Erskine College (Former)

25-31 Avon Street, Melbourne Road And Mace Street, Island Bay, Wellington

  • Erskine College (Former) viewed from the western side of the valley in Island Bay.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Alison Dangerfield. Date: 9/03/2009.
  • west elevation of the convent building, with the gymnasium block visible to the left of the image.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Alison Dangerfield. Date: 1/02/2009.
  • Chapel of the Sacred Heart looking east towards main altar.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Alison Dangerfield. Date: 1/02/2009.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Registered List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1
List Number 7795 Date Entered 13th August 2009

Locationopen/close

Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lots 57-58, Lots 61-66, Lot 81, Lot 721 DP 170 (CT WN35A/667); Lots 59-60 DP 170 (CT WN36/125); Lots 55-56 DP 170 (CT WN36/171), and Pt Lot 70 DP 170, Sec 1 SO 18273 (CT WN417/180), Wellington Land District and all of the buildings and structures known as Erskine College (Former) and their fittings and fixtures, including the main convent building, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, and all of the grounds including the Reverend Mother's Garden, Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto and the terraced lawn, and notable trees. The following chattels are also included in the registration: all moveable contents of the Chapel of the Sacred Heart (including statuary, pedestals, altars and altar furniture, vestment furniture in sacristy, pews and pedal organ in choir loft) and in the convent building: the remains of the dormitory enclosure (T3) and wardrobe cubicles in hallways as well as plaques naming the rooms. The Coen and Lisieux buildings, St Anthony's and the gymnasium and other additions and extensions to the main convent building are also within the boundary of the registration although they are considered to be of limited significance. (Refer to map of extent in Appendix 1 of the review report for further information).

City/District Council

Wellington City

Region

Wellington Region

Legal description

Lots 57-58, Lots 61-66, Lot 81, Lot 721 DP 170 (CT WN35A/667); Lots 59-60 DP 170 (CT WN36/125); Lots 55-56 DP 170 (CT WN36/171), and Pt Lot 70 DP 170, Sec 1 SO 18273 (CT WN417/180), Wellington Land District.

Location description

The Erskine College complex and grounds are situated on a sizeable urban block of land bordered on three sides by Melbourne Road, Avon and Mace streets, with a residential subdivision to the east between the property and Volga Street.

Summaryopen/close

The collection of buildings now commonly known as Erskine College were built in Island Bay as a Catholic girls' boarding school founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart (Sacré Coeur). The religious of the Sacré Coeur followed the principles instituted by St Madeleine-Sophie Barat, a French nun who founded the Society in 1800 as a response to the quelling of religion after the French Revolution. The Society of the Sacré Coeur, who make the education of girls their focus, subsequently instituted convents throughout the world.

The Convent of the Sacred Heart at Island Bay was the second of four girls' schools the Society would establish in New Zealand. Constructed in 1905-6, the school was set up by Sisters who had come from overseas at the invitation of Archbishop Redwood, who was keen to have a Sacred Heart secondary school for girls in his diocese. The imposing four-storey Gothic brick and reinforced concrete building was designed by noted architect John Sydney Swan, who was just then emerging from his partnership with Frederick de Jersey Clere, and was the earliest in a series of major commissions for the Catholic Church for which Swan would become well known.

The building was ready for its first pupils at the start of 1907, and the roll steadily increased over the years. Students received an education characterised by a focus on religion and character, interwoven with the French culture of its founders. In the late 1960s, confusion with Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt led to the name of the Island Bay complex being changed to Erskine College, in honour of former Superior General of the Society Mother Janet Erskine Stuart, who had visited the school in 1914 and planted a Norfolk pine in the grounds, which still grows today.

As the roll increased over the years, so did the facilities of the school. The original main convent building has been added to numerous times in its history, firstly in 1916. A gymnasium and two accommodation wings were other major additions. One of the most significant additions, and certainly the most celebrated, was the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, built adjoining the main convent building in 1929-30. The chapel, again designed by John Sydney Swan, is a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture. The restrained exterior treatment belies an interior which features an exquisite marble altar, and leadlighting and statuary from Germany amongst other treasures.

By the time of its closure in 1985, nearly 3000 girls had been educated at the college. A reunion of alumnae in 1998 was attended by 800 former pupils, many of whom expressed their strong emotional attachment to the Erskine site. After its closure the school buildings were used variously by many creative and performing arts groups and as a venue for high profile events such as the International Festival of the Arts. This trend of usage was continued for over 12 years by the tenancy of The Learning Connexion, a creative arts college which until recently utilised the entire complex except the Chapel. The Chapel was refurbished in 2003 and is now regularly used in conjunction with the redeveloped function rooms as a popular venue for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies, as well as a valued space for the performance of choral and instrumental music recitals.

