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Three earthquakes, two cathedrals and one city

Three earthquakes, two cathedrals and one city


By Mary Ann Mueller Special Correspondent
February 23, 2011

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND---The earth shook again at 12:51 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. As time briefly stood still, three great pillars of a world-class city's Christian witness -- one cathedral's tall slender spire and another cathedral's massive twin bell towers -- tumbled to the ground. In just seconds they became piles of rubble. It was the third violent earthquake to hit the Canterbury region of New Zealand's second largest city in just five months.


"The heart of the city has basically stopped beating with the collapse of the spire of the cathedral," a New Zealand television reporter said as he reported Tuesday from the thick of the still smoldering rubble.

Like the Twin Towers forever being erased from the New York skyline, Christ Church Cathedral's spire has forever been obliterated from Christchurch's skyscape leaving behind it a trail of death and destruction.

Christ Church Cathedral, which gave its name to the surrounding city, was a mere idea in 1856 when the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch was established taking its name from Christ Church in Oxford, England. However by 1864 the building of the stone structure had begun to take shape. It was finally completed 40 years later in 1904. The cathedral's 63-meter (206-foot) steeple with its tapering iconic spire pierced the sky from Cathedral Square in the heart of Christchurch. It was visible from any point in the city.

The Anglican cathedral's neo-Gothic design, a classic Anglican architectural style, was one of Christchurch's most visited locations. More than 700,000 tourists are drawn to the classic 19th Century cathedral yearly. February is a summer month in New Zealand and the height of the tourist season.

One noted sightseer was Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori who visited the Cathedral last June -- during New Zealand's winter -- when she was in Christchurch. She visited Christ Church Cathedral as a sightseer, but preached at St. Michael and All Angel's Anglican Church.

Famed British architect George Gilbert Scott conjointly designed Christchurch Cathedral with its noted architect Benjamin Mountfort. Scott is known for his prolific Victorian Age work. More than 800 buildings have either been designed or restored by him including the restorations of Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in England.

Montfort, on the other hand, was the local artisan who helped to give the developing New Zealand city and surrounding Canterbury Provincel its unique architectural character and identity by using an interesting and functional blend of indigenous wood and stone. Now much of his work in Christchurch lies in tatters, including the Anglican cathedral.

Christ Church Cathedral is no stranger to earthquake damage. The spire has survived five earthquakes over three centuries with varying amounts of lighter damage. Two earthquakes shook the cathedral's spire in the late 19th Century. First a 6.0 magnitude earthquake stuck in November 1881, less than a month after its dedication, but while the cathedral was still under construction. At that time a stone was dislodged from the finial cap, which is a decorative embellishment.

The Anglican cathedral has maintained a practice of daily worship since its dedication on November 1, 1881.

In September 1888 approximately eight meters (26 feet) of the spire's stonework fell as a result of a 7.1 magnitude "1888 North Canterbury Earthquake". The stone spire was replaced.

As the 20th Century dawned, the top of the soaring stone spire fell again as a result of a 6.8 magnitude "1901 Cheviot Earthquake". This time the stone construction was replaced with a more tremor-resistant structure of weathered copper sheathed Australian hardwood thus giving the spire its familiar green-tinged tip.

Advance a century. On September 4, 2010, the first of three earthquakes to shake the cathedral struck. A strong 7.1 magnitude "2010 Canterbury Earthquake" caused the cathedral's bells to ring out. The Cathedral was immediately closed so that a damage assessment could be made. It reopened 18 days later for business.

Fast forward to December 26, 2010 when the lesser 4.9 magnitude "Boxing Day Earthquake" caught Christchurch's Anglican bishop in her own cathedral.

"Boxing Day I was literally in it, and I could see that much more came down than the first time," Bishop Victoria Matthews told Radio New Zealand following this week's devastation. "Well, I'm no expert, but I've been saying, particularly about the Cathedral: 'What do we know about accumulated weakening?' So, obviously something's been going on every time it's been shaken to the core."

Some of Christ Church Cathedral's windows were damaged in the Boxing Day Earthquake. They were being repaired when this week's 6.3 magnitude "2011 Christ Church Earthquake" struck. This time the 130-year-old spire would not survive the repeated shaking and succumbed to the violent forces of nature.

The sky-reaching spire itself was completely destroyed. Only the jagged-edged hulk of the lower part of the bell tower base is left standing. All 13-tower bells have been buried in the pile of debris.

