Cardinal John Dew has affirmed Wellington archdiocese’s commitment to strengthening the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart as the cathedral community takes steps to find its “new normal”. The cathedral was closed on July 13 after a structural engineer’s report confirmed the building represents a significant risk to people in the case of a moderate to strong earthquake.

“Sacred Heart Cathedral is a Category 1 historic building. It is a treasure for the country, the city and the Church. We have no choice but to strengthen it,” Cardinal Dew said on his Facebook page in answer to a suggestion.

A statement released by the cathedral parish on the same day said it is likely that strengthening the building “will cost several millions” and that it will be “closed for several years”.

A fundraising committee chaired by Nigel Ingram had been established.

“Raising the funds for this essential work is now the priority. The cathedral parish will be enlisting the help of the people of Wellington and others to preserve this Wellington landmark,” the statement said.

The cardinal was in Brisbane to deliver an address at  the Proclaim 2018 conference when the news came out.

The theme of the conference, “Make your home in me” (John 15:4), seemed a fitting reminder “that our true home is not a building”, Cardinal Dew said.

“Our cathedral ‘home’ will be closed for some time. It is time to find out what Pope Francis’ words ‘Go out . . .’ and our synod theme ‘Go, you are sent . . .’ really mean,” he said.

The news came as a shock to parishioners as well as the wider community.

Parish moderator Fr Ron Bennett and Sacred Heart Cathedral parish (SHCP) lay pastoral leader Debbie Matheson met with concerned parishioners on July 17 at St Mary’s College hall to reassure them and provide information.

Ms Matheson said there are a lot of things the parish community is working through.

“We’re moving forward to finding out what the new normal is for us a parish. We’re looking for a new normal and way forward as a community. It’s a good opportunity for us,” she said.

Organisers of events scheduled at the cathedral had to find other venues.

The Missionary Society of St Columban moved the celebration of their centenary from the cathedral to St Peter and Paul’s church in Lower Hutt on July 27 at 6.30 pm. Cardinal Dew will still be the main celebrant of the Mass.

Assessment 

The cathedral parish had commissioned Dunning Thornton Consultants, structural engineers, to do a rapid assessment of the building following the Kaikoura earthquake in November, 2016. No significant damage was observed at the time.

The following year, the firm was again commissioned by the parish to undertake a detailed seismic assessment (DSA) in two stages.

The first stage was completed in September, 2017, and put the building’s compliance with the New Building Standard (NBS) at 40 per cent. A compliance rate of less than 34 per cent classifies the building as earthquake prone under the Building Act 2004.

On May 8, 2018, the second stage interim report identified the building as a potential earthquake prone risk.

Two weeks later, the results summary received by the parish confirmed that the cathedral rating was less than 33 per cent of NBS. The final report issued in early July said the assessment was less than 15 per cent of NBS.

The parish’s finance committee had this assessment peer reviewed. The review stated the “true assessment may actually be less than 10 per cent”.

The parish finance committee and pastoral council met on the night of July 12 and decided that the cathedral must be closed down for the safety of the parishioners, staff and visitors.

In a report to the lay pastoral leader, finance committee interim chairman Bob Thompson said Dunning Thornton also suggested an interim solution which was “to tie the roof back as there is a danger of the cathedral roof collapsing onto part or all of the newer structure”.

“This will enable the parish to use Connolly Hall, the chapel and the foyer. They are part of a separate structure built in the 1980s and are not earthquake prone,” he stated in the report.

While the cathedral is closed, weekday Masses will take place at Sacred Heart Cathedral school in the short term and Sunday Masses will be celebrated at St Mary’s College Hall, Guildford Terrace.

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