To the naked eye, the grand French Gothic-style structure standing tall in central Wellington looks just the same inside and out – but St Mary of the Angels is now stepping up as a shining light for earthquake-prone buildings in the capital.
That no-one would outwardly know the church has undergone a four-year, $9.5 million restoration is, for those who undertook the work, the biggest compliment they could be given.
The Catholic church in Boulcott St, opened in 1922, was pulled apart and its floors dug up by a workforce of 500 tradesmen in a remarkable feat of engineering that brings it to almost 100 per cent of the New Building Standard (NBS).
The magnitude 6.5 earthquake in July 2013 forced the parish to bring forward planned strengthening work on the church.
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The series of quakes hit during Sunday masses on July 21 (magnitude 5.8 during the 7am mass and 6.5 during the 5pm mass) but did not damage the category 1 heritage building, the third church built on the site.
Mass-goers felt the building move and saw the pillars sway. If the swaying had gone on for two minutes, the roof might have caved in, says parish priest Father Barry Scannell.
The building had previously been deemed earthquake prone and was less than 33 per cent of NBS, so in the interests of public safety it was decided to close the church, and commission a rigorous engineering assessment.
It was a courageous decision, especially because the lack of visible damage meant there was no possibility of an insurance claim, Scannell says.
Engineering consultants concluded the building actually met only 15 to 20 per cent of NBS, meaning St Mary of the Angels would be 100 times more likely to suffer extensive damage in a major seismic event than a building that met the modern building code.
Several strengthening options were considered and in mid-2014 a proposal was accepted to retain the building’s integrity and strengthen it as closely as possible to 100 per cent of NBS.
“One of the saddest aspects for me was not being able to hold weddings, baptisms, funerals for parishioners whose family had been coming to the church for generations,” Scannell says. “I’ll never forget having to ring 25 brides to tell him they could no longer host their wedding in the church.”
Most of the work had been completed by the time the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the top of the South Island and Wellington in November 2016.
Scannell rushed to the church and was relieved to find it still intact. An engineer later confirmed it had withstood the shake.
“We’ve saved the church,” he said this week. “I get a great deal of satisfaction after all the hard work everyone put in. For me, it’s like coming back home after three years in the wilderness.”
Buildings throughout the city faced demolition “and I’m happy that this church will not be one of them”.
A tale of two buildings
Strengthening work has yet to begin on many of the capital’s 600 earthquake-prone buildings, including another city landmark, the Town Hall.
Work on the heritage building, opened in 1904, is due to start next year, with a reopen date of 2012.
Lambton Ward city councillor Nicola Young says those involved with the Town Hall redevelopment could learn from the St Mary of the Angels project.
“Wellington has many significant earthquake-prone buildings, with little obvious sign of seismic strengthening work commencing,” she says.
“Instead, this significant Wellington landmark is reopening and will, once again, be used for religious services, arts events and concerts. It has already been booked as a venue for the 2018 New Zealand Festival.”
Young commends the leadership and dedication Scannell showed with the church project.
A testament of his dedication is his office; instead of being adorned with religious imagery, the wall’s are covered with detailed engineering plans for the work on the church, and his desk is strewn with documents relating to the construction.
Hung in the corner, next to his vestments, are his other daily work clothes; his Hi-Vis vest and hard hat.
“Barry spent almost every working hour outside his priestly duties on it,” Young says. “It became his life and he committed himself to finding donations.”
Until now leadership had been lacking when it came to the Town Hall, she says. But she believes Wellington Mayor Justin Lester has the vision and the drive to bring the building back to life.
Wellington City Council plans to spend about $90m strengthening the 113-year-old venue, which was declared earthquake-prone in 2009 and closed in 2013, to bring it up to 100 per cent of building code.
St Mary’s strengthening presented the Catholic parish with two major challenges: raising the funds to allow the work to happen, and maintaining the integrity of the heritage building, which has world-class acoustics that made it an important and popular venue for Wellington’s arts sector, in particular: the New Zealand Festival, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and the New Zealand String Quartet.
St Mary of the Angels is such a significant building for Wellingtonians that donations came from of all denominations, Young says.
The church was widely used, not only by 650 faithful on Sundays but for concerts, weddings, and as a quiet daytime refuge for non-religious Wellingtonians.
