James McMenamin endured the dire conditions of the battlefield in Egypt, Gallipoli and in Belgium.

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Father James Joseph McMenamin served selflessly and paid the ultimate sacrifice as a Catholic chaplain to the Armed Forces in the Great War.

Born on August 16, 1874 to John and Elizabeth McMenamin, he grew up in a large family in Wanganui. In the late 1890s the McMenamin family moved to the Hutt Valley where James and his brother William worked as tailors in the family business. James also developed his talents as a cabinet-maker, was a keen cricketer and played piano for a theatre company.

Called to the priesthood aged 28, Father McMenamin became a founding student at the Holy Cross College Seminary in Mosgiel and was ordained by Bishop Verdon on December 12, 1909.

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He returned to Petone as parish priest in 1912 after two years as an assistant priest at Westport. Administering wholeheartedly to the spiritual needs of parishioners as well as playing cricket for the Petone club meant that McMenamin rapidly became a pillar of the community.

When World War I started, he was fast to volunteer as Chaplain to the Armed Forces and embarked on one of 10 troopships to Egypt in October 1914. There he served the New Zealand soldiers stationed along the Suez Canal. He found himself having to use the little he had to administer the sacraments to the men. He even used a doctor's operating table as a makeshift altar.

Chaplain Captain McMenamin landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 to serve at the frontline. He endured the dreadful conditions to give spiritual aid to the New Zealanders.

In a letter to Father Leo Daly, a chaplain at Trentham Military Camp, Father McMenamin wrote: "I have scribbled these few notes hastily on my knees while we are taking a rest. Nearly all the time shells have been bursting all around us and I have been expecting one to drop in my face at any time so I am afraid my notes will sound somewhat jumbled to you ... I have just been interrupted to go and bury two Otago boys (1RC) ... just been killed by the shrapnel ..."

His selfless attending to the soldiers' spiritual needs on the battlefield eventually took a toll on his physical health. In September 1915 he returned to New Zealand to recover.

Crowded congregations were attracted to Ponsonby Parish to hear him recall his experiences. While he spoke he was not able to stand because of his ill health.

His will to help had not ceased, however, and in May 1916 he volunteered to return to Europe, and served in hospitals in England where he tended the sick until January 1917 when he courageously returned to the frontline, this time serving the 2nd Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment in France.

On July 9, 1917, after the Battle of Messines in Belgium, Father McMenamin was conducting a funeral service for fallen soldiers when the enemy fired a shell into the congregation.

Six soldiers were injured, and Father McMenamin was killed. Shortly before his death he had been promoted to the military rank of Chaplain Major. People of all faiths were inspired by his courage and the sacrifices he made.

He was buried originally in Belgium, but was reinterred at the Nieppe Communal Cemetery in France. His parish in Petone erected a new church dedicated to his memory in 1934.

Although this church was demolished in the 1990s because it was an earthquake risk, the original stained glass windows were retained and rededicated to his memory.

At Holy Cross College, where he studied, a sanctuary was built to commemorate his sacrifice.

Theodore Loretz at Father James Joseph McMenamin's grave site.
Theodore Loretz at Father James Joseph McMenamin's grave site.

Theodore Loretz was among 11 Year 13 students chosen to represent New Zealand in the Shared Histories project set up by the French and New Zealand Governments to mark the centenary of World War I.

To read the first 76 stories in this series go to tinyurlcom/nzhworldwarone.