Erskine College (Former) is of outstanding heritage significance. As a now-rare physical testament to the work of the Society of the Sacred Heart in New Zealand, the place tells a story of the development of Catholic education in this country and is associated with numerous significant historical figures, as well as being a place of worship, spiritual retreat and celebration for generations of pupils and Sacré Coeur religious. The subject of huge community esteem, the place is held in extremely high regard by former alumnae, members of the Catholic community, local Island Bay residents, heritage professionals and other interested parties. The high social value of the place is most strongly demonstrated by the extensive campaign to protect the entire site, which was spearheaded by the formation of the Save Erskine College Trust in 1992 and its official approval as New Zealand's first non-government heritage protection authority.

The main convent building, Chapel of the Sacred Heart and associated additions are also of special architectural, cultural, technological and aesthetic significance. The Chapel in particular is regarded as the finest Gothic interior in New Zealand, and its elegant proportions an offer exceptional acoustic quality which has seen many notable musical performances.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Erskine College (Former) is of outstanding historical significance for its association with the Society of the Sacred Heart (Sacré Coeur), who brought their international mission to educate girls to Wellington at the invitation of Bishop Francis Redwood, who was also very involved in providing opportunities for Catholic education in New Zealand. The additions to the complex tell the story of Sacré Coeur's 79-year association with the school, and reflect the development of Catholic education in New Zealand. By the time of its closure in 1985 nearly 3000 girls had been educated at Erskine College, many of whom went on to become prominent in their communities, and whose contribution to New Zealand society is incalculable. Erskine College (Former) is also notable for its association with prominent architect John Sydney Swan, who designed the two main buildings of the complex as well as other additions and alterations, and who donated a stained glass window in the Chapel to demonstrate his esteem for the school.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

Set on the eastern hillside of the Island Bay valley, Erskine College has been a prominent local landmark since the construction of the main convent building in 1904-6. The impressive large buildings and well-established grounds are a highly visible presence in the suburb and one which the community considers to be an important part of the landscape.

The sombre exterior of the convent building speaks to the Edwardian educational principles of its time of construction, and also conveys the philosophies of the Society of the Sacred Heart through its use of cross motifs and the Sacred Heart emblem as decorative detailing. Although imposing, the spaces of the convent building still evoke a strong emotional response in former students and staff, as evidenced by reminiscences published by alumnae. This attachment extends to the surrounding grounds, as well as the Chapel of the Sacred Heart. The elegant proportions of the interior of the Chapel, which is reputed to be the finest Gothic chapel interior in New Zealand, have an undeniable beauty and strong visual impact. The detailing and splendour of the interior architecture and furnishings, made from the best materials available at the time, combine to convey an atmosphere of richness, glory, reverence and awe, which greatly add to the aesthetic significance of the whole site.

Architectural Significance or Value:

Erskine College & Chapel are of high architectural significance as the work of John Sydney Swan whose substantial work gave New Zealand some of its finest buildings. The Chapel and Convent are among his greatest achievements and are remarkable for their design, form, planning and detailing. These buildings, early in Swan's career, show a confident resourcefulness in design, mixing appearance that is both progressively inventive and comfortingly traditional with clever planning and a firm structural approach.

Erskine College is remarkable for its design, form and composition. The building design has been influenced by the Gothic, Tudor and Edwardian traditions, modified by a colonial approach to suit the new country. The style, scale and visual presentation of the College was unique in this part of Wellington and remains one of a handful of schools built in this way. The layout of the building, floor to floor, indicates a close attention to the practices and requirements of a convent school. From the traffic to classrooms and Chapel to the movement of laundry, the extended building was designed to accommodate school life and can greatly inform us today.

The chapel and convent were designed by the same architect to function as a single architectural entity. The magnificent interior of the Chapel is one of the finest New Zealand spaces built in the Gothic tradition. It is remarkable for its windows and structural embellishments, its furniture, its acoustics, the quality of light and the soaring immensity, and the paradoxically-intimate devotional space that has been formed.

The additions made later to the complex are of limited significance. While early additions followed the architectural language of the College, later building has imposed on and diminished the architectural standing of the Convent Building. Nevertheless the Gymnasium, the Lisieux Wing and the Coen Wing show the continued development of the College.

Technological Significance or Value:

Erskine College has technological value as one of the earliest masonry and partly-reinforced buildings. The Convent, completed in the first decade of the 20th century, and Chapel construction some years later, both pre-dated the surge in reinforced masonry design that occurred after the Napier earthquake and show an assertive approach by the architect to the structural integrity of the new buildings.

