Project Canterbury

Bishop Harper and the Canterbury Settlement

By H. T. Purchas

Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1909.

Chapter XV. Closing Years and Death

"Father in God."
His pale presentment lies
Within the hallowed Fane he loved so well.
Men come and go--the foolish and the wise,
Strangers and those who loved him--
These can tell
How well the name befitted. Filled was he
With God's own grace, large-hearted charity,
The love that knows no evil, and will last
When all the things of earth are overpast."
(By an Early Settler.)

When Bishop Harper laid down his office in 1890, he had still an amount of vigour very rare for a man of eighty-six years. He had nearly four years yet to live, and those years were by no means idle ones. He still occupied Bishopscourt, and as the partner of his life had passed away, one of his daughters, with her family, now lived with him and tended him in the gradually increasing infirmities of old age. No provision had originally been made in the diocesan trust-deeds for any pension to a retiring bishop, possibly because at the time when they were drafted such a contingency had never occurred to anyone's mind. But the bishopric estate was able by this time to bear a double charge, and when the bishop announced his intention of resigning, a Bill was promoted in the colonial legislature by Sir John Hall, which should permit of the proceeds being so applied. The Houses, though not as a rule over-ready to fall in with ecclesiastical petitions, offered no opposition to a measure which touched the well-being of the aged bishop. The result was that he enjoyed until his death a yearly pension of £600, and was able to keep up the modest household to which he had been accustomed without trenching to any great extent upon his charitable outlay.

On May 1st, 1890, he had the great satisfaction of taking part in the consecration of his successor, the Right Revd. Churchill Julius, formerly Archdeacon of Ballarat. The chief part in this solemn service naturally devolved upon the new Primate, but Bishop Harper joined with the Bishops of Nelson, Dunedin, and Waiapu, in the laying on of hands.

On the following day he presided at the luncheon which was held in the Provincial Council Chamber, and, in words which sounded strange coming from his lips, proposed the toast of "His Lordship the Bishop of Christchurch." In doing so he remarked:

"There is a great peculiarity in having to propose this toast, and I am thankful that I have had the opportunity of doing so. The more especially am I thankful, because my case is an unusual one--in fact, so far as I know of the history of the Church, I do not know one other bishop who has retired who has had the opportunity, and who has been able, to lay his hands on his successor, as it was my privilege to do yesterday."

His own health was proposed by the Primate and seconded by Mr. C. Whitefoord, E.M., both of whom spoke in the highest terms of his past work, and drew from him a modest disclaimer: "The Primate has gone through greater hardships than I have. What I had to undertake was merely, travelling over unknown tracks and encountering rivers." He cheerfully rendered the new bishop all the aid in his power, but was careful even to punctiliousness never to do anything which might even seem to savour of interference. The old episcopal chair was brought from St. Michael's and placed on the north side of the Cathedral sanctuary, opposite the newer throne, and in this humble seat the old man took his place day by day, and Sunday by Sunday, although his deafness was such that no word of sermon or lesson could ever be heard by him. Till within a month of his death he always celebrated the Holy Communion at 8 a.m. on Sundays; occasionally he was prevailed upon to preach, and every now and then he would be called upon to baptise one of his great-grand-children, whose number was now increasing fast. During these last years he thus received into Christ's flock his hundredth descendant.

But, more than any outward act, the mere sight of the old bishop exerted a spiritualising influence. His countenance, always handsome and kindly, now recalled the description given of Moses, for "the skin of his face shone" with the spiritual light within. No portion perhaps of the new bishop's first sermon struck home quite so deep as his touching reference to his predecessor: "Almost deaf to earth's voices, he can almost hear the Voice that cries, 'Servant of God, well done; well hast thou fought the better fight.'" As long as Bishop Harper's peaceful face and venerable form were seen in church or street the other world seemed not so very "far off" even to those whose immediate vision was less keen and sure.

Almost to the end he continued his life-long habit of early rising, and also his habit of diligent study. He gave much attention during this period to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which he studied with the help of the commentary which Dr. "Westcott had just published. Those who are familiar with this erudite and massive work will be able to realise what such study meant in the case of a man nearing his ninetieth year. Bishop Harper's copy shows the marks of careful reading, and even the index has been made more complete by additional insertions traced in a somewhat wavering but clear and decided hand. This was study for his own soul's sake, but he also laboured at the Old Testament in connection with a class which he held twice a week for the girls in one of the boarding-schools of the city. Much of his time was given to the sick, especially any whom he had known in earlier life. He kept up a keen interest in passing events, and seemed almost to have discovered the secret of perpetual youth.

