The Nurses’ Memorial Chapel Opened – 25th December 1927

Ever since the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel was opened for its first service on Christmas Day 1927, the little church has been a safe haven for Christchurch Hospital staff, patients and visitors.  From the numerous pillars, plaques, carvings and stained-glass windows, the bravest of Canterbury’s pioneering nurses are all acknowledged in the world’s first War Memorial dedicated solely to women.  The structure is also New Zealand’s first hospital chapel.

This project began following the deaths of three Christchurch Hospital nurses who lost their lives when their unit accompanied the troops on the ammunition ship ‘SS Marquette’ in 1915.  It was unusual for medical service personnel to be transported on anything other than a clearly marked hospital ship and the Marquette was understandably torpedoed by a German submarine. 167 lives were lost all together.

Nona Hildyard was from Lyttelton and was well known as a great swimmer.  Tragically, she died as a result of being hit by an overturning lifeboat.

Lorna Rattray was from Dunedin and died in the arms of another nurse (Edith Popplewell) as they awaited rescue from the sea.

Margaret Rogers was from Banks Peninsula and was discovered deceased in lifeboat with 6 others.  The rumour was that they had all been shot, although this was never confirmed.

Two other nurses – Grace Beswick and Hilda Hooker) would join this list too, dying during active service in Christchurch during the Influenza Epidemic in 1918 – a deadly condition brought home by our troops after WWI.

The need for a chapel was first highlighted by Matron Mabel Thurston with the backing of Nurse Sybil Maude.  Designed by John Goddard Collins (other work includes the Sign of the Takahe) and built Williamson Construction and Company, the inside of Blackwood, Oak and Oamaru stone was shaped by Frederick Gurnsey – whose other works also included the Bridge of Remembrance and Christchurch Cathedral – and Jack Vivian.

The foundation stone was laid on 15th March 1927, by the Duke of York who later – after the abdication of his older brother from the English throne – became King George VI.

Unbelievably the chapel has faced three demolition threats over the years – the latest being after the earthquakes of 2011.  Just as before, fierce protests have kept this church safe and secure as a part of Christchurch city.  Although damaged, the structure being strengthened from the outside and full restoration is planned, but with no definite time frame at this stage (2016).

*Photo taken by Annette Bulovic*

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