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he people at Atarau
begged him to stay
overnight in their
New Zealand bush
The mid-winter rains
poured down from the South Island
mountains. Tributaries of the turbulent
Grey River were rising dangerously.
But Catholic priest Father Jean-
Baptiste Colomb insisted he could
ride on the twenty miles to his base in
Greymouth before nightfall.
He would have to cross Nelson Creek,
but — by the primitive standards of
New Zealand in 1871 — the ford there
was usually safe. In England, a creek was
a muddy estuary. In New Zealand, it
could be a rushing hillside torrent.
Fr Colomb was a Frenchman. Born
in 1821, he had become a priest in
1847 and joined a missionary order, the
Society of Mary.
Marist priests worked in London’s East
End, serving Irish refugees from the
1845-9 potato famine.
It seems Fr Colomb wore himself out
there. In 1856, he was sent to quieter
Romford to run the new St Edward the
Confessor Catholic church in Park End
Fr Colomb helped celebrate Mass
when Cardinal Wiseman consecrated
the church that year.
In the late 1860s, his health gave way
again. He was sent home to France, but
soon requested a new posting.
In 1864, a gold rush had drawn
settlers to the rugged west coast of New
Zealand’s South Island.
Many were Catholic Irish from
Australia, and their Church followed
them. Fr Colomb arrived in Greymouth
in May 1870. The first priest was
shipwrecked on his way to the Coast.
Fr Colomb promptly rebuilt the town’s
Catholic church, doubling it in size.
Unluckily it was too close to the Grey
River, which often flooded the building.
He talked about his years in Romford,
name-dropping reminiscences of
Catholic aristocrats like Lord Petre of
Thorndon Hall near Brentwood, the
benefactor of St Edward’s church.
Place names in his vast parish echoed
the gold rush. One of the outlying
settlements was Half Ounce Creek.
In July 1871, Fr Colomb rode the
thirty miles there to marry Highland
Scot Alexander McDonald to
Irishwoman Helene Freeman from Cork.
That wedding would be his funeral.
Joshua Slack, the Nelson Creek
ferryman, shouted warnings as he saw
the priest plunge his horse into the
roaring stream, but Fr Colomb could not
Floods had cut a new, treacherous
channel beyond the regular ford.
To keep his feet dry, Colomb adopted
a jockey position, his knees pressed high
upon the saddle.
When the horse stumbled in the
unsuspected deep channel, the priest
tried to cling to its mane.
Both sank under water. The horrified
Slack saw only the horse break the
surface and scramble ashore. The only
sign of his rider was a clerical hat tossing
in the torrent.
Fr Colomb’s body was carried out to
sea, and later washed up on the beach
near Greymouth. The marriage register
survived, and is still in the possession of
St Patrick’s Parish in Greymouth.
A massive crowd of people of all faiths
attended his funeral, which became a
dignified political protest “against the
criminal neglect of the authorities.”
A year later, those authorities
belatedly erected a suspension bridge
across Nelson Creek. Today it’s one of
New Zealand ’s historic monuments, a
memory of the Romford priest who lost
his life crossing a dangerous river.
Published courtesy of the London
suburban weekly newspaper the
In 1871, a French priest arrived on the West Coast as the goldrushes were on the
wane. He rebuilt the Catholic church in Greymouth, but then ventured inland on a
fateful journey to Ahaura. After officiating at a wedding, on the return journey the
priest ’s horse stumbled while crossing a stream and he was drowned. His story will
be recapped as part of the St Patrick’s Greymouth 150th celebrations next weekend.
PROFESSOR GED MARTIN reports for the Romford Recorder, in Fr Colomb’s
home parish in London.
PICTURE: Greymouth Star
Fr Colomb’s body was found three days later on Cobden beach — and the marriage register he was carrying had miraculously sur vived the wetting. Above is Fr Colomb’s last entry in the marriage register before his untimely death.
PICTURE: Courtesy St Patrick’s Parish
Crowds attend Father Colomb’s funeral at the old St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Arney Street, Greymouth. Note the sailing ship masts in the Grey River, at the end of the street.
One wedding and a funeral
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