More Catholic military chaplains wanted

Fr Tony Harrison working in the Solomon Islands in 2016.


Fr Brian Fennessy of Selwyn in Christchurch diocese, and Fr Tony Harrison from the Invercargill North parish, are the last two active Catholic chaplains working with the New Zealand Defence Force. They are both looking at retirement from this role later this year, and are keen that other priests might put their hands up to replace them. 

Fr Fennessy, who has been a military chaplain for 33 years, recently celebrated his 40th jubilee as a priest. 

He has a long-standing connection with the military, with his father having joined the RAF while on an OE in 1939. Fr Fennessy’s father served in the ground crew for a bomber squadron and as a mechanic working on Wellingtons. He saw service in France and, after its fall, was evacuated. He served in Britain during the Battle of Britain. He was then posted to Malaya, Singapore, India, and then Burma. He transferred to the RNZAF in 1945. 

So the young Brian Fennessy had family ties to military service and to aviation. When the young Brian went to Holy Cross College in Mosgiel, he used to pilot a plane. In those days, students needed a dispensation to own a car to get to the college, but he was allowed to fly an aircraft over the college.   

The discipline of flying in and out of airports would stand him in good stead to later comply with military rules, and have an appreciation and respect for the chain of command. 

All in all, six South Island pilots went on to become priests, with two of them serving as military chaplains.  

Fr Fennessy’s priestly connection with the Defence Force started in 1983, when  he relieved the priest at Burnham Military Camp near Christchurch. 

Six years later,  Fr Fennessy joined the Territorial Force and, along with lawyers, doctors and other professionals, attended a special officers’ induction  course at Waiouru Military Camp. He was posted to the local infantry battalion, serving the northern part of the South Island.   

In 1999, Fr Fennessy joined a peace-keeping contingent to Bougainville.  This was the first time in many years that a territorial army chaplain had been deployed with regular army forces. A peace accord was eventually reached. Fr Fennessy recalled celebrating Masses in the Bougainville villages. The liturgies could have as many as 800 people present, including military personnel. He recalls the people, many of them Catholic, as being well-educated and having a great history.  

“It was a delight to work with them. They were positive in working with the peace process.”     

Father Fennessy was also deployed to East Timor in 2000, and to Afghanistan in 2004, and was also fortunate to have a six month exchange to England in 2008. 

In addition to his service as chaplain, he has also put his writing skills to good use, researching and writing a booklet about Fr Robert Richards, MC, a former Lincoln parish priest who served as a military chaplain in World War I.  Fr Richards was a Chaplain Class III (as is Fr Fennessy). This is the equivalent of being a major in the army. Fr Richards was the fourth Catholic chaplain sent to serve with the New Zealand forces during the Great War. He survived his ship being torpedoed on its way to Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. An account in the New Zealand Tablet in 1915 had Fr Richard stating that the night before the attack on the ship, he had heard confessions for four and a half hours and had a big congregation, and 60 at Communion at Mass the same morning, including a general and a number of Catholic officers. 

N Father Harrison 

Father Harrison’s 18 years as a military chaplain has also seen him involved in a broad variety of service.  

In 2005, his chaplaincy to the Solomon Islands was with the Hauraki and Auckland Regiments. In 2011, he joined the International Task Force to East Timor, which was an ANZAC deployment under Australian command. The Timorese people he worked with were 97 per cent Catholic. Fr Harrison visited villages and communities with the soldiers, and celebrated Mass in the Aimuntin parish on Wednesday evenings and Sundays.  

In 2016, Fr Harrison joined nine New Zealand Defence Force personnel in working with Pacific Partnership, a large annual multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Asian Pacific region. This was on the USNS MERCY, an 894-foot former oil tanker, further converted to a hospital ship (at a cost of US$208million).  

The ship carried 900 military and civilian personnel from the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, and the United Kingdom. Each day, the US Navy chaplain and Chaplain Harrison visited the patients who were on board. Prior to the patients heading for their surgery, the chaplains visited the patients and offered a prayer, as well as providing patients and escorts with rosary beads, which were well-received. 

Observing a US military custom at 8pm each evening, one of the chaplains offered a prayer over the ship’s broadcasting system. A civilian crew ran the physical management of the ship, for example the engines, while a military crew ran the hospital of fifteen wards, 12 operating theatres, four intensive care units, with the capacity to take 900 patients.  

Fr Harrison said: “A parish in Legazpi in the Philippines, where the ship berthed, held 10 Masses on a Sunday, starting at 5am and finishing at 8pm. It was a new experience presiding over a congregation of well over 1000 people. It was very inspiring for me, and the ship’s personnel who were present.” 

But as both Fr Harrison and Fr Fennessy approach the day in June when they will retire from being military chaplains, Fr Fennessy said that efforts to find their replacements are a “work in progress”. (June is also when Fr Harrison celebrates 50 years of being a priest.) 

They have produced a “situations vacant”-type flyer outlining the qualifications and experience required to succeed in this role. Being non-combatants, chaplains nonetheless have to be able to handle weapons for safety and self-defence. They also have to be physically and mentally fit, be New Zealand citizens, or have permanent residency, and have to swear allegiance to the Crown. A chaplain may sign up with the Army, but could be deployed with the Air Force or Navy, wherever the need is most urgent.    

Posted in

NZ Catholic contributor