Two events I’ve been privy to this week, David Sington’s 2007 film “In the Shadow of the Moon,” and the arrival of a quiet and dignified letter in the “eye-of-the-fish” post, have surprisingly eery resonances.  Sington’s film presents both an intimate and public view of the astronauts who have landed on the moon.  Its cosmic scale blasts so many of our earthly concerns into insignificance or smaller.

The epistle, despairing of a seemingly trival matter of re-arranging furniture, at first glance presents its concerns at a microcosmic scale.  Yet its modus operandi is equally complex.  It raises wider issues of sustainability with integrity, the limitations of current heritage regulations, and the potential contradictory aims of preservation when a building’s function is struggling to survive.  

Such issues appear to be a particular concern for churches – which have, for much of New Zealand’s colonial history, been a staple of our historical architectural livestock.  … But a recurring question of the late C20th and early C21st remains: how to revive falling congregation numbers (and the very viability of a parish building) and preserve our ecclesiastical heritage with architectural integrity?  Are these two aspirations necessarily in contradiction?

Karori seems a hotspot for such concerns: namely, what to do with a church, or how to rearrange it, for its survival.  Futuna Chapel, just around the corner from St Mary’s, has already had its insides traumatised (its crucifix stolen, the pews dismantled, and its religious purpose exchanged for that of a builders’ store …).  … and of course the shake up of its idyllic context, refashioned into the harsh realities of intense suburbification, isn’t something to write architectural letters home about!  Thank goodness then for the success of the Futuna Trust.  Send your cheque here

The hard lessons learnt from Futuna’s upset insides though don’t appear to have carried that far down the road.  We thought the council too had understood, from its bitter Karori experience, that heritage listings in the District Plan need rigour (and explicit statements) to ensure that an interior,  its fittings, and furniture (those aspects of a building most susceptible to change and fashion – and perhaps the most critical for a building’s heritage integrity), are actually preserved intact.

Margaret’s letter though (printed below) proposes the current conflict over church and pew be stepped up a level – not only, she suggests, should the maintenance of heritage buildings require hearty doses of integrity, but, that we are fundamentally superficial when we don’t consider things at a larger scale.

Dear Sir

Re: St Mary’s Karori.
This church is included in the Wellington City Council’s list of significant heritage buildings. In a world faced with global (and theological) issues like global warming, sustainability and waste, and the West’s relations with Islam, the parishioners of St Mary’s are engulfed in a controversy about replacing the existing pews in the church with chairs.

From the point of view of sustainability, no case can be made for replacing the pews. They are in excellent condition. Many of them carry memorial brass plaques with the names of donors. Built of Australian hardwood, many of them date back to the building of the church in 1911 to a design by Frederick de Jersey Clere.

The argument for replacing the pews maintains that to halt declining numbers and ensure a future for St Mary’s, a more flexible seating arrangement is required in order to accommodate the needs of the young people. But for this or any congregation, it might be that discussion of global issues of concern to people of all ages could provide a focus beside which questions of seating would pale into insignificance and seem like wasteful self-indulgence.

Among your readers will be past as well as present members of St Mary’s who might like to respond with their views.

Yours faithfully

Margaret Alington


[Author of HighPoint: St Mary’s Church, Karori, Wellington, 1866-1991
Unquiet Earth; a history of the Bolton Street Cemetery
(1978); etc., etc.; ONZM]