Church and Convent of St John the Baptist (Catholic)

216-218 Parnell Road And Denby Street, Parnell, Auckland

  • Church & Convent of St John the Baptist.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 13/10/2011.
  • Nave interior 2011.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Martin Jones.
  • Convent 2011.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Martin Jones.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 562 Date Entered 1st March 2012


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lots 6-8 Allot 73 Sec 1 Suburbs of Auckland (CT NA504/174), North Auckland Land District, and the structures known as the Church and Convent of St John the Baptist (Catholic) thereon, and their fittings and fixtures and the following chattels: 1900 font, tabernacle and side altar. Fittings and fixtures include all internal pews and stations of the cross inside the church (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Auckland Council (Auckland City Council)


Auckland Council

Legal description

Lots 6-8 Allot 73 Sec 1 Suburbs of Auckland (CT NA504/174), North Auckland Land District


The Church and Convent of St John the Baptist reflects over 150 years of Catholic worship and other activity in Parnell, one of Auckland’s earliest suburbs. Incorporating what is believed to be the oldest surviving Catholic church in northern New Zealand, the site also contains a well-preserved convent building erected in 1903, linked particularly to the role of religious women in education.

Opened by Bishop Jean Francois Baptiste Pompallier (1801-1871) in May 1861, the small timber church was built in a prominent position beside the Manukau (now Parnell) Road, a major thoroughfare leading from Auckland to settlements further south and east. Pompallier was founder of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, and confirmed as Bishop of Auckland shortly before the church was erected. The building initially consisted of a small rectangular nave with a tower and spire at its western end. It is considered to have been designed by the notable architect Edward Mahoney, and to be the only survivor reflecting Mahoney’s early use of simple Gothic Revival forms.

A small timber convent was built for the Sisters of Mercy on adjacent land, possibly by December 1861. The Sisters were the first canonically consecrated religious women to become established in New Zealand, and the Parnell convent formed their earliest branch house in the Auckland Diocese. The Sisters played an important role in education and social welfare in early colonial Auckland, and ran both a select school and school for the poor from their premises in Parnell. From December 1862, the church became the centre of a formal parish, which was run for the next eleven years by Franciscan priests, who also undertook teaching duties. Notable subsequent parish priests included Monsignor Henry Fynes (1822-87), who ran the Diocese as Vicar General during periods when no bishop was appointed, and George Michael Lennihan (1858-1910), who became Bishop of Auckland in 1896.

An enlargement of the church building in 1898 may be linked to an expanding population and efforts by the Catholic Church to increase its role in religious education in the late nineteenth century. A private chapel for the nuns was evidently created by attaching a relocated sacristy to the south side of the nave. Five years later, the first convent was demolished to make way for a grander two-storey timber structure, which contained reception rooms and a refectory at ground floor level, and nuns’ cells upstairs. Both developments were overseen by Edward Mahoney’s son, Thomas - a notable architect in his own right. The church spire is said to have been previously replaced by a belfry in 1894, following damage.

Subsequent alterations to the church interior included embellishment of the sanctuary in 1931, and changes to the altar as a result of liturgical reforms in the 1960s. In 1964, the convent and its associated school were closed after more than a century of service. Minor alterations to the convent building were subsequently undertaken, including the enlargement of some internal spaces and the removal of a side porch. A small rear extension was added in 1978.

Since circa 2001, the convent building has been used as commercial offices. The church remains in use as a place of worship, a role it has retained for more than a century and a half.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The place is historically significant for its long associations with the Catholic Church in Auckland. It has particular importance for incorporating the oldest standing church known to have been created by Bishop Pompallier, the first Bishop of Auckland and founder of the Catholic Church in New Zealand. The place is also significant for its long and close connections with the Sisters of Mercy, the first canonically consecrated religious women to become established in New Zealand. The place contained the earliest branch house created by the Sisters in the Diocese of Auckland, and continued to be used by the Order for more than a century.

The place is also significant for reflecting the creation of the Catholic parish of Parnell in 1862, and the initial involvement of Franciscan priests from Italy in its administration. The place has strong connections with other notable members of the clergy including Monsignor Henry Fynes, Vicar General of the Diocese for many years, and Bishop George Michael Lenihan.

Social Significance or Value

The place has social significance for reflecting the important role played by Catholic religious women in society, particularly in the education of children. The convent on the site was closely linked with both a select school and a school for the poor. Some children appear to have been educated in the church. The current convent building contained a music room, in which nuns may have held lessons to supplement their income. The place has social significance as a place of congregation for more than 150 years, including for weddings, marriages and funerals.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

The place has aesthetic value for its distinctive visual appearance, which contributes to the streetscape of Parnell Road, a major thoroughfare and suburban shopping centre in inner Auckland. The church also has aesthetic qualities for the design of its interior, which includes notable visible features such as a choir loft, stained glass windows and a scissor truss roof. The convent building has aesthetic value for aspects that encompass its distinctive double-balcony, fretwork and elegant polychrome chimney. The aesthetic value of its interior is linked to its simplicity, together with the appearance of surviving features that include its main staircase, downstairs fireplace and surround, and board and batten ceilings.

