NEW ZEALAND: Canterbury’s heritage churches hammered in earthquake

[Episcopal News Service] A significant number of Canterbury’s oldest, most iconic and best-loved churches are among the buildings most seriously damaged by the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck New Zealand’s South Island Sept. 4.

Old masonry and brick buildings — constructed before the 1931 Napier quake ushered in changes in building codes — have been hardest hit by the quake.

Christchurch Cathedral — the icon of Canterbury — has been spared because of a multi-million dollar strengthening project undertaken a few years ago, largely financed by the Christchurch ratepayers.

Engineers confirmed Sept. 7 that the cathedral is “performing well” during aftershocks.

But other churches in the diocese are not so fortunate. These include St. John’s, Latimer Square — home to one of the largest congregations in the diocese — where tons of masonry is strewn at the foot of the collapsed bell tower.

The quake has posed another set of challenges for folk at St. John’s — the largest of their three Sunday congregations has grown too big for the old church and has been meeting in the larger St. Margaret’s College chapel in Papanui Road, which has been hit by the quake and is unusable for at least three months.

At St. Mary’s, Merivale, the church, vicarage and hall have all suffered significant damage, and have been listed as unsafe by civil defense authorities. This coming Sunday parishioners plan to gather for worship in the church garden.

At St. Barnabas, Fendalton, there are significant cracks in the walls of the church, and the congregation is meeting in the church hall until the church has received the all-clear from structural engineers.

Other iconic Anglican churches in and around Christchurch which have suffered serious structural damage include St. Luke’s in the City; Holy Trinity, Avonside; Holy Trinity, Lyttelton; and St. Cuthbert’s in Governor’s Bay.

The quake damage is not confined to Anglican churches. The Rugby St. Methodist Church, once the flagship of the Methodist Church in Christchurch, has been ruined. The main Baptist church in the city — Oxford St. Baptist — has also suffered severe damage.

Further afield, the tower of St. John’s, Hororata — about 45 minutes west of Christchurch — has partially collapsed and punctured the roof of the church below.

Meanwhile, there are also reports of significant damage to churches in South Canterbury. The Church of the Holy Innocents, on the Acland estate at Mt. Peel, has been badly damaged, while the spire of St. Mary’s in Timaru has had to be removed.

The historic St. Saviour’s Orphanage chapel, which serves as the chapel for the Churchill Courts rest home and hospital, is badly cracked and there is significant damage to the wider property.

Diocesan staff members are establishing which churches are safe and will be publicizing these as spiritual spaces for people to process the earthquake, talk about their experiences and pray.

Bishop Victoria Matthews of Christchurch canceled meetings in England to enable her to “be present and available to the community,” she said in a letter to the diocese. “At these times there is a huge need for community. People need to talk about what they have experienced and how they are feeling about the disaster. Invite people to chat about what it has been like for them. Then, given the severity of the aftershocks, give people a call not once but every 12 hours or so, as even now many houses are experiencing further significant damage.”

Matthews noted that many churches and other buildings have sustained terrible damage. “Our hearts go out to the parishioners of those communities,” she said. “But the church is the Body of Christ, and the people of God, and we must remember that the bricks and mortar, however dear to us, are secondary.”

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