Curnow, Fr John


Born in Greymouth, New Zealand, on 5 July 1920, Fr Edward John Curnow, was well known for his work with the Catholic Youth Movement, including the YCW and YCS, as well as the Christian Family Movement and the Council of Organisations for Relief Service Overseas (CORSO).

John Curnow, as he was known, was educated at Hatters Terrace School (Nelson Creek), Marist Brothers’ School in Greymouth, then at St Bede’s College, Christchurch, and Canterbury University College.

He studied for the priesthood at the Holy Cross College in Mosgiel and was ordained at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch in 1945.

He served in the Christchurch parishes of Addington, Lincoln, New Brighton, Sumner, and Bishopdale parishes as well as being an assistant priest at the Cathedral and chaplain to St Joseph’s Juniorate and Mount Magdala.

His lifetime commitment to the promotion of peace and social justice was reflected in his 10-year term as national director for the Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace and Development and as project adviser for Corso.

According to a lay colleague, Peter Brett, Fr Curnow’s ministry had a wide influence within and beyond New Zealand, working with organisations such as Catholic Overseas Aid, the Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace and Development Trade Aid, Medical Aid Abroad, and Catholic Overseas Volunteers.

During the early 1970s, he served as chaplain to the International Confederation of Christian Family Movements (ICCFM).

Fr Curnow was a founding member of both the Pacific Partnership and the Asia Partnership for Human Development (APHD), now part of Caritas Asia, and also the Asian Cultural Forum on Development (ACFOD) (now defunct).

He was an adviser to Government and private sector aid programmes but offered himself unstintingly to those who sought his skills and experience: the unemployed, single parents, street kids and Maori communities, Mr Brett said.

Cardijn with Fr John Curnow


According to an article in the Common Good, Fr Curnow "was unquestionably the most influential priest of his time, and arguably the most influential of the last century in New Zealand."

"John Curnow, West Coast-born priest of the Christchurch diocese, was a dynamic speaker on behalf of the poor and under-privileged, with a brilliant mind and a commitment to match. In the booklet of tributes published after his death in 1990, many were really struck by the fact that practically every single contributor called him a prophet.

"His greatest contribution to the Church was that he opened hearts and minds to the possibilities of real development and change both before and after Vatican II. He was middle-aged by the time the Council came along but had been preparing for it for two decades. John drew on the see, judge, and act mantra of Joseph Cardijn, the charismatic Belgian priest who devoted his life to the education of young workers, which sits at the heart of the Document on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II.

"John had used that tool to inform himself and thousands of others in the years preceding the Council. In countless meetings, people would gather to reflect on a scripture passage, look at their life situations and seek to love their neighbour. John empowered people to do this – and to take this tool over into the rest of their lives.

"He recognised that the pre-Vatican II position of the traditional Church had stifled the lay vocation and he was determined not to miss the chance that the Council’s new vision offered lay people in the Church. Some were not comfortable with the constant challenge he presented. How dare he challenge their Gospel values? How dare he present a new vision of where they might head as a pilgrim people? His vision, clarity and encouragement became a strength to each one who encountered him with an open mind and heart.

"His greatest contribution to the Church was that he opened hearts and minds to the possibilities of real development and change both before and after Vatican II. He was middle-aged by the time the Council came along but had been preparing for it for two decades. John drew on the see, judge, and act mantra of Joseph Cardijn, the charismatic Belgian priest who devoted his life to the education of young workers, which sits at the heart of the Document on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II. John had used that tool to inform himself and thousands of others in the years preceding the Council.

"In countless meetings, people would gather to reflect on a scripture passage, look at their life situations and seek to love their neighbour. John empowered people to do this – and to take this tool over into the rest of their lives," the Common Good article concludes.

He died at the age of 71 on 27 July 1990.

Mother Teresa, whom he had invited to visit New Zealand, wrote upon learning of his death: "..........Thank you also for bringing the news of Father John Curnow going home to Jesus.

"Father John was so full of love for Jesus in the poor which radiated in all that he did for them. What Father did for the poor, he indeed did that to Jesus, for He said: 'You did it to Me'. Jesus must have welcomed Father John with open arms. We will only know in heaven how much we owe to good people like him.

Let us pray for him and with him and ask him to obtain for all the co-workers in New Zealand, tender love for the poor, deep concern for their needs and delicate respect for their dignity as the children of God - our brothers and sisters created in His likeness for greater things - to love and to be loved......"

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