by PETER OWENS
Despite a modern trend of proposing renaming places or removing statues because of past wrongdoings, there does not seem to be a great appetite among Central Otago Catholics for the renaming of a town which has a name that, in some circles, could be seen as giving offence.
The town of Cromwell was named after the soldier/politician who was one of the prime movers in executing King Charles I and who became the Lord Protector.
After removing Charles I, Cromwell led a punitive expedition to Ireland. He was a brilliant general, but was also an appalling bigot and he had a deep hatred of the Irish and of Roman Catholics. This led to what may be only described as massacres of Irish people at Drogheda and Wexford. Some historians (British) allege this was an attempt at ethnic cleansing as over about 20,000 people were killed, out of a total Irish population of about 2 million.
This has never been forgotten – wherever Irish people or people of Irish descent settled. Indeed, many of the early settlers of the Cromwell region were Irish goldminers, and it was not long before a flourishing Catholic community arose (1873). It has continued, and the Cromwell people paid a significant sum of money to erect a splendid church designed by F.W. Petre.
It was blessed and opened on April 18, 1909, and was named “The Church of the Irish Martyrs”. And it is now known as the “Church of Mary Immaculate and the Irish Martyrs”. The martyrs commemorated in the name of the church were those people in Ireland who were martyred for their faith between 1537 and 1714. There were dozens of people, who have been sanctified in varying degrees, for dying in Ireland for their Roman Catholic faith in these years.
On September 22, 1992, St John Paul II proclaimed a representative group from Ireland as martyrs and beatified them.
The Church flourishes at Cromwell, which has a population of about 5000. It is also the base for the equally flourishing Catholic congregation at Wanaka. The town is expanding rapidly, along with Queenstown and Wanaka, and about 100 people attend Sunday Mass at the church.
Despite the insult to the Catholic people of naming a town after such a murderous individual as Oliver Cromwell, there has been, according to Fr Flannery, little support for a change in the name of the town. There is strong pride in its history and facilities.
The Catholic community is growing rapidly in Cromwell. “The church is bulging at Christmas and Easter. We might one day need a bigger space, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Fr Flannery.