New Saints, Education, & Social Justice

In the era that witnessed both Magna Carta and the rebirth of urban life in western Europe, a new type of saint began to emerge. In the later Middle Ages, remarkable men and women at all levels of society rejected the wealth on offer within the growing cities and set out to imitate the life of Christ and the apostles by embracing poverty. The most famous of their number was the son of an Italian merchant, Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order.

Francis was only one of many to be fascinated by the idea of poverty. The movement reflected a changing view of Christ, one visible in the period’s art. The Christ of the early Middle Ages had been depicted as a majestic, austere figure; the Christ of the later Middle Ages was a broken and bloody man hanging from the Cross. Some of those seeking to follow in his footsteps received endorsement; others were accused of straying into heresy as saints and relics began to be more closely regulated.

Bishop Grimes brought relics of the new saints of the later Middle Ages to Ōtautahi Christchurch alongside the more austere figures of bishops and kings. St Francis himself was present. With him were many of those he had inspired: his contemporary, St Anthony of Padua, known as the “hammer of the heretics,” and the 15th-century St Rita of Cascia, whose controversial case for sanctity was only recognized in 1900. Yet, perhaps as a consequence of his Marist education, Bishop Grimes’s own interests did not align fully with the absolute poverty promoted in the later Middle Ages. His attitude reflected that of another of the new saints, St Thomas Aquinas.

Known as the “Angelic Doctor,” Aquinas became a member of an order founded by Francis’s contemporary, Dominic. Much of his career was spent as an academic. He is a remarkable testament to the flexibility of the concept of sanctity: his greatest achievement was the integration of the revived Greek philosophy of Aristotle into the study of Christian theology. Along the way, he (re)invented western Europe’s concept of politics, offering the first positive assessment of the value of public life since the Roman Empire.

Following in the traditions of St Thomas, Bishop Grimes became actively involved in the life of the city of Christchurch. He served on the governance board of the University, founded schools, and was a member of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury. The latter reflected his interests as a serious collector of shells, and in New Zealand’s natural history more generally. His vast library contained books on an astonishingly wide range of topics, from Scottish folklore to German grammar, from Japanese art to Crimean history, not to mention a wealth of religious themes. And yet, he was not simply an educationalist who indulged the tastes of a Victorian gentleman scholar. He also demonstrated a serious concern for social issues. He was, for example, the vice-president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and, according to accounts of one committee meeting, actively agreed to use his influence with his clergy. It was a commitment that reflected a broader concern among contemporary churchmen with society’s attitude towards animals. It was also an indication that Grimes was dedicated to playing a wider role in the Christchurch community, which he often did alongside the Anglican bishop. On some occasions the business the two engaged in was serious: access to education; on others it was more social, such as the banquet welcoming the shore party of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton to Christchurch in 1909.