$9.35m mission gets under way to rescue inner-city sanctuary

CLOSED CHURCH: St Mary of the Angels has not been open to parishioners for months.
CLOSED CHURCH: St Mary of the Angels has not been open to parishioners for months.

When a fire destroyed the wooden St Mary of the Angels church in Boulcott St in 1918, Wellingtonians opened their wallets to build the magnificent French gothic church that stands today.

Parish priest Father Barry Scannell hopes that generosity will be repeated this century to fund a $9.35 million earthquake strengthening bill.

The 1922 church, the world's first made of reinforced concrete, has been closed since a 6.5 magnitude earthquake raised safety fears last July.

On Thursday night, the parish launched its fundraising drive to bring the heritage-listed church to 100 per cent of building code - it currently stands between 15 and 20 per cent.

To begin work, the church needs $3m, of which it has already raised $2m. Patrons include former prime minister Jim Bolger, former governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand, former chief District Court judge Sir David Carruthers, businessman Sir John Todd and chief ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem.

The church was widely used, not only by 650 faithful on Sundays but for concerts, weddings, and as a quiet daytime refuge for non-religious Wellingtonians, Scannell said.

"It means so much to people. I'm confident people will respond," he said.

"Parishioners have been generous, but this is a call to the whole of the Catholic community, and to the city."

The church had already spent $500,000 analysing the church's weaknesses and planning its restoration, Scannell said. Laser scanning and some drilling had determined its structural weaknesses.

Stage one of the restoration would overhaul the church's foundations, with new piles to tie beams to the bedrock, and a new concrete floor slab to strengthen the structure above.

New internal shear walls would extend right through the roof, forming new flying buttresses at the rear of the building.

One of those walls would block an interior arch, but every effort had been made to minimise its impact, Scannell said. Two stained glass windows in the wall's path would be inset and artificially lit from behind, mimicking daylight, he said.

"The object of the exercise is, when people come back into it they'll see very little change, and say ‘where's all the money gone?"'

The restoration could have been done more cheaply, but the parish employed top architects and engineers, Scannell said.

"We've got one chance to do it properly. We could do it in an easier way, put a few big beams in, but you'd destroy your beautiful building."

St Mary's prized acoustics would be enhanced rather than destroyed by the restoration, he said.

Stage two, costing nearly $6m, involved replacing each concrete portal, the exposed arch-shaped beams that hold up the native timber ceiling. A new copper roof would then be laid.

The whole project would take 18 months once started, and Scannell was desperate to begin.

"You can't just leave it to sit here. You can't pull it down. We need to get under way."

The Dominion Post