For the first Catholics in Christchurch, the purchasing of land within the city boundaries was met with great difficulty. Their first hurdle was to secure land from the Anglican dominated hierarchy of the Provincial Government, who preferred to see the Catholics build their cathedral anywhere but in or near the city centre.
The Court Clerk and an old Christchurch resident, Mr. Burke wrote that the purchasing of the land on the south end of Barbados Street in 1857, was not a straight forward land purchase. In his manuscripts, he described the difficulty the Catholic Church found in negotiating the purchase of land to build a cathedral in the strong bastion of Christchurch’s Anglicanism:-
“The story used to go the rounds, that one Isaac Macauly O’Neale, who bought three acres of the Reserves upon which the Catholic Church stands and who was a devout worshipper and a Trustee or something, made a big effort to insist that the acres were bought for his own use and benefit, but better thoughts prevailed.” 
O’Neale was granted the water-logged site at the south end of Barbados Street and, perhaps much to the annoyance of some, a temporary wooden chapel, measuring just 7.3 x 5.5 metres and built on a builder’s yard at a cost of seventy five pounds, was carted by horse and dray onto the site.
“…in order to get to the church from the Ferry road, they had to wade knee-deep in water, or at a still earlier period, when they had to walk as best they could on the top of sod fences from Barrett’s Hotel. The sod fences alluded to enclosed a large expanse of swampy land, used as a kitchen garden by china men, who were allowed to squad together in a shed without window or chimney. It was the property of Mr. W Wilson (better known as “Cabbage” Wilson of this city), who, a few years ago, had it cut up into sections and sold. 
Christchurch’s Catholic Mission did not become official until 1860, when their first resident priest – a Marist by the name of Father Chataigner, arrived from France. Within a year, Father Chervier had joined him. In four years, the priests oversaw the planning and employment of the province’s ecclesiastical architect, Benjamin Mountfort to build the Catholic community a new and much larger Pro-Cathedral. Sitting on stone foundations, the colonial Gothic church was constructed with local totara. Enlarged ten years later, this Pro-Cathedral managed to serve the Catholic community for nearly forty years.
During this time, the Diocese of Christchurch was first established by Papal Brief (1887) which saw Bishop J. J. Grimes being enthroned in the Pro-Cathedral the following year.
It was in 1895, that a fund for a grand Cathedral was conceived and F. W. Petre submitted his plans for a magnificent basilica Cathedral in 1899.
In 1900, the old Pro-Cathedral was towed off its site by traction engines to Ferry Road so the new basilica’s construction could begin. Moving the pro-cathedral was no easy task. It was the largest building to ever be moved in New Zealand.
“The removal of the Roman Catholic Church, Barbados street, to its new site fronting the Ferry road, which is being done, is the biggest thing of its kind attempted in this colony… In the opinion of many practical men the feat was impossible, and some even went to Bishop Grimes and warned him that the attempt could only result in failure, and that the removal would have to be done in sections.” 
Although the 108 foot by 86 foot building was partially stripped and the slate roof removed, it still weighed 250 tons. Mr Swanston oversaw it being hauled the distance of 400 feet on specially constructed and well greased wooden tramways by three large traction engines. While the architects, Collins and Harman supervised the alterations and new roofing using corrugated iron. It was re-opened by Bishop Moran on July 22nd, 1900 to be used as part of the Catholic school.
The photograph below, shows the bare foundations which the pro-cathedral had been moved off.
The new Cathedral, designed by architect, Mr. Francis William Petre (1847 – 1918), was strongly influenced by the classicism of the old Roman basilicas and the neo-classicism of eighteenth century French cathedrals.
Tenders to build the cathedral were called towards the end of 1900. The contractors J. & W. Jamieson were employed and the foundation stone was laid on February 10th, 1901. Fifty men were employed to construct the cathedral which used 120,000 cubic feet of stone, 4,000 cubic feet of concrete and 90 tons of steel. Overall, the building measured 64 metres x 32.5 metres and reached a height of 135 feet. The total costs of the cathedral amounted to 52,213 pounds. The large bells were hoisted into place atop the Cathedral prior to the building’s completion.
Bishop Grimes, in the course of his 1904 pastoral letter, states, that the new Catholic Cathedral is rapidly approaching completion. The two flanking towers which terminate each side of the west entrance, will soon have reached their greatest height of one hundred and ten feet. The facade awaits only the towering cross with its two richly carved angels, long since in the hands of the sculptor. The galleries running all round the edifice have been long in position, whilst the exterior walls have reached their full height. The principal work still to be done are the grand dome surmounting the sanctuary to a height of 140 ft, the elaborately wrought ceilings, the ground floor, and those of the twelve chapela and three sacristies, together with the glazing and painting, and the cleaning down of the whole building within and without. The contractors assure him that he might reasonably look forward to the opening of the Cathedral not later than January, 1905.
In the meantime, even in its present state, the Cathedral was greatly admired by all who had hitherto seen and visited it. A few days ago, his Excellency the Governor paid his third visit to the works, on which occasion he testified his interest by giving a donation. He warmly expressed his appreciation of the beauty of the design, and the admirable manner in which the contractors were carrying out the plans. He declared it his conviction that, when completed, the Cathedral will be the handsomest building of the kind in the southern hemisphere. Several architects and artists had spoken in no less eulogistic terms. Up to the present the sum of £30,000 had been received in cash and promises. The cash received had totalled £23,000, while over £26,000 had been expended. His Lordship earnestly implored those who had made promises to redeem them at once, so as to enable him to pay the contractors. The £7000, if paid now, would free him from much anxiety, and would save the diocese from the heavy interests inevitably incurred by the raising of a loan to prevent a stoppage of the work. 
