CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand Christchurch’s devastating earthquake on February 22, which has seen dozens of people killed, has also partially destroyed the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. A 6.3 magnitude jolt, which struck at 12.51pm local time, has seen many major buildings in Christchurch collapse with serious loss of life and hundreds of people trapped in the rubble.
Latest estimates of the death toll in New Zealands second largest city range up to 75, but that number is expected to climb as rescue and recovery teams work through buildings and uncover vehicles buried under rubble.
Much of the city is without power, water and sewerage and a state of civil emergency has been declared. Other nations have sent search and rescue personnel.
All schools in the city on the South Islands east coast are closed until further notice.
Cathedral administrator Msgr Charles Drennan said engineers have indicated it is unlikely the historic cathedral can be saved.
Two bell towers at the front of the building have collapsed, bringing much of the front façade down with it, with large blocks of masonry destroying vehicles in front of the building.
Workers repairing damage to the building caused by an earthquake on September 4, 2010, were able to escape, as was a custodian who was inside the cathedral at the time.
Msgr Drennan said there is also major cracking evident around the cathedrals main dome.
Stained glass windows, which had survived the September 4 earthquake and some 4000 aftershocks since, are also in ruins, he told NZ Catholic.
Masses had not been celebrated at the cathedral since the September earthquake, but had taken place at other nearby locations.
Msgr Drennan did not know of any loss of life among the Catholic community, but civil authorities have described the situation as extremely grave.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has called the disaster New Zealands darkest day.
Priests at the cathedral rectory were forced to shelter under a table when the earthquake struck, but one was able to see a tower collapse through a window.
Msgr Drennan, who had only recently been told of his appointment as coadjutor bishop of Palmerston North in the North Island said that although the damage had been very significant in Christchurch, there was a sense of thankfulness among survivors, as it could have been much worse.
He praised the actions of senior students at nearby Cathedral College who put up temporary shelters for junior school children terrified by the quake.
The younger children, from St Pauls School, Dallington, had been forced to shift premises to the college after their school was destroyed in last years quake.
The cathedral presbytery gave shelter during the night to 10 Samoan people whose home was uninhabitable.
Bishop of Christchurch Barry Jones was on his way to the West Coast of the South Island when the quake struck, but returned to Christchurch.
However the bishop was unable to get to the city centre on February 22, due to traffic congestion as people tried to flee the city centre.
Bishop Jones subsequently issued the following statement: With all the people of Christchurch and Canterbury I am stunned and deeply saddened by the loss of so many lives, the serious injuries to so many and the destruction of property that has been visited upon us so violently and suddenly. I pray for those who have been killed and injured, and also for those closest to them who never imagined when they last saw them that anything like this would happen. There had been a sense of hope and confidence gradually growing as we came to terms with the consequences of the big earthquake last year, and this horrific disaster is a cruel blow to that hope. I am greatly moved by the courage, dedication and skill of all those who are involved in rescuing and helping victims of this tragedy and I know that they will be supported by the heartfelt prayers of many many people for their safety and protection.
Bishop Jones told NZ Catholic that diocesan headquarters is out of action and he has had to rely on cellphone coverage for communications. So I’m not in a position to get information, he said.
The Vaticans secretariat of state sent a message to Bishop Jones on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI.
The Holy Father was saddened to learn of the sudden devastation and loss of life in the city of Christchurch due to the recent earthquake. He wishes to express his spiritual closeness to everyone who has been affected, and sends his condolences to the families of all who mourn the loss of loved ones. Commending the deceased to the merciful love of God, his Holiness assures the people of the city and the nation of his prayers for all those who are working urgently to rescue and assist the trapped and the injured, as well as for those labouring to restore essential services. Upon all the people of New Zealand, the Holy Father willingly invokes Almighty Gods blessings of courage and strength.
Bishop’s deputy for the pastoral plan Mike Stopforth had seen the destroyed cathedral and said it is a very sad sight.
Many other churches in Christchurch have been destroyed or damaged, including the iconic Anglican cathedral in the city centre, which lost its spire.
The September 4 earthquake caused severe damage to several Catholic schools and churches in Christchurch, with one parish, St Pauls, Dallington, losing its church, school and presbytery, just 10 days after its parish priest had died.