Archaeological Significance or Value

The place has archaeological significance for containing the fabric of an early colonial Catholic church, which contains evidence of early construction techniques and religious use. It also has significance for potentially encompassing in-ground remains linked both to the church and one of the earliest convents to be created in northern New Zealand.

Architectural Significance or Value

The place has high architectural significance for incorporating the earliest surviving Catholic church believed to survive in northern New Zealand, and one of the oldest in the country. The church is also architecturally important as the earliest existing structure believed to have been designed by the notable architect Edward Mahoney. It is also the only surviving building considered to demonstrate Mahoney’s early approach to Gothic Revival, before his employment of cruciform plans and more elaborate structures in church design. The architectural significance of the place is enhanced by containing elements designed by Mahoney’s son, Thomas Mahoney, including additions to the original church, and an associated 1903 convent building.

Spiritual Significance or Value

The place has high spiritual significance for incorporating a place of worship that has been in continuous use for more than 150 years. It also has spiritual value for is long connections with the Sisters of Mercy, who worshipped both in a private chapel attached to the church and, from the 1940s onwards, in a chapel within the existing convent building.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The place has significance for reflecting the development of the Catholic Church in Auckland during the early colonial period, including the expansion of the Church into suburban areas to serve the needs of the settler community; the connections between expansion and the presence of military members of the Catholic faith in the Auckland area prior to the Waikato War (1863-4); and the employment of European religious orders to facilitate this expansion.

The place also reflects close connections between religion and education in colonial, and later society. Alterations to the church and the construction of a new convent building at the turn of the nineteenth century may reflect both a general increase in urban population and a greater emphasis on religious education within the Catholic Church.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The place has special significance for its close connections with Bishop Pompallier, the first Bishop of Auckland and founder of the Catholic Church in New Zealand. The place incorporates what is believed to be the earliest surviving church created by Pompallier, which was formally blessed by him in 1861 and named after his patron saint. The place is also of considerable significance for containing a convent building and the site of the first branch house in the Auckland Diocese of the Sisters of Mercy, the first canonically consecrated religious women in New Zealand. The Sisters were initially brought to New Zealand by Pompallier.

The place also has significant associations with other religious groups and individuals, including early Franciscan priests such as Ottavio Barsanti; Monsignor Henry Fynes; Archbishop Steins and Bishop George Lenihan. Other notable individuals connected to the place include the weaver Sybil Mulvany, who was married in the church; and Anglican missionary Robert Maunsell, an early owner of the site. The place has connections with the commemoration of notable events such as the sinking of the Orpheus, New Zealand’s biggest maritime disaster.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

The place has significance for its potential ability to provide knowledge about early colonial and later nineteenth-century religious life, including Catholic devotion and the activities of religious women. The standing fabric of the church can also provide information about colonial construction techniques, notably for ecclesiastical buildings.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The place can be considered to have high community association as the focal point for Catholic worship in the parish of Parnell since the establishment of the latter in 1862, and before.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

Located beside a busy thoroughfare in a major shopping area, the place can be regarded as having considerable potential for public education about the development of the Catholic Church in Auckland, the role of religious women, and the architecture of Edward and Thomas Mahoney.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The place has special significance for incorporating what is believed to be: the earliest surviving Catholic church in northern New Zealand; the earliest surviving example of Edward Mahoney’s work in the country; and the only surviving church that demonstrates an initial stage in Edward Mahoney’s Gothic work. Edward Mahoney is a notable colonial architect, who went on to design other significant buildings including Gothic Revival churches such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The importance of the place is enhanced by also containing designs by Edward’s son, Thomas Mahoney, including additions to the church and a well-preserved convent building.