Still, the end was bound to come, and on one summer afternoon in 1893 the tolling of the great bell of the Cathedral announced to the citizens of Christchurch that "the old bishop" had at length passed away. The news came to most of them with a shock, for they had hardly had time to notice that his regular appearances among them had ceased. On Sunday, December 3rd, he had celebrated the Holy Communion in the Cathedral, and on the 10th at the College Chapel, though he had some difficulty in making his way down Park Terrace against a strong south-west wind. This was his last public ministration, for on the following Sunday, though he succeeded in walking to the Cathedral for the early celebration, he was too much exhausted to be able to ascend the chancel steps. He therefore sat with the congregation in the nave. For a short time he knelt while his son (the present Dean) brought down and administered to him the sacred elements, but then sat gazing at the East End--taking what he must have felt to be his last look at the sanctuary where so much of his time had of late been spent. Even then he succeeded with help in walking back to Bishops-court--a distance of nearly a mile. In fact, about a month before the end he had written to his son in England: "I am surprised at the amount of vitality which, notwithstanding my advanced age and present infirmities, I still retain. I have much cause for thankfulness, and I hope I am sincerely thankful and prepared to meet the ordering of the wise and loving Disposer of all things." That ordering was, indeed, such as he would have wished. His final illness (which was, in fact, the only illness of his long life) was only of six days duration, and up to the hour of his death he retained full possession of his faculties. He passed peacefully and quietly away surrounded by several members of his family who had had time to gather to his bedside. His death took place on December 28th, 1893, and had he lived ten days longer he would have completed his ninetieth year.

What death was to him may perhaps be gathered from a sermon which he himself had preached in the Cathedral on All Saint's Day, 1882. After describing the blessed dead as those

"Who in the mountain grots of Eden lie
And hear the fourfold river as it murmurs by."

--lines which convey only a sense of rest and quietude--he went on to avow his belief that "among the works of those who are at rest is the work of intercession, through the Priesthood of our Divine Redeemer, on behalf of those whom they have left behind on earth. We are not, indeed, told (he continued) that they have any distinct knowledge of what is passing in this world; but we are surely not wrong in believing that, though removed from it, they still retain a recollection of those in it in whose spiritual welfare they were deeply interested, as well as in the progress of redemptive love throughout the world. And if so, must we not believe that they continue to do, in their place of rest, what they did when they were 'fellow travellers between life and death' with God's servants upon earth?"

The same thought reappears in letters written shortly before his final illness. To a friend in England he wrote in June 1893:--

"I am invalided and I assume that the end is drawing near. I must thank you for your loving remembrance of me, and I trust that whether alive or dead I may be kept in your remembrance, and have your prayers on my behalf to Him Who is pleased to say that He is God of the dead as of the living. I hope, both so long as I remain here and also when I depart hence, to remember you and yours in my prayers for His dear sake Who is Advocate with the Father and ever liveth to make intercession for His people."

How far the reality of that other world corresponds with human expectations not even the greatest and wisest of men can tell us with absolute certainty. But at least the extracts we have given show us what were the aged bishop's expectations up to the hour of passing from the region of faith to that of sight, and if the actual sight was other than he had looked for, we may assuredly believe that it was so only because it was more glorious than even his faith had pictured.

