Yesterday I visited three buildings in Island Bay, Wellington with members of Historic Places Wellington (well, truth to tell, I organised the visits, in my ‘home suburb’). The first visit was to the Home of Compassion, which I have written about before on this website (see Some Wellington buildings). The Catholic order of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion (more commonly known as Sisters of Compassion) was founded by a remarkable French woman, Suzanne Aubert, in 1892 in Jerusalem on the Whanganui River (I have also written a post on that! See: Jerusalem).
So I won’t add much here about this visit, except to say that there are no longer any ‘heritage’ buildings on the site – the 1907 building was demolished in the 1980s. It was seriously earthquake prone and didn’t require much to demolish it. However, I think the 1990 chapel is deserving of heritage status at some point in the future. There is nothing in legislation about how old a building has to be before it can be considered for the Heritage New Zealand heritage list; it includes some 1960s buildings, so perhaps in 20 years’ time I could propose the Home of Compassion chapel for heritage listing! If there is still such a thing as the Heritage List then.
You could say there was a ‘Catholic buildings’ theme to the day as although our next visit was to the Serbian Orthodox Church it used to be a Catholic church. It was the first St. Francis de Sales Parish Church and was completed in 1906: ‘It was built on The Parade (number 75) of wood and considered at the time to be a substantial building.’ The church was enlarged in 1922 with an extension that provided 50% more space. It was again enlarged (widened), but this time by only approximately 60cm in 1940.
In 1968 the buildings on The Parade were sold to the Serbian Orthodox Church. As well as the church, there is a hall next door and the former presbytery behind the church. It must be one of the more substantial blocks of land remaining in the area – it goes from The Parade back to Clyde Street. The church is now named after Saint Sava (who is considered the founder of the independent Church, and celebrated as the patron saint of education and medicine by Serbian Orthodox Christians).
Our third visit was to the replacement St Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Mersey Street. The land for a new parish church was purchased in 1946. At that time there was a large two-storey house on the property and this was used as a hostel for refugee Polish boys until it was demolished in 1959. Fundraising began in earnest in 1961 and the foundation stone of the new church was blessed by Archbishop McKeefry on May 16 1965.
The architect for the new church was Jason Smith from the firm of King and Dawson (Smith was also the architect who designed the Freyberg swimming pool, recently listed as a Category 1 heritage building). The builder was J. H. Milne.
The design is fan-shaped with the interior converging towards a central altar, which in turn is dominated by a large striking mosaic of Christ on the cross, made from 135,000 pieces of ceramic glass and plastic tiles. The exterior building material is ferro-concrete.
The altar is made of Italian black marble as are the two side altars. An innovative feature of the porch is a coloured window featuring the patron saint of the parish, St. Francis de Sales. Although seemingly glass, the mosaic is made of vividly stained pieces of polyester resin. It was made by Hamptons of Christchurch.
The architect Jason Lewis Smith (1917-1964) was born in India, trained in Ireland, and began his career in England. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1951. Five years later he was made a partner in the firm that was then called King, Cook and Dawson. Smith was well-known for his churches, including St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Masterton (1955), and three Wellington Catholic churches: Island Bay’s St Francis de Sales (1958), St Teresa’s in Karori (1963), and the Church of Our Lady of Fatima, Tawa. Smith was said to have embraced innovation, and he was ‘the first architect in the office to come to terms with modern architecture.’ This was recognised in 1964 by the New Zealand Institute of Architects Wellington Branch with a merit award for Freyberg Pool.
After the visits, several of us went to the refurbished 1925 Empire cinema and café for refreshments! There are more photos on the Historic Places Wellington website under ‘past events’.
Other Island Bay historic buildings include the Heritage New Zealand Category 1 listed former Erskine College, which has a beautiful neo-Gothic chapel – sadly ‘earthquake prone’ and not able to be visited. The Wellington City Council has also listed on its heritage schedule many of the Island Bay shops: “Island Bay Village Heritage Area, Shops and verandas 1905 – 1928”; a former Masonic Lodge at 221 Clyde Street; the Island Bay Band Rotunda (at Shorland Park); group of houses at 206-212 The Esplanade; and Erskine College Main Block and Chapel.
Click the link for a PDF of the WCC’s heritage schedule: http://wellington.govt.nz/~/media/your-council/plans-policies-and-bylaws/district-plan/volume01/files/v1chap21app.pdf
 The information on the Serbian Church building and St Francis de Sales church comes from the book: “St. Francis de Sales, Island Bay, Parish History” edited by Pat Hutchison, 1998, a summary of which is on the church website: http://www.stfrancisdesales.org.nz/?page_id=305