Cathedral character often there 24/7

John Toland  had specified the colouring of his casket.

Visiting St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland won’t ever be quite the same following the death of long time cathedral custodian John Toland, who died on September 30, aged 81.

John Toland

At a requiem Mass at the cathedral a week later, principal celebrant Msgr Bernard Kiely said “we all have a John Toland story”.

Msgr Kiely, the vicar general of Auckland diocese who was administrator of the cathedral for 18 years up to early this year, said in his homily that he meant no disrespect in saying that Mr Toland was the equivalent of the fabled hunchback of Notre Dame for St Patrick’s.

At his full powers, “he very rarely left the place; he was often here 24/7”.

“On cold winter nights I would go hunting for him because I would know his car was here and he could be anywhere. You know you would normally find him on a seat or on a bench, or sometimes on the floor somewhere asleep. You would say to him, John, go home, go home. But in his own way he was at home.”

Mr Toland was well known for the way he set up and cleaned up at St Patrick’s and for being particular about trimming candles and keeping the brass bright and the place clean, Msgr Kiely continued.

But he also had a great gift for hospitality.

“John provided a very important welcome to people — people who would come into the cathedral, not just Catholics, but those people of no faith, and especially with the vulnerable people from the streets,” Msgr Kiely said.

“And I often learned from John, [sometimes] we would be starting midday Mass and there would be a snoring coming from over there (pointing to the north-east section of the cathedral) . . . John, I would see him walking and would just go over and shake the person a little bit and sit with them. As soon as Mass was over, he would say OK, you can go back to sleep again.”

Another story related by Msgr Kiely illustrated this point further.

“One day he was here quite late in the afternoon and a young man came in whose mother was dying at the hospice. They weren’t Catholic and he said to John, you know, how do you pray? John sat with him and prayed for a little while and then he said when Mum dies, could she be buried from here? And so, through John, I went up and visited this woman. And at her funeral there was her son, her sister, John, myself and the funeral director. We had it in this little chapel over here (pointing to a cathedral side chapel). They weren’t Catholics, I don’t even think they were Christians, but there was something about John’s hospitality that made these people feel as though they were welcome, they belonged.”

While praising Mr Toland’s good qualities, Msgr Kiely said the former custodian did have a “bark” and “most of us were on the receiving end of a telling off, one way or another, from John”.

“It would be untruthful to make him out to be a saint,” the vicar general noted, but he added that Mr Toland had a far greater impact than many would imagine.

“As we have let people know that John has died, there have been many, many. . . people who have sent messages, mainly through facebook,” Msgr Kiely said.

Mr Toland was born in Raetihi in the central North Island and grew up on a farm near Ohakune. In tributes paid to him at his funeral, family members referred to his love of trains, nature, photography, painting and pottery.

He became so proficient at pottery that he was made a life member of Auckland Studio Potters, his sister Margaret noted.

“He was many things, but at his core was the sensitivity of the artist,” she said.

Msgr Kiely later picked up on this point, saying he had “this great sense, I guess, for what was beautiful”.

“He was here during the two year [cathedral] restoration [from 2005 to 2007]. . . . When it came to choosing colours or design things for the restored cathedral, I would always run it by John. . . . He would always knew what would fit in.”

Msgr Kiely pointed out that the bright blue casket at the funeral was there at Mr Toland’s request.

“I would say John had a particular wisdom to him; You could talk to John about anything, and in a humble way he would be able to share some gem of knowledge with you,” the priest added.

Also at the funeral, Mr Toland’s great devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe was noted.

In 2012, he received the Benemerenti Medal from Pope Benedict XVI. Such awards are made to people who given long and exceptional service to the Church.

Msgr Kiely finished his homily by stating: “John, we thank you, we will miss you, we give thanks to God for your ongoing legacy, which is a very vibrant life and a hospitable place that is St Patrick’s Cathedral.”

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Michael Otto

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