The eldest child and only son of Archibald Patrick Delargey and his wife, Kathleen May Fitzgerald, Reginald John Delargey was born on 10 December 1914 in Timaru. His father’s job as a bank manager involved several changes of residence and Reggie, as he became known, received his primary education at Catholic schools in Lawrence, Napier and Patea. His mother died in 1929, leaving his father to bring up a family of six.
Delargey attended Sacred Heart College, Auckland, as a boarder, before commencing study for the priesthood at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel, in 1932. Such was his aptitude that after two years it was decided to send him to Rome to complete his theological course at the Pontifical Urban College of the Propagation of the Faith. The Roman experience was a decisive influence on his formation as a person and as a priest. Delargey was ordained in Rome on 19 March 1938, and received his doctorate of divinity the following year.
On his return to New Zealand after the outbreak of war he worked as curate in Takapuna parish and later at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland. From 1940 to 1947 he acted as director of Catholic Social Services for the Auckland diocese. He supervised the settlement of 200 Polish war orphans who came to Auckland in 1948, taking a personal interest in their education, employment and integration into their new society.
In 1942 Delargey was appointed director of the Catholic Youth Movement and later introduced the work of the Young Christian Students into Catholic secondary schools. He had witnessed Catholic Action at first hand during his time in Rome and was impressed by the then relatively novel methods of this movement for young students and workers. He applied the lessons learned then throughout his life, and many young Aucklanders benefited from the inspirational leadership he brought to the CYM.
In 1957 he represented New Zealand at the congresses of Young Christian Workers and the Lay Apostolate in Rome. The latter’s dominant theme was the role of the laity in the social change needed to transform the world order, and Delargey returned with redoubled enthusiasm for lay participation in the church. On 27 February 1958 he was consecrated auxiliary bishop to Archbishop James Liston of Auckland, taking the bishopric of Hirina as his titular see. He was directly in charge of all lay organisations and was deeply involved in the administration of Catholic schools.
Delargey became the first New Zealand bishop to be given a post in the Roman Curia. He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and was immeasurably enriched by the experience, in turn contributing his expertise regarding the laity to its preparatory meetings. His impressions of the council, recorded in a series of articles he wrote for Zealandia , convey a sense of excitement at the new emphasis on the role and responsibilities of lay Catholics.
Twelve long years of waiting in the wings came to an end on 18 September 1970 with his appointment as bishop of Auckland following Liston’s retirement. A senior priest later recalled how the new bishop melted the frozen structures of the diocese, taking to heart Pope John XXIII’s invitation to ‘throw open the windows to the winds of change’. He sponsored parish councils and pastoral councils, thus extending the share of the laity not only in the administration of the church, but in the vastly more important area of ministries and spiritual leadership. In 1970 he set up the Commission on the Laity, founded on a diocesan-wide movement of Catholics meeting and discussing changes they would like to see happen in the church.
Roman approval of Delargey’s efforts was evident in the decision to appoint him archbishop of Wellington on 16 July 1974, and in his elevation to cardinal almost two years later. Uncertain of his reception among priests and people who did not know him, Delargey soon won them over by his constant availability and patent sincerity. The accumulated strain of his responsibilities told on his constitution, but the ill health that dogged his last years did not prevent him from travelling to Rome to participate in the elections of two popes. Delargey was the first New Zealander to play this role in the making of church history.
Delargey’s position as national director of papal mission societies gave him a unique opportunity to see clearly the relationship between evangelisation and human development. In 1968 the Bishops’ Conference appointed him episcopal chairman of its overseas aid committee. The causes closest to his heart were religious unity, racial harmony and respect for human life. He believed passionately in the ideal of New Zealand as a multicultural society and encouraged Catholics to place the resources of their church at the pastoral service of minority groups. At the Waitangi Day celebrations in 1972 he made a strong plea for racial tolerance. Both his humanity and his concept of Christianity were reflected in his commitment to the ecumenical movement.
Delargey trod a careful path on political issues. He condemned war but refused to endorse more direct anti-war activities. Of a march in Auckland in 1971 he remarked that ‘non-violent demonstrations become hypocrisy when expressed in contempt for others’. He condemned apartheid and other forms of racial discrimination and human oppression. When announcing that he would not attend any matches during the proposed Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand in 1973, he added that it would be a ‘retrograde step and a complete denial of human rights’ to force others to do the same.
Delargey had an unorthodox approach to administration. As one clerical friend observed, ‘He had a great ability to generate action, not so much by direction as by a salutary and happy confusion’. His talent for delegation was best demonstrated during the negotiations leading up to the passage of the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act 1975, which enabled Catholic and other private schools to integrate into the state education system while still preserving their special character. Delargey became an enthusiastic advocate of integration, the impetus for which had come originally from his Auckland diocese. He worked closely with Bishop J. P. Kavanagh of Dunedin to establish the necessary trust and goodwill with the state teachers’ unions to bridge the gulf created by a century of educational separatism. The first Catholic schools were integrated in the year of his death.
Delargey was first of all the priest, with a strong sense of mission and a feeling for liturgy. A forceful preacher, he spoke easily and naturally, often using his hands in expressive gestures. Greatly loved for his personal qualities, he identified closely with the feelings and aspirations of people in their daily lives. His simple, courteous and open manner won him friends across the globe. Cardinal Delargey died in Auckland’s Mater Misericordiae Hospital on 29 January 1979. After an impressive funeral, which was televised live, he was buried in the priests’ plot in Karori cemetery, Wellington. He is commemorated by a memorial window in St Patrick’s Catholic church in Lawrence.