(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from early periods of New Zealand settlement

The place has special significance as the only standing Catholic church in Auckland to remain from the early colonial period, when the city was capital of New Zealand. It also has significance for incorporating the site of an early colonial convent, which was the first branch house to be established by the Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Auckland.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

The place forms a significant part of a notable historical and cultural landscape in Parnell, an early colonial settlement and suburb of Auckland. The importance of the place is enhanced by the nearby survival of numerous other significant nineteenth- and early twentieth-century structures including Hulme Court, the Windsor Castle Hotel and St Mary’s Church. It is particularly closely linked with Parnell Road - a major thoroughfare from the early colonial period onwards. Some other elements of the broader Catholic complex in Parnell survive, including a Presbytery (circa 1902) and potentially in-ground remnants of nineteenth-century school buildings and other features.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

The place has special significance for incorporating what is believed to be: the earliest surviving Catholic church in northern New Zealand; the earliest surviving example of Edward Mahoney’s work in the country; and the only surviving church that demonstrates an initial stage in Mahoney’s Gothic work. The place also has special significance for its close connections with Bishop Pompallier, the first Bishop of Auckland and founder of the Catholic Church in New Zealand. It incorporates what is believed to be the earliest surviving standing church created by Pompallier, which was formally blessed by him and named after his patron saint. It also contains a convent site and a convent building created for the Sisters of Mercy, who were initially brought to New Zealand by Pompallier.

The place additionally has special significance for containing the only standing Catholic church in Auckland to remain from the early colonial period, when the city was colonial capital.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Mahoney, Edward

Edward Mahoney (1824-1895)

Edward Mahoney emigrated from Cork, Ireland with his wife Margaret and three children. The Mahoneys arrived in Auckland in 1856 where Edward set up as a building and timber merchant. In 1876 he established the architectural practice that later became Edward Mahoney & Sons, which for over thirty years designed and supervised construction of many Catholic buildings as well as churches for other denominations.

The Church of St John the Baptist, Parnell (1861) and St Mary's Convent Chapel (1866) are two of the earliest surviving ecclesiastical buildings designed by Edward Mahoney and reflect the gradual evolution from simple Gothic Revival structures to more ambitious and creative use of the Gothic form such as may be seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Khyber Pass (1881); and St Patrick's Cathedral, the latter completed in 1901.

Edward Mahoney was a founding member of the Auckland Institute of Architects, attending the first meeting in December 1880 where he was appointed honorary treasurer. He became president of the Institute in 1883. His sons Thomas (1855?-1923) and Robert (1862-1895) joined him in practice in 1876 and the early 1880s respectively.

Upon Edward's retirement in 1885, Thomas and Robert carried on the practice. After Robert's death in 1895, Thomas changed the firm's name to E. Mahoney & Son. The Mahoneys designed a wide variety of buildings including the Auckland Customhouse, hotels, commercial buildings and houses, their best-known surviving domestic buildings being the Pah, at Hillsborough (1877) and the Dilworth Terrace Houses, Parnell (1899). Their ecclesiastical buildings included St Mary's Church of the Assumption, Onehunga (1888) and St Benedict's Church, Newton (1888).

The firm of Edward Mahoney & Son continued to practice for a short period after Thomas Mahoney’s death in 1923, but was eventually dissolved in 1926.

Source: NZHPT Registration Report for Bank of New Zealand (Former), Devonport (Register no. 4511).

Mahoney, Thomas

Thomas Mahoney (1854/5?-1923) was the eldest son of Edward Mahoney, a leading Auckland architect. Thomas joined his father's firm, Edward Mahoney and Sons, in 1878 and was followed soon after by his younger brother Robert.

The firm was responsible for a wide range of designs including domestic buildings, commercial and public buildings, churches and hotels. They won a competition for the design of the Auckland Customhouse in 1888, and were also responsible for the design of The Pah (now Monte Cecilia Convent), Hillsborough (1887), the Elliot Street facade of Smith and Caughey's Building (1910) and Wrights Building, Auckland (1911).

Thomas was secretary of the Auckland Institute of Architects in 1885, president in 1883, and treasurer in 1902. In 1907 he was president of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Early history of the site

The land occupied by the Church and Convent of St John the Baptist is situated on high ground to the south of St Georges Bay, an inlet on the Waitemata Harbour. Prior to European colonisation, Maori occupied numerous sites beside the Harbour, and used its associated bays for transport, food-gathering and other purposes. St Georges Bay was located between Te Toangaroa (later known as Mechanics Bay) to the west, and Taurarua (Judge’s Bay) to the east. A headland pa at Taurarua is believed to have been occupied by Te Waiohua before the area was taken over by Ngati Whatua in the eighteenth century.

In September 1840, Ngati Whatua’s offer to transfer a large area of land to the British Crown for the creation of a colonial capital was formally agreed. Parnell initially developed as a separate settlement from the main centre of government at Auckland, being located to the east of the Auckland Domain and Mechanics Bay. The main thoroughfare through Parnell, the Manukau (later Parnell) Road, served as a major early overland route between Auckland and outlying villages further east and south, and became a focus for development. Early buildings erected immediately beside the road included Hulme Court (1843), the Windsor Castle Hotel (circa 1850) and several Anglican-related structures at the top of Parnell Hill such as Kinder House (1857).

