Taranaki Cathedral to acknowledge 'good, bad and ugly' past

10:33 pm on 27 April 2017

The dean of New Zealand's oldest stone church hopes to use a multi-million-dollar restoration project to do more to acknowledge the darker side of its history.

The Taranaki Cathedral, formerly known as St Mary's, was built in 1846 out of local volcanic rock.

It played a pivotal role in the Taranaki Wars of the 1860s, when it found itself the centre of a fortified settlement and gave shelter to Pākehā civilians while European forces camped in its grounds.

Now, however, the 170-year-old building is considered at risk of becoming a pile of rubble in an earthquake - and a $15 million fund-raising campaign is under way to restore it.

Its dean, the Reverend Peter Beck, will oversee the project and spoke at the campaign launch today.

Mr Beck said the revamped cathedral would play an important role in telling the story of what happened in Taranaki.

Together with its Māori partners, the church would become a driver for peace and reconciliation.

"The symbolism of this is just huge. I'm really quite emotional about it because this building opened in 1846 and it carries the story of Taranaki, you know - the good, the bad and the ugly - and today is marking the next step in the future for us.

The Dean of the Taranaki Cathedral, Peter Beck, is overseeing the $15 million earthquake strengthening and enhancement project.

The Reverend Peter Beck will be overseeing the restoration project. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"And that future is much more about working together and walking with our Māori partners from the Treaty and so many other people.

"This place will become more and more a place of welcome for people of all faiths, and none, and that is what a cathedral is all about."

Mr Beck said the renovated cathedral would include a new atrium and a visitors' centre.

"We'll have a way that the story can be told. What has happened in Taranaki and where the future is going."

Reeves Canon Wharehoka Wano represented Māori at the launch of the campaign, which has been named 'The Cathedral Project: A Taranaki Taonga'.

Mr Wano applauded the Anglican Church's willingness to embrace the less savoury side of St Mary's history.

"There's been a real endeavour and intention to understand the past, to acknowledge it and not hide it, not to sweep it away as we've tended to with a lot of Aotearoa history, and then push us into a future that's about encouraging us as a community to move forward."

Building like an 'old style tin cake-tin'

St Mary's was consecrated as the Taranaki Cathedral Church of St Mary in March 2010. It has been closed since February 2016 after it was discovered to be an extreme earthquake-prone building.

The head of the Anglican Church in New Zealand, Archbishop Philip Richardson, said what the building inspectors found was dire.

"If you think of an old style tin cake-tin. If you don't have the lid on it, and you push the corners, it wobbles like crazy.

Taranaki Cathedral Church of St Mary (formerly known as St Mary's) is the oldest stone church in New Zealand.

The Taranaki Cathedral, formerly known as St Mary's, was built in 1846 out of local volcanic rock. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"There's no connection between the walls of this church and the roof, none whatsoever. The roof is just sitting on there.

"There's no lateral connection across the church so there's nothing holding the outside walls together and there's no angle bracing in the roof, so there's no strength in the roof.

"It's 14 percent of [the] new building standards and that's really low. It was built over five different construction periods and there are just two skins of stone walls with rubble in-between and no reinforcing, no strength. It sits there."

Archbishop Richardson, who is also the Bishop of Taranaki, said despite this he was confident the church could be restored and enhanced.

"We have really good engineering reports. We have a plan going forward and we are having those plans peer-reviewed by someone who has enormous experience of dealing with this kind of building ... In Italy, actually, [they] have had to refurbish and repurpose buildings of this kind many, many times."

Restoration work needs to honour cathedral, parishioner says

Parishioner Anne Smith had worshipped at St Mary's for 50 years, and said was just happy to see a return to the building on the horizon.

Parishioner Anne Smith has worshipped at St Mary's for 50 years and is happy to see a return to the building on the horizon.

Anne Smith is happy to see a return to the building on the horizon. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"I mean the church is the people in essence, so I hadn't felt the church was going to disappear, but the building itself ... it was an upsetting time for a while, but now I feel quite positive about it."

Ms Smith said the building was a testament to the settlers who built it and dear to many people's hearts in Taranaki and beyond.

"I think the early settlers, they did build it as a thanksgiving for a safe passage out here and at huge sacrificial cost really, when you think about it.

"They could have put up a wooden building easily but they chose stone and made it permanent. It's a beautiful building and I think we need to honour that as well."

More than $750,000 has already been raised for the project and it was hoped work would begin midway through next year. The cathedral would then reopen in the second half of 2019.

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