by PETER OWENS
A cool head and a swift appraisal of what was a serious situation undoubtedly saved Fr Chris O’Neill, parish priest of St Mary’s parish in Invercargill, from possible severe injury or even death on a recent occasion.

Fr O’Neill was the only occupant of a two-storeyed building in Tyne Street on the night of January 8. The building, which was built in the mid-1960s, serves both as the presbytery for St Mary’s Basilica and also for a number of church offices.

Fr O’Neill was awoken early on the morning of January 9 by the sound of activated smoke alarms and the sound of breaking glass. He concluded there was a fire in the building and having dressed and summoned the local fire service, he left the building from a fire escape at the rear of the building. He was fortunate in this choice because access to the fire escape in the front of the building was blocked by the fire.

Despite being without a home because of the fire, Fr O’Neill made certain he was in attendance at the weekday 9am Mass in the adjoining St Mary’s Basilica on the morning of the fire. He thought it was important to be seen at that Mass – otherwise members of the parish might have concluded he had perished in the fire.

Fr O’Neill is shortly to take up an appointment as parish priest at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Milton in South Otago. Until that time he is being accommodated by Fr Tony Harrison at the presbytery of Sacred Heart parish, Waikiwi in North Invercargill.

While the fire caused substantial damage to the presbytery and parish offices, it was confined to the one building despite the fact that a number of fire appliances and firefighters were required to contain and extinguish the fire.

Both the New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Fire Service regarded the fire as “suspicious” and a 17-year-old male youth has been charged in connection with the fire. Police are also interviewing a 16-year-old male.

St Mary’s is the largest parish in Invercargill and the basilica dominates the city skyline. Designed by the celebrated F.W. Petre, it was opened in 1905, and has a Category 1 listing as a Historic Place in New Zealand.

Plans are already under way to repair the damage to the fire ravaged building. Under a recent proposal to re-organise the Catholic Church establishment in Invercargill, St Mary’s was designated as the hub for such re-organisation.

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