Historical Significance or Value
The chapel has considerable historical significance for its long associations with the Sisters of Mercy, the first canonically consecrated order of religious women in New Zealand, who played an important role in the religious, spiritual, educational and cultural development of Auckland. It is also closely linked to the development of Catholicism in New Zealand; Irish immigration; the history of gender; and the history of care for the young and the poor. The building is historically significant as the only remaining element of one of the earliest purpose-built convents in New Zealand, and as the first purpose-built chapel erected by the Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand.
St Mary's Convent Chapel has aesthetic significance for its visual simplicity, and sense of light and airy spaciousness. Architecturally the chapel is of high value as the earliest surviving convent chapel in New Zealand, and as a little-altered church designed by notable Auckland architect Edward Mahoney. The building is recognised as the bridge between Mahoney's first tentative expressions of the Gothic style as seen in the Church of St John the Baptist, Parnell (1861), and the later more adventurous ecclesiastical designs of the Mahoney architectural practice that express the Gothic Revival style more fully.
The building has high social and spiritual significance as the spiritual home of the Sisters of Mercy; as the chapel used by the pupils of St Mary's Convent School; and as the local parish church for Ponsonby's Roman Catholic community between 1870 and 1886. The building has also been used more recently for weddings and other ceremonies. The building has cultural significance for its association with sacred music and teachers such as Dame Sister Mary Leo.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
St Mary's Convent Chapel reflects important aspects of New Zealand history, particularly the development of the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of women's religious orders in settler society. It especially demonstrates the historical presence of the Sisters of Mercy, the first order of canonically consecrated religious women to come to New Zealand. The building is particularly important as the first purpose-built chapel erected by the Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The Chapel is closely associated with people of importance in New Zealand history, including Bishop Pompallier, Mother Mary Cecilia Maher, Mother Mary Bernard Dickson, and Dame Sister Mary Leo.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history
As an extremely well-preserved building of 1860s date, the building's fabric has considerable potential to provide information about aspects of New Zealand history, including colonial construction techniques, materials and craftsmanship. Its well-preserved internal layout can provide information about nineteenth-century religious liturgy, and social attitudes to religion and gender.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place
The campaign to retain and restore the building in the 1970s demonstrates considerable community esteem for the place.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place
The Chapel is recognised as a significant piece of early Gothic Revival architecture by Edward Mahoney, which preserves to a high degree its original design.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place
The Chapel has symbolic value as the spiritual heart of the Mother House of the Sisters of Mercy in the Auckland Diocese. It contains stained glass windows that celebrate the lives of early members of the Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand, and an altar used by Bishop Pompallier, an iconic figure in the New Zealand Roman Catholic community
(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from early periods of New Zealand settlement
The building dates from an early period in Auckland's history, being constructed within 25 years after the foundation of the colonial settlement.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
The Chapel is believed to be a rare example of a mid nineteenth-century convent chapel in New Zealand, and the only surviving building belonging to one of New Zealand's earliest purpose-built convents. Most other NZHPT-registered convent chapels in New Zealand date to the early 1900s.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape
The Chapel is an important part of a wider historical and cultural landscape linked to the Catholic church which includes the St Mary's Convent cemetery, St Mary's College Hall, the Bishop's House and the former Bishop Pompallier's House. The broader suburb of Ponsonby contain numerous historic places of note, including other religious buildings such as St John's Methodist Church, St Stephen's Presbyterian Church and the Ponsonby Baptist Church.
Summary of significance:
St Mary's Old Convent Chapel is recommended for Category I registration as a place of special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage value because:
It is the oldest purpose-built chapel erected by the Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand;
It is considered to be the oldest convent chapel of any denomination to survive in New Zealand;
It is an extremely well-preserved example of a mid nineteenth-century convent chapel, both in its external and internal form;
It is believed to be the only surviving early building from one of New Zealand's oldest purpose-built convents, which formed the Mother House of the Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Auckland;
It has important links with the development of Catholicism in New Zealand, and Auckland's role as a major centre for the Catholic faith, notably through its construction and prolonged use by the Sisters of Mercy, the first canonically consecrated religious women to become established in New Zealand.
The Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand
The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Dublin in 1831 as an apostolic religious order, dedicated to providing education for poor children, refuge for exploited servant girls and help for the poor in their own homes. In 1849 their establishment at St Leo's Convent, Carlow, was visited by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier (1801-1871), who was recruiting nuns and other staff to serve in Auckland. Pompallier had led Catholic missionary activity in New Zealand since the 1830s, and in the late 1840s was appointed Bishop of Auckland, following the division of the colony into two Catholic dioceses, based respectively in Wellington and Auckland. Mother Mary Cecilia Maher (1799-1878) and seven other sisters from the convent joined his party, which left Antwerp for New Zealand in August 1849. Maher was the Mother Superior at Carlow, and became an influential figure in the Auckland Catholic community.
The Sisters of Mercy arrived in Auckland on 9 April 1850 as the first canonically consecrated religious women to come to New Zealand. Three weeks before their arrival Philippe Viard - Bishop of the southern province of New Zealand - had formed a separate congregation of religious sisters, known as the Marist Sisters. On 19 March 1850, Viard received the profession of religious vows from three women who had trained at the teachers' college he had established at Whangaroa. The Marist Sisters, recognised as New Zealand's first indigenous religious order, began work in the diocese of Wellington in May 1850 but dispersed after 11 years.
The Sisters of Mercy were officially welcomed to the Auckland diocese by Bishop Pompallier at a ceremony held in the newly-erected St Patrick's Church - later to become a Cathedral - on 10 April 1850. Irish Catholics at this time constituted about 28 per cent of Auckland's population. The Sisters became actively involved in both the education and care of children, and supporting the sick and needy, running schools, orphanages and - later - hospitals. By the time that Pompallier left New Zealand in 1868, there were five Sisters of Mercy convents in the Diocese: St Mary's, Ponsonby (the Mother House); St Patrick's in the town itself; St John the Baptist, Parnell; St Joseph's, Onehunga; and St Cecilia's, Otahuhu. The Sisters also spread to Wellington in 1861, Hokitika in 1878, Greymouth in 1882, and Lyttelton in 1890. In 1894, a convent was established in Christchurch, while a further establishment was created in Dunedin in 1897.
The Sisters of Mercy and St Mary's Convent
After their arrival in Auckland, the Sisters initially lived in a small convent on the site of the present St Patrick's Cathedral in Wyndham Street. However, in April 1853 Bishop Pompallier purchased a 17.4 hectare (45 acre) property, the Clanaboy estate (renamed Mount St Mary) in Ponsonby, as a headquarters for the Auckland Diocese of the Catholic Church, where the Sisters set up a school for Maori girls. Within a few years overcrowding of the St Patrick's convent made the construction of a larger, purpose-built Mother-House at the Mount St Mary complex desirable. In 1859, New Street was formed and 7.2 hectares (18 acres) on the eastern side of the thoroughfare were formally handed over to the Sisters of Mercy for religious and charitable purposes, in security for sums of money received from the Sisters since their establishment in Auckland. On 8 December 1861, the foundation brick was laid for a large convent building, believed to be one of the earliest purpose-built structures of its type in New Zealand. Named St Mary's, it was erected in the Gothic Revival style, on a commanding site overlooking Freeman's Bay. The three-storey timber building was capable of accommodating 60 religious sisters, and was completed in 1862. By 1864 a school - St Mary's College - had also been added to the convent complex, fronting on to New Street. St Mary's is believed to have been one of the first purpose-built convent complexes in the country.
Construction and use of St Mary's Chapel
Work commenced on construction of the convent chapel in 1865, a short distance to the north of the main convent. The structure was the first purpose-built chapel to be erected by the Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand. The building's architect and builder was Edward Mahoney, who had also designed the convent block as well as the earlier Church of St John the Baptist, Parnell in 1861. Like the first nuns, Mahoney was of Irish origin. He later became a founding member of the Auckland Institute of Architects. The building was designed to accommodate the particular needs of the convent, adopting different internal arrangements to other Catholic churches. The altar at the eastern end was advanced into the main body of the chapel to allow room for two sacristies - one for the Sisters of Mercy and the other as a robing room for priests - while a connecting corridor to the main convent was also reported as being part of the original design. The remainder of the interior was initially intended to be divided into spaces for the Sisters in the choir, boarders from the institution in one transept, orphans in another, and room for the general public in the nave. However, the nuns' seating appears to have been installed from the outset in the nave.
