150 years later Lyttelton Catholic church closes

Dwindling numbers, a priest shortage and the amalgamation of Christchurch parishes led to the last Catholic mass being held in Lyttelton on Sunday.

About 200 parishioners, past and present, were invited to special gathering at the site of St Joseph the Worker Church. The church itself was destroyed by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.

Since the earthquakes, a tiny chapel in Lyttelton’s Exeter St has served the loyal parishioners since 2012.

“It’s the end of an era,” says Father Peter Costello, who was a co-celebrant at Sunday’s final service.

He says parishioners will be feeling a sense of bereavement.

“Hopefully it’ll be a sense of joy as we celebrate the history of the church, but very sad for the locals.

“The people here are a dynamic community, they are marvellous.

“They are like a family to each other, they have been through thick and thin, and it’s been quite a shock for them that they have had to finish their services here in Lyttelton.”

“Our bishop organised that the city parishes would be reduced down from 12 to five because he didn’t want parishes simply to die out because the parishioners were getting older, he wanted it to be more of a vibrant situation.”

The church’s closure will spell the end of a tradition in the Canterbury port town, dating back more than 150 years when the church’s main attendees were whalers and Irish immigrants.

The first services are believed to have been held in Lyttelton from 1851. But with no church, mass was celebrated in parishioners’ homes.

In 1860 – Sir Fredrick Weld, who would become New Zealand’s sixth prime minister – donated a quarter acre section for the church.

The building was designed by architects Mountfort and Bury.

Mountfort was responsible for many of Christchurch’s Gothic Revival buildings, including the ChristChurch Cathedral.

St Joseph’s was consecrated on June 29, 1865. It was the South Island’s second oldest Catholic church after St Patrick’s Church in Akaroa and the first built of stone.

“It opened at a time when everyone went to church, whichever denomination they were,” long-time parishioner Gerry Doherty says.

As the congregation grew, a presbytery and a convent were built, with the nuns visiting older residents and prisoners at Lyttelton Gaol.

Over the decades, the area’s Catholic community was involved in several social justice campaigns, supporting striking seafarers and helping a women’s collective in East Timor.

The church has always had strong links with the port workers and boat crews who come into Lyttelton too.

“My dad used to go down to the ships and give them the times for mass and confession,” a parishioner says.

Although out-of-bounds after the Canterbury earthquakes, a neighbour went inside to rescue important historical artefacts before they were taken by thieves. A couple of pews were already missing.

“We climbed in, and we’re able to get out the tabernacle, over the fence, and some stations,” she says.

The presbytery is being sold to help finance Christchurch’s new Catholic Cathedral.

Additional reading

News category: New Zealand.

Tags: ,