Four Dunedin diocese priests farewelled in a few weeks

11 Fr Michael Hill web


In about the same time span as three new priests were ordained for Dunedin diocese, four priests of the diocese have died within weeks of each other.

The first was Fr Tom Keyes (94 ) on May 10. His death was followed by that of Fr Vincent Smith (91) on June 9. Both priests died in Invercargill where they had mainly served.  Then, on July 1, Fr Mervyn Hanifin (76) died in Dunedin, and Fr Michael Hill, IC, (92) died on July 6, also in Dunedin.

The contribution of Fr Keyes to Catholic life in the south was covered in NZ Catholic (June 9).

Fr Smith was a priest for some 15 years. He had been married and had three children with his late wife Brenda. He had also been a business manager at the Southland Times.  For several years, he cared for his wife when she was unwell. A few years after she died, he attended a seminary in Sydney for mature vocations, and he was ordained at the age of 76.

Bishop Michael Dooley, who celebrated the Requiem Mass at St Theresa’s Church in Invercargill, noted that “Vince had fitted a lot into his (nearly) 92 years”. He observed that Fr Smith was a “man of prayer”, who had a strong belief in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Requiem Mass for Fr Hanifin was celebrated in St Patrick’s Basilica in South Dunedin, where he had spent the last few years of his 50 years as a priest. Fr Gerard Aynsley celebrated the Mass, with Bishop Dooley among the concelebrants.

Fr Aynsley recalled that Fr Vaughan Hook had related the tale of his boyhood interviewing of Fr Hanifin,  then an assistant priest at Mosgiel. Fr Hanifin had spoken then “of this deep call that he felt, and his desire to live out the call of Jesus in his life”.

Fr Aynsley also suggested that, when Fr Hanifin was appointed as parish priest at Balclutha, it became one of his happiest times. He certainly produced a ministry there that won the approval of Bishop Len Boyle.

Many people would regard Fr Hanifin’s 10-year involvement with helping the Columban Missions in Chile as being a very fulfilling part of his life. Fr Aynsley observed that the experience “changed him radically”, and it certainly resulted in him being “impatient with anything he would consider rather trivial”.

The experience in Chile also gave Fr Hanifin a deepened sense of mission to help those who struggled in life.

In his later years, Fr Hanifin faced his own struggle. “His cognitive decline, which took place over many, many, many years, impacted on his ability to minister, even though he never lost the passion.” He was a strong supporter of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and had an active involvement.


The funeral for Fr Hill took place at Holy Name church in North Dunedin, and was celebrated by Fr Aidan Cunningham, IC, the parish priest of Sacred Heart parish in North East Valley in Dunedin. Two fellow Rosminian priests from Palmerston North diocese were among the concelebrants.

The opening 40 minutes of the Requiem were devoted to tributes and acknowledgements highlighting Fr Hill’s qualities. Fr Cunningham read out a message from the Father General of the Rosminians, who had been in Dunedin just a few weeks previously visiting Fr Hill. Then there was a shorter comment from Bishop Charles Drennan about how Fr Hill had come to New Zealand.

Personal reminiscences followed, with the first from Sr Josie Dolan, RSM, who was one of the Sisters of Mercy who had helped staff the newly-formed St Peter’s College in Gore in 1970,  along with the Rosminians. Fr Hill was then the new HOD Science. He was principal from 1974 till 1979.

Sr Josie noted that “Michael was a gentleman as well as a gentle man. I never saw him angry, frustrated and . . . he could be irritated, but never angry”. She spoke warmly of his many talents and his quiet humility, but also of his “many passions”. He loved life, he loved being a Rosminian, he loved Antonio Rosmini, golf, Tui Motu, writing, Italy, entertaining, teaching, sometimes cooking, prayer, people in general, exchanging ideas, lasting friendships, and St Peter’s College.

She also highlighted his tireless effort to promote the building of a chapel at the college, a sacred space for prayer, reflection, Mass.

The next tribute was provided by former Kavanagh College principal Paul Ferris. He mentioned, in particular, how his own Gore parents had been influenced by their friendship with the Rosminians, and with Fr Hill in particular. Their own faith life had been deepened and enriched by contact with the priest.

Those sentiments were echoed by the next presenter, Martin Chamberlain, a former pupil who also became a staff member some years later at St Peter’s. His parents also became good friends with Fr Hill. Mr Chamberlain identified Fr Hill as “an excellent man”. His parents “had a deep respect for this man, but also a deep affection”. He further commented that “you have heard of his many achievements and, in all of them, he brought excellence, he brought calibre, he brought spirituality, and he brought faithfulness to the work that was ahead of him”.

A final tribute was presented by Fr Geoff Gray of Christchurch diocese, who spoke with affection about his friendship with Fr Hill, and also in appreciation for the work of some 10 years or so that Fr Hill did for Christchurch diocese.

Fr Cunningham gave some further details in his homily about Fr Hill’s life, and their connections through their profession as Rosminian students and priests. Fr Cunningham explained that he was “bereft, but rejoicing, that he (Fr Hill) was such a good, holy person, a great example, and was still teaching me to the very end”.

Photo: Fr Michael Hill, IC (from NZ Catholic files)


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