Our Lady Star of the Sea Convent Chapel (Catholic)
16 Fettes Crescent, Seatoun, Wellington
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 2
Private/No Public Access
10th September 1981
Extent of List Entry
Extent includes part of the land described as Lot 14 DP 51930 (CT WN25D/486), Wellington Land District and the Our Lady Star of the Sea Convent Chapel and its fittings and thereon.
Lot 14 DP 51930 (CT WN25D/486), Wellington Land District
Perched upon the hillside overlooking Seatoun is the picturesque Our Lady Star of the Sea convent chapel. First opened in 1924, the chapel is significant not only for its historical association with the Sisters of Mercy and the Seatoun area, but also for the way its structure has been designed to work with the steep terrain which is due to the innovative thinking of its architect, the renowned Frederick de Jersey Clere.
The property on which the chapel stands is part of the Star of the Sea Historic Area and had formerly been the site of the Star of the Sea school and convent for the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic religious Congregation. Prior to its construction the Sisters had relied upon the school chapel for their worship. In 1922 the founding stone for the new chapel was laid.
As a prominent Wellington architect Clere had also designed the St Gerard’s Monastery on Mount Victoria and St Mary of the Angels church. The chapel was the first building he designed for the Sisters of Mercy and he chose to use the inter-war Gothic style. The characteristics of this style, such as steep rooftops, buttresses and pointed arches all feature in the chapel’s design. Forced to take into account the steep hillside, Clere added a basement to the chapel’s eastern end. This lower level was then used to house novices. From these eastern foundations the chapel rises to a height of sixty feet. Topped with a belfry, the roof is covered with slates imported from Wales.
The first thing that one notices upon entering the chapel is the acoustics: any sound that is made is remarkably clear. Exterior light shines down through the magnificent stained glass windows which were originally designed in Munich by the firm of F. X. Zettler. On each side of the nave are four windows, each featuring the patron saint of the chapel’s founding Sisters. The superb stained glass piece set in the chapel’s western end is dedicated to Mother Cecilia Benbow, one of the sisters who first taught at Star of the Sea school.
Passing up the nave leads one past rows of pews and the rimu panelled choir stalls.
At the chancel one is met by an altar carved from Carrara marble which features a mix of Classic and Gothic elements and depicts the Last Supper. The altar was presented by the parents of D. Barrett, the first pupil of Star of the Sea, who was killed during the First World War.
Prior to the installation of heating in the chapel in the mid 1940s the sisters were forced to keep warm through the use of gloves and shawls when attending morning service.
From the chapel a wooden covered stairway descends to the former Stella Maris retreat house. The stairway is broken into four sections, with each section separated by wooden towers. Each section also features three arched windows which originally did not feature glass but were instead fitted with louvres. When cleaning the louvres the Sisters had to remove them individually in order to wash them by hand.
The chapel continued to serve the Sisters of Mercy and the Seatoun Catholic community until the 1980s when daily Mass ceased. While retreats were still held in the former Star of the Sea school building, the chapel was used for weddings only during the summer. In 2002 the Wellington City Council declared the building to be at risk of earthquake damage and it was closed to the public. Faced with the threat of demolition due to the Sisters being unable to meet the costs of preservation, the chapel was purchased by a prominent Wellington citizen and passed into private ownership.
Although no longer accessible to the public, the chapel and its walkway are still visible from the road and surrounding areas of Seatoun. Both locals and visitors to Seatoun are still able to appreciate the majesty of this significant building by Frederick de Jersey Clere. These views convey the impression that the chapel almost seems to grow straight out of the hillside and it serves as a reminder of the dedication that was shown towards ecclesiastical architecture in early twentieth century Wellington.
Our Lady Star of the Sea is an important historic place for both Catholics and Seatoun residents. The chapel has strong connections with the Sisters of Mercy who helped to establish Catholic education in the Wellington region and so it stands as a reminder of their service to others. Since the chapel is an important landmark, it has become a part of people’s personal identity, regardless of their faith. Therefore for the people of Seatoun and those who grew up in the area, Our Lady Star of the Sea is more than just a building, it is an integral part of their personal history.
Clere, Frederick De Jersey
Clere (1856-1952) was born in Lancashire, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and was articled to Edmund Scott, an ecclesiastical architect of Brighton. He then became chief assistant to R J Withers, a London architect. Clere came to New Zealand in 1877, practising first in Feilding and then in Wanganui. He later came to Wellington and practised there for 58 years.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1886 and held office for 50 years as one of four honorary secretaries in the Empire. In 1883 he was appointed Diocesan Architect of the Anglican Church; he designed more than 100 churches while he held this position. Clere was a pioneer in reinforced concrete construction; the outstanding example of his work with this material is the Church of St Mary of the Angels (1922), Wellington.
As well as being pre-eminent in church design, Clere was responsible for many domestic and commercial buildings including Wellington's Harbour Board Offices and Bond Store (1891) and Overton in Marton. Clere was also involved in the design of large woolsheds in Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa.
He was active in the formation of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and served on their council for many years. He was a member of the Wellington City Council until 1895, and from 1900 a member of the Wellington Diocesan Synod and the General Synod. He was also a member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.
Closed to the public
First stone laid
8th October 2011
Report Written By
S. Mclean, Architect of the Angels; the churches of Frederick de Jersey Clere, Wellington, 2003
New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)
New Zealand Historic Places Trust
McKenzie, James. Star of the Sea Precinct: chapel, stairway and retreat house (HPT, 1984). See: Central Region Library – Building Reports (LIB 8285)
Wellington City Council
Wellington City Council
Wellington City Council, Heritage building inventory: Our Lady Star of the Sea Chapel, as of 2002. See: HPT file Our Lady Star of the Sea Chapel, Wellington, 12004-371.
Mary de Porres Flannigan, Like a Mustard Seed: the history of the Sisters of Mercy in Wellington, Wellington 2009
A fully referenced Upgrade Report is available from the central region office of NZHPT.
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.