It means so much to people, she says.
A professional fundraiser was not employed; Scannell insisted on taking on the role to avoid the costs of hiring a professional as he wanted every dollar raised to be spent on the church.
“The success, extent and speed of the fundraising to save St Mary of the Angels has proved Father Scannell was the right man, in the right place, at the right time,” Young says. “No one else could have, or would have, managed to raise so much money – with significant contributions from the private sector.”
It has been a daunting role for Scannell – priests are not normally expected to raise millions of dollars for a significant construction project – but he achieved it while still ministering to his parishioners and the wider community.
It was not the first time Wellingtonians had opened their wallets for a church on the site. .
After fire destroyed a previous wooden church in 1918, the city’s citizens gave generously towards the building of the magnificent Frederick de Jersey Clere-designed French gothic church that stands on the site today.
“It’s such an important building to Wellington’s history and landscape. As proud Wellingtonians everyone wanted to do all they could to help,” Young says.
About $3.2m was raised for stage one by early 2015 and work began on March 17, 2015.
Lotteries New Zealand contributed $1.7m and there were significant contributions from charitable foundations such as the Hugh Green Charitable Trust, the Nikau Foundation, the Society of Mary (‘Marists’), family trusts, individual donors and parishioners.
Some of the patrons included former prime minister Jim Bolger, former governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand, former chief District Court judge Sir David Carruthers, businessman Sir John Todd and former chief ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem.
Wellington City Council recognised the project’s significance with funding of $530,000 for preliminary seismic assessments, structural work and – most recently – reinstatement of the famed Maxwell Fernie organ and the cork flooring.
Fundraising for the church is continuing to cover the $1m needed for ancillary works: restoring the garden, reinstatement of the crypt and choir room, and replacement of the carpets.
On Wednesday, the church was reopened and re-consecrated and blessed by Cardinal John Dew, Catholic Archbishop of Wellington, who celebrated the first mass on Thursday.
Scannell says the project was particularly challenging as in a Gothic-style building, the architecture and structure are closely intertwined, so any work had structural consequences.
Sequencing the work correctly was complex, with a great deal of temporary propping installed to ensure the building remained safe for the construction workers.
“They’ve taken a really personal interest in the project, partly because of its complexities but also because of the huge public interest and support. And, unlike most projects, they’ll be able to visit the building afterwards – many want to bring their families back to see what’s been achieved.”
It is understood the cost of the project was put at more than $20m but construction company LT McGuinness gave the church “value for money”.
L T McGuinness managing director Brian McGuinness was attending mass at St Mary of the Angels when the second Seddon earthquake struck.
He has worked on many significant buildings in Wellington but says this was”one of the most challenging jobs you could imagine”.
“We used a lot of modern technology such as 3D scanning, X-ray machines and carbon fitting to build up the information we needed for the methodology.”
He was proud of this employees and subcontractors, who had put in a “herculean” effort.
“Hopefully this church is now ready for another 100 years of life.”
Extensive strengthening work included:
– The old copper and slate roof has been replaced by a new copper roof (1200m2) and gutters.
– New foundations under the two towers at the northern end.
– New ground beam foundations running the length of the church. There was 460 cubic metres (about 100 truckloads) of concrete poured into the 140 tonnes of reinforcing steel.
– 47 ground anchors tie the nave’s new foundations to the bedrock, with another 32 in the new tower foundations. These anchors provide resistance against uplift during an earthquake, in addition to their role as traditional piles.
– Most of the building’s ornate columns have been replaced. The 10 replacements were recast to ensure they are exact replicas, except they are made with stronger reinforced concrete and tied into the new ground beams.
– The main portals, running from the columns to the building’s roof, have been replaced and strengthened with new concrete sections, hidden structural and steel supports, and fibre wrap.
– New shear walls were constructed at both ends of the church, running from the ground beam foundations up to the church roof. The shear walls provide significant longitudinal strength and are the only visible change in the newly strengthened church.
– The side chapels’ walls have been sprayed with 370m2 of concrete.
– 50 tonnes of new structural steel beams and braces, which are all hidden.
– New cork flooring (500m2) to ensure the church’s famed acoustics are unaffected