The funeral was at first arranged for the last day of the year, but as this fell upon a Sunday, the country clergy begged for its postponement to the day following, in order that they might be able to pay the last tribute of reverence to their old leader. This request was granted, but on Sunday the body was conveyed to the Cathedral, and there lay in state during the afternoon. More than 2,500 persons were thus enabled to take a last look at the revered form. On Monday, January 1st, 1894, the actual interment took place. New Year's Day is a general holiday in New Zealand, and there was doubtless some incongruity between the solemn proceedings in the Cathedral and the holiday-keeping of those in the community who were either too young or else had too lately arrived to realise the loss which filled the hearts of the older men and women. But the bishop had always sympathised with the innocent enjoyments of the people, and he would certainly have been the last to feel any annoyance on this occasion. As it was, all classes in the community, from his Excellency the Governor of New Zealand downwards, united to do honour to his memory, either by attending in person or by sending representatives. The Bishops of Christchurch and Dunedin took the chief part in the burial service, but recognition was made of the labours of the elder clergy of the diocese, Canon Stack reading the lesson, and Archdeacons Lingard and Cholmondeley assisting at the grave. The Cathedral choir added much to the solemnity of the proceedings by singing the hymns "The Saints of God," "Jesus lives," and "Now the labourer's task is o'er." The body was laid in the old Church Cemetery, in the plot which already contained the remains of the Bishop's wife and of their son Herbert. So many prelates have returned to England after resignation of their sees abroad that the remark has been made, with some measure of truth,--"What the Colonial Church needs is a few bishops' graves." This is a need which the diocese of Christchurch has not to deplore. Canterbury churchmen can never look upon the English Church as an exotic while they can visit the quiet spot on the banks of the Avon where, among the various monuments which mark the burial places of the founders of their colony, stands the simple headstone which contains the names of their first bishop and his wife.

The question of a memorial was bound to occupy the thoughts of Churchmen during the days and weeks which followed the bishop's death. Some difficulty, however, was found in arriving at a unanimous decision as to the form which the memorial should take. The first suggestion was that the Cathedral should be completed. This would, indeed, have been an appropriate and worthy monument, but the project was reluctantly abandoned, owing to the heavy cost. At last a general agreement was arrived at in favour of a cenotaph in the Cathedral. The change need not be regretted. The building is now complete, but it would be for ever poorer without the beautiful marble figure of the departed bishop which was after some delay placed in the south aisle and afterwards removed to the north transept. The work was executed by Mr. Williamson, of Esher, private sculptor to her late Majesty Queen Victoria, the cost (£600) being met by public subscription. The artist has been entirely successful in catching the bishop's expression, and the details of the robes are realistically pourtrayed. In England such monuments are of course numerous, but in New Zealand there is as yet no other like it, and it cannot fail to convey to future generations something of the personality and character of the late bishop. The monument of his friend Bishop Selwyn is placed in the more stately pile of Lichfield, but it is enclosed in a mortuary chapel which perhaps suggests an entire cessation of all activity beyond this brief life. Bishop Harper's cenotaph is not shut off from the people and the work amidst which he had lived his life.

While the public mind was still undecided as to the form which the general memorial should take, and the multiplicity of schemes gave rise to a fear lest the whole design might fail, a few of the old College boys met together and determined that the School should have its own memorial. The result has been that the east window in the School Chapel is filled with stained glass in memory of its first Warden. The window consists of five lights, and in the centre one is inserted a medallion containing an excellent likeness of the bishop as he appeared some thirty years before his death.

But it was not only in his own diocese that Bishop Harper was remembered. Long as was the period which had elapsed since he left Eton--no less than fifty-three years--he had not been forgotten by his old friends and pupils. When the news of his death reached England an influential committee was formed of those who wished to perpetuate his memory. It consisted of the Rev. J. J. Hornby (Provost of Eton), the Bight Hon. Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, the Bishop of Chichester (Dr. Durnford), Bishop Abraham, Mr. Goldwin Smith, and many others. The result was that a handsome bronze tablet was placed (November 3rd, 1894) on the wall of the porch to the south-west door of the ante-chapel at Eton College. The inscription, written by Dr. Hornby--who as a boy had formed one of the snow-balling party sixty-six years before--is an admirable summary of the bishop's life, and a just appreciation of his influence upon others. It runs as follows:--

Olim in hoc Collegio Conducticius
Publicas preces coram juventute Etonensi ita voce praeibat
Ut viri simplicitatem gravitatem candorem nemo non agnoscere
Omnes fere ad verecundiam et pietatem sensim incitarentur
Idem sive Pastoris offieio inter pauperes fungeretur
Sive pueros Etonensibus adnumerandos litteris informaret
Quaecunque vera sunt quaeeunque justa quaecunque sancta
quaecuuque amabilia
Non praeceptis magis edocuit quam vita illustravit
Postea ad opus et ministerium Episcopale in Novam Zelandiam vocatus
Et in Cathedram Metropolitanam ibidem evectus
Ita aliis praeesse voluit ut omnibus inserviret
Otii et oblectationis negligens in officiis indefessus
Laboribus et periculis per invia locorum sustinendis provecta
aetate non impar
Denique senex senectntis donis feliciter ornatus
Ingenio placido miti sapientia animo amoris Christiani pleno
Concordiae et benevolentiae inter omnes fautor
Disciplinae virilis suo exemplo suasor
Integra valetudine prope ad extremum diem sacris officiis
incubuit Obiit a d Vtum Kal Jan AD MDCCCXCIV set LXXXIX
In memoriam viri optimi et dilectissimi nonnulli ex discipulis
Aliisque amore et desiderio conjunctis hanc tabellam
ponendam curaverunt

