After 23 years with multiple hurdles involving drawn-out legal battles, red stickering post-earthquakes and vandal attacks, Erskine Chapel finally marked its milestone reopening on 26 October 2023 with members of the local community, stakeholders, alumnae, media and the project team enjoying a night of celebration. The star of the show was the impressive restoration, described by many as simply glorious.
The restoration journey.
Developer Ian Cassels noted how a project of this size has an enormous team, and personally acknowledged representatives from the Ministry for Culture, Heritage and Heritage NZ and Wellington City Council. He also noted and thanked those within the core project team who were across every detail: Adam Wild, our heritage architect from Archifact, the development director of Erskine: Earl Hope-Pearson, whose contribution was enormous, Johnson Brothers from Featherson who did all the strengthening work, and Cr Nicola Young, who has been Erskine Chapel’s advocate from the very start.
Ian noted that the project’s journey was tumultuous and at times, seemingly insurmountable. The strengthening work undertaken on Erskine Chapel was complex and significant. It raised the building's structural rating to 67% NBS, including strengthening unreinforced masonry buttresses with steel, tying back other unreinforced masonry, strengthening gable end walls with steel rods and the installation of new steel diaphragms.
Much of the structural strengthening is hidden to ensure the chapel remains as it was back in 1930. The significant reroofing project was once again undertaken in the heritage ochre red. Once that seismic work was undertaken, attention shifted to the refurbishment of many highly crafted features - significant carpentry (involving kauri, oregon, rimu, jarrah, heart totara, heart matai, and baltic pine), stained glass windows made by Mayer & Co of Munich, and beautiful Italian Carrera marble. Aside from the installation of modern lighting, bathrooms and air-conditioning, the chapel building today remains much as it was back when first opened. The full gallery of restoration and strengthening images is available here
Erskine Chapel’s restoration was one of personal passion for Ian, having grown up in Island Bay himself. He regards the successful restoration of Erskine Chapel within the wider development setting of 97 homes as one of The Wellington Company’s greatest accomplishments: with the mix of old and new done very well within a medium density, highly efficient context. He advised that the Erskine development had been awarded as a winner in the 2023 NZ Institute of Architecture’s multi-unit residential category and hopes that the restoration of the chapel itself will bring joy to Wellingtonians who pass through its spaces. We may even have witnessed an impromptu proposal on the night!
Honouring Erskine College.
Cr Nicola Young gave a speech representing both Wellington City Council (as a city councillor she worked with The Wellington Company to save the chapel and to garner support from local residents and alumnae for the demolition of the convent & ancillary buildings in favour of housing) and Erskine College alumnae - Young is a former head prefect at Erskine in 1971. Her speech gave insight into the life of the school: “It was an unusual education. I was very happy here. I am grateful for my truly extraordinary (and anachronistic) primary and secondary education with its focus on knowledge, character, manners, and - of course - religion. We were taught philosophy, history of art, drama, needlework (French seams!), and lots of choral music. The teaching nuns were highly educated, intelligent, cultured, well-travelled (they went to Rome to take their final vows), and worldly; unusually, Sacred Heart nuns kept their own names, rather than taking on those of saints. They were feminist role models, with a captive audience of stroppy, privileged girls. We were encouraged to be ‘independent thinkers’. To quote Sister Elizabeth Snedden, who is here tonight, ‘It was an educational tradition that really valued the development of a person’s questioning mind and cherished individuality. We relished our clowns, treated people with a lot of love and dignity, so our students are out there now making a difference in a lot of places.’ Young noted that Reverend Mother Erica Pabst was one of New Zealand's first women lawyers, and an inspiring English history teacher (one of the streets in the Erskine housing complex is named in her honour). Young also acknowledged Fr Giosué Busti, who was representing the Holy See - the Vatican, and noted that the reopening of Erskine Chapel is a testament to Ian’s vision, and determination to bring this chapel back into use: ”It has been a slog from start to finish. I am deeply grateful to Ian for his tenacity and this fantastic achievement. Thank you”.
A proud architectural heritage.
Dr Jamie Jacobs of Heritage NZ delivered an insightful speech about why Erskine Chapel is so important: “Erskine College Chapel has been part of the physical fabric of Island Bay in Wellington since 1930, the year it was completed. The college was established in 1905 by the Society of the Sacred Heart as the second of four schools the sisters would operate in New Zealand. Architect John Sydney Swan designed the main building, which opened in 1907 and was a benchmark design in his early career and characterised by a boldly eclectic mixture of Gothic Revival and Edwardian aesthetics. Two decades later Swan returned to the thriving campus to design a very different building, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, which we now stand in and can deeply admire firsthand.
