Brave nuns fight fire to save historic church

17:00, Jun 16 2012
Mother Joanna Hope, left, and Mother Justin Allchurch
SUPERIOR SERVICE: Mother Joanna Hope, left, and Mother Justin Allchurch fought flames that engulfed their home in the Bombay Hills south of Auckland.

Wrapped in a dressing gown, a nun fought a raging blaze with a fire extinguisher, determined to stop the flames spreading to a nearby historic church.

Seven nuns all avoided injury when the living quarters they were sleeping in caught fire shortly after midnight yesterday. The kauri church, thought to be more than 100 years old, escaped, but their quarters were badly hit.

Mother Joanna Hope said they stood together terrified as flames leapt from the roof of their bedroom at Tyburn Monastery in Bombay, south of Auckland.

At the opposite end of the small building, a metal bucket containing the evening's fire embers had caused nearby pine cones to catch alight.

A piercing siren broke the night's silence, waking the nuns, and Mother Joanna said they were hit by a repugnant smell as the alarm sounded.

"It was so dark that it was the smell more than anything. There was plastic burning and things falling down."


The flames were intense enough to tear through the roof and wall, leaving a thick smoke hanging in the air.

Mother Joanna said one of the nuns had screamed for her sisters to "get out" as parts of the roof fell in, so the women had grabbed dressing gowns and escaped the building.

"It was quite scary ... everyone was just standing in horror."

But rather than running to safety, Mother Joanna grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran back to the source of the flames.

Crouching close to the ground she emptied the foam on to the flames, but the fire had spread too far.

Meanwhile, another nun was calling the fire brigade, while others ran for help. Mother Joanna said she felt a little embarrassed by her attempts to quell the flames, but the firefighters had commended her for her bravery.

The fire alarm was checked regularly, otherwise it could have been a different story. Mother Joanna said without the alarm, the sisters might never have woken up.

Between prayers and taking phone calls from concerned friends yesterday, the nuns found time to salvage clothing from the damaged building. The women were all able to change out of their dressing gowns and back into their habits.

Another seven visitors were staying in retreat rooms 50 metres from the blaze and a priest slept in a room down the drive.

Father Pat McCann said he wondered who could be banging on his door when he was woken suddenly, but it did not take long to realise the nuns were outside calling for help.

He was relieved their historic church was spared. If the flames had got closer the kauri would have burnt "like mad".

Father Pat bought lunch for the nuns yesterday. "They would regard themselves as a religious family," he said.

Mother Justin Allchurch said she could remember being hot during the night, and kicking off her blankets before falling back to sleep. She was woken shortly after by the alarm.

The telephone had been ringing throughout the day as the news spread as Catholic followers from as far away as Australia called with offers of help.

The nuns have all moved to the untouched retreat on the property.

Northern fire communications spokesman Scott Osmond said the fire was well involved when firefighters arrived.

"We were able to get it under control in about half an hour."

Sunday Star Times