A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Strengthening Timaru’s Sacred Heart Basilica

By Seán Brosnahan

Your help is needed

Scattered across the South Island are a number of magnificent churches designed by Francis Petre, New Zealand’s first major home-grown architect. Each is stunning in its own right but, since the massive destruction visited upon Christchurch’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament during the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010-2011, pride of place in the Petre pantheon might go to Timaru’s Sacred Heart Basilica. Completed in 1911, Sacred Heart was the last in a sequence of basilicas designed by Petre and a fitting culmination of his life’s work in ecclesiastical architecture. It is a magnificent building, dominating the Timaru skyline. In splendid isolation astride the main highway through town, Sacred Heart marks the historic centre of Catholic life in Timaru.


Day labourers on the Sacred Heart construction
site with Father Tubman SM at centre

The ‘official’ church arrived in Timaru with French Marist priests at the end of the 1850s. They passed through the growing township as they walked vast distances to minister to clusters of Catholic families across the island. The first priest based in Timaru was Father Jean-Baptiste Chataignier SM, the ‘pioneer of Canterbury’. He built the first church there in 1874, a neat wooden building in the Gothic style that quickly became too small as the Catholic population grew. It was another Marist, Father John Tubman SM, who took on the challenge of building its replacement three decades later. Having commissioned Petre in 1909 to design the church, Father Tubman took control of the construction personally as a cost-cutting measure. Using teams of day labourers and a massive voluntary effort by rural parishioners to cart supplies, the basilica quickly began to take shape.

Sacred Heart Basilica, Timaru

At that time there were no more than 1,600 Catholics in Timaru. Few earned above the average wage. Yet, led by Father Tubman, they erected a church that cost £23,000 (many millions of dollars in current values). It was far grander and larger than churches built by other denominations, even those of wealthier sections of Timaru community. In fact, the Basilica received generous support from Catholics outside of Timaru and from non-Catholics in Timaru.

Sacred Heart Basilica, Timaru

The call for support is going out again today. Despite surviving the Canterbury earthquakes, Sacred Heart Basilica requires considerable strengthening to protect against future quakes and ensure it can continue to be used by future generations. The strong Marist connection continues with Bishop Paul Martin SM of Christchurch taking a special interest in the project. “Already the parish has raised nearly $1m of the $1.6m we are fundraising for. We still have another $600,000 to raise but are well on the way. Because of this superb effort, we can now confidently start work on what is a major undertaking,” he said.

Bishop Paul Martin SM
4th from the right at the back, with some of the Timaru parish volunteers with their Parish Priest Fr. Brian Fennessy, 3rd from the right in the front row

The total cost of the project will be $3.9m. The work is to put steel structures and extra layers of concrete into areas of the Basilica to make it more stable, especially the front towers. In addition to the $1.6m being raised by the parish, the Diocese is contributing close to $700,000 but there is still a substantial gap to be met. Work will begin early in the year and funding support is urgently required to see the work through.

Timaruvians and Marists across the Diocese hope that readers of the Messenger will add their contributions, remembering Sacred Heart’s enduring connections with the Marist family, from construction under Father Tubman SM and over 100 years of Marist service.   

All levels of giving are gratefully received. Visit www.chchcatholic.nz/support/timaru

Please email campaign@chch.catholic.org.nz
or call Marie-Louise on 03 366 9869  if you would like more information.

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