by JEFF DILLON
Staying positive and being happy have proven to be good principles to live by, according to Dunedin priest Msgr Vincent Walker as he reached two major milestones in 2021.
For not only has he achieved 65 years of ordained priesthood, but he also turned 90 years old in early December. Before he was ordained he spent 4 years at Holy Name Seminary in Christchurch and 6 years at Holy Cross Seminary in Mosgiel. So, 75 years of his life have been devoted to training for, and carrying out, priestly ministry.
Born in Lawrence, Central Otago on December 6, 1931, he was raised in a family of nine children. His father had lost his first wife in the 1918 flu epidemic and remarried in 2020. When Vince was born, he had three half-sisters and a couple of older brothers. It was the Depression, and life was tough, but he enjoyed his childhood.
Msgr Walker mentioned that Ted Fahey was ordained in Lawrence close to when he (Msgr Walker) was born. It was then decided that baby Vince would be the first person that Fr Fahey baptised, with people hoping that the baby might grow up to be a priest. So it was to be.
A move to Milton was soon followed by a move to Dunedin, and he started his schooling properly at Christian Brothers junior school and went through to Form 3 level. As a fourth- former in 1947 he head’ed to the new minor seminary, as he felt a strong call to priesthood. His mother had certainly been praying for one of her sons to be a priest, so her prayers were answered. Initially his father was not so keen. He wanted Vince to join the railways as his two older brothers had. However, he eventually warmed to the prospect as he met some of his son’s fellow students and other priests. In fact, he survived a severe heart attack that could have been fatal a year before the ordination, but lived on with the hope of seeing his son become a priest.
After his ordination in 1956, Fr Walker served as a curate at St Patrick’s, Georgetown, Invercargill, where one of his duties was driving a school bus bringing children from the country to the parish school and return, which was a round trip of 160 kms. After four years he headed to Ranfurly for some rural experience. He became involved with the open borstal at Waipiata, and celebrating Mass for the Catholic boys there. Mass was compulsory at 6.30 am Saturday morning, and he could not believe how well behaved the boys were. Many wanted to make their first Communion, and he had to instruct them. “Some of them even cried when they had to leave the place . . . the first time they had experienced love and care and respect. It was sad to hear their stories of the neglect and abuse they had suffered,” Msgr Walker said.
In 1965, he became the first New Zealand priest to be involved in a programme of assisting Columban priests in South America. After a preliminary training period in Peru, he was sent to a parish in Santiago, Chile. He spent five years there. “It was a wonderful experience”,” he said. He was made parish priest while there. On his coffee table today, he has a small photo album containing photos of his farewell Mass and celebration. Inside his house entrance on the wall he affectionately displays one of his farewell gifts – a wooden figure of Christ carved by a poor Chilean, who sold his wares while sitting in the gutter.
In 1970, Msgr Walker returned to New Zealand and was appointed to Balclutha. After a short period there, he was shifted to Nightcaps in 1972, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He built a new church there and was later moved to Mosgiel, where he stayed until 1990. Then he went to Holy Name in Dunedin North, and became vicar-general in 1995. He was asked to remain as vicar-general by Bishop Campbell after Bishop Boyle retired, and Msgr Walker retained that role until, at 80, he asked to step down. In December 1996, he was made a Prelate of Honour (with the title “Monsignor”) by St John Paul II.
During his time as a priest, he had often hoped to become a hospital chaplain. That opportunity became a reality, and he spent about four years as a chaplain at nearby Dunedin Hospital. The experience weighed heavily on him, dealing with the sad situations, so he was relieved when that role was passed on to another. He remained at Holy Name until he retired in 2005 at nearly 75.
Msgr Walker also had other overseas experiences. He went to Newark, New Jersey, USA, in 1985 to be trained in the implementation of the Renew programme, which was to be used in the Dunedin diocese and throughout New Zealand. He found that he was warmly welcomed and treated to great hospitality for the two months there. In 1999, he undertook a personal “retreat” to the Holy Land to take part in what is termed the Fifth Gospel programme for six months. However, the outbreak of hostilities between Palestine and Israel led to the decision to cease the course half-way through.
Throughout his priestly life Msgr Walker sought to engage in the wider community, whether that was by joining the local bowls club or Lions or Rotary.
“It’s been an interesting life”, he said. “It’s been a real privilege to be a priest”. He recalled that, when he was ordained, his mother had said to him, “Vince, please be happy”, as she had knowledge of some unhappy clergy. So that became his aim . . .”to be at one with yourself and God . . . to be happy in ourselves we have to be in good relationships with ourselves and with others”.
He considered that it was important to be positive and to be happy. You ought to set goals for yourself and for the parish if you are the parish priest, who is like the coach of the team, he said.
Msgr Walker has great faith in God, but he would love to see a great many more people respond in faith today to God’s action and presence in the world.