Mahoney himself appears to have been responsible for the construction work, being paid some ₤545 of the total cost of the chapel, which amounted to just over ₤1121. Architecturally, St Mary's Chapel may be seen as the bridge between Mahoney's first tentative expression of the Gothic style seen in the Church of the Immaculate Conception (constructed in 1858 at Mount St Mary) and the Church of St John the Baptist (1861) Parnell; and his later, more adventurous ecclesiastical designs, which expressed Gothic Revival more fully. Gothic Revival appears to have been the usual style for early Catholic churches in the Auckland region, while the cruciform groundplan of St Mary's and other churches erected or modified in the mid 1860s marked them out from church buildings of most other denominations.
The Chapel lay at the centre of convent life following its official opening on 5 August 1866. Its functions included formal religious ceremonies, liturgical worship by the sisters and private devotions. Bishop Pompallier offered Mass at the Chapel at least twice a week, heard confessions, and preached at conferences and retreats in the chapel. The building was also the spiritual focus of pupils at St Mary's College. Use of St Mary's Chapel increased greatly in 1870 when the land on which the nearby Church of the Immaculate Conception stood, passed out of the hands of the Bishop for a time. St Mary's Chapel subsequently served as a parish church for Ponsonby from 1870 until 1886, with baptisms and marriages taking place. Its use as a parish church ceased after the Church of the Sacred Heart was opened in O'Neill Street, Ponsonby in January 1887.
Mother Cecilia Maher died at St Mary's Convent on 25 November 1878, having served as superior general of the Auckland Sisters of Mercy for 22 years. She lay in state in the chapel for two days before being laid to rest in a small cemetery behind the convent. Other Sisters connected with the chapel include Mother Mary Bernard Dickson (1810-1895), who nursed in the Crimean War with Florence Nightingale and who, in 1861 (with two other Auckland Sisters of Mercy), founded the Sisters of Mercy community in Wellington. Dickson spent her last years in the Auckland convent and is also buried in the convent cemetery.
Archbishops, cardinals and other eminent people of the Roman Catholic Church have visited the chapel over the years. The first New Zealander to enter the priesthood, the Very Reverend Monsignor Mahoney, preached the occasional sermon in the chapel that was designed and built by his father Edward Mahoney. A hundred years after Mother Cecilia's arrival in Auckland, St Mary's Convent remained the spiritual home of 250 Sisters of Mercy in its role as Mother-House. Possibly due to increasing numbers of nuns in the late nineteenth century, two rows of stalls were added in circa 1900. Other alterations were minor, including the replacement of shingles by corrugated iron roofing, and the installation of lighting.
By the end of the 1960s, the changing needs of religious orders following the Second Vatican Council, and the significant deterioration evident in the 107-year-old convent building, led to construction of a new accommodation block and chapel on the site of the original main convent building. In the intervening years, the Sisters had maintained their involvement in the education and care of children, visiting the sick and bereaved, and contributing to the cultural life of the city through the teaching of art, music and languages. Their many foundations included schools, orphanages and hospitals, such as the Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) hospital in Auckland. The latter was New Zealand's largest private surgical hospital for much of the twentieth century.
With the creation of a new convent building, the old chapel passed out of daily use. Alterations to the chapel during the previous century had been minor, and included the replacement of its original shingle roof with corrugated iron, and the installation of additional stalls. In 1970, demolition of the original main convent block encompassed removal of the covered corridor connecting it to the chapel. After concerted efforts made to save the building, Bishop John Mackey said the first mass in the newly restored chapel on Mercy Day, 24 September 1979. Modifications to the building included the replacement of deteriorating timber and re-roofing with asbestos tiles.
