Christchurch Cathedral – The Heart Of Our City

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the first meeting of The Canterbury Association on the 27th March 1848.  The chosen room at 41 Charing Cross, London began to fill with some of the well known names and faces of the British upper class; gentlemen of the church, noble families, rank and money, some of their names destined to live on in a city (and region) that was to be built at the very end of the world…Courtenay, Halswell, Hawkins, Heathcote, Hinds, Lyttelton, Sumner, Torlesse and Wilberforce…

The dream was simple.  Built a city on the faith and beliefs of The Church Of England and at its centre, a Cathedral and college – Religion and Education.  As these men sat together and discussed this new settlement, it was the Association’s co-founder, John Robert Godley that suggested the name of Christchurch, in honour of his old Oxford school, Christ Church College.  It was agreed on.  The dream had begun.

As the Association’s surveyors fanned out across the Canterbury Plains, driving their pegs into the tussock and climbing their way out of more than just one bog hole, three squares that were first drawn up were pegged out for future development.  They were Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley Square – the latter now known as Cathedral Square.  These were named after three martyred Protestant Bishops, burned at the stake by Queen Mary 1 (Bloody Mary) in 1555.  It had been the plan to have a church in all three parks and by 1851, the term Cathedral Square was in use.

The first design of the Christchurch Cathedral arrived in the hands of Rev. Thomas Jackson, the Bishop Designate for Lyttelton in 1851.  Just like this new Bishop, these plans went nowhere.  A little sod church had already begun to hold services and was considered the Pro-Cathedral, known as Christ’s Church.  Also by this time, having a college built in ‘the square’ was considered a bad move as this would limit the growth of the college.  It would take till 1877 for the Christchurch College (now the Canterbury University) to open its doors on Worcester Boulevard; now enjoyed today as The Arts Centre.

Plans for the Cathedral received a great kick start with the arrival of Bishop Henry Harper in December 1856.  Just a few days after his arrival, Harper was enthroned in his position as Canterbury’s first Bishop at Christ’s Church.   In 1859, this church would be renamed St Michaels and All Angels.

By 1858, a building site was chosen within Cathedral Square and by 1864, a design had been approved by the Anglican Diocese.  The architect was George Gilbert Scott and the overseer would be Robert Speechley.  After the laying of the foundation stone on the 16th December 1864 (the 14th anniversary of the arrival of the First Four Ships), the project froze due to lack of funds, material and workforce.  For years, only the foundation would stand in testimony of the dream.

During what was considered an embarrassing time, up-coming architect Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort offered his help.  Scott was keen to have him on board as he knew local timber and conditions but Benjamin’s offer was turned down by the church.  It wouldn’t be until 1873 that Benjamin made his true entrance into the project.  And he made himself quite at home by making some changes to the design.

After adding the tower balconies and the west porch, the original idea of using wood was replaced by the use of stone.  One to push this change was Bishop Harper himself, believing the Cathedral would be more proud in stone; it would make more of a statement.  As Canterbury was known for its earthquakes, timber had been chosen as a safer choice of material.  Benjamin still honoured Scott’s dream by using Totara and Matai in the support beams and other designs within the roof.

Here are some of the other special features made over this time:

* Font (for baptisms using a non-immersion method): Commissioned in 1880 by Dean Stanley of Westminister Abbey, London, in memory of his brother Captain Owen Stanley, commander of the ‘Britomart’, the ship sent by Governor Hobson to contest French claims to Akaroa. The font is carved from Castle Hill limestone with four corner columns of polished Hoon Hay stone and was designed by Mountfort to harmonise with the Early English Gothic of Scott’s cathedral.

* Font cover: Rimu, also designed by Mounfort and carved by the joiner Andrew Swanston in 1892.

* Pulpit: Again designed by Mountfort and built from 1883 – 1888, to commemorate the first Anglican bishop in New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn.(1809 – 1878) The pulpit was built in a variety of local stones and carved in Christchurch. It also features four sculptural panels that depict events in the life of Bishop Selwyn, and these panels were designed and executed by John Rodis in Birmingham.

* The High Altar: Reredos was made from kauri planks from an old bridge over the Hurunui River and includes six carved figures: Samuel Marsden, Archdeacon Henry Williams, Tamihana te Rauparaha, Bishop Selwyn, Bishop Harper and Bishop Patteson.

* Bishop’s Throne: Timber. Designed by Mountfort and closely related to the design for the Bishop’s throne in St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh, Scotland, which was designed by George Gilbert Scott and John Oldrid Scott.

* Columns: Alternatively octagonal and cylindrical in shape and gifted by, or dedicated to, a number of early Cantabrians.

* Stained glass windows: 17 windows.  These include the memorial windows for Sir Thomas Tancred, J.C. Watts-Russell and Alfred Creyke.

* Rhodes Spire: Paid for by the Rhodes family in memory of George Rhodes who died suddenly in 1864.  They also purchased 10 Church bells that were replaced by 13 others in 1978.
– On the tenor bell is the following inscription:  Through all the roads of life, the best we’ll strive to be your guide; And let our notes do your behest by tolling far and wide.  We’ve crossed the seas to this fair land, to do God all the honour; from clime to clime, we’ll ring our chime, and tell of Rhodes the donor.

* Bishop Harper’s memorial: Mountfort’s final contribution to Christ Church Cathedral. Harper died in 1893 and his memorial, unveiled in 1897, consists of a cenotaph with an effigy of the bishop in full episcopal robes holding the primatial cross of New Zealand. The cenotaph is built in the same materials as the font and pulpit.

The Nave was consecrated in 1881 but the Cathedral was not finished until 1904.  It became the home of where the flag from the ‘Charlotte Jane’ was hung.  Sadly Benjamin did not live to see the Cathedral finished.  His son Cyril took over to see it completed.  All up the Cathedral cost  65, 572 pounds.  Here is more maths:

  • 61 metres by 21 metres
  • 36 metre tower
  • 27 metre spire
  • 13  bells – the heaviest at 1.77 tonnes
  • Nave – 100 feet long

The Christchurch Cathedral is much more than just a church, as displayed in the fight to save this historic building by both Christian and non-Christian Cantabs.  It has been and remains the heart of Christchurch and serves as an icon of our strength and defiance of the earthquakes of 2010/11/12 that took so much from us.  If the heart stays alive, so can we.
Engraved across the very threshold are the names of Canterbury’s founders – Edward Gibbon Wakefield and John Robert Godley; a plaque of all the members of the Canterbury Association graces one of the walls – the names of the men who poured their own money and faith into a dream, a dream that we call home.

*copied facts courtesy of **image on inside the Cathedral courtesy of*
*images of the Christchurch Cathedral courtesy of the*

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