by KATHLEEN CASEY
Hope has been given to Christchurch hearts with the diocesan announcement of plans to save the nave of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
This decision follows four years of testing, modelling, designing and peer review.
Bishop Barry Jones said he is delighted. “It lifts the heart just to realise there is a possibility. No bishop wants to demolish his cathedral.”
For much of last year the best option appeared to be demolition of the cathedral, with a possible new start later.
It would cost $100 million to $170 million to rebuild, and diocesan property and development manager, Keith Beal, said: “Bishop Barry was always insistent that the cathedral was to be included in the overall repair and rebuild programme for the diocese, and not a standalone project.”
The diocese has 78 churches, 13 of which are heritage buildings, and 33 schools. Of the $107 million insurance payout received, $73 million was for churches. Funds have been pooled, with $45 million set aside for the cathedral precinct.
Cathedral Management Board chairman Lance Ryan said other options were to retain a footprint of the church with a relic garden, or to keep the north wall as a relic, “but they did not sit easy with us and with the parties that we consulted”.
Shortly before last Christmas, the trustees decided to talk to architect Sir Miles Warren, diocesan consultant for more than 30 years. He asked a simple question: “Have you thought about saving the nave?” It had been considered earlier.
“Sir Miles put forward a plan that was more brutal than anything previously considered,”
Mr Ryan said, but showed… it would be possible to deconstruct the badly damaged areas around [the nave] and then build back a sanctuary, narthex and transepts at a later date when the budget and fundraising allowed. In his words, the real beauty of the cathedral … is the inside, and the most beautiful part of the inside was the public area, the nave.”
Pillars enclosing the nave are structurally sound, alternate pillars having had steel rods inserted in 2003.
By carefully removing damaged parts around the nave, engineers could then do an in-depth study, particularly of the state of the land. But if this leads to a bad report, said Mr Ryan: “We would have no option but to move to a full demolition of the cathedral. However, from what we have been able to ascertain, we believe that the beautiful nave can be saved.”
With all this in place, the rebuild and repair timetable across the entire diocese had been launched, said Mr Beal.
The cathedral is registered as category 1 building with Heritage New Zealand, who have been extensively consulted, along with the city council, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and others. It is regarded as one of the finest buildings of its type in Australasia.
Over the next 10 years, the diocese expects to need $28 million for rebuilding and repair work, and an international fundraising campaign will target large global philanthropic foundations and funds.
If the nave is saved, work to follow will include the addition of a new sanctuary, then an
entrance and lobby, transepts— a wider cross section at the head of the nave and possibly
a bell tower(s). It will take at least four years to get to this stage. Precious artefacts will be salvaged and recorded.
“We feel this is a fantastic opportunity to retain a major part of this beautiful cathedral,
and one we believe will generate a lot of fundraising support,” said Mr Ryan.
Bishop John Joseph Grimes would approve. He raised money for his cathedral, in New Zealand and abroad, to supplement that given by his mostly low-income Irish parishioners before and after
its opening in 1905. In 1915 at his death all but £5000 of the £52,000 it cost had been
Architect Francis Petre’s idea to erect a mostly concrete building clad with limestone was revolutionary on this side of the world in 1901 and derided by some, but it withstood many
earthquakes. It was thought to not need strengthening until about the 1990s, when the construction of two major structures at nearby Christchurch Polytechnic and Jade Stadium revealed high-risk soil in the area. A geological investigation showed the same soil problem around the cathedral. Without subsequent strengthening, there may have been just a large pile of rubble.
At a diocesan press conference in May, recent photos of the church interior were shown. Organ pipes are draped like long ribbons over the balustrade, the sanctuary appears to be a pile of rubble, but the nave pillars stand straight and tall with chairs still lined up.
At its 2005 centenary, long term administrator Msgr James Harrington said: “The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament stands as an enduring symbol of the courage, energy and drive of the bishop and the faith and generosity of his people, who were few in number and mostly poor. Despite the setbacks and difficulties, they bequeathed to us a cathedral of which any diocese in the world would be proud.
“It has welcomed a pope and eight bishops.”
But Msgr Harrington added that the secret of the grand building was not its architecture and art. It is “Ecce tabernaculum Dei cum homnibus — Behold here God lives among his people”.
This is holy ground. Reducing the church will not reduce God’s presence.
“Sometimes we have to say goodbye to some things in order to save something else,” said Mr Beal. “Being able to have a living relic that has a purpose is the ultimate goal. We may find it is not possible [to save the nave], but we will have given it a complete try.
“We have thought, with an iconic building like this we have got to do something.”
by KATHLEEN CASEY