Over the next 10 years past pupils of New Zealand's most celebrated singing tutor, Dame Sister Mary Leo, performed annual fund raising concerts for restoration and maintenance of the building. Dame Sister Leo's pupils have included Kiri Te Kanawa. In 1984, the chapel was identified as the only Catholic church in New Zealand going back to Pompallier's times that remained structurally unaltered. In 1999 toilet facilities were provided in the existing sub-floor space, but are not visible or accessible from the exterior. This work, which involved a new stair wall at existing dado height facing into the chapel, is not intrusive, but has enabled greater use of the 140-year-old chapel for functions. As well as occasional use for weddings and other ceremonies, the chapel is currently used for religious education classes for pupils at St Mary's College. While the number of women religious in the country has halved since the 1970s, the Sisters of Mercy remains New Zealand's largest religious order of nuns.
St Mary's Old Convent Chapel is situated in Ponsonby, an inner suburb to the west of Auckland's Central Business District (CBD). It is part of a Sisters of Mercy convent complex on the eastern side of New Street, located opposite the Roman Catholic Diocesan Centre. The chapel is positioned between the main convent building and St Mary's College, close to the western boundary of the complex.
Occupying a sloping site with an open aspect to its west, north and east, the chapel is a significant feature within the convent grounds, but is not a particularly dominant element of the adjacent streetscape. It lies close to St Mary's College Hall, built in 1929 (NZHPT Registration #648, Category II historic place), also located within the complex. Two other significant historic Roman Catholic structures in the immediate vicinity include the Bishop's House and the former Bishop Pompallier's House, both to the west of New Street. Ponsonby is an important historic suburb of Auckland, containing numerous registered or scheduled historic places, including several of a religious nature, such as St John's Methodist Church (NZHPT Registration # 643, Category II historic place), St Stephen's Presbyterian Church (NZHPT Registration # 652, Category II historic place) and the Ponsonby Baptist Church.
The timber chapel is cruciform shaped and has a centrally located spire. Its design is Gothic Revival, like many early Roman Catholic places of worship in New Zealand. The structure incorporates pointed arches, lancet windows and ornamental timber buttresses, and has a steeply pitched roof. Its groundplan incorporates a nave, two transepts and a chancel.
The chapel has six entrances. Approached from New Street, the main entrance into the nave is through a Gothic arch with a pair of full-height doors. On either side of the door is a pair of lancet windows. A simple rose window is centrally paced in the gable end. There are entrances in the west walls of the north and south transepts, and in the north and south walls of the chancel. Until 1970, the door in the southwest corner of the south transept opened into a corridor that connected the chapel to an adjacent convent building.
The original internal layout of the chapel, which was designed for the religious formalities of the convent rather than parish services, is extremely well-preserved. Two rows of stalls, on either side of the nave, face across the central aisle. The rear row on each side dates to the 1860s. On the walls behind the stalls, hang painted Stations of the Cross. The altar is located well forward, leaving space for two sacristies at the eastern end of the chancel. The chapel's southern transept retains a timber gallery.
The windows in the north and south transepts have curvilinear tracery based on four large lancets. In the east wall, behind the altar, is a stained-glass triptych window in a lancet setting. The centrepiece was sent out from Dublin by James Franklin in memory of his sister, Sister Mary Xavier (d.1861), one of the original pioneering Sisters who arrived in 1850, and depicts 'Our Lady of Mercy'. It is flanked by later images of St Catherine and St Cecilia, patrons of Mother Catherine McAuley (who founded Order of the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin in 1831) and of Mother Cecilia Maher, who brought the first Sisters to New Zealand. On either side of the nave are small lancet windows.
The chapel is lined throughout with 10-inch kauri match-lining. Six-inch sarking is exposed above the rafters. The roof timbers are simple cross-braced trusses, and contribute to the feeling of airy spaciousness in the small chapel.
Toilet facilities have recently been provided in the sub-floor space of the chapel with access via an internal stairway at the south wall of the transept.