The site occupied by the Church and Convent of St John the Baptist formed part of a Crown Grant that was issued in 1842 to William Porter. This was located near the top of Parnell Hill, directly adjoining Parnell Road. In 1853, the land was purchased by a notable Anglican missionary, the Reverend Robert Maunsell (1810-94), who served in several Church Missionary Society (CMS) stations after his arrival in New Zealand in 1835. He was the first minister to conduct a service in Auckland, and had also been involved in a signing of the Treaty of Waitangi at Maraetai.

In June 1858, Maunsell sold Lot 6 on the corner of Parnell Road and Denby Street to another notable clergyman, the Catholic Bishop Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier (1801-71). The property was declared to be used for religious and educational purposes according to the dictums of the Catholic Church ‘for ever’.

Construction of the Church of St John the Baptist and the first Sisters of Mercy convent (1861)

Chosen by Rome to be the first vicar apostolic of Western Oceania, Bishop Pompallier is considered to be the founder of the Catholic Church in New Zealand. Pompallier established numerous mission stations in the North and South Islands after arriving from France in 1838, and was present at the first signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Following the creation of Auckland as colonial capital, he established a religious centre at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Hobson Street; and with the division of the New Zealand mission into two administrations in 1848, he additionally created a headquarters in Ponsonby as first Bishop of Auckland. Early churches were established in outlying military ‘Fencible’ settlements, where the Catholic faith was strong among settler-soldier families.

Although Parnell was primarily an early centre for the Anglican church, demand for a Catholic church and other facilities is said to have emerged due partly to many of its inhabitants being military personnel. Pompallier’s purchase occurred in the same month as his departure to visit France and Rome, during which the Pope ratified his status as Bishop of Auckland. The practical task of establishing a church at Parnell is said to have been undertaken by Father Michael O’Hara (1814-99), who was later Catholic chaplain to the colonial military forces. In October 1860, three months before Pompallier’s return, a bazaar was advertised to raise funds for a church, already known as the Church of St John the Baptist in honour of the Bishop’s patron saint.

Work may have begun in 1860, the date ascribed to construction of the church in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1902). The building is said to have cost an estimated £600 to £700 to erect. The structure was of simple Gothic Revival design, incorporating a rectangular nave with a gabled roof, and a tower and steeple at its west end, directly adjoining Parnell Road. The interior evidently contained a choir loft above the main entrance from Parnell Road, and a sacristy may have existed at the east end of the nave.

The building was blessed by Bishop Pompallier in a ceremony held on 12 May 1861. In his response to thanks from the congregation for the erection of ‘this beautiful church’, the Bishop stated:

‘This tastefully finished church gives credit to the zeal of the Clergy and faithful. I hope and pray that it may last for many years to come as a monument of your piety, and as a place for the holy worship of God for generations to come. I fervently wish that the blessing of this church to-day, as well as the Episcopal Benediction which I am happy to impart to you, may be salutary to yourselves, your families, and posterity.’

The church is generally considered to have been designed by Edward Mahoney (1824-95), who was responsible for many important religious and commercial buildings in colonial Auckland. The church contains notable features in common with subsequent examples of his work, such as scissor trusses. Along with the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Ponsonby (1858, since removed), the structure is considered to have expressed the simple Gothic Revival forms used by Mahoney before his adoption of cruciform plans and more complex designs from the mid 1860s onwards. Mahoney had arrived from Cork in 1856, and set up the noted practice of Edward Mahoney and Sons in 1876.

Initially, the Church of St John functioned as a chapel of ease attached to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Father Michael O’Hara was its priest until December 1862. During this period, the congregation raised funds to clear final debts. A ‘fancy bazaar’ held in October 1862 by the women of the congregation collected more than £400, leaving a surplus said to be for further additions.

Six months after the church was blessed, Bishop Pompallier purchased an adjoining section to the south, Lot 7, for the establishment of a convent for the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters were the first canonically consecrated religious women to become established in New Zealand, having arrived with Pompallier from Ireland in 1850. Initially resident at St Patrick’s Cathedral, they extended to a convent adjoining Pompallier’s residence at Mount St Mary in 1853. At the time that land adjoining the Church of St John was purchased, plans were well advanced for building a new Mother Convent at Mount St Mary, which was begun in December 1861. The Order was particularly noted for their role in education and social work in early colonial Auckland, and from at least 1859 held lessons for girls in a rented cottage in Parnell.

A timber convent building was soon erected next to St John’s Church, perhaps by December 1861, the date a photograph showing the structure is believed to have been taken. Like the church, the convent appears to have adopted a simple Gothic Revival style, having traceried windows and a central entrance in its gabled front elevation. A school may have been erected to the rear. The Parnell convent was the Order’s first permanent branch house in the Auckland region, setting a precedent for subsequent establishments at Onehunga (1863), Otahuhu (1866) and Thames (1873). The three or four nuns accommodated in the convent undertook visits to the Colonial Hospital, and also conducted teaching duties for at least 100 pupils, running both a select day school and a school for the poor.

