Early History

The first Catholic mass in Wellington, New Zealand, was celebrated by Bishop Pompallier on Christmas Eve 1840. Wellington’s Catholic community was served by visiting priests until the arrival on January 12, 1843 of Father Jeremiah Joseph Reily (1799-1880), a priest from the Capuchin order and at the time the personal chaplain to the son of Lord Petrie.

He celebrated his first mass on February 5 that year in a private house in Woodward Street, which in those days was very close to the waterfront. There were 100 Catholics present and with the services of a resident priest they determined to build a church as soon as possible. Wellington’s first Catholic church, the Chapel of the Nativity of our Lord (also known simply as Fr. O’Reily’s Chapel), was erected within weeks on nearly the exact site that St. Mary of the Angels Church now occupies. The same year a presbytery was built for Fr. O’Reily a little further up the hill in Mount Street.

For seven years Fr. O’Reily was the sole priest in the parish that stretched from Lower Hutt in the north down to Port Underwood across Cook Strait in the South Island. In 1850 Bishop Viard and five priests from the Society of Mary arrived in Wellington to establish a diocese and augment the efforts of Fr. O’Reily. Bishop Viard established his seat at Hill Street on the site now occupied by the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Fr. O’Reily continued to live alone.

Fr. O’Reily’s original chapel was enlarged several times until a decision was made to build a new church in 1873. Blessed and opened on April 28 1874 the first St Mary of the Angels cost just 1500 pounds to build, very cheap, even by the standards of the day. Fund raising for the church was almost singlehandedly undertaken by Fr. O’Reily who even went overseas for contributions. The church, a robust Gothic timber structure, was designed by William Clayton, Colonial Architect at the time, and best known for two of New Zealand’s finest 19th century buildings, the Government buildings (1876) and Government House (1871). Clayton designed the church to be extended when funds permitted. The church also lacked many internal embellishments and adornments when opened. Nevertheless, at the time of its opening the “Wellington Independent” described the church as a “cathedral in miniature”.

Fr. O’Reily died in 1880. Although a man of simple tastes his indefatigable efforts as the pastor of, initially, a huge parish endeared him to all he came in contact with. He had been prominent as a crusader for temperance. An estimated 8000 people marched in his funeral procession and thousands more lined the route. He had no assistant priest until Father M. Kearney, the first Marist priest, arrived in 1875 and in his later years he lived in a small room attached to the church, declining to move into a presbytery built for Fr. Kearney. In 1883 a public meeting in Wellington resolved to build a monument to Fr. O’Reily which can be seen today at the Mount Street cemetery. The huge contribution made to the development of Wellington by Fr. O’Reily was ultimately acknowledged by the Wellington City Council when it renamed the former Ellers Avenue, which runs along one side of St. Mary of the Angels, to O’Reily Avenue.

In 1883 the Pope, through Archbishop Redwood, granted the parish to the Society of Mary, the Marists, in perpetuity, formally securing an arrangement that has lasted to this day. Through the 19th century and again in 1902 and 1913 the parish steadily diminished in size until it became strictly the inner-city parish it is today. In 1892, under the direction of parish priest Fr. J. Devoy the church was extended to its full size, to Clayton’s original design. The side aisles were drawn out to the width of the transepts and the church was lengthened.

Disaster struck the parish on May 28, 1918 when a fire quickly took hold of the building. It could not be saved. Insurances amounted to 2,525 pounds, scarcely what would be required to rebuild the church, but it was quickly decided to proceed.

The Present Church

The large timber church went the way of so many of Wellington’s 19th century timber buildings and its destruction by fire presented the church authorities with an opportunity to build in permanent materials. Clere and Williams, architects, secured the contract to design what was arguably the second most important Catholic church in Wellington, behind the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Hill Street.

Frederick de Jersey Clere, designer of the church, was by now the pre-eminent architect in Wellington. He was not a Catholic but he benefited from the church’s desire to hire who they regarded as the best architect for the job, despite somewhat partisan times. The selection of Clere and Williams was not without its controversy however. Catholic architects John and Francis Swan of Swan and Swan protested strongly at parish priest Fr. Sam Mahoney’s decision.

They had received a considerable amount of work from the Wellington archdiocese in the past and had even supervised the dismantling of the tower of the previous church after the fire. The aggrieved architects even took Fr. Mahoney to court in an effort to overturn the decision but it would appear little came of their action.

Clere was by now well versed in the use of reinforced concrete-he had designed five such buildings up to 1917 — although he had obviously not seen the long term efficacy of this new building material. Clere was never satisfied that stone could ever resist horizontal movement in an earthquake. He decided on concrete for St. Mary of the Angels but designed in traditional Gothic, by this time a late example of the genre. It is not certain whether it was the architect or the church which held sway in this decision but Clere still favoured Gothic for ecclesiastical designs, as evidenced in his 1917 design-never built-for an Anglican Cathedral in Wellington.

The contract for building the church was for 27,500 pounds by the original contractor H. E. Manning. In a letter to the Bishop of Christchurch Manning considered the church would be one of the “best buildings ever built in New Zealand”. However, by 1920 Manning had abandoned his contract, apparently bankrupt. Matters were not helped by a shortage of materials following World War I. He left the remainder of the construction, remarkably, in the hands of Fr. Mahoney, aided by a close friend Martin Moloney, and a group of, largely, unskilled labourers. Money was very tight. For a time workers had to wait until after the Sunday collections to be paid for the previous week’s work.

