Hidden Treasure

In April 1975, Father Kevin Clark sealed the saints’ relics in two Gregg’s Coffee jars. He added a lemonade bottle that turned out to contain three Lotto tickets (none winning numbers!). And he wrote a short account of what he’d done on the endpaper of Bishop Grimes’s ledger. This note led to the relics’ rediscovery. But the note does not explain why Father Kevin buried the relics. And unfortunately we can no longer ask him: he died 8 months before their recovery.

It is likely that Father Kevin’s decision reflected broader changes within Roman Catholicism. In the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII presided over a Church council that introduced the most sweeping reforms seen since the Reformation. From 1969, the status of some saints was revised. But this does not explain Father Kevin’s decision fully.

The Second Vatican Council did not introduce a ban on relics; nor did relics disappear from every church. While Father Kevin’s actions doubtless reflected the times, a full explanation remains a mystery. Less mysterious, however, is his choice of reliquary.

Clear glass with a durable plastic lid emblazoned with the company logo, Gregg’s Coffee jars were a ubiquitous part of post war New Zealand. And beyond their use to store instant coffee, at a time when “reusing” was a taken-for-granted practice, they were on hand to serve as a trusty go-to container for meat and fruit preserves, and for storing everything from spare keys to—as this exhibition reveals—religious relics.

New Zealand was traditionally a tea-drinking nation, but coffee was an option thanks to William Gregg, who started his Dunedin coffee bean roasting business in the 1860s. American troops during World War II brought instant coffee, adding to its popularity, and in the post-war years Gregg’s product became a popular alternative to tea. The coffee jars could be refilled and with their trademark brown plastic lids found their way into homes, factories, offices, clubrooms, and rest homes next to the tea bags and sugar bowl. It was an age of modern convenience and speed—no percolating or brewing was necessary.

Economic deregulation in the 1980s meant that more products from overseas became available. Iconic brands were subject to buyouts and takeovers, later fuelling nostalgia for a post-war idyll. At the same time, part of an international trend, coffee consumption went from strength to strength. But instant coffee was not part of a new café culture that saw New Zealanders fall for long blacks, flat whites, and lattes. Instant coffee went right out of fashion. It continued to exist, sometimes still in glass jars, but increasingly in plastic ones, and with many products on the market, the age that the Gregg’s Coffee jar symbolized was over. The jars themselves, because of their durability and on-going uses, remain at large in garden sheds and cupboards, empty of their coffee granules and largely blending in as just another storage container.

In the mid-1970s, Gregg’s Coffee jars were the obvious choice for Father Kevin. And concealing a collection of relics had long-standing precedents. After World War II, a box containing over 50 labelled relics was discovered in the high altar of St Kunibert’s church in Cologne, Germany. Hidden in the 13th century, the collection was accompanied by an explanatory note: “I, Constantine, humble priest and canon of this church, have gathered these relics, so that they may lead me to eternal rest on the Last Day and a pure life in this world.”