Use as a parish church (1862)

In December 1862, the Church of St John became the centre of an independent parish that encompassed Parnell, Newmarket and Remuera. For the next eleven years, the parish was run by members of the Franciscan Order, who had been recruited by Bishop Pompallier two years previously from the Ara Coeli Monastery in Rome. The Franciscans included Father Ottavio Barsanti (1825/6?-1884), who was frequently in dispute with Pompallier and eventually departed for Australia. In February 1863, the priests held a requiem mass in the church for those who lost their lives in the wreck of the HMS Orpheus, New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster.

Like the Sisters of Mercy, the priests carried out teaching duties nearby. In 1864, Barsanti purchased Lots 21 and 22 to the southeast of the church and convent. The college of St Francis of Assisium run by the Franciscan Fathers was advertised to open in January 1865. A secondary school was evidently conducted by the priests until their departure in 1873.

In 1867, Bishop Pompallier held a mass in the church for the festival of St Francis of Assisi, when the interior was described as completely filled. He left New Zealand the following year, and in 1869 formally resigned as Bishop. In 1873, the Franciscan priests also withdrew from Parnell and the Auckland Diocese. For the next fourteen years, the parish priest was Monsignor Henry Fynes (1822-87), a notable clergyman who also ran the Diocese as Vicar-General during the period between the departure of Pompallier’s successor Bishop Croke in 1874 and the arrival of Archbishop Steins in 1879, and also during a shorter interregnum in 1881-2.

During Fynes’ tenure as parish priest, further land to the south and east was procured, creating a large property owned by the Catholic Church. Acquirements included Lot 8 to the south of the convent, purchased in 1873 for use by the Sisters of Mercy. In 1875, fundraising was carried out ‘for liquidating the debt on the grounds and improvements in conjunction with the convent schools and Church of St. John the Baptist, Parnell.’ Prior to 1888, the church may have been extended a short distance westward, encompassing an enlarged porch on either side of the tower with an additional door being provided in the north side.

During the 1880s, the church continued to be the main focal point for the Catholic parish, which contained an estimated 300 members of the faith. In 1880, Archbishop Steins confirmed 50 children in the church, who had been taught by the Sisters of Mercy and Monsignor Fynes. Following his death in 1887, Monsignor Fynes lay in state in the building prior to being removed to St Patrick’s Cathedral and subsequent burial at Waikumete Cemetery. Mourning décor at St John’s was arranged by the Sisters of Mercy.

Enlargement of the church (1898) and construction of second convent building (1903)

In the 1890s and early 1900s, a considerable expansion of the religious facilities in Parnell took place. This may have been linked with a general increase in population, and the outcomes of the Second Auckland synod in 1888 which emphasised the obligations of parents to send their children to Catholic schools, as well as the need for priests to see to the religious instruction of Catholic children. Throughout the Auckland Diocese, convent schools became an increasingly normal part of Catholic life as nuns took on much of the teaching role at parish level, including the education of young boys. During the 1890s, the Sisters of Mercy expanded to Takapuna (1894), Gisborne (1894) and Devonport (1896). Their facilities in Parnell were also soon improved.

These developments occurred during the Bishopric of Bishop John Edmund Luck (1840-96) and his close colleague and successor, George Michael Lenihan (1858-1910). In 1891, Lenihan was appointed parish priest of Parnell and remained in this post until he succeeded Luck as Bishop in 1897. In 1894, repairs were carried out to the Church of St John to the value of £74. These modifications are said to have involved the removal of the spire because it was unsafe, and its subsequent replacement by a belfry.

Soon afterwards, the parishioners resolved at a meeting in ‘the Schoolchurch’ to enlarge the building ‘owing to the great want of accommodation for the people on Sundays and for the children in school during the week’. It was calculated that 100 additional seats could be accommodated by adding 11½ feet (3.5 metres) to the front and 27 feet (8.2 metres) to the back, as well as by moving the sanctuary to one side of the structure to form a sacristy and confessional. ‘Mr Mahoney’, probably Thomas Mahoney who pledged £5 for the building fund at the same meeting, undertook to submit the plans to the Bishop. Thomas Mahoney had recently become the sole successor to his father’s firm, which was renamed Edward Mahoney and Son in 1895. He continued the practice’s tradition of designing and supervising many Catholic buildings in the Diocese. Respecting the earlier design, the nave extension was erected in a similar style to the existing building, but was slightly taller and wider.