Church construction 1920. Fr. Sam Mahoney, 2nd from left, stands with the construction workers.

Church construction 1920. Fr. Sam Mahoney, 2nd from left, stands with the construction workers.

That the building was completed largely by a parish priest and a group of day labourers was due in great part to Clere’s use of concrete and the extraordinary will and practicality of Fr. Mahoney who was a regular sight on the scaffolding. The bulk of the building was poured concrete, reinforced with steel, and this required “no specialist skills”, even the brick walls, although solid, were a veneer and served no structural purpose. In fact the brick walls were originally supposed to be the mould for the poured concrete and to then be discarded, but a scarcity of bricks at the time put an end to that idea. Likewise, the stained glass windows in the clerestory were fitted directly into pre-cast concrete fillets. There was “no need for traditional grooves carved into stone”.

The use of reinforcement in the concrete appears to have been a bit haphazard. Evidence revealed by concrete decay suggests that it was not always laid vertically or a consistent fashion but, in general, it has served the purpose it was employed for. The use of concrete required relatively slender structural members and therefore allowed a greater area of glass to be carried in the walls than would have been possible with a brick or stone structure. Stained glass windows, such a prominent feature of the church, were ordered from F. X. Zetler of Munich. Zetler’s windows are found exclusively in Catholic churches including others in New Zealand.

After four years of planning and construction the church was blessed and opened by Archbishop Redwood on Sunday, March 26, 1922. The church was by no means complete, particularly the exterior, but was sufficiently advanced to allow the opening to proceed. A large crowd was in attendance; 600 people paid ten shillings for admittance to the church and gave another 1800 pounds on the day. The church’s debt stood at 7500 pounds at the opening, while the entire project had cost over 35,000 pounds up to that point.

Among the work not finished was the installation of the stained glass windows. Some had not arrived from the manufacturers, others would not be made until funds permitted. On the day of the opening the windows in place were the Crucifiction, over the High Altar, the window over the entrance and the altar windows of Our Lady’s Chapel, the side wall windows featuring the 15 mysteries of the rosary, and the altar windows of St Joseph’s Chapel. The missing glass was replaced by tinted Cathedral glass. Over time the remaining windows, including the prominent clerestory windows and rose window were installed. 11 years after the building was opened, its builder, Fr. Mahoney died at the age of 67.

The new church continued the role of the inner-city ministry and quickly became a landmark in Wellington. Its significance to the Catholic Church was further enhanced when Fr. Thomas O’Shea was appointed coadjutor Archbishop to Archbishop Redwood. Redwood was by then old and frail and died the following year. Archbishop O’ Shea, although he resided within St. Joseph’s parish at Paterson Street, established his seat at St Mary of the Angels and the church became a pro-Cathedral. The seat of the Archbishop was the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street, but it only returned to the role formally in 1954 when Archbishop O’ Shea died and was replaced by Archbishop McKeefry. McKeefry was himself made coadjutor in 1948. The Basilica was formally consecrated a Cathedral in 1985. Bishops have returned to celebrate at St. Mary of the Angels from time to time and on each occasion has assumed the title of pro-Cathedral.

St Mary of the Angels has been the scene of many important events. Among them are the funeral of Mother Mary Aubert in 1926, the investing of Archbishop O’ Shea as Metropolitan in 1935, the Eucharistic Congress in 1940, the diamond jubilee of St Patrick’s College, Wellington, in 1945, the requiem mass for Archbishop O’ Shea in 1954 and then Archbishop McKeefrey’s investiture. Later when Pope John Paul II, then still a Polish Cardinal, visited Wellington in 1973 he was welcomed at St Mary of the Angels. The church has hosted dignitaries, commemorative masses and, of course, tens of thousands of daily masses over the years. It remains well known for its choir which has always been a significant attraction in its own right and the magnificent organ, which is one of only two of their type in New Zealand.

The relatively small number of active parishioners now living within the boundaries of the parish have been complimented by the great number of regular worshippers from all over the greater Wellington area as well as visitors from around New Zealand and overseas. The affections Wellingtonians have for St Mary of the Angels was amply demonstrated when the church launched an appeal in 1985 to fund the first stages of restoration of the church. The exterior of the church was restored at that time and a new roof added. In the early 1990’s the interior of the church was restored. In excess of $1.5 million was raised from various sources to complete this work.

During the first decade of the new millennium the exterior walls of the church were sealed to protect the integrity of the stained glass windows and a major restoration was completed on the church organ, one of only two of its type in New Zealand. As well, the gardens and lawns in front of the church were developed in conjunction with the Wellington City Council Parks and Reserves department to provide a peaceful green space for Wellingtonians in the heart of the CBD. These latest projects costs collectively were in excess of $750,000 with the Trust being one of the principal fund raisers.

Except for the last paragraph the information used in this article came from the St Mary of the Angels Conservation Plan Document written by Ian Bowman, a conservation architect, which used historical information about the church for the narrative in the Conservation Plan from “The Story of the Faith in Wellington”, G S M McHardy, ed. 1959, Digest Printing Co., Wellington