A test of faith
St Mary of the Angels Catholic church, an architectural and cultural treasure, is tucked away in the heart of the city.
As the third church to occupy the Boulcott Street site, the parish has faced some testing times.
Wellington’s first Catholic Church was established in 1843, some weeks after the arrival of the first parish priest, Fr Jeremiah O’Reily (1799-1880). It was a simple wooden chapel.
The Church of the Nativity (also known as Fr O’Reily’s Chapel) gave way to a grander timber church, the first St Mary of the Angels. It was built at a cost of just £1500, and was blessed and opened on 28 April 1874. Unfortunately, the church burned down in May 1918 so needed to be rebuilt.
Frederick de Jersey Clere, Wellington’s pre-eminent ecclesiastical architect was responsible for the design. Construction began in April 1919, using largely unskilled workers under the supervision of its parish priest Father Stanislaus Mahoney. That’s why (unusually) he’s referred to as ‘aedificator’ (builder) on the building’s foundation stone.
After four years of planning and construction, the church was blessed and opened by Archbishop Francis Redwood on Sunday 26 March 1922.
St Mary of the Angels is a fine example of late Gothic Revival church architecture, and the use of reinforced concrete was highly innovative. In the words of Heritage New Zealand, “It must rank as one of the finest churches in New Zealand”.
Following an earthquake in 1942, the building’s exterior was repaired, with more work done during 1950–1951, because rusted steel reinforcing and hairline fractures had damaged the concrete. Further interior and exterior renovation was carried out between 1985 and 1988.
The Seddon and Lake Grassmere earthquakes in July and August 2013 triggered the decision to close the church for immediate seismic strengthening, although plans for further strengthening were already being considered. Once the church was closed, engineers assessed it was approximately only 15 to 20 percent of the current New Building Standard (NBS).
The project had two stages: stage one the foundation work and shear walls; and stage two the portals and roof.
The whole project has cost approximately $9.3 million.
Parish priest Fr Barry Scannell garnered financial support from the wider community, including trusts and individual Wellingtonians, and the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board. He worked closely with Council heritage advisors on the resource consent and his application to the Council’s Built Heritage Incentive Fund (BHIF).
Through the BHIF the Council granted St Mary of the Angels a total of $530,000: an initial $30,000 to help fund the building’s seismic assessment; $400,000 from the in 2015 for the strengthening of the church’s portals and columns; and a further $100,000 in December 2016 for the reinstatement of the cork flooring (important for the building’s famed acoustics) and the Maxwell Fernie organ.
The strengthening work has been extensive and includes the following:
- New ground beam foundations running the length of the church, with 47 ground anchors tying the nave’s new foundations to the bedrock, with another 32 ground anchors in the new tower foundations. These anchors provide resistance against uplift during an earthquake, in addition to their role as traditional piles.
- Most of the building’s ornate columns have been replaced. The 10 replacements are exact replicas, except made with stronger reinforced concrete and tied into the new ground beams.
- The main portals, running from the columns to the building’s roof, have been replaced and strengthened with new concrete sections, hidden structural and steel supports, and fibre wrap.
- Above floor level, there are new concrete shear walls at the nave’s front and rear and around the side chapel walls.
- There’s a new copper roof, together with new guttering and downpipes. Despite all the work, the only noticeable change to the interior of the church is the new shear walls.
Matt Pattinson, the site manager for contractor LT McGuinness, said they were mindful of the heritage values of the building while seismically strengthening it. “Replacing 10 columns, nine portals and the roof of a church with a 21-metre-high ceiling and stained glass windows at every turn was no simple task.”
“If we had not secured the funding, the strengthening work would not been undertaken,” Fr Barry says. “St Mary’s would have gone the same way as Christ Church Cathedral – damaged and abandoned.”
On Wednesday 12 April 2017 the church was re-opened and blessed by Cardinal John Dew, just in time for Easter – appropriately a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and one of the most important events of the Christian calendar.
The Built Heritage Incentive Fund
The fund helps with conserving, restoring, protecting and caring for Wellington's heritage-listed buildings and objects. Our focus is on earthquake strengthening. Find out if your project is eligible for funding through the Built Heritage Incentive Fund.