ST THOMAS' CHAPEL
The restored St Thomas’ Chapel now occupies pride of place in the south transept of the church.
The name St Thomas derives from the St Thomas’ Church, a humble wooden building set amongst the workers’ cottages in Union Street, Freemans Bay, during the first half of last century. St Thomas’ parish was a “mission parish” connected to St Matthew’s city church, but serving the then outskirts of the growing city.
When plans for a motorway network linking to the newly opened harbour bridge came to fruition in the 1960s, St Thomas’ stood in the way of progress and in the face of demolition, many of the treasures of that church — its main altar and parts of its ‘Lady Chapel' — were relocated into the crypt of St Matthew’s for safekeeping until such time as a new use could be found. It was here that the hybrid assembly of parts acquired the name St Thomas’ Chapel.
Of that assembly, it is the decorative oak panels which came from the St Thomas’ ‘Lady Chapel’ that are used in the St Thomas’ Chapel reconstruction which you see in the south transept.
Yet the ‘Lady Chapel’ was not itself the first home for these panels. Their true origin lay in a decommissioned schooner, the Southern Cross V, which had plied the Pacific carrying the Christian message on behalf of the Melanesian Mission during the early years of last century.
When parts of the vessel were sold by public tender in Auckland in 1932, the decorative oak panelling which had lined the shipboard chapel and saloon was purchased by the Reverend Arthur Russell Allerton of the St Thomas’ Church in Union Street. His intention was to construct, in his church, a ‘Lady Chapel’ which would resemble, as far as was possible, the small chapel in the saloon of the schooner.
This then was the material which, mixed in with elements from St Thomas’ Church itself, occupied the St Matthew’s crypt for so many years.
Despite its sojourn at sea and two subsequent incarnations, this material was in relatively good condition and completeness. It had served the church for over forty years as an auxiliary chapel but its significant heritage value as a representation of colonial mission activities had been sadly neglected.
However, the availability of space freed up by removal of the old pipe organ from the south transept triggered a reassessment of the Chapel’s historic values. Here at last was the opportunity to properly recreate it and confer on it the respect it deserved.
The reconstruction process was guided by sound contemporary conservation principles, the architects electing to “contain” the restored chapel within a simple box, matching an adjacent one which would house the new church kitchen.
Thus “contained” these two introduced elements, one modern and functional, the other revered and with a complex and multi-layered history, now sit comfortably with each other and within the neo-gothic architectural context of St Matthew’s. The containers too are cleverly designed with little or no connection to the church walls and floor so that they do not impact on existing heritage fabric and can easily be relocated should that become necessary.
To effect a successful reconstruction, accurate measured drawings of the panelling in its original shipboard and later ‘Lady Chapel’ locations were prepared and then compared with clear photographs taken around the time when the Southern Cross V was decommissioned. This careful pre-project analysis enabled the precise relocation of the panels.
It also identified the need to provide a fall in the floor to replicate the slope of the schooner’s deck around which the original panels had been shaped.
Features of the design, such as the Chapel's outer shell of simple oak ply with its capping of illuminated onyx — a metaphorical “halo” — were designed to provide a contrast with the heritage fabric within, thus emphasising the distinction between old and new.
The reintroduction of this simple, but historically rich fabric into St Matthew’s serves to remind us of the story of colonisation and particularly the spread of the Christian message throughout the Pacific. Not just an articulation of the overall significance of heritage values, the St Thomas’ Chapel also functions as a living place of worship.
Salvaged from a colourful and sometimes chequered past, the Chapel was dedicated on 25th September 2011 (The Feast of St Matthew), emerging to an assured position of ongoing relevance and reverence in the church.
The Southern Cross V was a 202ft, steel, three-masted schooner with auxiliary steam engine.
It was built in Newcastle-on-Tyne by Armstrong Whitworth and Co. with £1,000 towards its construction contributed by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London. It was one of a succession of Southern Cross ships serving the Melanesian Mission of the Anglican Church and The Church of the Province of Melanesia, the first of which had been launched in 1855.
The third missionary Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, Cecil Wilson, launched Southern Cross V on February 11, 1903. Dedicated three months later by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it set forth on its maiden voyage to New Zealand under the command of Captain William Sinker.
In its original shipboard configuration, the 2.5m x 3.0m chapel opened out onto the saloon, which doubled as a congregation space during a service. Bishop Wilson described it as "the little church [which] makes this ship visibly different from all others”.
When the Southern Cross V was decommissioned in 1932, parts of the chapel panelling (the altar and reredos) transferred to the new mission ship, Southern Cross VI.
Unfortunately, that vessel was shipwrecked on its maiden voyage, with subsequent loss of this historic material.
The remaining panelling is re-used here in the St Thomas' Chapel reconstruction.
The St Thomas Chapel restoration has received a New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) Regional Heritage Award in 2011, and an NZIA National Award in the Small Projects Category in 2012. It won the Civic and Community Category as well as the Supreme Award in the inaugural New Zealand INTERIORS Awards, 2012 and received a Gold Pin in the 2012 DINZ BEST Awards.
The St Thomas' Church in Union Street, c.1935
The 'Lady Chapel' in St Thomas' Church, c.1935
St Thomas' Chapel in St Matthew's crypt
Southern Cross V
The shipboard chapel