This Chapel is a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture within New Zealand. Swan’s very academic representation of the style provided a clear and strong architectural link to the French origins of the school. All medieval European Gothic architecture sought to push the boundaries of the transcendent properties of architecture, and this goal challenged the architectural and engineering capacities of period workers. French Gothic architecture focused on buildings with interiors that were ever taller, slender, and bathed with light through huge stained-glass windows, all of which was possible through massive exterior buttressing and bracing. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis outside Paris, a church considered one of the earliest evocations of Gothic design, famously commented: “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material,” underscoring the emotive goals of Gothic, and later Gothic Revival, design.
With this Chapel of the Sacred Heart, architect Swan and his clients provided a magnificent space for the girls arriving to learn and mature at this educational institution. Undoubtedly, the sisters hoped the girls’ faith would be elevated in much the same way as Abbot Suger believed. Regardless of their own spiritual journeys, the girls could only have been overwhelmed as they entered and regularly attended services in one of the grandest and most beautiful and light-filled interior spaces in Wellington. Like the Medieval Gothic churches and cathedrals, realisation of the Chapel of the Sacred Heart would have challenged and pushed the limits of those responsible for its conception and construction.
Over the history of heritage conservation, building interiors have often been overlooked; they are not often adequately protected against alteration or destruction; and they have not been understood as having a level of importance often equal to that of building exteriors. This space is a perfect example of a building whose principal interior space most strongly conveys its heritage value through its dimensions and scale, its gorgeous decorative features, its world-class acoustics, and its overall character - which not unlike its medieval predecessors is also supported through massive exterior bracing. Whether for its architectural and aesthetic values or for its association with Erskine College, this Chapel holds an outstanding level of significance to the nation.
The evening was punctuated by some outstanding vocal performances. From the gallery above, Alliance Française Wellington’s Voix de Femmes performed Mo Maria, with text by Bishop Pompallier, and Sanctus by Andre Caplet. Directed by Marie Brown, they were phenomenal - tears were witnessed in the audience: truly a match made for the wonderful acoustics. This choir was formed in 2011 by its present Music Director Marie Brown as a choir for women through the Alliance Française. All 22 members of the choir are members of the Alliance Française and have a love of things French. Marie comments: “Memorable choir performances have taken place in Wellington venues with a French connection, notably Futuna Chapel in Karori, and Home of Compassion Chapel in Island Bay but the dream for the choir was always to sing in Erskine Chapel. The French Gothic design was so exciting for the choir as were the awesome acoustics. It was as close to singing in France as we could imagine”.
To honour the previous generations that came through Erskine Chapel, a contemporary future talent was invited to perform also. Wellingtonian Alice Ormandy is just 13 years old, and already has a film credit to her name - Red, White & Brass. Alice performed ‘Unwritten’ by Natasha Beddingfield from the alter, with just the backing of an acoustic guitar recording. Her delivery demonstrated a level of maturity and polish beyond her years. Simply beautiful, and a definite name to watch.
Guests were treated to delicious canapes and refreshments by Nosh, and as they explored the various restored spaces, they enjoyed the sublime soundtrack of an original Erskine Choir. The recording received its own digital restoration thanks to the talents of RadioActive.FM: a commercial tenant of The Wellington Company.
Our thanks to the amazing vendors and suppliers who helped make Erskine’s reopening so special: Catering was by Nosh, Furniture Hire: Lucy’s Event Hire and Hiremaster, Flowers and Candles by Little Lace Flower Company, Audio Visual by AV Media, Musical entertainment by Voix De Femmes, and contemporary soloist Alice Ormandy, cleaning by Apex Property Solutions.
3 events in 4 days:
The Chapel’s second event of its opening week was a ‘Friday Fives’: a special event for all residents of the surrounding Erskine Island Bay: a chance to catch up with neighbours and explore the spaces for themselves, whilst enjoying delicious treats and beverages from Nosh. On the Sunday we were treated to a superb Spring day to welcome Wellingtonians at what was a hugely popular Open Day and Community Market hosted by Foxtail Events. Wellingtonians attended in droves: 2,500+ in fact. All ages and stages were represented and it was a day of total joy. Beautiful food, treats, top quality crafts, a fantastic play area for the kids and an endless stream of people all day long. The Wellington Company team loved meeting so many alumnae and local residents who had watched Erskine Chapel’s journey unfold. We couldn’t have asked for better and it was a fitting way to end our opening week.
Erskine Chapel is now open for business, and we look forward to being the backdrop to many more special events.