The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Wellington in January 1954, during her first visit to New Zealand, marked an important stage in the life of both Old St Paul’s and the new Cathedral, at the time under construction.  While here, she attended a usual Sunday morning service at Old St Paul’s. A few days later, on 13 January, the Queen laid the foundation stone of the new cathedral in Molesworth Street in a large ceremony viewed by thousands of people. The Pilgrim claimed that the Queen’s visit ‘will be regarded for all time as one of the most historic weeks in the life of the Parish of St. Paul.’

The Royal Tour of 1953-54 was the first time a reigning monarch had stepped on New Zealand soil. Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip toured 46 towns and cities, and attended 110 separate functions. It was an exciting time for New Zealanders, with parades, parties and bunting everywhere.

The Royal Tour booklet
A Royal Tour booklet, 1953-54. Archives NZ R22849470

Old St Paul’s itself had been visited by royals before, but not the reigning monarch, so this marked an important week for the church.  On the morning of Sunday 10 January, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh worshipped at St Paul’s. This was their first official engagement in the capital city. The service was intended to provide her with an experience of being part of a ‘typical New Zealand church congregation’. Fortunate it was then that the Wellington weather was windy and wet that day. The royal couple were driven right up to the door of the church – to the disappointment of those hoping to catch a glimpse of them before the service.

Morning Service tickets for parishioners. ATL 88-290-11/02
Morning Service tickets for parishioners. ATL 88-290-11/02

Rather than being a service for VIPs, tickets were restricted almost entirely to parishioners of St Paul’s. Although it was the usual simple parish Mattins, Prince Philip read one of the lessons and the choir reportedly spent eight rehearsals working on their deportment, diction, and enunciation:

It meant hard work, but how we enjoyed every minute of it! Even our surreptitious glances in the Royal direction had to become unobtrusive.

One of the royal prayer books used by the Queen during the 1954 service
One of the royal prayer books used by the Queen during the 1954 service (held at Wellington Cathedral).  Note the New Zealand iconography used, including pohutakawa and kowhai flowers.

The morning service was considered a great success. The Church & People newspaper reported: ‘It was noticed that Her Majesty joined sincerely in all the Service, singing the Canticles, the Psalm, and the hymns.’

It was a busy week for the parish and everyone chipped in, from the Vestry, the Choir, and the ladies of the Altar Guild, to the person responsible for the flowers. A beautiful white altar frontal was sewn for the occasion and still remains at the church.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip used royal prayer books (pictured) that were made by the Anglican Church Embroidery Guild. They are currently displayed at the Cathedral, and have been used by the Queen and Prince Phillip for subsequent services they has attended there, and they have signed the books on each occasion.

Following the royal tour, the Pilgrim stated:

“How fitting it was that the Queen should have attended a Service at St. Paul’s towards the close of our dear old Church’s life, at least on its present site and in its present form. What a moving experience it was to ask God’s blessing on Her Majesty in her presence.”

Queen Elizabeth II laying the foundation stone at the new cathedral, 1954
Queen Elizabeth II laying the foundation stone at the site of the new cathedral, 1954

Sources:; Jock Phillips, Royal Summer: The visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to New Zealand 1953-54, Wellington, 1993; St. Paul’s Pilgrim February, 1954; Church & People newspaper, February 1, 1954.

Images: Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Tour, 1953-54. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/4-108258-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington Other images: Elizabeth Cox