Quake prompts church closure

Heritage listed church needs strengthening

HANK SCHOUTEN
Last updated 05:00 29/07/2013
St Mary of the Angels
ROSS GIBLIN/ Fairfax NZ

SAFETY FIRST: St Mary of the Angels is closed for 18 months for quake strengthening. Parish priest Father Barry Scannell said the safety of parishioners was paramount.

St Mary of the Angels
FAREWELL FOR NOW: Parishioner Cecilia Kim looks around the church for the last time before it is closed for earthquake strengthening.
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Another heritage-listed central Wellington landmark has been closed in the wake of last weekend's big earthquake.

Parishioners who arrived for Sunday mass at St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott St yesterday were ushered into the church hall and told the 91-year-old building would be closed for up to 18 months for earthquake-strengthening work.

It follows the forced evacuation of the Old Public Trust building in Lambton Quay, which sustained serious damage in last Sunday's 6.5 magnitude earthquake.

The category 1 heritage-listed St Mary's, which had already been yellow-stickered as requiring strengthening work, came through the quake unscathed, but parish priest Father Barry Scannell said the safety of parishioners was paramount.

"We were probably looking to close towards the end of this year but, after last week, we decided to expedite it in the interests of safety."

The quake highlighted the urgency of the upgrade work being planned on the church, he said. Some strengthening was done when it was reroofed and refurbished in the 1980s and 90s, but it now required a full upgrade, at a cost of an estimated $5 million to $8m.

The gothic revival church was designed by Wellington architect Frederick de Jersey Clere, who also designed St Gerard's Monastery in Mt Victoria, another heritage building that needs strengthening.

Wellington Catholic archdiocese administration director David Mullin said no further church closures had been prompted by last week's quakes.

Anglican Insurance Board chairman Don Baskerville said the Anglican and Presbyterian churches were going through the same assessment exercise, and raised the question of whether New Zealand could afford to strengthen all its quake-prone heritage buildings.

"This is an issue that has politicians too scared, and a lot of ostriches have their heads buried in the sand," he said.

Mr Baskerville believed the engineering and building capacity existed to do the work required on thousands of buildings, but it was going to take time.

The bigger issue was how much it would cost, and whether some old buildings would have to be pulled down.

Mr Mullin said about 50 of the 180 parish buildings in an archdiocese that ran from Westport to Levin had been assessed as earthquake-prone since the Christchurch earthquakes.

The Catholic Church was going through the process of deciding which would be strengthened first, which it could afford to do, and which ones parishioners would have to pay for.

Historic Places Trust central region general manager Ann Neill said she was not surprised by the decision to close St Mary's. "It's a safe, well thought-through response to last Sunday." She said the trust had been working with the church as it prepared plans for its seismic upgrade.

Brian McGuinness, managing director of construction company L T McGuinness, which has been involved in many heritage building projects, said previous work on the church involved strengthening the tower and its big rose windows, but the main structure now needed attention too.

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The recent quakes had again reminded people of the need to get work done, he said. "The capacity is there, but everything has got to be done in a controlled manner when resources are available, which I think they are. Wellington is more on to it in terms of seismic strengthening than the other cities, and a lot of the stock is pretty good."

'A DIFFICULT DECISION'

Parishioner Cecilia Kim supports the decision to close St Mary's, though she will miss the building's beauty during its 18-month refit.

The Khandallah resident has been attending services in St Mary's since she moved to Wellington in 1995, and she was married there.

"It's beautiful - an iconic building in Wellington City."

She knew Father Barry Scannell had made a difficult decision in closing the Gothic revival building after last weekend's earthquake, but she supported it. "It's understandable - the safety of people is paramount."

The church would be missed not just by the parishioners, but also the wider community, including musical groups who practised and performed there.

Father Scannell said that, while St Mary's was closed, weekday masses would take place in the parish hall and, after arrangements were made, Sunday masses would be celebrated at St Joseph's Church in Mt Victoria and Sacred Heart Cathedral in Thorndon.

- The Dominion Post

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