Story: Luck, John Edmund

Page 1 - Biography

Luck, John Edmund

1840–1896

Catholic bishop

This biography was written by Hugh Laracy and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

John Luck was born in Peckham, Surrey, England, on 18 March 1840, one of seven children of Alfred Luck, a warehouseman, and his wife, Clementina Golding. Theirs was a profoundly religious household. After the death of his wife about 1847, Alfred Luck, a convert to Catholicism, shifted his family to Ramsgate in Kent. There he bought the home of the Gothic Revival architect Augustus Welby Pugin, and, at his own expense, built the monastery for the Benedictine community which was established nearby in 1856. Alfred Luck and one of his sons subsequently became diocesan priests, two of his daughters became nuns, and two other sons became Benedictines. These were John and his younger brother Francis, who was to precede John to New Zealand by two years.

After two years' study at the Seminary of St Sulpice in Paris, John Luck was professed as a Benedictine in 1861, taking the name of Edmund. He then went to Rome to complete his theological studies, acquiring a doctorate of divinity at the Collegio Romano in 1865, the year he was ordained priest. The next two years he spent teaching philosophy at Subiaco, in central Italy, after which he spent 15 years at monasteries in England and Ireland. During that time he published two substantial books. Short meditations for every day of the year (1879) he translated from an Italian original; The life and miracles of St Benedict (1880) was a new edition of a work by Pope Gregory I, originally translated into English in 1606. Luck was stationed at Ramsgate when he was appointed bishop of Auckland, New Zealand. He was consecrated there by Cardinal H. E. Manning on 3 August 1882, and arrived in Auckland in November that year.

When Jean Baptiste François Pompallier resigned as bishop in 1869 administrative problems that had dogged the Catholic diocese of Auckland since the 1850s were still unresolved. His first two successors had been unable to rectify the situation. Thomas William Croke, although he restored the diocese's finances, stayed less than four years – from December 1870 until September 1874. After a period during which there was no appointment, the frail and elderly Walter Steins became bishop in December 1879, but died in September 1881. Short of clergy just as his predecessors had been, in 1879 Steins had introduced the Benedictine order to Auckland. From 1880 to 1890 the Benedictines supplied the diocese with about half its clergy and so were a fitting source for its fourth bishop.

Edmund Luck was a fortunate choice for the position. Although he lacked human warmth, had a mind narrowly constrained by his strictly ecclesiastical education and experience, and was unsympathetic to the Irish nationalist cause so dear to many of his flock, Luck gave the diocese a lengthy period of stable, careful and constructive leadership. He was assiduous in pastoral visitation, held two synods (1884 and 1888), and twice (1884 and 1891) visited Europe to collect staff and money.

He was particularly effective in promoting Catholic education, and to this end introduced several new religious orders to the diocese. In 1883 the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and in 1884 the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions arrived to complement the Sisters of Mercy in staffing parish schools. The Marist brothers came in 1885 to operate schools for boys. In 1888 the Little Sisters of the Poor opened a home in Ponsonby for the aged poor.

As part of a move to extend the influence of Catholicism, in 1886 Luck obtained members of the Society of Joseph for the Foreign Missions, known as the Mill Hill fathers, for work among the Maori people, who, except for the mission of James McDonald, had been neglected by the Catholic Church since the 1860s. The Mill Hill missionaries soon built up a loyal following scattered from Bay of Plenty to Hokianga. Ironically, since he gave them little material support, their success is, perhaps, the outstanding achievement of Luck's period of leadership.

There are some more tangible monuments to Luck's ministry. One is the nave of St Patrick's Cathedral, completed in 1885. Another is his translation of the first part of Pompallier's 1847 report to Rome, published in 1888 under the title Early history of the Catholic church in Oceania to mark the 50th anniversary of the New Zealand Catholic mission. Yet another is the new bishop's house he built in 1894. Designed by Augustus Pugin's sons and the finest example of the Pugin style of architecture in New Zealand, it stands on a site in Ponsonby purchased by Pompallier in 1853.

Avoiding publicity and declining to court popularity, Luck earned respect rather than affection through his ministry. He died in Auckland on 23 January 1896. Memory of him quickly faded within the Catholic community, but a strong diocese remained as testimony to his labours.