The enlarged church was dedicated by Bishop Lenihan in October 1898. Part of the cost of £550 was raised by annual fetes held by the Hibernian Society. The parish priest, Father Joseph Kehoe also collected £100 in the parish. In the following year, Kehoe commissioned a large fresco painting on the east internal wall of the church from a German-born artist, Wilhelm Dittmer (1868-1909). Dittmer had painted and worked at the Grand Opera House in Vienna, as well as in Germany and France in the late 1880s and 1890s. During his seven years in New Zealand, he became particularly noted for his depictions of Maori, and has since been considered ‘the only European artist in the colonial period whose style…was notably affected by his study of Maori art.’ In 1900, a Baptismal font commemorating the first officiating priest, Father Michael O’Hara, was also presented.

Other major alterations included demolition of the first convent and its replacement by a grander structure on Lot 8, immediately to the south of the earlier building. Costing £640, this consisted of a two-storey timber structure with a prominent double-storey balcony. Its use of a symmetrical frontage with a front verandah and central pediment may have retained visual references to the Sisters’ Mother Convent at Mount St Mary. The new building was designed by the firm of Edward Mahoney and Son, and was opened in March 1903 by Bishop Lenihan. At this time many considered it to be ‘one of the most useful houses of the Order…There are 10 large rooms, four on the basement, and six on the second storey. On the basement are the reception, community and refectory rooms, while the nuns’ cells are situated upstairs.’

The ground floor plan adopted a cruciform hallway, with one of its halls leading to a secondary entrance on the north elevation, which allowed access to the south side of the church. Unlike the first convent, the new structure appears not to have had a chapel when erected. Rather, the Sisters used the relocated sanctuary on the south side of the church as a private choir, where they heard Mass and said Office. The new convent was erected by contractor, George Pollard.

Other contemporary changes on the broader site owned by the Catholic authorities included the construction of a Presbytery for £722. Expansion of the associated school at the rear to a design by Edward Mahoney and Son subsequently occurred in 1922. Three cottages owned by the Church between the Presbytery and Convent are also said to have been removed at a similar time.

Subsequent use and alterations

In 1931, Bishop James Liston (1881-1976) celebrated the 70th anniversary of the church with a high mass in the building. It was noted that earlier in the same year the sanctuary had been beautified, ‘through the generosity and kindness of one or two of the present time Parishioners’. The modifications included new Gothic arches, columns and pelmets. Altar rails were also added. These emphasised the importance of the sanctuary in the existing liturgical order.

Numerous events linked with the birth, marriage and deaths of parishioners have been commemorated inside the church. Marriages include that of the noted weaver Sybil Mary Mulvany (1899-1983) in 1935.

Shifts in the relationship between the Sisters and the church appear to have occurred by 1943, when modifications to the convent building included a rear extension to accommodate a chapel. The kitchen was also enlarged. At this time, the ground floor of the convent incorporated a sitting room and music room at the front of the building, and the chapel and a dining room at the rear. Nuns often carried out music lessons to generate additional income. The kitchen and an attached laundry were accommodated in lean-to’s adjoining the dining room. The alterations were designed by J. O. Owen.

In 1952, the Sisters at the convent continued to educate almost one hundred Catholic children. In 1964, however, the Sisters of Mercy withdrew from Parnell after more than a century of occupation of the site. The school at the rear of church and convent was closed. The convent was subsequently occupied by the Catholic Education Centre, when some elements linked with conventual use were removed including the side porch and a dining room chimney. In 1978, a single-storey staff room and office were added at the rear.

Changes to the church during a similar period included the creation of a forward altar, reflecting liturgical reforms introduced in the 1960s. A lean-to enclosing a confessional on the south side of the nave was also added. In the 1980s, a crying room was formed under the choir loft, and an additional entrance was created in the east wall for access to a car park. In 1997, a major restoration project was carried out, during which paintings of angels were discovered beneath panelling in the entrance porch. More recently, major landscaping on the wider site owned by the Catholic Church occurred, including the removal of school buildings to the north of the church and convent to create an extensive car park. In-ground archaeological features were uncovered.

The convent building has since been tenanted as a commercial office. The church remains in regular use for Catholic worship, a function that it has carried out for more than 150 years.

Physical Description


The Church and Convent of St John the Baptist are located in Parnell, a notable inner suburb of Auckland. The suburb retains a large number of buildings linked with its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century development, including as a major ecclesiastical, residential and commercial centre. The Church and Convent of St John the Baptist are situated on the eastern side of Parnell Road, an important early colonial thoroughfare containing numerous buildings of historic significance. These include Auckland’s oldest building on its original site, Hulme Court (1843; NZHPT Record No. 19, Category I historic place); one of New Zealand’s earliest surviving hotel buildings, the Windsor Castle Hotel (circa 1850; NZHPT Record No. 7406, Category I historic place); and St Mary’s Church, Auckland’s first Anglican cathedral (1888; NZHPT Record No. 21, Category I historic place).