Specific elements that have technological interest include: the load-bearing brick masonry walls including a concreted reinforced bond beam at each floor; the timber construction of roof trusses, internal floors and walls; the open cage lift and machinery still in operation; the joinery -windows, doors, cupboards and finishing timbers; the impressive German stained glass windows; the expansive space constructed for the Chapel; and the plaster decorative detailing both internal and external.

Cultural Significance or Value:

Erskine College (Former) has unique cultural significance as a complex of buildings constructed to house a college instituted by the Society of the Sacred Heart, an international society with strong links to the French culture of its founding sisters. The education provided was characteristic of the education provided at Sacré Coeur schools worldwide, with an emphasis on religion and character interwoven with French vocabulary and traditions unique to the Sacred Heart way of life.

The Chapel of the Sacred Heart has long been venerated not only for the beauty of its interior but also for the magnificent acoustics of the space. As such it has been the venue for many musical performances, including choral and piano recitals by international groups such as the Vienna Boys' Choir, as well as countless other performers. The other buildings of the former Erskine College complex have, since the closure of the school, also hosted a wide range of cultural events including the International Festival of the Arts and the Globe Theatre's Shakespeare's Tapestries exhibition, and have been the studio and rehearsal space for numerous artists, dancers, musicians and filmmakers. The cultural value of Erskine College is enhanced by The Learning Connexion International School of Art & Creativity's 12-year tenancy of the place, which has seen hundreds of people use its spaces to inspire their own creative expression.

Social Significance or Value:

Erskine College (Former) is of outstanding social significance. Through its 79-year period as one of Wellington's few Catholic girls' boarding schools it played a major role in developing the characters of nearly 3000 students, who have since gone on to spread the Sacred Heart values into their communities. The 1998 reunion demonstrated the immense feeling of fellowship and common identity shared by alumnae, religious and former staff, and the two books published in response are further evidence of their special attachment to the very fabric and features of the entire Erskine College site. The community connection extends further through the school's historical associations with the Marists and other Catholic parishes and schools, and more recent use as a venue for weddings, funerals and other events.

The massive community esteem for Erskine College (Former) is very clearly demonstrated by the fight to save the main college building and protect the site. This has involved the considerable time, effort and money of a large number of people over 17 years, who all maintain they would feel a great sense of loss if the Erskine complex - in particular the main convent building, the chapel, and the grounds - were to be damaged or destroyed. The formation of the Save Erskine College Trust lends the site further social value; being the first non-governmental heritage protection authority in New Zealand they have also successfully applied for and upheld a heritage protection order for the property.

Spiritual Significance or Value:

Constructed to be a place of Catholic worship and retreat for generations of students, religious, and the wider community, the Erskine College site has great spiritual significance and value. Daily life at the school was steeped in religion, with various public spaces in the buildings and grounds dedicated to worship. As well, the complex was used extensively for the private spiritual contemplation of the nuns and students. Feast celebrations such as the procession of Christ the King have also seen the wider community make use of the site, attending benedictions at altars within the school grounds. The chapel spaces, including the widely venerated Chapel of the Sacred Heart, have been the site of countless individual and collective spiritual celebrations such as First Communions, the beatification and canonisation ceremonies of two Sacré Coeur religious, weddings, funerals and regular Catholic masses.

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

Erskine College (Former) is an important site which reflects the development of Catholic education in New Zealand, actioned by Bishop Francis Redwood as a result of the Education Act of 1877. It is particularly significant as one of only two sites which remain to represent the work of the Society of the Sacred Heart in New Zealand.

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

Erskine College (Former) is associated with a number of people or organisations of importance in New Zealand history. Founded at the invitation of Bishop Francis Redwood, who would later become an Archbishop, the school represents Redwood's great involvement with the development of Catholic education in New Zealand. It is also significant for its association with noted architect John Sydney Swan, whose design of the most noteworthy buildings on the site stand out amongst a career which saw him become a well-respected and prominent architect in central New Zealand. The place is also of great importance for its enduring links with the Society of the Sacred Heart, as the second convent school instituted by them in New Zealand as part of their international mission.

