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A Brief History of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament

Small beginnings

John J Grimes, SM First Bishop of ChristchurchIn October 1860 a small wooden chapel was erected on a water-logged section in Barbadoes Street south. Pre-fabricated in a builder’s yard it was carted to the site by horse and dray. It measured 24ft x 18ft (7.3m x 5.5m) and cost 75 pounds $150). But for the handful of Catholics in Christchurch it was a significant occasion, as it was for the Marist missionary priests recently arrived to serve their spiritual needs.
Forty-five years later, virtually on the same site, stood a cathedral. It measured 210ft x 106ft (64m x 32.3); it was constructed of concrete, brick and stone, and cost 52,800 pounds ($105,600). For John Joseph Grimes SM, first Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, the Cathedral was the fulfillment of a dream; for its architect, Francis William Petre, it was the crowning work of his career; for our forebears, few in number and mostly poor, it was a proclamation of faith and a statement of belonging in a province predominantly Church of England.
(Photo left: John J Grimes, SM First Bishop of Christchurch
Photos below: Cathedral sanctuary, Cathedral dome being built)

A distinctive name
The Cathedral takes its title from the original Church of the Blessed Sacrament erected on the same site in 1864. Greatly enlarged over the years it became the pro-Cathedral of the Diocese upon its establishment in 1887. At the turn of the 20th century this large ungainly building was removed to Ferry Road to make way for the new Cathedral. Its foundation stone was laid on 10th February 1901, and the contractors, J.& W. Jamieson, completed the building in four years. Fifty men were engaged in its construction, which required more than 120,000 cubic ft (3360 cubic m) of stone, 4000 cubic ft (112 cubic m) of concrete and 90 tons (91 tonnes) of steel. The Cathedral was blessed and opened with much solemnity by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr. Thomas Carr, on 12th February 1905.
Photo: The original Pro-Cathedral being moved

The ‘Basilica’
The Cathedral is often called ‘the Basilica’. While its style is Neo-Classic, and its form is based on that of the old Roman basilicas, it contains much that is original. Normally, the dome would be sited above the junction of the nave and the transepts. By placing it over the sanctuary the architect provided a visual climax to the interior which is rich in movement and delightful in its simplicity. Indeed, the whole internal space presents a harmony of spacious galleries, colonnades with their varied capitals, and an interplay of gracious arches. The ambulatory and aisles provide a cool spacious feeling, and the beauty of the interior is further enhanced by mosaic tiling in the sanctuary and ceilings of embossed zinc.
Conservation of the Cathedral
Over the decades much external damage was done to the fabric of the Cathedral through atmospheric pollution. Smoke and soot from the nearby Gas Works and railways had a drastic effect on the stonework. To conserve the building an extensive programme of cleaning and repair was initiated by Bishop Brian Patrick Ashby in 1970. This five-year project included an interior re-ordering of the building to meet the needs of liturgical renewal, and an interior refurbishment under the direction of Miles Warren of Warren & Mahoney, architects of the Christchurch Town Hall. Later a forecourt was added to improve the Cathedral’s facade.
Beautification of the Cathedral
Over recent years, local artists have been given the opportunity of enhancing the building with their own unique vision. Ria Bancroft designed the tabernacle doors, and Ida Lough the tapestry which graces the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Philip Trusttum was invited to design the stained glass window in the Lady Chapel, and Patrick Mulcahy the Crucifix in the sanctuary. To mark the centenary of the Cathedral, Liew Summers was commissioned to create a new set of ‘Stations of the Cross’.
Photos: The stained glass window in Our Lady’s Chapel and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.


The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is regarded as one of the finest examples of church architecture in Australasia. It so impressed George Bernard Shaw that he hailed its architect as ‘a New Zealand Brunelleschi’. Sir Nikolaus Pevner, the architectural critic, said ‘its interior with its two stories of columns cannot be denied remarkable grandeur.’ In 2000, the Cathedral was one of ten buildings chosen to represent New Zealand architecture in a ten-volume series on architecture in the Twentieth century. The Cathedral was also the recipient of a heritage award from the Christchurch City Council, marking the millennium.
Photo: Blessed Sacrament Chapel Tabernacle Doors

 Blessed Sacrament Chapel Tabernacle