‘I found him’ I declared to my wife.
You see, as a child his was the Consecration Cross above my mother and father’s bed. On enquiring the significance of the cross, my mother would dismissively direct ‘Ask your father’. So, the story went that the cross came all the way back from Cape Town, South Africa to Tullamore, County Offaly, Ireland and was the Consecration Cross of the late Bishop John Rooney, Vicar Apostolic of the Western Cape Vicariate of the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
Bishop Rooney died 90 years ago in 1927.
As a child, little did I know then, that I too, would come to live in South Africa and to one day research the amazing, accomplished story of this humble man of faith, my great-granduncle. Bishop John Rooney was related to the Egans of Tullamore through marriage. Francis J. Egan, son of Patrick Egan of the well-known brewer, maltster and whiskey merchant firm, P. & H. Egan Limited, married Helen Byrne of Dublin, whose mother Annie Byrne (nee Rooney) was one of two sisters of the Bishop. His younger sister, followed him to the Cape and became Mrs Cowen, who settled in Stellenbosch.
Egan’s were well known Edenderry employers up until the late 1960s, and had their Egan-Tarleton branch based at the old Edenderry Railway station. They also had a large 3000-unit capacity piggery at Shean. The Bishop’s Ring and his Consecration cross were handed down and are proudly in the possession of members of the Egan family in Ireland.
John Rooney was born in Edenderry, County Offaly, Ireland on the 10th June 1844. He was ordained a priest, on the 15th June 1867, one hundred and fifty years ago. He was a hobbyist of architecture, and today one can clearly see his design hand in evidence at the numerous Catholic Churches he built. Indeed, one can quickly see their beauty when visiting the churches of St Simon and St Jude in Simonstown, the church of St James, Star of the Sea, Kalk Bay as well as the church and Presbytery of St Agnes, Woodstock. An ecumenist at heart the following story reflects not alone the times, but the comradery of early life experienced by some of those recent arrivals at the Cape.
From an ecumenical perspective one does not get a better example than the following: All three were Irishmen.
In 1876, Frederick York St. Leger, an Irishman from Co. Limerick, teamed up with two other prominent men of faith, to form the Cape Town Irish Association. St Leger, its first Chairman, was an Anglican Priest and former rector of St. Andrews College in Grahamstown and the first editor of The Cape Times. The Catholic Bishop, the Right Rev. John Rooney was one of his supporters and co-founders and finally, the third co-founder and collaborator, was none other than the Cape Town Jewish Rabbi A.P. Bender, who hailed from Dublin. No doubt Bishop John Rooney listened and learned a lot regarding matters journalism and newspapers from his friend St Leger and his Cape Times daily newspaper. Resultantly, in 1919 he was the co-founder of the Catholic newspaper, The Southern Cross. His obituary, penned by his class fellow from 1860, the Very Rev. Monsignor O’Reilly, V.D., covered the front page of The Southern Cross, dated March, 2nd 1927, some extracts have been taken and are included below:
In due course, he became a pupil of the late Bishop Grimley’s school, St Paul’s Academy in Harcourt Street, Dublin, offering himself as a candidate for the Priesthood. In 1861 he moved to St Patrick’s College, Carlow, to prepare and serve as a missionary in the Cape of Good Hope. He was accepted and sent to All Hallows College in Drumcondra, and from there to the Pontifical College of Propaganda in Rome. Here he went through a distinguished course where he obtained the hirettas of Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Theology. He was ordained Sub-Deacon on the 11th June, Deacon 12th June and Priest on the 15th June 1867, and so he used to say that June was the most memorable month of his life. In the year of his ordination he came to South Africa. After a short stay at Oudtshoorn as Priest-in-charge he was transferred to the Colonial Chaplaincy of Simonstown, on the date of the tragic death of his class-fellow, the late Rev. Dr. Dunne. He remained in Simonstown until in 1886 he was professed Bishop of Sergiopolis and Co-adjutor Vicar Apostolic of the Western Vicariate with the right of succession to the late Bishop Leonard. To be nearer the Vicar Apostolic he exchanged Chaplaincies with the late Fr. Meagher of Rondebosch. For nearly 22 years he remained Coadjutor until 1903, when he became Vicar Apostolic.
In the year 1911, he celebrated his episcopal Silver Jubilee and in 1917 the Golden Jubilee of his ordination to the Priesthood. Finally, in the year 1924, he placed his resignation in the hands of his Archbishop Gijlswijk, Apostolic Delegate of the Holy See in South Africa.
….. His hobby was architecture. He practiced at home on the present Church and school at Simonstown. He built St. Patrick’s College at Swellendam, he built St. James school and Church at Kalk Bay, St. Michael’s Church and Presbytery at Rondebosch, St. Agnes’ school and Church at Woodstock, St. Boniface Church at Knysna, St. Dominic’s Presbytery and Parish Hall at Wynberg.
…..Within but recent years Dr. Rooney had the happiness of introducing into his Vicariate not only Jesuit and Redemptorist Fathers whose missions are at Claremont and Heathfield, but also the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who now have five convents in the Peninsula, as well as the Good Shepherd, Ursuline, and Loreto Sisters whose splendid work accorded well with the venerated zeal of the Dominicans and Nazareth Sisters and Marist Brothers.
On the occasion of the lamented death of the Prince Imperial of France he was chosen as Chaplin on board H.M.S. Boadicea where he designed the Chapelle Ardente in which the imperial remains were conveyed for internment at Chislehurst, where the Prince was buried in the presence of the sorrowing Mother Empress of the French. Bishop Rooney celebrated the mass in St. Mary’s, Cape Town on the occasion of the bereaved Empress’ visit to South Africa to see the place where the Prince Imperial was killed.
Our sympathy go out to the two surviving sisters of the deceased Bishop. Mrs Cowen of Stellenbosch and Mrs Byrne of Dublin.….. A non-Catholic once said to the writer that Dr. Rooney was the humblest clergyman in the Cape.’
He is buried in Maitland cemetery, Cape Town
And so, having come indirectly, 10,000 kms to Cape Town to visit, to experience, and to witness Bishops Rooney’s legacy, I am pleased to have come full circle from the days of my childhood inquisitiveness, which allowed me to learn of this incredible man of solemn faith.
Maurice Egan is the great-grandnephew of Bishop John Rooney and today lives in Johannesburg with his wife Elsabie and their two daughters, Dominique and Frances
The Cape Times: An Informal History, Gerald Shaw (David Philips Publishers, Cape Town, 1999)