In February 2011, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 185 people and damaging dozens of historic buildings. Among the ruins is the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, also known as Christchurch Basilica, the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Christchurch. A statue of the Virgin Mary on the north tower became a symbol of hope for the city during the aftermath and aftershocks. The quake had rotated the statue 180 degrees, so that Mary looks out upon the wreckage from the shattered window of the cathedral.
As New York City considers the reconstruction of McKim, Mead, and White’s masterpiece Penn Station, the Diocese of Christchurch has an opportunity to rebuild and celebrate a great Kiwi Catholic architect praised by George Bernard Shaw as the New Zealand Brunelleschi. Francis William Petre was born in New Zealand in 1847, the third of sixteen children. His father, one of the founders of Wellington, was the second son of Baron Petre, a director of the New Zealand Company. The Petres were one of England’s oldest and most influential Catholic families, and Petre’s career shows the influence of his Catholic faith.
As a young man, Petre attended Msgr. Haffreingue’s Jesuit boarding school at Boulogne-sur-Mer. A better mentor to a future church architect would be impossible to imagine. In 1820, Haffreingue had received a call from God to rebuild the Cathedral of Notre Dame, destroyed in the French Revolution. Haffreingue did not commission a feasibility study, yet generous donations were sent from France and England, allowing him to complete a soaring dome in the style of St. Paul’s in London and Saint-Louis des Invalides in Paris. Without a single committee or consultant, the Prince of Torlonia donated an exquisite altar of Carrara marble, alabaster, gilded bronze, and 146 species of fine stone arranged in figurative mosaics.
Formed by Haffreingue’s unusual creative drive, Petre built 75 churches across New Zealand. A master of the Gothic Revival, he also built Italianate, Romanesque, and Palladian churches. His buildings are distinguished by lasting beauty, quality of craftsmanship, and attention to detail. Prolific in constructing Romance-style churches in an Anglo-Saxon country, he was equally procreative in his marriage to Margaret Cargill, a prominent member of the New Zealand Presbyterian establishment, producing seven daughters and six sons.
Built in 1905, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is considered Petre’s masterpiece and the finest and largest classical-style church in New Zealand. Petre based his design on nineteenth-century French prototypes, including J. I. Hittorff’s St. Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. The cathedral combines Petre’s study of classical architecture with his expertise in modern construction methods; the cathedral is constructed of monolithic concrete sheathed in stone from Oamaru on the south island of New Zealand. The majesty of Blessed Sacrament is apparent even in ruins.
Now the Catholic diocese must decide whether to rebuild the cathedral or construct a new design. The decision was deferred by the diocesan administrator while a new bishop was elected and installed. Bishop Paul Martin has not yet made his decision. “I am open-minded about the cathedral whether to restore, rebuild or relocate,” he told NZ Catholic in an interview. “I’ll wait to be briefed on it to continue to get a sense of what the people think and then make the decision. I really need to see what’s happened previously.” This last comment refers to an earlier evaluation of the project, with a $100 million estimate of the cathedral’s restoration against $40 million for a new design. Many modern churches are built at a supposedly low cost. But if a contemporary church comes in under budget but banal, where is the true accounting for the cost of lost souls?
The row over the fate of the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral should concern Catholics fighting for restoration. In 2017, Bishop Victoria Matthews put the fate of the cathedral to a vote at the local Anglican governing synod. A thin majority voted in favor of reconstruction, while the substantial dissenting bloc preferred a new design or the abandonment of the ruins to the government. Most troubling was Bishop Matthews’s dismissal of the importance of her own cathedral: “I don’t think people’s pain is addressed by reinstating a building, so I think the money is better spent helping people. And right from the beginning we have said ‘people before buildings.’” This response from a utilitarian posing as an almoner is part of a long and ignoble tradition. “It would be better to use the money for the poor” (Jn 13:29) is the voice of betrayal, not benefaction.
St. Francis of Assisi was praying in the neglected chapel of St. Damian’s, when he received his divine instruction: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” More recently, Pope Francis has urged Christians to go to the periphery of the world. If we go to the periphery, we must prove by our sacred architecture that those we find there now occupy the same pride of place in the Church as Borgo Pio. Francis Petre did not build basilicas in affluent Western capitals. He built many of his most beautiful churches in small towns. (Sacred Heart Basilica in Timaru, population 29,000; St. Patrick’s in Waimate, population 2,003; St. Dunstan’s in Clyde, population 1,001; the Church of the Irish Martyrs in Cromwell, population 4880.)
In his masterful review of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes, Thomas Babington Macauley foretold the day when the periphery would take a place at the center. He saw that the Faith safeguarded by Peter’s successors “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.” Let us hope that Macauley’s unknown traveler will arrive with plenty of practice sketching the restored cathedral domes in Christchurch. To honor the blood and sweat of the missionary New Zealand Church and the genius of Francis Petre, the Church must rebuild Christchurch Basilica.
Stephen Schmalhofer writes from Connecticut.
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