Great news this week that at long last the venerable St Gerard’s monastery has been sold. Long seen as one of the true icons of Wellington architecture and the focus of many tourist snaps, St Gerard’s church was started first way back in 1908 by the catholic Redemptorists (Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer) to a design by John Swan and then added to in 1932 by an almost twin structure of monastery, poised on the flanks of Mount Victoria. It is a symbiotic pairing of the architecture of two of New Zealand’s greatest ecclesiastical architects – both John Swan and Frederick de Jersey Clere. Swan and Clere worked together, but it is rare to see their work side by side like this. More recently it has been owned by the Institute for World Evangelisation – the ICPE Mission.
Saint Gerard, whom the church was dedicated to, is the patron saint of children, unborn children, women in childbirth, mothers, expectant mothers, motherhood, the falsely accused, good confessions, lay brothers, and gained this reputation for his work around a unmarried mother back in the 1700s, when they took a rather dimmer view of extra-marital affairs and children borne out of wedlock. From what I understand, he took the rap for a young woman who got pregnant, and stayed mum about who the actual father was. In a way Saint Gerard was an early harbinger of the 27 club, where rockstars who die young are idolised for eternity: Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, etc. This Gerard was just 29 when he died, which seems so young but also explains why statues of Saint G have him looking so youthful and clean cut.
St Gerard’s has been empty for a while now (since 2021), after an Engineer’s report that (inevitably) said that there could be seismic upgrades needed, and most recently it has been placed on the market for sale. Evidently the Missionaries could not reach a position where they were able to finance a seismic strengthening, rumoured to be quite an expensive undertaking. This week it has been announced that after only 3 weeks officially on the market, it has been sold, and the Eye of the Fish is one of the few who has been privy to the information on the buyer. The church itself is an exquisite neo-Gothic structure constructed of brick, with an intricate timber roof, and is both the highlight of the building, and its most difficult element to strengthen and to repurpose. It is a big empty space, probably with some lovely acoustics, and so great for choral singing with all the resonance – but would be terrible for something like a restaurant, as it would all be echoing and people who get a bit shouty. Might make a good cinema though, if anyone still does that sort of thing. The monastery adjoining it comprises both the matching gable and the connecting link piece and is conceivably easier to both strengthen (it has a concrete frame) and to repurpose (there are already a number of rooms, which could lend itself to other purposes such as hotel or apartments).
While the edifice has been for sale, a number of people were allowed through to inspect the premises and the Fish was one of them, snapping off a few pictures as we went. I’m sure that the Estate agent wasn’t fooled by my cover story around being a potential purchaser, but they humoured me none the less, for which I am eternally grateful. It is not really in the category of one bedroom flat that I am usually looking for. Seeing as it sits on a promontory high above Oriental Bay, I’ve only taken close-ups, not far off telephoto pics, which might have been better if I had hired a boat, or sat on the roof of the Freyberg Pool.
The church part is the real honey of the complex, as I’m always a sucker for a good bit of Swan gothic, and this certainly does not disappoint, unless you were planning to look out at the view from there, which must be stunning, if indeed it had any windows out to the sea. But the Brothers were not into the more modern passtime of “staring aimlessly out the window” no matter how appealing we seem to find that habit today, and so Clere deliberately gave the edifice no views out at all, with a large, windowless front wall overlooking Oriental Bay, and magnificent stained glass windows high up on the remaining three sides. Just concentrate on God, dude! Wikipedia notes that the stained glass was made in Birmingham and exported out to NZ and was described as “the best they had ever exported” by the makers Hardman and Sons. They literally don’t make them like that any more, as Hardman closed in 2008.
The roof is a beautiful structure which securely holds the whole church together and has no doubt helped St Gerard’s weather many a storm and the odd quake along the way. Don’t you just love timber? Along with the Anglican Cathedral down in Christchurch, it is the key element in stopping a building falling over when a quake has shaken out the bricks or stone under the eaves. From what I could see in my limited inspection, there are no big cracks anywhere.
Internally, the altar is exquisite white Carrara marble, and as usual with a Catholic structure, iconography abounds. But I guess rather constrained by other standards.
What else can I say? The other half, the monastery bit, is far less grand internally, but much more interesting externally. In the centre of the big east wing is a Library next to a smaller Chapel, and in the interconnecting wing there are the rooms that were originally for the Brothers. As befits a former monastery, these rooms are simple affairs, but quite comfy, and would be perfectly adaptable for a Hotel room. There’s not that many rooms though, and of course, parking is limited.
What more to say? Oh – the new owners? Yes – I’m not allowed to say, but my bet is on the Catholic Church buying it back, to make amends for selling it in the first place, and for all the other things they have done wrong over the years. Yes, that’s definitely it.