The art of winemaking in Hawke's Bay was pioneered by the French Marist Order, but the same community later became significant contributors to astronomy through the observatory they built in Meeanee.

The prime mover of the observatory was Father (Dr) David Kennedy a priest of the Society of Mary, and his first objective was to photograph Daniel's comet in 1907, and later Halley's Comet. David was born in Christchurch in 1862, and was identified for his intellect at a young age, so he was sent at age 12 in 1876 to St Mary's School in Ireland, where he excelled as a pupil.

His parents remained in Christchurch, but his correspondence to them indicated he was not upset at being sent halfway around the world to attend school. He would also attend Catholic University School and Royal University College, where he graduated with a science and maths degree.

David would then study for the priesthood and Doctor of Divinity in Rome in the 1880s. He wrote a text book on mechanics while in Europe, so he could afford to purchase a telescope from the royalties.

Advertisement

His link to Meeanee began in 1893 when he was sent to conduct a training school as a professor of dogmatic theology. Armed with his telescope, David would enthuse his students with the wonders of the celestial universe, and perhaps was more enthused about these heavens over his theology duties.

Around 1907 David purchased a more powerful telescope requiring a purpose-built observatory. This novel building with a dome-shaped roof which opened to the sky became an instant attraction for many in Hawke's Bay who had never seen anything like it.

The first photograph taken from the observatory was that of Daniel's Comet in late 1907, and these photos along with others of the Milky Way, the sun, moon and Southern Cross were produced in an album by the Marist Order.

In October 1909, Halley's Comet was photographed by David Kennedy, but the image was too faint. Increasing the exposure time from one and a half to two and a half hours the next night produced a clearer image of the comet.

In 1910 when Halley's Comet became visible to the naked eye, the country was enthralled with the comet which had been first recorded in BC 240 and notably in the Saxton Chronicles of 1066 in the era of King Harold. And at the centre of Halley's Comet fever and releasing press releases with descriptions of its observations was the Meeanee observatory.

Two of Dr David Kennedy's pupils, Joseph Cullen and Ignatius von Gottfried photographed Halley's comet during 1910. (David Kennedy was transferred to St Patrick's College in 1910, hence him not being there to photograph Halley's comet). While there was a fascination with the comet, the superstitious were alarmed when in England, King Edward died at the time of the comet. Julius Caesar was assassinated about the time of the appearance of a comet, giving alarm to one's appearance being bad news for kings.

For his efforts in photographing Halley's Comet, David Kennedy was made a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society based in London. He was a member of two other such groups, who also recognised his achievements.

By September 1910 the comet had made its way behind the sun, and the Meeanee observatory said this was the last to be seen of the comet until another 75 years (it appeared again in 1986, and is due for another appearance in mid-2061).

The photographs taken at the Meeanee observatory were of such quality that Nasa purchased copies of Halley's Comet for their publication atlas of Halley's Comet 1910, and published in 1986.

Dr David Kennedy passed away aged 72 in Palmerston North. His funeral took place in Wellington, and many tributes were paid to this remarkable man, including that his was the first to discover the reappearance of Halley's comet in 1909.

• I am researching a story about the Wahaparata Stream. If anybody knows anything of its history, could they contact me on my email or 027 4521 056

• Michael Fowler (mfhistory@gmail.com) is an EIT accounting lecturer, and in his spare time a recorder of Hawke's Bay's history.