St Mary's Church (Catholic)
57 Maxwell Road, Blenheim
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Private/No Public Access
19th April 1990
Pt Lot 411 and 412 Deed 15 (CT MB3A/914), Marlborough Land District
Note that the Church uses the address '61 Maxwell Road' to cover the whole of the church complex. However the correct address for the church is 57 Maxwell Road.
St Mary's Catholic Church was completed in 1878 to a design by architect Thomas Turnbull [1825-1907] and is the oldest church still in use in Blenheim. It was built under the direction of Father Augustine Sauzeau [1834-1898], the first missionary from the French Catholic Society of Mary to arrive in Blenheim. Sauzeau commissioned Turnbull, a Wellington architect who became renowned for his ecclesiastical architecture, to erect a building that would reflect the strength of the Catholic community and inspire people to worship. Located near the original St Mary's church that was erected a year after Sauzeau's arrival in 1864, Turnbull's church was officially opened by Bishop Francis Redwood [1839-1935].
Turnbull's churches are notable for their strong Gothic character and St Mary's is an early example of his work. Originally rectangular in shape, the church is dominated by a Gothic, 27 metre [90 foot] belfry and a broach spire at the south-west end of its steeply gabled roof. The spire is surmounted by a cross and the belfry holds the bronze bell cast in Lyons, France in 1866 for the original church. The exterior of the church is clad in rusticated weatherboards which are regularly punctuated by timber pilasters capped with octagonal pinnacles typical of the style. The interior is lit by the traditional lancet and trefoil windows that line the walls of the church. Four clerestory windows light the sanctuary. Built when the mass was deliberately shrouded in an aura of mystery, the sanctuary is narrow and separated from the nave of the church by a raised floor. The church interior was designed to seat 400 people and features exposed beams and rafters and a lining of diagonal rimu boards. The sides of the church include an arcade of pointed arches supported by octagonal columns. It was built by Davis Bros, for £2061, with the timber being sourced from mills at Koromiko and secured in place by mortice and tenon, so that few handmade nails would be required during construction. As further funds were raised, the church was progressively adorned with memorial stained glass windows and decorative woodwork by local Chinese craftsman Ah Gee. Finely built and notable for its elegant proportions, the church stands as a testimony to the architectural skill of Thomas Turnbull.
Progressive renovations of the church in the late twentieth century altered its early shape and form. Most of the work of Ah Gee has been lost and the original form conceived of by Turnbull changed. Major alterations occurred between 1991 and 1993 when the church was extended by architect and former Wellington mayor Sir Michael Fowler. Changes to the liturgy under Vatican II, together with the need for more seating prompted Fowler to move the side aisles out by three metres, altering the form of the nave from a rectangle to a square. A 116 square metre foyer was added and now acts as the main entrance to the church. A small chapel for weekday masses was created in the sanctuary which is screened off from the main church by a stained glass wall. The presbytery and a convent were also removed from the site. While these alterations have interfered to some extent with Turnbull's design and the sense of history in the church, they reflect the changing religious needs of the community and St Mary's remains a symbol of the Catholic faith and dedication fostered by Sauzeau from 1864.
St Mary's Church has national significance as the oldest church still in use in Blenheim and as an important early example of the ecclesiastical architecture of Thomas Turnbull. It has strong spiritual significance as a place of worship and as a continuing symbol of the strength of the Catholic Church in Blenheim. It has international interest as evidence of the work of the French Marist missionaries and is connected to figures important for their work in the Society of Mary and the Church. St Mary's has technological value as an example of early construction methods used in timber churches and its spire is a landmark in the flat, urban area of Blenheim.
Historical Significance or Value
This church reflects the strength of the Catholic community in Blenheim last century. The erection of such a substantial building was a considerable achievement in a relatively small town. After over 110 years service St Mary's remains a focal point of the parish amidst a precinct of historic buildings.
This is one of Turnbull's larger wooden churches. In style and size it can be closely compared with Turnbull's better known timber churches of St Peter (1879) and St John (1885), both in Willis Street, Wellington. In designing the building Turnbull established his own distinctive style for timber churches using simple Gothic forms (such as lancet windows) while utilising the potential of timber trusses and bracing to both practical and decorative effect. St Mary's is a very fine example of the timber Gothic churches erected in colonial New Zealand.
