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Cathedral History

Christchurch is a city built around a cathedral with a spire that once commanded the skyline. It is the best-known and most visited church building in New Zealand and is an iconic representation of the city of Christchurch.

The story began with a dream of a city built around a central cathedral and college, following the English model of Christ Church, Oxford. The dream arrived with the planners of the Canterbury Association and their first four ships of settlers that landed in Lyttelton harbour in 1850. Their arrival is recorded in mosaics on the tiled floor of the cathedral.

With the arrival six years later of the first Bishop of Christchurch, Henry Harper, came new impetus for the cathedral project. The go-ahead was given at a meeting he called in 1858, when the adult male population of the town numbered only 450. Plans were commissioned from the pre-eminent English Gothic architect of the day, George Gilbert Scott, who never visited the city but left oversight to Robert Speechley.

Only fourteen years later, when Christchurch was still a raw settlement rising on swampy ground, a foundation stone was solemnly laid on a wet day in 1864. Despite the rain, the whole township was festooned in bunting to celebrate the brave beginning. The building began with, and still carries, great expectations. Foundations were laid quickly in the centre of town but then lay abandoned for a decade, for lack of funds. The dream exceeded the reality - a constantly recurring theme in the cathedral story. Novelist Anthony Trollope visited the town in 1872 and described the "vain foundations" as a "huge record of failure", despite the cathedral being an "honest, high-toned idea."

But a year later, a new resident architect, Benjamin Mountfort, had been appointed and work restarted. Mountfort adapted the Scott design and added features of his own such as the tower balconies, west porch, font, pulpit and stained glass. His buildings dominated Victorian Christchurch and he is known today as the "father of Canterbury architecture."

In 1881, the nave or main body of the cathedral was completed and opened amid city-wide celebrations. The rituals of choral music, daily worship, bell ringing and welcoming visitors began that year and continue to the present day. The decision to first build the nave where people gather, rather than the sanctuary, was deliberately taken. There was simply not enough money for the transepts, chancel and sanctuary. Those took another twenty-three years to construct. In 1904, the cathedral was finally completed, at a cost of 64,000 pounds. It took another ninety years for a visitors' centre to be added alongside.

For a more detailed, illustrated history, see the Living Cathedral brochure, available in printed form (at a small cost - all proceeds to the Cathedral) from the Cathedral Visitors' Centre.  Also the Cathedral History, "Vision & Reality" by Colin Brown, published just before Christmas 2000.  For school projects, the Cathedral Administrator, Chris Oldham, has further, free, information.

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