Sunday, 27 September 2020


The Whitianga priest who is a father and grandfather

From a qualified barber and a banker with a lovely wife and two children to a Catholic priest, Father Tony Delsink, the priest of St Patrick’s Catholic Parish in Whitianga and St Mary’s Catholic Parish in Tairua, has packed multiple lives and many experiences into his 75 years.

Tony Delsink was born in occupied Holland in 1943, in a little medieval town called Deventer. Founded in the late 700s AD, Deventer still sports moats and remains largely unchanged. By the time Tony had finished primary school, his father was suffering from severe rheumatism and the family needed to make a relocation choice between the two much drier climates of Northern Canada or the South African Highveld. They moved to South Africa.

Landing in Pretoria in the middle of the school year, Tony was enrolled into Christian Brothers’ College, an English school, without speaking a word of English. Luckily, his entry mid-school term meant that he actually spent a year and a half in Year 6 and was able to build his English language proficiency and excel. After gaining his Junior Certificate at the age of 16, Tony left school and embarked on an apprenticeship to become a barber. After a few years, he determined that the barbering profession was not going to pay well and he joined Barclays Bank.   
All new hires at Barclays were required to spend at least a year in a rural branch to learn from the ground up. Tony was sent to Swaziland, now called the Kingdom of Eswatini. Although he was only assigned to Swaziland for a short time, he ended up spending the next four and a half years there, meeting his wife Merle, who also worked at the bank.

When Swaziland gained its independence from Britain in 1968, Tony and Merle had to leave, because Merle was a citizen of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and would no longer be welcome in the country. The couple moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, where their son, Victor, was born later that year. In 1972, the couple had a daughter, Kylie.

Raising two children, Tony remained with Barclays Bank while Merle became more active in the Catholic church as a teacher of catechesis - basic Christian religious education of children and adults.

It wasn’t until 1983, as a result of an argument with a parish priest about an aspect of theology, that Tony picked up his first book on religion, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is the body of fundamental ecclesiastical laws for the Catholic Church. With his interest piqued, Tony started to attend lectures for a year and was interviewed about the potential of becoming a deacon - a single or married man ordained to an office in the Catholic Church. Still very much involved with his full-time banking career, Tony declined, although he committed to attending the five year course due to the personal interest in theology he developed.

In 1988, in the fifth year of his course, Merle passed away. As a recent widower with two teenaged children, Tony requested a transfer from Barclays’ branch system into the corporate head office. The bank moved him into their fraud prevention division where he spent the next seven years training bank staff on how to recognise the various forms of bank fraud.

At the same time, Tony also pursued his theological studies and was ordained as a deacon of the Catholic Church in 1992. This meant that during the week, Tony held down a corporate full-time job, while on the weekends he was working with the parish he was a part of.

Father Tony was ordained as a priest in 1997, while still working full-time in his corporate job. He referred to the holding down of two jobs at this time as “hell on wheels.” He held five services each weekend, then head back to work on Monday at the bank. One weekend, in addition to his five services, he also had two weddings and a funeral. He got home on Sunday, sat in his chair for a breather and woke up on Monday morning in the same chair, in time to go to work at the bank.
When asked if there was a cultural gap between the two roles,  he said that corporate life and life in the Catholic Church are amazingly similar in that they both have a specific hierarchy, they both require preparation and they both involve a lot of public speaking. He also said that a surprising number of priests come from corporate life.

In early 1999, Father Tony made a trip to the UK to visit Victor, his son, who had moved there. It was suggested during the trip that after retiring, he might take a sabbatical in the UK. After the trip, when he returned to South Africa, he took stock of his life and decided to retire from the bank. In all, he spent more than three decades with Barclays.

Following his retirement, Father Tony contacted six Catholic Bishops in the UK, looking for opportunities, and landed in the Diocese of Plymouth for a two-year assignment, which turned into a stint more than double that time. He held varied priest roles in the Diocese of Plymouth, from a chaplain in a convent in Torquay, to a counsellor and chaplain in the Dartmoor Prison, to a priest for Notre Dame Girls School.

From the Diocese of Plymouth, Father Tony moved on to Cornwall where he took on the role of Dean of Cornwall, looking after the parishes of St Ives, Hayle and Germoe until 2008. He then moved to a Swanage, overlooking the Isle of White. 

Kylie, Father Tony’s daughter, had moved to New Zealand in 2005 and Father Tony visited the country for the first time in 2007. On his third visit to New Zealand in 2009, Kylie and her family brought him to Whitianga. He described this visit as “love at first sight.” After another four years in Swanage, he made the move to New Zealand to be closer to his daughter and her husband and son, who is now just starting university.

Father Tony decided that rather than take on a parish role in New Zealand, he would work as a “locum” priest unless something came up in Whitianga. An opportunity came up after a few years and Father Tony was appointed to the parishes of Whitianga and Tairua in early 2017.
Apparently, although there are some previously married priests, Father Tony is relatively unique in that he has been a husband and still is a father and grandfather. He believes his life experiences have given him a fantastic grounding for the work he is doing with the Catholic Church. He understands children, is compassionate with regard to relationship counselling and is totally experienced with his own bereavement. It all serves him well in empathising and being responsive to his parishioners.

Pictured: Father Tony Delsink, the priest of St Patrick’s Catholic Parish in Whitianga and St Mary’s Catholic Parish in Tairua.


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