The first church to be built on the Hill Street site was St. Mary’s Cathedral, blessed and opened in 1851. It was gutted by fire in 1898, during repainting. Because the Catholic population of Wellington was then mostly based in the Te Aro and Newtown areas, it was decided that a new cathedral should be erected in that part of the city and a ‘serviceable church in brick’ built on the site of the old cathedral.
However the new church, called the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, was rather grander than this. Its foundation stone was laid in 1899 and the building blessed and opened two years later. In 1983 the Basilica was elevated to the status of a cathedral by Cardinal Thomas Williams. The following year it was made a Category 1 Historic Place.
THE FIRST CATHEDRAL
On Sunday, 8 September, 1850, the foundation stone of St. Mary’s Cathedral was blessed and laid, the bishop recording that more than two thousand of the townspeople attended the ceremony.
On 1 May 1851, the first anniversary of Bishop Viard’s arrival in Wellington, the cross was raised on the belfry of the Cathedral, and on Sunday, 7 December 1851, the building was blessed and opened.
Shortly after 8.30 on the morning of 28 November 1898, when the Cathedral was being repainted, fire broke out in the tower. Within an hour the tower had fallen, and the interior of the Cathedral was a gutted ruin. In the short time available to helpers before the Fire Brigade ordered the closing of the doors, many of the contents of the Cathedral were salvaged. The only insurance was £2,300 on the building itself. The organ and other furnishings were not insured.
PLANNING FOR THE NEW CATHEDRAL
On 30 November, two days after the fire, a public meeting was held “to take steps for erecting a church to replace St. Mary’s Cathedral”. It was decided that as the greater population had settled in the direction of Te Aro and Newtown, the new Cathedral should be built in that part of town, and that “a serviceable church in brick should be erected on the site of the old Cathedral”.
The building of the Basilica diverted funds from the Cathedral Trust, and in 1903 a new fund raising campaign was launched with an illustration of Mr Frank Petre’s proposed Romanesque design.
The design was described by the architect as Roman, bordering on to Florentine Renaissance, treated liberally. . . ” and the, reporter commented that “the exterior view of the Cathedral indicates that the building is of noble and imposing proportions”. It was to provide accommodation for 2,100 people.
In the event, the planned laying of the foundation stone at the end of 1913 was delayed and in 1914, came the outbreak of the First World War.
The late 1930s saw an end to the economic depression and a revival of interest in the Cathedral project. Another plan was prepared, this time by Messrs Clere & Clere, who submitted a design for a Gothic type Cathedral to seat 2240. Cardinal Hinsley, the Archbishop of Westminster, agreed to come to New Zealand for the laying of the Foundation Stone, but the uneasy peace of 1938 was succeeded by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
From war’s end till the mid 1970′s more pressing needs of the Church prevented any further progress towards the new Cathedral until on Sunday 18 March 1984, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, erected on the site of the destroyed St. Mary’s Cathedral, was solemnly dedicated by Cardinal Thomas Williams as the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese.
STRENGTHENING THE CATHEDRAL
On the 21 of February 1985, Cardinal Thomas Williams commissioned a Cathedral Project Committee to comprise the following: the Dean of the Cathedral, two members of the Parish Finance Committee, two members of the Archdiocesan Property Committee and the Financial Administrator and Property Manager of the Archdiocese.
The first task was to determine the life expectancy of the Cathedral. This involved the examination and analysis of the fabric of the building to determine the merits and demerits of its restoration. Reports were obtained from expert stonemasons, engineers, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Building Research Institute on every component of the building. It was clearly established that the building was worthy of restoration, preservation and strengthening.
The next task was to design the strengthening of the Cathedral and the additional facilities to be added so as to make it a Cathedral in fact as well as in name. The Committee retained the professional services of Allan Morse, Architect, Dunning Thornton Consultants Ltd, Consulting Engineers and Knapman Clark & Co, Quantity Surveyors.
But it was not until July 1986 that a contract was able to be let for the works which were scheduled for completion in September 1987. The works involved the demolition of the old wooden Presbytery at 10 Guilford Terrace and the old brick Redwood Houses in Hill Street.
The project presented the Group with many challenges which required balancing the specifications for the “new Cathedral” against the integrity of the existing building both in terms of its strength and characteristics.
The development of the Cathedral did not stop with the reopening but involved a second and exciting stage which was the Piazza and forecourt. This element of the Cathedral was included in the development of the neighbouring chancery for the Archdiocese and created a true Cathedral precinct for the Church and people of the Archdiocese of Wellington.