It was completed in four years. For Bishop Grimes and its architect, it was a realisation of both their dreams, while for the largely poor Catholics, it stood as ‘a proclamation of their faith and a statement of belonging in a Province predominantly Church of England.’
The Cathedral was opened by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr. Thomas Carr on February 12th, 1905. It was hailed as Petre’s finest work as well as the finest Neo-Renaissance style building in the Southern Hemisphere.
Although largely Neo-Renaissance in style, the cathedral’s core design was based on the old Roman form and possessed many original features. The beautiful dome which would normally sit above the junction of the nave and the transepts, was instead placed over the sanctuary to provide a ‘visual climax’ to a movement in its interior. The delightful simplicity of the internal space resonates in a peaceful harmony through the spacious galleries, the colonnades with the varied capital and the inter-play of gracious arches. The ambulatory and aisles provide a clean and spacious feel while the mosaic tiling in the sanctuary and ceilings of embossed zinc adds beautiful detail.
After the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw’s visited Christchurch in 1934, he made a famous compliment about Christchurch’s splendid cathedral. His hosts, who assumed he was commenting on the Anglican cathedral in Cathedral Square, agreed with him. However, he corrected them by saying, No, I mean the one down by the gasworks!”
“If you are not religious enough to want more churches then the sooner you get religion the better,” said Mr. George Bernard Shaw, when drawing attention at the civic reception today to the beauty of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Christchurch. He declared that the building was one that compared with the productions of the Renaissance in Europe.”In New Zealand there were really no churches. “But when I came to Christchurch,” he said, “I suddenly saw a building and I said to the Mayor, ‘What is that?’ I was told that it was the Roman Catholic Cathedral. I said. I will just have a look at that Cathedral.”
“When I saw that Roman Catholic Cathedral of yours,” he said, “I suddenly thought of Brunelleschi. Here was a classical style, and I went in and looked at it. There, is something that you have in New Zealand – that you have really produced. You have produced a New Zealand Brunelleschi. You have the classical style with a convenient arrangement. It is not a mere copy, as I regret to state the Anglican Cathedral is. There is nothing new in that. It is academic. But the Catholic Cathedral is original and powerfully drawn. Why have I dragged in this? Not because I was bribed by the architect. I do not even know his name. But I went and looked at it and it produced that impression – they have a man here in New Zealand capable of doing that work, and what an awful time he must be having!” 
When Bishop Grimes died in 1915, it was said that the cathedral was the outwards and visible sign of the Bishop’s great work during his twenty seven years in Canterbury and Westland. A huge crowd lined the streets as his coffin was carried on a wagon drawn by two horses from the Christchurch Railway Station to the Cathedral for his funeral.
Sir Nickolaus Pevsner, German born British scholar of art and architectural history, and author of the Pevsner Architectural Guides, remarked, “its interior with its two stories of column cannot be denied remarkable grandeur.” Francis Petre went on to designing many cathedrals for the Catholics throughout New Zealand and gained the reputation as being New Zealand’s own Brunelleschi.
In 2010, the Catholic cathedral was chosen as one of the ten buildings representing New Zealand’s architecture in a ten volume series on architecture in the twentieth century.
Over the years, the stonework has been damaged by the smoke and soot from the nearby gas works and railways, and a huge programme of cleaning and repair work began in 1970. The five year project included re-organising the interior to meet the needs of the new liturgy under the direction of Sir Miles Warren of Warren and Mahoney. Later a forecourt was added to improve the Cathedral’s facade.
Over the last forty years, local artists contributed to the enhancement of the cathedral. Ria Bancroft designed the tabernacle doors, Ida Lough made the tapestry which graced the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Philip Trustrum created the stained glass window in the Lady Chapel and Patrick Mulchay sculpted the Crucifix in the Sanctuary. To mark the centenary of the Cathedral, Llew Sumers carved stone reliefs of the “Stations of the Cross”.
Although seismic improvements were made in 2004, it did not prevent the 2010-11 earthquakes destruction of this historically and culturally significant Cathedral.
- Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference PhotoCD 4, IMG0042.
- Burke Manuscript, Page 211, Christchurch City Libraries Collection
- ‘CHRISTCHURCH.’ New Zealand Tablet, Volume VII, Issue 382, 13 August 1880, Page 15.
- Source: The Weekly Press, 6th June 1900, Page 63. Image: Christchurch City Libraries Photo Collection 22, Img00802.
- REMOVAL OF THE CATHOLIC PRO-CATHEDRAL. Press, Volume LVII, Issue 10674, 5 June 1900, Page 6.
- The Canterbury Times, 13th June, 1900, Page 36. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference PhotoCD 17, IMG0022.
- Weekly Press, February 1905. Christchurch City Libraries Newspapers Collection.
- THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CATHEDRAL. Press, Volume LXI, Issue 11818, 16 February 1904, Page 2.
- New Zealand Tablet, Volume XXXIII, Issue 6, 9 February 1905, Page 5.
- Image: Private postcard collection.
- A FINE CATHEDRAL. Evening Post, Volume CXVII, Issue 84, 10 April 1934, Page 8.
- Photographer: Frederick Radcliffe, 1910-1919. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 35-R334.