It may be translated thus:--

Formerly Conduct in this College,
Used to render the common prayers in such a manner
That no one could fail to recognise his simplicity, gravity,
and singleness of heart.
As parish priest he so laboured among the poor
and among the boys whom he prepared for Eton
as to show forth in his life as well as in his words
whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are just,
whatsoever things are holy, whatsoever things are to be
loved. Called afterwards to the work of a Bishop in New Zealand
and raised to the dignity of Primate there,
his aim was to govern others by becoming the servant of all.
Forgetful of ease and pleasure, he never wearied of duty,
and even in advancing age proved himself equal to the
endurance of toils and dangers in travelling through
pathless wilds.
Old age adorned him with its happiest gifts--
calmness of mind, gentleness of wisdom, and a soul filled
with Christian love.
By his exhortations he brought others into harmony and goodwill,
and by his example he encouraged them to a
manly performance of duty.
With unabated vigour he took part almost to the last in
the sacred offices of the Church,
and died on December 28th, 1893, at the age of 89.

Bound together by affection and esteem for this excellent and much loved man, some of his pupils and other friends have joined in erecting this tablet to his memory.

Pioneers in new countries often obtain lasting notoriety through their names becoming attached to places or natural objects. But fame of this kind is somewhat capricious, and Bishop Harper reached New Zealand almost too late to catch its favours. In this respect he was not so fortunate as his friend Bishop Selwyn, for it is remarkable that in Canterbury itself--a place never very closely associated with Selwyn's labours--his name is borne by an important county, a well-known river, and a small station on the Great Southern Railway. But to find the name of Canterbury's first bishop a somewhat careful search is needed. This reveals a Mount Harper and a Harper River in the main Alpine range, a Harper's Pass between Nelson and Westland (usually known, however, as the Hurunui Saddle), and a street in the borough of Sydenham, which adjoins the city of Christchurch on its southern side. [Mount Harper is the highest point (6,015ft.) in the Harper Range on the north bank of the Upper Kangitata. The Harper River flows into the Wilberforce, a river named after the celebrated Bishop of Oxford, under whom Dr. Harper had served when at Mortimer.]

But outward memorials, whatever maybe their form, and however great their number, can give but an inadequate idea of the real character and influence of such a one as Bishop Harper. In all his work the man was felt to be greater than the bishop, and, happily, full justice was done to his greatness as a man in the journalistic tributes which were paid him at his death. The English Guardian inserted letters from two of his old episcopal colleagues, Bishops Abraham and John Selwyn, as well as from a layman (Mr. A. Mills) who had visited New Zealand some twelve years before. The last-named referred to the "marvellous energy, self-denial, and courage "which had characterised the earlier years of his episcopate, "all the more remarkable in a man wholly free from the conceit and ambition which have sometimes fired the zeal of mountain climbers and explorers." Bishop Selwyn's letter concludes thus:--

"To myself, as to many hundreds of others in New Zealand, that calm, gentle, loving life is an abiding memory, which has told, and I trust will tell, not so much by any striking dominant force observable in it, but by the calm and peace which it shed around it--a life which was lived throughout its long extent for duty, and which was strong, because it was full of the meekness and gentleness of Christ."

Bishop Abraham's memory went back, of course, to an earlier period. He had known Bishop Harper at Eton, and had afterwards met him at various synods in New Zealand. "From first to last," (he writes) "I can bear witness to the sound judgment, the conscientious, painstaking industry, and the good sense he never failed to display; but, above all, I saw then, and feel now, that the secret of his influence on all such public occasions was his admirable temper. I never saw him ruffled or impatient.....'Good temper' in the management of affairs I saw exemplified in Bishop Harper, and the sight was a liberal education. This I witnessed myself, but there was no one in New Zealand who did not hear of his unaffected simplicity, his frankness, his steady devotion to duty, his journeys by flood and field, which won the hearts of all the clergy, as well as of the runholders and the farmers, the labourers and the tradesmen, in all parts of his large diocese, to travel over which was accompanied by no small risks and much fatigue, but to him was a source of happiness, as it was an untold blessing for thousands of young and old for the thirty-three years of his noble episcopate."