Christ Church Cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Peter Beck voiced his concern about the safety of his Cathedral visitors. Tourists would climb the 133 winding stairs to the Cathedral's observation deck for a picturesque view of the earthquake-prone city. The massive 36-meter (118-foot) base-supporting steeple -- topped by the 27-meter (88 foot) spire -- helped to make the Cathedral an iconic landmark and a New Zealand national treasure.

News reports say that at least two people had to be rescued from the damaged Cathedral through its broken windows. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that there were sightseers about half way up the tower at the observation platform resulting in their deaths when the Cathedral's attached steeple collapsed.

Following the earthquake the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch website posted this haunting comment: "Anyone climbing the tower when the quake struck - or standing beneath it - would almost certainly have perished."

The Cathedral dean reports that all nine of his staff are safe, as is his family. He knows of only one of his Cathedral volunteers who has been injured. But he feels he will be faced with more grim news as recovery teams eventually get to the Cathedral.

"I mean, the key thing at the moment is we're losing some buildings," the Anglican dean said. "...at the end day, well, buildings are buildings."

However, at this point it is too early to know if the Anglican cathedral can be save and repaired. It underwent an extensive renovation only five years ago.

Right now the Dean's primary focus is toward his people and he begs for prayer. The shape and condition of his buildings will be ascertained at a later time.


Just a few blocks southeast of Cathedral Square on Barabadoes Street is another familiar Christchurch cathedral. This one is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which is commonly called Christchurch Basilica to keep it from being confused with the Anglican cathedral.

Christchurch Basilica, too, suffered massive earthquake damage to its Roman Renaissance cathedral with its domes and columns, arcades and colonnades, pediments and twin towers.

The Basilica only took four years to build. It was started in 1901 and completed in 1905 replacing a smaller wooden structure which was built in 1865 by Benjamin Mountfort, the same Anglican architect who helped to build the Anglican cathedral.

Francis Petre, a New Zealander who studied in England and France, designed the Catholic cathedral. Blessed Sacrament Cathedral is his largest work and it is considered one of the finest examples of church architecture in the Australasia region of Oceania.

The 19th Century church architect had a passion for using concrete as his medium of choice. The concrete he used is covered with natural Oamaru limestone from New Zealand's South Island.

Now the Basilica's matching copper dome-topped bell towers also lie in ruins. They flattened cars as they crumpled to the ground. All the while the cathedral's priests were huddled in their rectory and witnessed the devastating force of nature through their windows. The sanctuary dome remains standing, but shows signs of serious cracking.

The bell towers also brought down much of the front façade leaving gaping holes. Stained glass windows which survived the September earthquake did not survive.

At the time of the "2011 Christ Church Earthquake" Christchurch Basilica was still trying to recover from the damage wrought by the "2010 Canterbury Earthquake" which had left the century-old cathedral closed since September 4, 2010. Basilica congregants have been forced to attend services at Cathedral College, the Cathedral Presbytery, or in shared space with a neighboring parish.

Christchurch's second cathedral was undergoing extensive restoration and seismic strengthening when Tuesday's lunch hour earthquake hit.

This time the damage is so severe that Cathedral administrator, Msgr. Charles Drennan, indicates that engineers do not feel the church structure can be saved. The monsignor has also just recently been notified that he has been tapped by Pope Benedict XVI to become the coadjutor bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Palmerston North on New Zealand's North Island.

Workers and the Basilica custodian were able to flee unscathed from the cathedral when the earth started to shake.

The Monsignor said in the New Zealand Catholic: "Although the damage had been very significant in Christchurch, there was a 'sense of thankfulness' among survivors, as it could have been much worse."

Bishop Barry Jones of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch was travelling when the earthquake struck. He immediately returned to find his cathedral damaged beyond repair and his diocese put "out of action" by the event, reducing diocesan communications to cell phone contact.

New Zealand is prone to earthquakes because it is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which produces 90 percent of all the world earthquakes and 80 percent of the globe's largest earthquakes.

The Australian plate and Pacific plate fault line runs right through the heart of Christchurch. Normally New Zealand gets more than 14,000 tremors a year. Not all are as massive and destructive as the most recent devastating earthquakes. Only about 200 tremors are felt. Reportedly, there have been more than 4,000 aftershocks since the "2010 Canterbury Earthquake."

The day that the latest earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key observed, "We may well be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day," after surveying the utter devastation wrought by the earthquake.

---Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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