The spacious grounds of St Mary's give it considerable prominence on Maxwell Road, one of Blenheim's major thoroughfares. The 20 metre spire is a noted landmark in the flat urban area of Blenheim. The church is part of a precinct including the fine presbytery and old convent on adjoining properties.
Thomas Turnbull (1824-1907) was born and educated in Scotland and trained under David Bryce, Her Majesty's Architect. He travelled to Melbourne in 1851 and after nine years there moved to San Francisco. He arrived in New Zealand in 1871 and soon established a thriving business. His son William, a distinguished architect in his own right, became a partner in the firm in 1891.
Turnbull was a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was a pioneer in the design of buildings to withstand earthquakes and he was responsible for breaking down prejudice against the use of permanent materials for building construction. He specialised in masonry construction for commercial purposes but was also responsible for some fine houses.
Among his most important buildings were the Willis Street churches of St Peter (1879) and St John (1885), the former National Mutual Building (1883-84), the General Assembly Library (1899) and the former Bank of New Zealand Head Office (1901), all in Wellington.
St Mary's parish was established by Father Augustine Sauzeau in 1864. The following year a small timber church, Gothic in style, was built near where the present St Patrick's hall stands. It was soon too small for the expanding parish and Thomas Turnbull was commissioned to design a new church. Tenders were called in July 1877 and the new church was opened and blessed by Archbishop Redwood on 29 September 1878. The internal finishings were not completed until 1887 and much of the decorative work was done by a local Chinese craftsman Ah Gee. The church has continued to serve Blenheim's Catholic community since it was opened.
St Mary's Church is of Gothic style and has a rectangular plan. It has a three sided apse at the east end and a bell tower and a spire to the right of the west facade. The nave has a gabled roof with clerestory windows and lower roofed aisles on either side. The exterior is clad with wide rusticated weatherboards, punctuated regularly by timber pilasters. These mark each of the nine bays and at the corners of each major wing they are surmounted by octagonal pinnacles. There are paired lancet windows with hood mouldings along each side of the church. The wide doorways on the west and north of the church are also lancet-shaped and accentuated by hood mouldings. The decorated belfry has louvred openings and forms part of the square tower in the south-western corner of the church. An elegant broach spire clad with shingles is surmounted by a cross.
The interior of the church is lined with diagonal rimu boards. The beams, rafters and scissor trusses are all exposed. There is an arcade of pointed arches, with octagonal columns, running down each side of the nave. The pews are open and simple and arranged in four sections. The choir is on a mezzanine floor at the west end of the church. Beyond the chancel arch is the sanctuary with a raised floor and plain rimu panelling. Two doors lead to the small sacristy at the rear. The four-panel clerestory windows add much light to the interior. The nave windows are all dedicated to former parish priests and parishioners. There are large stained glass windows on each side of the apse and also at the west end of the church.
Prior to 1910 Original shingle roof was replaced by corrugated iron.
The sanctuary and side chapels have undergone modifications from time to time in line with changing liturgical requirements.
Stained glass windows
Bell forged in Lyons, France, in 1866 for the original St Mary's Church
Nickel bowl in baptismal font which was part of the original font made Ah Gee and presented to the church in 1880
The provision of light in the interior
The church's fine proportions
Church interior lined; original shingle roof replaced with corrugated iron; three dormer vents installed in each side of the nave roof
Church re-piled; plain glass replaced with lead lights / stained glass; now portal with double doors installed facing Maxwell Road
Centre aisle created; pews cut in half
Bell tower strengthened; two reconciliation rooms, required by the new Sacrament of Penance, creation where the two side altars had formerly stood
Choir loft extended to accommodate new 225-pipe organ
Wooden panelling carved by Ah Gee removed
1992 - 1993
Additions to the Church; north-west porch dismantled, every second column in the nave removed, aisles enlarged, stained glass screen placed between the nave of the church and the new chapel created behind it
Stained glass restored
Concrete foundations, timber frame with weatherboard cladding, corrugated iron roof with shingled spire
28th February 2003
Report Written By
P. Cahill, Centennial of St Mary's Parish, Blenheim, 1964
Blenheim / Marlborough; Parishes Box 42
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897
Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol.1, Wellington, 1897
J. Furness, A Century of Worship 1878-1978, Blenheim, 1978
- 18 August 1877
- 14 September 1878
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region Office
This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.