Last chance to save derelict Erskine chapel

Nicola Young and the attempt to save Erskine Chapel

The latest proposal to save Island Bay’s Erskine College chapel is probably the chapel’s last hope.

A plan for the Erskine chapel’s restoration involves a

  • $30 million 94-townhouse complex of terraced houses and apartments,
  • $7m restoration of the chapel and Reverend Mother’s garden, and
  • new home for the Aubert Childcare Centre (formerly based at the Home of Compassion).

The Erskine College chapel, New Zealand’s finest French Gothic chapel, has been derelict for years

Formerly known as Sacré Coeur, Erskine College opened in 1905, and catered for the daughters of farmers, diplomats, politicians and local businessmen and by the time it closed in 1985, nearly 3000 girls had been educated there.

The school’s elegant chapel, with its soaring vaulted ceiling, was built in 1929-30; designed by John Sydney Swan who was influenced by a chapel in Alsace Lorraine.

Its Gothic altar of ornate white Carrara marble was carved in Italy, the gilded tabernacle door inset with rubies, diamonds and moonstones, and the 12 stained glass windows were made by Mayer & Co. of Munich (still in business, after 150 years).

The chapel’s exceptional acoustics (‘extraordinary clarity and long reverberant time’) lured international musicians – including performances by the Vienna Boys’ Choir and Kiri Te Kanawa.

After the school closed, the property was bought by the Hiberians.

The Hibernian’s plans to develop a retirement village were thwarted, although it subdivided land around the school for residential housing.

By 1992, the complex was being used as studio and performance space (it featured in Peter Jackson’s film The Frighteners), and as a wedding venue.

The convent, a ‘peaked grey fortress’ in the eyes of many old girls, and chapel are both rated Category 1 by Heritage New Zealand. But the Christchurch earthquake changed everything.

The convent and chapel were red-stickered; then heritage arguments raged while the buildings slowly decayed, assisted by vandals and drug dealers; despite regular security patrols.

The buildings were in danger of being ‘saved to death’ by well-intentioned people (the Save Erskine College Trust, New Zealand’s first non-government heritage protection authority) who blocked every proposal to save the buildings, because they wanted them restored in toto.

This latest proposal, now lodged for resource consent, means it is likely the convent building will be demolished.

When first elected to Wellington City Council three years ago, I was determined to save the chapel of my old school.

With the blessing of its owners, The Wellington Company, I organised meetings with local residents and alumnae to discuss the company’s proposals, then briefed the architects on the school’s history and culture.

I championed its inclusion as one of the Council’s Special Housing Areas that provides a streamlined consenting timeframe, including a reduction in notification provisions and appeal rights.

Wellington has a number of heritage Catholic buildings with seismic problems.

The strengthening of St Mary of the Angels, my family’s parish church for generations, will be complete by next Easter; but the future of St Gerard’s is less certain.

Let’s hope the plans to save Erskine’s glorious chapel succeed, before the buildings crumble in the next big earthquake.

  • Nicola Young is a quintessential Wellingtonian. Socially liberal and progressive, she is a City councillor; first elected in 2013 to represent the Lambton Ward. In 2016 she is standing again for the Lambton Ward and as an independent candidate for Mayor of Wellington. Nicola is a former head prefect of Erskine College.
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