To the words of the hymn “Gather us in”, a group of people with a variety of connections to the St Mary Star of the Sea church in Port Chalmers in Magnetic Street gathered recently to celebrate its 140-year story.

The church itself has aspects to it that mark it as a F.W. Petre-designed building. But also has a link to Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop, who spent several months in Port Chalmers in 1896. Part of the church served as the Catholic school run by the Sisters of St Joseph during the early years before an actual school was built.

The F.W. Petre-designed church was opened in 1878. Financial constraints at the time meant that only the nave was built. Other parts were added afterwards as finances permitted. The stages of building progress were recorded in a plaque set into the front wall of the church.

However, over time, the stone plaque had cracked and the lettering had become difficult to read. Local current parishioner Carol Meikle determined that it would be a suitable project to renew the plaque to mark this historic church’s 140th year since it was built.

With the approval of parish priest Fr Mark Chamberlain, of the pastoral area, Mrs Meikle set about obtaining funds from a local source to undertake the project. The original stone plaque was removed and a new stone containing the same wording and design was produced. This was then set back in the wall near the entrance porch door.

Mrs Meikle then turned her attention to arranging a way of marking the event in a fitting manner. A need to have a suitable liturgy for the occasion saw Anne Kennedy, the associate director and resource developer at the Dunedin office of the National Centre for Religious Studies, become involved. Mrs Kennedy also has fond links with the church, since her great-grandfather, Nicola Azzariti, who was a stalwart of the Catholic community in Port Chalmers at the time, was involved in the construction of the church.

The liturgy covered various aspects including the lighting of three candles to honour the past, the present and the future of the church and the Catholic community in Port Chalmers. Mrs Meikle provided a five-minute historical review of main events connected with the church. Then members of the congregation were invited to share their memories of their connection with the parish.

One such story was related by Sr Therese McConway, RSJ, from Lower Hutt. She recalled the story of a woman who had been trying to become pregnant. St Mary MacKillop, the co-founder of the Josephite Sisters, was in Port Chalmers at the time and she was asked to pray for the woman who duly became pregnant. Much to the mirth of the present congregation, Sr McConway revealed that the result of that prayer and pregnancy became Sr Anne Smith, RSJ.

Bishop Michael Dooley then spoke and commented about the importance to Dunedin Diocese of small, strong faith communities like Port Chalmers. It was important on such an occasion to remember and be thankful for the people who had made their contribution to the parish.

Towards the end of the liturgy, the cutting of the iced cake celebrating the 140 years of history took place. The cake was made and provided by Sr Anne Gilroy. RSJ. It incorporated photos of the church adorning its top.

The culmination of the ceremony took place out at the front of the church with the unveiling of the new plaque, which Bishop Dooley then blessed.

Mrs Meikle then invited everyone present to the afternoon tea that she had organised. This presented the opportunity for more shared stories.