Today, the chapel is the only building from the 1860s convent and the only building on the broader 1860s Catholic complex on Mount St Mary to survive on its original site. It retains most of its original features, including nuns' seating and the altar used by Bishop Pompallier. It is the oldest and one of the largest examples of a conventual church surviving in New Zealand. Other NZHPT-registered convent chapels include the Rosary Convent and Chapel, Oamaru (NZHPT Registration # 2301, Category II historic place) erected in 1900, and a 1907 chapel in the Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission Convent in Christchurch (NZHPT Registration # 5461, Category II historic place). St Dominic's Priory (NZHPT Registration # 372, Category I historic place) erected in Dunedin in 1877, has an associated chapel constructed in 1901. Two registered convent chapels belonging to the Sisters of Mercy are later in date, and comprise St Mary's Convent Chapel, Christchurch (NZHPT Registration # 7239, Category II historic place), built in circa 1910, and St Mary's Convent Chapel, Hamilton East (NZHPT Registration # 5460, Category II historic place), erected in 1926.
St Mary's Old Convent Chapel, New Street is believed to be the only early surviving building from the Sisters of Mercy's Mother House in Ponsonby, and one of only two remaining convent buildings established in the Diocese prior to 1868. The other building, the first Sisters of Mercy branch house (built in 1862) survives at 218 Parnell Road, Auckland, and is currently known as Puma House. The last portion of the Sisters' first convent, located on the front boundary of St Patrick's Cathedral in Wyndham Street, was removed in circa 1897 to make way for an iron boundary fence. The only physical evidence remaining of the Onehunga convent is a postern gate in a rock wall on the boundary. St Cecilia's convent building, Otahuhu, on the opposite side of road from the present St Joseph's School, was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for a new convent erected on the same site.
Notable fittings and fixtures incorporated within the registration include the stalls and altar.
1865 - 1866
Shingle roof replaced with corrugated iron.
Two rows of stalls added in nave.
1890 - 1904
Gas lighting installed.
1900 - 1909
Movable centrepiece in communion railing replaced on two separate occasions.
1920 - 1924
Electric lighting installed.
Small diamond panes at top of lancet windows opened (some later resealed).
Lancet windows in east wall of the transepts glazed with semi-frosted glass.
Fluorescent lighting installed.
Demolition of corridor connecting the chapel to the main convent.
Partial re-blocking of foundations; deteriorating timber renewed; tower re-roofed; roof repaired; some ornamental buttresses replaced.
Lighting renewed; corrugated iron roof replaced with asbestos tiles.
Stained glass windows repaired.
Re-blocking foundations; fibrolite cladding replaced with timber base-boards.
Toilet facilities in chapel sub-floor; new stair and stair wall; stair to the mezzanine choir gallery modified.
Timber frame and cladding, with concrete foundations and asbestos tile roof.
Report Written By
Auckland Public Libraries
Auckland Public Libraries
Negs 7-A10914 & 7-A1298, Special Collections, Auckland
Bulletin of New Zealand Art History
Bulletin of New Zealand Art History
Sister Gael O'Leary, 'St Mary's Convent Chapel', Vol. 6, 1978, pp.18-30
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Veronica Delany, 'Maher, Mary Cecilia 1799-1878' updated 16 December 2003, URL:http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/
Peter Shaw, 'Mahoney, Edward 1824/1825?-1895 & Mahoney, Thomas 1854/1855?-1923', updated 16 December 2003 URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/
Marcienne D. Kirk, Remembering Your Mercy: Mother Mary Cecilia Maher and the first Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand 1850-1880, Auckland, 1998
Sisters of Mercy, 1952
Sisters of Mercy, Gracious is the Time: Centenary of the Sisters of Mercy Auckland 1850-1950, Auckland, 1952
Sisters of Mercy, 1984
'The Old Chapel, St Mary's Convent, Ponsonby, Auckland', Fact Sheet compiled by Sister M. Veronica, Archivist, Sisters of Mercy, 6 June 1984 (held on file BDG 307, Northern Regional Office, NZHPT)
5 November 1865 p.9
23 March 1980
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Northern Region Office
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.