Christchurch cathedral demolition plan approved

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Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) has approved the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch’s demolition plan for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. 

This is in accordance with the conditions of a section 38 notice – an emergency earthquake-related provision in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act. 

A LINZ spokesperson told NZ Catholic that the diocese intends to start deconstruction work this month. 

According to a report on Stuff, the demolition work will start at the eastern end of the building, firstly removing unstable arches and other hazardous elements. 

The roof and other high and overhead elements will follow. The Barbadoes St frontage will be the final section demolished. 

The overall cost of the demolition will be $1.8million, reportedly, and it will take a year to complete. 

Bishop Paul Martin, SM, announced the demolition of the earthquake-damaged cathedral in August last year. 

There was media coverage in the first week of September this year, after stone angels at the cathedral were removed by crane. A LINZ spokesman was reported as saying that this was not demolition work.  

There were calls from several people, including Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel, for the diocese to try to preserve various items from the cathedral. 

Bishop Martin was reported as saying that he was sad to demolish the cathedral, adding that the site remains very hazardous and dangerous. 

While the cathedral’s angels and some stone columns will be salvaged, “any other salvage activities will be opportunistic in nature, and subject to being able to safely access areas of the building”. 

The diocese has reportedly spent more than $1million preserving and cataloguing items recovered from the cathedral so far.  

In another story, Stuff reported that heritage campaigners had abandoned their legal fight to prevent demolition of the cathedral, which was completed in 1905. 

A new cathedral precinct is planned for a site adjacent to Victoria Square. 

NZ Catholic invited Don Whelan, organist at the cathedral for more than five decades, for his reaction to the upcoming demolition. Mr Whelan was also asked what items he especially hoped could be recovered and maybe used again, bearing in mind considerations of safety and cost. Mr Whelan’s response is below:


Having been asked by the editor for my feelings upon hearing of the “upcoming demolition of the building”, I am extremely sad to witness the downfall of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, in which I have served as cathedral organist for over 51 years. My particular concern is that the internationally-renowned instrument, for which I was appointed in 1969, is likely to be completely destroyed, as the current demolition plan allows only for opportunistic salvage, which I discovered by asking the site foreman. 

The main organ was built in Birmingham, in the 1870s, by Halmshaw and Sons, and was beautifully restored in 1978 by the South Island Organ Company, which has indicated to the diocese and the salvage company their commitment to rescuing the organ, once a necessary new inspection confirms the viability of its present condition and a safe method of removal. If found viable, I am sure that financial backing and strong support from local organists will be forthcoming. It is regarded by organ historians as one of the finest instruments of its time – comparable to a magnificent old Steinway piano or Stradivarius violin. From its first home, in the wooden pro-cathedral, to its transplanting in 1905 to our stone building, it faithfully accompanied congregations, choirs and orchestras and performed an extensive solo repertoire. 

Other valuable artistic treasures associated with our cathedral music are also at risk. The “Magnificat” stained glass window by Phillip Trusttum, which uses chant motifs, was inaugurated with a setting by composer Dorothy Buchanan. The “Stations of the Cross” by Llew Summers have been celebrated in poetry by Bernadette Hall and in the “Stations” Symphony by Antony Ritchie. 

The most recent new cathedrals built in the US proudly incorporate windows and other objects from demolished local churches, just as our organ, which had been intended for a neo-Gothic wooden structure, was moved to a grand classical building – first above the sanctuary, then to the choir gallery. 

With financial support, it would be encouraging to see the cathedral’s artistic patrimony safeguarded. We, the Church, are the only custodians of our wonderful treasury of Catholic music and artistic creation, and we should be held to account for its preservation. 

Pope Francis has called many times for our Church to be a listening Church. May my plea for our cultural heritage be heard by all those with ears to hear in this matter.  


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Rowena Orejana

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