Father Michael Hill, Principal (1974-1979)

Extracts from ‘A LIFE RICH WITH PROVIDENCE’, first published in Tui Motu, May 2010 

Early life 
I was born in Yorkshire in the north of England: a spacious, bleak, very old and beautiful place by the sea. My first years were happy, secure in the warm upbringing of my English father and Irish mother. In 1970 I was ‘reborn’ to the open, windy but sunnier agricultural environment of Gore, reminding me of those sparse Yorkshire plains. My ten years in Gore were the happiest days of my priestly life. 

I was welcomed by local people and clergy, and made lasting friendships. My schooling at Ratcliffe College, the English flagship school of the Rosminians, was happy too. It was wartime, remote from the poundings of London. However, in this dynamic teaching environment, I thrived intellectually and socially, becoming head boy. My father and the Rosminian provincial wisely advised me to get a university degree before entering religious life. 

University
Early 1950s Cambridge was a remarkable environment, the premier university in the world for its research and ferment in biological sciences. I studied these “wet sciences” (e.g. zoology, biology) for two years. Against my tutor’s best advice, I switched to modern history in my last year. By then I had firmed up my desire to become a Rosminian. We had famous historians like Hubert Butterfield to teach us. And I remember Crick and Watson, the discoverers of DNA drawing double helixes in beer on the tables of the pub we frequented. 

The Chaplaincy, presided over by the eccentric Monsignor Gilbey (of Gilbey’s gin fame) dressed in frock coat, black buckled shoes and flat black hat, was buzzing. His fine spiritual preaching moulded us. Many later distinguished people were also influenced by him and found their way into the church then. Against Gilbey’s best wishes, though he was gracious in defeat, we spearheaded opening the chaplaincy café/bar to women. 
 

Religious life and study 
The brothers’ strong community life in our Sussex novitiate formed me well. Then, untrained as a teacher, I taught sciences for four years at Ratcliffe College. We were bailed off to Wonersh seminary in southern England for a year under the guidance of Dr. Sillem, a brilliant young philosopher – then to Rome. I spent four years training at the Pontifical Lateran University. This was arguably the most reactionary place of theological training in the world at that time, the seminary for the Diocese of Rome, also preparing students to become members of the Roman Curia.
 
Ordination
Ordained in Rome in 1964, it was back to teaching at Ratcliffe College. Little did I know what was ahead. One day our provincial caught me in the corridor between classes. “Michael,” he said ”have you got a moment. I would like you to buy a sixteen seater bus and take it to New Zealand”. Just like that. St Peter’s A year later, I arrived in Gore with that bus – by owning it for a year we successfully avoided import duty on a new bus for the school. I threw myself into life at St. Peter’s College, becoming first deputy principal and then headmaster for six years. It was a wonderful time of hard work and community, developing the life, culture and style of this coeducational school: sport, outdoors pursuits, music and drama, among other things. Co-education, here the brainchild of Bishop John Kavanagh, who gave us great support, was something I had never experienced before. It was remarkable to see the way there developed wonderful mother-son, father-daughter relationships among the students and the priests and Mercy sisters who co-taught with us. I remain a firm believer in the efficacy of coeducation. Seeing the academic results that both boys and girls gained (and still gain) at St. Peter’s, I believe the academic arguments in favour of single sex schools are dubious.

NCRS
Then came another major change in direction for me. After some years teaching at Rosmini College in Auckland, I was suddenly asked to become one of the co-ordinators of the NCRS programme. Codirecting the religious education course of 600 people nationwide with Sister Ann Shelton was new and exciting for me.

NZ Tablet
Given my Rosminian brothers’ unanimous support, in 1993, I took up the position of editor of the Tablet. This proved to be another “bus experience – a sea change in my life.”
 
From the first, it was clear that the Tablet had financial problems. In 1996 Bishop Len decided that the Tablet was no longer financially viable. A national campaign to sustain it had netted $130,000 and a data base of 800 names. We were obliged to return the money collected. The list of donors became the foundation from which Tui Motu developed. And you know the rest, life started anew.
 
Early Years
From the first we had a marvellous group of supporters. We needed good writers and happily we succeeded in attracting some of the best NZ religious writers. Asked often what the Bishops say of some of the ‘outrageous things’ we print, all I can say is that they subscribe; they have never criticized, but have been supportive. In fact, I’m sure that they rejoice that we can say things that they think but can’t say.
 
My Future
As for the future, I will play golf – though not all day – till the soil, say my prayers and write. Perhaps I will be asked to write a definitive English biography of Antonio Rosmini. That remains to be seen. But I am happy to stay here in NewZealand, in the New Zealand Church. I have no burning desire to return to the panting heart of Rome or the broad acres of Yorkshire.
 
Postword
Looking back on my life, I can often see incidents that seem unrelated, or come out of the blue, as signs of God in my life. They shape what eventually becomes of you. Some are bountiful providences, like family. Others at the time are painful, but open doors to something else creative and good. The “bus” experience of migrating to St Peter’s is one; the painful closing of the NZ Tablet is another. They show God’s goodness in one’s life.  

May 2013 – Father Hill is currently working on his biography of Blessed Antonio Rosmini


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Street Address: 121 Kakapo Street, Gore, Southland, New Zealand
Postal Address: P O Box 94, Gore 9740
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Fax: (03) 208 0000
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