These testimonies are valuable as coming from a distance and from men who could not possibly be accused of limited ideas or local partisanship. Their studied moderation of language may seem to some more weighty on this account than the obituary notices which appeared in the colonial papers. But these, too, have a right to be heard. Many a man has seemed a hero to those who saw him but seldom, and then only on great occasions, who yet has failed to win the love and devotion of those among whom he lived habitually. The praise of a neighbour is often the most grudgingly given. Nor, on the other hand, should it be forgotten that the enthusiasm which is kindled in his friends by the exploits of a man's prime is apt to die down in his declining years. Bishop Harper had lived quite long enough for this to happen in his case if it were going to happen at all. Time's perspective had already lent its aid to the formation of a truthful estimate of his life's work; the dust had long disappeared from the atmosphere of his clear eventide. We therefore quote from a northern journal the following appreciation which appeared at the time of his death. It will serve as a summary of the whole narrative which this volume has endeavoured to present.

"The country was in those days a wilderness. Lyttelton was the chief town; Christchurch was little better than a straggling collection of huts; a few farms were flourishing about Eiccarton, Papanui, and Kaiapoi; the pioneer squatters had spread over the land, founding homesteads at rare intervals. The flock required Apostolic treatment, and got it from its bishop. His work was arduous. It comprised long journeys, primitive accommodation, dangerous travelling by flood and field, on foot, on horseback over unbridged rivers, in small craft along the coast. The hardships were great, the dangers many, the people lukewarm, as often happens in the rush of pioneer life. How these difficulties were encountered and overcome the old settlers tell you to this day with tears in their eyes. When the goldfields were discovered on the West Coast the Bishop promptly annexed them. He crossed the Great Divide at regular intervals, he held services in the roaring mining camps, he was punctual in spite of rising rivers and muddy walks, he planted churches, he exhorted, he gave good example. All men wondered at his physical power, reverenced his piety, thanked Heaven for his example.

"And so his life passed. The place grew and people multiplied, and roads improved. The bullock waggon gave way to the coach, the coach made room for the railway train, the uncertain sailing craft was superseded by the frequent, punctual, luxurious steamer; towns grew, and farm steadings became numerous; in a word, colonial life approximated to the standards of the older world. But through all the changes Bishop Harper remained the same--punctual, faithful, earnest, simple, apostolic, doing his duty to the best of his power, single-minded as in the days of hardship and privation. When the greatest procession Canterbury ever saw passed through the streets of Christchurch on the day of the Queen's Jubilee, the venerable figure of the Primate appeared, and the pageant at once became his ovation. Decorations, troops in martial array, trades in gala order, all were forgotten, and the crowd cheered the old man with enthusiasm so long as he remained in sight. Soon after that he took his well-earned rest. Every morning and every evening of the three succeeding years he was to be seen walking down to the Cathedral to service; never was he missed, whatever the weather might be. Sunday often found him at some church in the vicinity of the town, preaching and doing the work of a simple priest. During the fourth year he weakened, he was seen less and less in public. At last he was confined to his room; loving hands waited upon him, troops of friends were about him; all waited reverently for the end. There was a private grief, sudden, bitter, and unexpected, in the latter days, but the old man bore up with the fortitude of an upright, well-disciplined mind. And so he gave the last brave example of the many brave examples he had given throughout his useful well-spent life. Then came the end, which, though not unexpected, is lamented by all New Zealand. A grand old patriarch has gone to his rest. Peace to his ashes; honour to his memory."

One more quotation may conclude this memoir. It forms the last paragraph in a leading article of the Lyttelton Times. Its estimate of the bishop's work has now stood the test of fifteen years, and those years have done nothing to weaken its testimony.

"A great man, a great priest, a great bishop, he was the example and guiding light of generations of colonists. To him righteousness and true manliness in New Zealand owe an ineffaceable debt of gratitude."

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