restoring beauty

Jan 9, 2016

New Zealand has many very beautiful churches, however most of those which remain are very small and found in rural communities rather than in cities. I think of the six beautiful churches of the Hurunui.

Many of New Zealand’s large (200+seat) churches have been demolished over the years to make way for larger or more modern churches. In many cases decisions to demolish were based on the fact that restoration would cost as much as a more simple new church, and the pragmatic preference then becomes a more basic modern building built for comfort rather than as a timeless and transcendent sign of God living among us.

In the Christchurch diocese a number of beautiful old churches were (or may be) demolished during or as a result of the 2010 – 2011 earthquakes and a number of our parishes are faced with rebuild versus restoration decisions. In two cases the churches in question are 130 years old (Pleasant Point and Rangiora), and our 110 year old Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the New Zealand’s greatest examples of architectural beauty.

There are many factors that need to faced by dioceses and parishes when a decision has to be made about whether to restore or replace an old church. The elements of these decisions are necessarily complex, and cannot be reduced to practical and financial considerations. It is important that all factors are seriously examined. Perhaps a parish does not have the necessary funds for a restoration project, but experience tells us that it is much easier to fund the restoration of a beautiful existing church than it is to come up with the equivalent amount of cash for a more basic modern church design.

In Christchurch we are better off than our ancestors who embarked on a church building project with nothing but faith: their parish bank accounts were empty. Today our Christchurch diocese parishes begin their restoration or rebuild with at least insurance payouts.

It is significant that many younger people have a finely developed appreciation of and taste for “tradition” and “value”. These two elements are often reduced to “age” and “cost” by older generations. I think of the youngish people who seek out old houses to purchase and restore in traditional style, restoring original wooden flooring, leadlight and stained glass, lighting fixtures and even old fireplaces and stoves. There is an authenticity in this they argue, yes it is impractical according to a lay perspective, but to the professional (qualified) mind it is beautiful and beauty is essential for the healthy soul.

After all investigations are done and all options considered, it may be decided that demolition of a damaged old church is necessary. In this case we accept the decision and move on with ensuring that a new church building is as beautiful and inspiring as the previous church.

I was inspired this week when researching rebuild and restoration options to find this video clip on the restoration of one of the most beautiful churches in New Zealand, Wellington’s St. Mary of the Angels.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for posting this John. What an extraordinary project, I love the skill and dedication of the workers, and their humility too.
    The film takes me back to when I was a student at Victoria (1973-1976) and used to attend Mass at St Mary of the Angels. A whole group of us would be at Friday night Mass, 5.15 I think, then adjourn to the pub next door for a meal. Serving the Latin Mass on Sunday morning gave me my first encounter with the beauty of sacred music. I remember the choir, under Maxwell Fernie, singing Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus or Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, after Communion. Many years later, when I read Benedict XVI’s phrase “wounded by beauty”, I knew exactly what he meant as I remembered the experience of hearing that music in that beautiful building, as a 20-year-old. Let’s hope the building can continue to be a witness to the beauty of the faith, for many years to come.


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