further confrontations.

Consequently a parish meeting was held on December 28 and it was voted overwhelmingly to take no further action.

Nevertheless the police were taking no chances and six of the ringleaders from the Boxing Day fracas were arrested on December 30 and placed under armed guard in the Timaru lockup.

So New Year's Day 1880 was greeted in Timaru with a vast array of militia in town to keep the warring Green and Orange factions apart. No fewer than 557 soldiers, policemen and special constables were on hand to keep the peace, which they duly did, despite 3000 people staging an impromptu procession to the Caledonian Games, cheering for the Queen and the Orange Lodge along the way.

The Catholics, who were much in the minority in Timaru, wisely kept their heads down and fortunately interdenominational relationships gradually healed again over time.

Brosnahan's history, which is a 350-page hardback publication, is an invaluable read for anyone – Catholic or otherwise – with an interest in Timaru history and the Sacred Heart parish's development over the years.

The Timaru Herald