Priceless relic found in convent rubble

TREASURE UNCOVERED: Sister Lusia, Sister Mary-Rose and Paul King with the monstrance.
TREASURE UNCOVERED: Sister Lusia, Sister Mary-Rose and Paul King with the monstrance.

Catholic nuns from the under-deconstruction Nazareth House convent in Christchurch have been given a surprise early Christmas present.

A sacred ceremonial monstrance thought to date to the early 1900s has been returned intact after a demolition crewman stumbled across it by chance.

The nuns living at the Brougham St convent when the February 2011 earthquake hit had no idea the priceless monstrance - used to display the consecrated Eucharistic during special services - was there, so it was not included in the manifesto of items to salvage.

Graceworks Demolition and Recycling boss Paul King was working in the chapel when he stumbled across a large antique safe concealed at the back of the altar, which appeared not to have been touched for many years.

King asked the caretaker if he had the key, and about an hour later he turned up with the oldest looking key he could find.

The first surprise was that the key fitted - but when King opened up the box and found what he thought was a gold and diamond-encrusted chalice, his "hair stood on end", he said.

King showed it to a workmate who had worked with antiques, who told him, "that's something special".

"I was just shocked. We said, ‘we've got to do the right thing'.

"We got two nuns together. They laughed and jumped for joy. They just about cried."

Once assembled, the monstrance was about 70cm tall and weighed about 8kg, King said.

Sister Marie Townsend, from the Nazareth House community, said the nuns who lived at the convent at the time of the earthquake had been there only about a year. "Because of where it was, none of us had come across it. Perhaps earlier sisters who lived in the house would have known, but none of us did," she said.

Because it has a London mark on it, one possibility was the Sisters of Nazareth who arrived in Christchurch in about 1905 brought it with them.

"We can't find any other record of it being donated or bought. It is quite special. You probably wouldn't get one like it now."

Sister Marie said the monstrance had now been safely stored and a record of it made. She said it would have been used many times by the early sisters and was therefore quite sacred.

"It's wonderful for us to find it. It was quite a highlight. A demolition lot could have taken it and we would have been none the wiser."

The roof of Nazareth House, built in 1987, was removed on Wednesday with the deconstruction scheduled for completion in about two months.

The sisters are living in a temporary convent on the site with plans under way for a new convent.

Sunday Star Times