The Church and Convent of St John the Baptist are located on a comparatively prominent corner site at the junction of Parnell Road and Denby Street. The site forms a remnant of a large Catholic complex that is now mostly used as a car park. A large presbytery (circa 1902) with an associated outbuilding also survives at the southern end of the complex, some distance from the church and former convent.

The site of the Church and Convent of St John the Baptist is rectangular, and occupies an area of approximately 911 square metres. The church is located in its northern half and the former convent building in its southern part. An area of tarmac in between the two structures overlies the site of the first convent, erected in circa 1861.

Church of St John the Baptist

The church is of timber construction and comparatively simple Gothic Revival design. It incorporates a rectangular nave, a slightly wider nave extension at its eastern end, and a belfry at its west end. It also contains a former choir or nuns’ chapel at the east end of the south elevation of the building; and a small confessional near the west end of the same elevation.

The building preserves its 1898 appearance and also retains most elements of the 1861 building, the main exception being the early steeple which has been removed. It has been said that ‘the architectural qualities which distinguish St John’s derive from the simplicity of Mahoney’s original design, and although the building has been altered several times, its intrinsic character has been preserved through this process of change.’ This simplicity of design applies to both the exterior and interior.

The main body of the church, including its eastward extension, is gabled and covered with corrugated metal. The extended nave is slightly wider and higher than the 1861 structure but otherwise of similar design. A short rectangular belfry extends from the apex of the main body of the church at its west end. This incorporates a gabled, corrugated metal-clad roof. Its eaves are corbelled. The walls throughout the building are externally clad with overlapping horizontal weatherboards.

The main door is in the west elevation of the building, directly accessed from Parnell Road. Side doors are also symmetrically positioned in the north and south elevations, towards the west end. Windows throughout the church are generally of simple, pointed Gothic type, although those in the belfry and west elevation have tracery which mirrors that used in fanlights above the main and side doors. A metal plate bearing the letters ‘FP’ survives on the north wall of the nave extension.

Internally, the building contains an entrance vestibule at its west end, a large nave and a sanctuary at its eastern end. A choir loft at the west end of the nave is supported on cast iron columns and is accessed from a staircase in the vestibule. The nave roof is of scissor truss construction with exposed under-purlins and sarking. The trusses spring from decorative brackets, which differ in design between the nave and nave extension. Internal wall linings consist of beaded, horizontal boards in the initial nave, and vertical 150 mm boards in the extension. Windows incorporate coloured, leaded glass featuring floral, Art Nouveau designs. Some of these are dedicated to parishioners, clergy and members of the Sisters of Mercy; and also to those who have fallen in war.

The sanctuary is framed by a tripartite arrangement of Gothic arches and columns. It is unclear if any of Wilhelm Dittmer’s fresco might survive beneath later panelling. A baptistry in the northeast corner contains a stone font, dedicated to Father Michael O’Hara, the church’s first priest. Rooms in a lean-to attached to the south side of the sanctuary include a sacristy.

Convent Building

The convent building is a distinctive, two-storey timber structure, with a hipped roof and a prominent double-storeyed balcony. It is slightly set back from the main Parnell Road frontage, but is highly visible and retains a considerable proportion of its early features.

The building’s main elevation to Parnell Road is symmetrically arranged, with double-hung sash windows on either side of a central door at both levels. The symmetry is emphasised above eaves height by a centrally-placed triangular pediment. The main door is of Chicago style, retaining a letterbox and other early furniture. The door to the upstairs balcony also appears original. Balconies at both levels are balustraded and incorporate decorative fretwork. The fretwork in the upper part of the ground floor balcony is particularly lavish.

The north elevation shows some modifications undertaken in the 1960s, including the blocking of an earlier side entrance and the insertion of windows. Two double-hung sash windows are retained at first floor level, and one on the ground floor. A tall polychrome brick chimney survives above. The south elevation also retains double-hung sash windows and a fixed window to the internal stairwell. A wide window to the front reception room has been added, as has an external fire escape. All of these elevations are clad with plain horizontal weatherboards, similar to those used for the church.

A rear lean-to attached to the east elevation has been added to with a modern structure of sympathetic design.

Internally, the building retains a significant proportion of its early arrangement, although in the downstairs area its north hall has been removed and the wall of a former music room currently incorporates a large opening for reception purposes. The northwest room, formerly the sitting room contains a fireplace and surround in one corner. Evidence for the extension of the northeast room into an enlarged space for use as a chapel is visible. Other spaces, including the former dining room, kitchen and laundry survive, although used for other purposes.

