Once the foundation stone for the new Cathedral in Molesworth Street had been laid by the Queen in 1954, it appeared to many that the days of Old St Paul’s were numbered. With the new cathedral only one city block away, why would the old church be needed? And yet this was also the year that a determined group of Wellingtonians began to raise their voices to save the church, beginning one of the longest and most important heritage battles New Zealand has seen.
The campaign had continued in this way for an exhausting 10 years, while the construction of the cathedral continued, and a large number of possible ideas for future uses for the old church had been suggested, but rejected, by the church authorities. The cathedral finally finished in 1964; Old St Paul’s was shut for regular worship and its congregation moved to the cathedral.
Rathkeale College proposal
At this point many of the campaigners appear to have thought that surely they must have done enough to convince the government to purchase the church. Then suddenly, in April 1965, the church authorities announced their decision about the future of the church – Old St Paul’s was to be cut up and the oldest section of it moved over the Rimutaka Hill and placed at Rathkeale College, a new diocesan boy’s college in the Wairarapa, and the rest demolished.
A number of the campaigners to save the church met with Rathkeale College in late 1965, in an attempt to talk them into changing their minds about the move, even though by that point the college had already commissioned a lengthy architect’s report to say how it could be done. Mr Dunderdale from Rathkeale College followed up this meeting, somewhat intemperately, by saying that the people who wanted to retain the church in Wellington were only ‘ten to twenty people like a dog with a bone’.
He was to be proved wrong – the reaction of the campaigners, long-term parishioners, those with connections to the church, but also of the general public – was one of horror and in many cases heartbreak. Jean Gilmer, a descendant of Richard John Seddon, wrote to the newspaper:
I feel no other avenues were really explored, except by the good old red herring method. Even true sincere sentiment and deep emotionalism stood no chance against pressure groups … Even a promise made that our memorial brasses and memorial furnishings would be housed in the new St Paul’s has now been broken. I for one will never forgive this decision or forget it.
A Mr Harvie, who issued a newspaper plea for those who opposed the move to contact him, had 178 phone calls, 73 people approach him in person, and 32 letters, in just a matter of days. This is really striking in a campaign that already been raging for a decade. Harvie wrote:
I have been moved and even disturbed by the deep and bitter distress caused particularly to so many elderly people by the recent regrettable decision to dispose of the old church elsewhere. To them, old St Paul’s has been a pillarstone of strength throughout their lives and they feel that they now have nowhere at all to turn. Their wishes, they have declared, have been given scant, if any, consideration.
Giving the other side of the case, the Bishop of Wellington, Henry Wolfe Baines, wrote to Rathkeale to explain to them why he preferred the church to be given to them, and that the Rathkeale decision was the right one:
Preserve it in Mulgrave Street and its pulpit will be silent, the Bible on its lectern be unheard, the Lord’s Table be empty of guests and host. Let Rathkeale uplift it and use it and it will live again for the purpose for which Thatcher and Selwyn used it and which generations of worshippers hallowed …
Before Rathkeale’s offer was made the old church could be preserved indeed, and we were all determined that it should be, but if it stayed in Mulgrave Street as a national possession it would be for honourable retirement as an architectural gem and a shrine of memories to be viewed and studied, and no more.
Does it not deserve a better future? And does not Rathkeale’s proposal offer it a better future?
The Bishop’s letter was published in the Evening Post, and letters to the editor flowed in in response. The Historic Places Trust responded with a long public letter to the Bishop, which concluded:
Dismantling Old St Paul’s, salvaging such of its timbers as are useable, replacing those damaged in the process, and erecting another building of a different design in an alien environment is a far cry from preservation … Its removal to Masterton may provide Rathkeale College with a chapel, but that chapel will not be Old St Paul’s.
It was in reaction to the Rathkeale proposal that led City Councillor Margaret Campbell to hold a public meeting in the city library. Such was the attendance, over 200 people, that Campbell, pied piper fashion, led the group from the small room at the library over to the nearby Wellington Town Hall concert chamber, where the photo above was taken. This famous meeting led to the formation of the Friends of Old St Paul’s. A few months later, in March 1966, Rathkeale backed out of the deal, intimidated by the costs of the move. Bishop Baines said he was disappointed: ‘The door that Rathkeale College opened is now closed. We shall have to find another door that will offer a future that is worthy of the history of old St Paul’s’.
Fortunately for the future of Old St Paul’s, the church authorities, now left with no other offers left on the table, finally offered to sell the church to the government. Even so, it was another eight long months before the government announced that it would accept.
Image: Evening Post image, Nov 1965, Ref: PICT-000046. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22805938