Old St Paul's is a fine example of 19th century Gothic Revival architecture adapted to colonial conditions and materials. Designed by the Reverend Frederick Thatcher, then vicar of St Paul's parish Thorndon, the first Anglican cathedral of Wellington is considered his finest work.
Constructed entirely from native timbers, the glowing interior is enhanced by stunning stained glass windows. The finest applied art creates an outstanding ambiance.
Social history comes to life in the former cathedral church which tells of New Zealand’s journey from colony to independent nation. Prime Ministers’ funerals were held here, the land wars of the 1860s and soldiers of the First World War are commemorated in its glass and brass memorials. The closeness between American marines who served in World War II and the local community are also evident and commemorated in a special exhibition.
No longer a parish church but still consecrated, Old St Paul's remains a place of spiritual significance to many and is living testimony to one of New Zealand's greatest heritage battles. It is a well-loved venue for weddings and other services, concerts, recitals and many other cultural events.
Story of a Cathedral
Old St Paul's was built on land purchased by Bishop Selwyn in 1845, and augmented by a Crown grant of Maori Reserve land by Governor Grey in 1853. It was designed by the Reverend Frederick Thatcher, an English architect and cleric. The cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Abraham, the first Bishop of Wellington, on 6 June 1866. For 98 years, St Paul's was the parish church of Thorndon and the cathedral church of Wellington.
Efforts to replace Old St Paul's with a larger church started in the late 19th century, but the new cathedral was not finally built until the 1960s, throwing the future of its predecessor into doubt. In 1964, its ecclesiastical function was transferred to the new St Paul's Cathedral, just one block away.
Old St Paul's thus became the scene of one of New Zealand's greatest heritage battles. As the diocese tried to dismiss the church that had served them for almost 100 years, strong protest from a small group captured significant public support. Eventually, the Government purchased Old St Paul's in 1967 and vested it in the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, which manages it today supported by the Friends of Old St Paul's Society Inc.
Restoration started in 1967 and the church was opened to the public again in 1970.
The interior decorations and fittings are redolent of Christian symbolism, and tell much of Wellington's early history. Stained glass windows depict scenes from the bible and commemorate former parishioners. The colour of the alter cloths reflect the church's seasons. Fixed to walls and pillars are many brasses in remembrance of parishioners, clergy and some who worked on the preservation of the church.
The pulpit of carved English oak commemorates Premier Richard John Seddon whose funeral service was held in Old St Paul’s in June 1906. The stone font is one of the original furnishings and was moved to its present position in 1891 when the baptistery was extended. Readings are still delivered from the brass lectern, which is in the form of an eagle, keeping the Bible seated against its outstretched wings.
Both the original organ and peal of bells now reside in the new cathedral. The existing organ was purpose built, and installed in 1977. The present peal of five bells may be viewed through a ceiling panel in the tower.
The flags include the ensigns of the Royal Navy, the New Zealand Merchant Navy, and the flags of the United States of America and division colours carried by the Second Marine Division United States Marine Corps who were stationed in Wellington during World War II.
Heaven on Earth
A small exhibition triggers memories of great and enduring friendships
Many of the tourists who tramp through Wellington’s magnificent Old St Paul’s are no doubt puzzled to see the 48-star United States flag prominently displayed in the nave. Even more intriguing is its companion, the flag of the 2nd Marine Division, United States Marine Corps.
Thereby hangs a tale, and it’s told now in a small exhibition, “A Friend in Need – Old St Paul’s and the US Marines in New Zealand WWII”, tucked away beside the altar.
The exhibition commemorates an extraordinary period in New Zealand history, when there was a real threat of invasion by the Japanese, and the country was virtually defenceless. Then, on a grey winter’s day, 12 June 1942, thousands of American soldiers came to the rescue. They sailed into Auckland and Wellington harbours to be met with the sort of rapturous reception that might have greeted All Blacks returning with a World Cup. Many of those Marines worshipped at Old St Paul’s during their time in New Zealand.
Although New Zealanders found the US military presence reassuring in the face of an invasion threat, the reality was different, as Marine Lloyd Gladson explains: “Little did they realise that we were so worn out and ill in the first few weeks of our arrival from Guadalcanal that we could never have found the strength to assist them to resist the onslaught of the enemy.”
Inevitably, many wartime relationships went beyond friendship. Americans found most New Zealand women unusually pretty. New Zealand women found American men charming, attentive and good mannered, especially when compared to the gauche, shy home-grown variety.
About 1500 New Zealand women married American servicemen stationed here. American authorities frowned on such unions, and did their best to discourage them because of the likelihood that such relationships would not survive the War. While tragedy did strike, other friendships endured and people are still travelling backwards and forwards to visit each other, grandchildren of the Marines who were here are coming to visit the grandchildren of people they met here.
by Noel O'Hare
Read more in Heritage New Zealand, Summer 2007.
The A Friend in Need exhibition has closed, and been replaced by Read this Building. This multi-media exhibition tells the wonderful and sometimes quirky stories of the church, its site and people on a journey from colonial times to the present. The A Friend in Need exhibition has found a permanent home at the Paekakariki Rail and Heritage Museum . Visit their website to find out about opening times and other details should you wish to visit the exhibition.
You can find out more about the Marines on the Kapiti US Marines Trust website, especially the Salute 70 special anniversary celebrations planned for May and June 2012.