A large balustraded staircase in the south hall leads to the upper storey. The former central hallway servicing nuns’ cells and other rooms on either side has been shortened with the enlargement of some rooms. Three upstairs rooms retain their original dimensions. Ceilings throughout the upper storey retain board and batten ceilings, which show where partitions have been altered. Skirting boards, four-panel doors and architraves also survive.


The Church of St John is believed to be the oldest surviving Catholic church in the Auckland Diocese and one of the oldest still standing in New Zealand.

St Mary's Church, Pukekaraka (1858-9; NZHPT Record No. 4701, Category I historic place), is considered to be New Zealand's oldest surviving Catholic church still in use. Other registered early Catholic churches include St Mary’s Church, Napier (1863; NZHPT Record No.1033, Category II historic place: no longer used as a church); and St Patrick’s Church, Akaroa (1864; NZHPT Record No. 266, Category I historic place). St Joseph’s Church in Lyttelton (1865; NZHPT Record No. 1819, Category II historic place) has recently been destroyed as a result of the Canterbury earthquakes. The earliest Catholic church still in use in Wellington is St Joseph’s Church, Pauatahanui (1876; NZHPT Record No. 205, Category I historic place).

Most early Catholic churches in the Auckland Diocese appear not to have survived. The Cathedral Church of St Patrick and St Joseph in central Auckland (NZHPT Record No. 97, Category I historic place) incorporates some remnants of the first stone church, erected in 1846-8, notably elements visible at foundation level.

Other than the Church of St John the Baptist, early surviving Catholic churches in the Auckland region include St Mary’s Old Convent Chapel (NZHPT Record No. 649, Category I historic place), which was erected in 1865-6 to a design by Edward Mahoney. Other early churches designed or considered to have been designed by Mahoney do not appear to survive. These include the Church of the Immaculate Conception (1858) at Ponsonby, and a mortuary chapel (1866) at Symonds Street Cemetery that was subsequently relocated to the North Shore as St Francis de Sales Church and later demolished.

The earliest Catholic church currently registered in Northland is St Francis Xavier Church (1875; NZHPT Record No. 415, Category II historic place). None of the chapels or churches directly associated with Bishop Pompallier’s early mission in Northland are thought to survive. The church in which Bishop Pompallier’s remains are currently kept, Hato Maria / St Mary’s Church was first built in 1897-9 at Purakau (Hokianga) and relocated to its present site at Motuti in 1922.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1861 -
Church constructed.

1894 -
Church: spire removed, and subsequently replaced by belfry

1898 -
Church: rear extension added, and sanctuary relocated for use as a sacristy and private chapel

Original Construction
1903 -
Current convent building erected

1931 -
Church: sanctuary modified

1943 -
Convent building: modifications at rear, including enlargement of chapel and kitchen

1966 -
Convent building: modifications, including removal of side porch, chimney, and some internal partitions

1978 -
Convent building: staff room and office added at rear.

1980 - 1989
Church: crying room added

1996 - 1997
Church: internal walls in sacristy removed, internal piles replaced and sprinkler system installed.

2000 -
Convent building: removal of 1966 internal walls at ground floor level, reinstating chapel space.

Construction Details

Church: timber frame and cladding, with corrugated metal roof. Convent building: timber frame and cladding, with corrugated metal roof and brick chimney.

Completion Date

15th February 2012

Report Written By

Martin Jones

Information Sources

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1902

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol.2, Christchurch, 1902

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Riseborough, Hazel, 'Barsanti, Ottavio - Biography', Shaw, Peter, 'Mahoney, Thomas - Biography', Simmons, E.R., 'Pompallier, Jean Baptiste François - Biography' and Delany, Veronica, 'Maher, Mary Cecilia - Biography', in Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Sep-10 URL:

Kirk, 1998

Marcienne D. Kirk, Remembering Your Mercy: Mother Mary Cecilia Maher and the first Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand 1850-1880, Auckland, 1998

Simmons, 1982

E.R. Simmons, In Cruce Salus: A History of the Diocese of Auckland 1844-1980, Auckland, 1982

Sisters of Mercy, 1952

Sisters of Mercy, Gracious is the Time: Centenary of the Sisters of Mercy Auckland 1850-1950, Auckland, 1952

Ardley, 1991

Gavin Ardley, The Church of St John the Baptist, Parnell, Auckland: A Brief History 1861-1986, Auckland, 1991

Simmons, 1984

E. R. Simmons, Pompallier: Prince of Bishops, Auckland, 1984

Sisters of Mercy, 1925

Sisters of Mercy, The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Landing in New Zealand of the Sisters of Mercy 1850-1925, Auckland [1925]

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the Mid-Northern Office of the NZHPT.

Auckland Council’s Cultural Heritage Inventory as CHI Places no. 2516, St John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church/St John the Baptist Church/St Johns.

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.