Catholics bide time on cathedral

02:49, May 07 2012
Work continues on dismantling the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament piece by piece.
ON HIGH: Work continues on dismantling the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament piece by piece.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament has become the Cathedral of the Blessed Mystery. Paul Gorman reports on what has become of the Catholic edifice many consider the leading example of ecclesiastical architecture in Christchurch.

Catholics in the Canterbury-West Coast diocese are used to having a cathedral in the wrong part of town.

Shunned from the centre of the Anglican settlement to a site near the railway line and close to the old gasworks, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament has still managed to wow visitors and locals alike, providing a spectacle more exotic than the somewhat austere but unsurprisingly better placed Anglican Christ Church Cathedral.

PIECE BY PIECE: John Craig, Opus project manager, and Lance Ryan, chairman of the cathedral management board, stand under the dome.

Ironic, then, that as a result of extensive earthquake damage, the fabric of the Catholic cathedral is finding a new home in another industrial part of the city.

The cathedral management board asked The Press to keep the exact storage location secret. The most we can say is it is somewhere in the flat wastelands of far western Christchurch.

To date, the diocese has spent about $3 million deconstructing the damaged parts of the cathedral, on cleaning and saving and numbering stones, windows and unique elements, and on transporting material, at night, to the new site.


Management board chairman Lance Ryan said discussions leading up to a decision on whether the cathedral would be rebuilt or demolished could well be at least six, and more likely 12, months away.

The cathedral's fate had to be considered in the context of it being just one of 20 damaged churches in the diocese. He said there were three options – demolition, rebuilding or mothballing.

The cost of a rebuild could be $100m and would involve several years of work by stonemasons.

Bishop Barry Jones said he would not make that decision until he was satisfied he had all the relevant knowledge.

"Not all the information has been gathered in yet about what is there,'' he said.

"I'm prepared to wait as long as I have to, to get a full picture of what the actual position is."

It has been a tale of two cathedrals. While the angst and the very public bickering about the fate of the Anglican cathedral has commanded hundreds of column centimetres of space, the Catholics have obviously watched and learnt from the "how not to handle a controversial issue" show unfolding in Cathedral Square, taken completely the opposite tack and disappeared largely from view.

Of course, the Catholics have had the benefit of being in a far less public space than the Anglicans.

Ryan said the Catholic authorities' silence about the cathedral did not mean no work had taken place.

The pressure had been on to make the building safe so Catholic Cathedral College and the site-sharing Marian College, in the "fall zone" of the cathedral, had certainty and could be fully functional at the start of this year.

The Press's meeting on Thursday with Ryan and Opus project manager John Craig in a cold, deserted car park on the edge of town had shades of an East German spy swap.

Ryan and Craig took us to a concealed, scaffolded area containing tonnes of lumps of stone, chunks of cornice and other architectural features stacked several storeys high.

Outside lie dismantled copper domes with new flashing, massive building blocks and grubby-looking window frames from the cathedral.

What from the outside looks like a large water tower sitting on short concrete piles and covered with waterproof material turns out on the inside to actually be the cathedral's precious intricate pressed-metal, patterned inner dome.

Craig said the facilities and shrink-wrapping allowed the individually numbered objects to be kept in the "best condition possible". Even if they were not used for any rebuild, they would act as a guide for the design of new elements.

Ryan said the whole diocese had to deal with insurance issues and decisions on assets, which included schools, retirement villages, church halls and presbyteries, as well as churches.

The church had adequate insurance cover with Ansvar, he said.

Deconstruction work had paused, but more material would be transported to the site in the months to come. There was a plan to remove more windows and a special plan would be needed to take out the main organ.

Opus heritage specialist Carole-Lynne Kerrigan was on site giving "a balance" of opinions on what the future of the cathedral might hold, Ryan said.

"Personally, part of me wants to pull it down and part of me wants to say, 'Let's spend 100 years fixing it', because they do that in Europe."

Jones said the wider diocese would be involved in some way in the final decision. "We will need to have a pretty big sounding of what people think. It can't be a mass movement, but we have to have a good idea what Catholics are thinking."

The Press