All Around My Life

By TMLHereAndThere

Emergency Blip No. 47a: St Mary's Catholic Church

It's funny what blipping can do... I've just spent the past hour and a half browsing the index of the manuscript archives of the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, which forms part of the National Library of New Zealand, discovering what documents are available relating to my great-great-grandparents, Henry Petre and his wife Mary Ann Eleanor Petre, née Walmsley.

A busy day spent dashing from one end of town to the other for various meetings and appointments meant that at 5.30pm I still had nothing to blip until, driving up Manuka Street, I noticed this church looking rather striking against the bright blue sky, the trees on either side clear harbingers of autumn, and screeched to a halt thinking "That'll do!"

On closer inspection, the church turned out to be St Mary's Catholic Church, leading me to realise that there must be some loose connection here with my father's ancestors, one of New Zealand's pioneering Catholic families.  When I got home, I looked up the history of St Mary's online and discovered that the Parish dates back to 1844 when the first Mass was celebrated "in a building in Bridge St. by Fr. O'Reily who used to visit once a year from Wellington crossing Cook Strait by row boat."    This in itself is quite an astounding fact when one considers that the Cook Strait is one of the most treacherous (but beautiful) stretches of water in the world and the journey today by the Interislander ferry takes some three hours!  I'm pretty sure that Fr. O'Reily must have been rowed by a party of Maoris, who would have been used to rowing a Waka, rather than striking out by himself.

I knew that Father Jeremiah O'Reily had come to New Zealand in 1843 with my great-great-grandparents, as Henry Petre had left for England in 1841 with instructions to find a priest for the settlement at Port Nicholson, as Wellington was then known. (In fact, he returned with more than a chaplain, having courted and married 15-year-old Eleanor while he was back in England; this is not quite as bad as it sounds as he himself was scarcely out of his teens!)

There was scarcity of Catholic priests in England at that time and Henry turned to Archbishop Murray of Dublin, who in turn approached the Irish Province of the Capuchins and the Provincial called for a volunteer to work in New Zealand. Father O'Reily travelled out with the Petre family aboard the Thomas Sparks arriving, after an extremely eventful voyage on which the ship was driven onto rocks off the Cape of Good Hope, on an unseasonably cold and wet day in January 1843.

I could (and possibly will!) regale you with further episodes in the lives of my forebears in the early European settlement as Eleanor kept a diary between 1842-44, now held in the Alexander Turnbull Library archives; while her husband wrote a book and much of their life in early Wellington is documented, Henry having been Treasurer of the colony for several years.

But back to St Mary's Church... although it is not the original building on the site,  (the first church burnt down) this was built in 1882 to the design of Timaru architect Maurice Duval*.  It is a simple but beautifully-designed church and I have now resolved to go back sometime soon and photograph its stained glass windows.

So... not bad for an emergency blip!

*I'm not sure about this now, as I see that Mr Duval's watercolour elevation looks quite different from the church above.  I will find out more tomorrow....

  • 1
  • 1