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

Erskine College (Former) is the subject of massive community esteem, held in extremely high regard not only by local Island Bay residents for its prominent contribution to the townscape, but also by the huge numbers of people associated with the site - Sacré Coeur alumnae, religious and former staff, heritage professionals, those who have used the buildings since Erskine College's closure and many other interested parties - who have advocated for the preservation of the place. The Chapel of the Sacred Heart is particularly well-renowned for the beauty of its interior and holds a special place in the hearts of the many who have attended ceremonies, performances and celebrations there. The formation and authorisation of the Save Erskine College Trust as New Zealand's first non-governmental heritage protection authority, along with the approval of the heritage order on the site, proves the esteem for the place at an official and national level.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

The size and previous uses of the complex as an educational facility and venue for creative and performing arts suggest the strong potential for Erskine College to be used for something similar in the future, which would again bring many more people through the buildings. The Chapel regularly hosts ceremonies and functions which attract an audience for presentations on the history of the site and its story of Catholic education in New Zealand, and more specifically, the work of the Society of the Sacred Heart. The widely publicised long-held battle to retain the main convent building has further raised the public profile of the site. The published reminiscences of former students and staff offer a valuable contextual insight into the unique culture and traditions of life at a Sacred Heart boarding school, and add to Erskine College's potential for public education.

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

Erskine College (Former) is notable as an early example of reinforced masonry construction and for the technical accomplishment of its design. Features of specific technical interest such as those discussed above have provided structural integrity to the main convent building and Chapel of the Sacred Heart for many decades, and offer an opportunity for the study of pre-Napier earthquake reinforced construction techniques.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place:

Erskine College (Former) is of high commemorative value as a physical symbol of the work of the Society of the Sacred Heart in New Zealand. The buildings, including additions, tell of the expansion of the school as the educational work of the society developed. The complex is of high commemorative value as specific buildings are named after significant Sacré Coeur religious, including former Superior General of the Society Mother Janet Erskine Stuart, who inspired the renaming of the entire college. The Norfolk pine she planted in the grounds also stands to commemorate her and her achievements. The Chapel of the Sacred Heart contains many relics and chattels (e.g. stained glass windows) associated with donors and venerated members of the Catholic community - local and worldwide.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:

The convent is the oldest surviving building of the four Catholic girls' boarding schools instituted by the Society of the Sacred Heart in New Zealand, and one of only two that remain to demonstrate the unique characteristics of the religious belief and traditions of the Society. It is the oldest original college building in Wellington, and a fine example of the work of noted architect John Sydney Swan, whose surviving designs are becoming rarer with the passing of time.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, f, g, h, j.

Conclusion:

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

Erskine College (Former) is of outstanding heritage significance. As a now-rare physical testament to the work of the Society of the Sacred Heart in New Zealand, the place tells a story of the development of Catholic education in this country and is associated with numerous significant historical figures as well as being a place of worship, spiritual retreat and celebration for generations of pupils and Sacré Coeur religious, some of whom are commemorated within the site. The subject of huge community esteem, the place is held in extremely high regard by former alumnae, members of the Catholic community, local Island Bay residents, heritage professionals and other interested parties. The high social value of the place is most strongly demonstrated by the extensive campaign to protect the entire site, which was spearheaded by the formation of the Save Erskine College Trust and its official approval as New Zealand's only non-government heritage protection authority.

The main convent building, Chapel of the Sacred Heart and associated additions are also of special architectural, cultural, technological and aesthetic significance as fine examples of the work of prominent architect John Sydney Swan. The Chapel in particular is regarded as the finest Gothic interior in New Zealand, and its elegant proportions an offer exceptional acoustic quality which has seen many notable musical performances. The other buildings of the complex also have lasting associations with many cultural activities, having been used as the site for the creation of various artistic activities and as a venue for some high profile cultural events.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Swan, John Sydney

Swan (1874-1936) practised architecture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He formed part of the last group of architects to follow the traditional Gothic and Classical styles. He was articled to Frederick de Jersey Clere, working with Clere on many major designs such as the Wellington Rowing Club building (then known as the Naval Artillery Boat Shed, 1894) as well as smaller provincial buildings such as the Church of the Good Shepherd, Tinui. The firm was known as Clere, Fitzgerald and Richmond and was one of the most prominent architectural practices in Wellington. From 1901 to 1906 Swan was in partnership with Clere, practising on his own account from 1907. The first major design produced by Swan in this new practice was the Karori Crematorium (1907) which served to establish his architectural identity separate from Clere.

During his long and varied career Swan produced a large and wide range of work, including a number of banks for the National Bank such as the head office building in Wellington (1907), educational buildings for the Wellington Technical College with William Gray Young (1922), and a number of major buildings for the Catholic Church including St Gerard's Church, Mt Victoria (1910), Sacred Heart Convent (later Erskine College), Island Bay (1909), and Wanganui Convent (1912). He was an architect of imagination as evidenced by the design of his own house 'The Moorings', Glenbervie Terrace (1905).

Additional informationopen/close

Construction Details

Main convent building, St Anthony's and Chapel (with associated connecting structures): brick and reinforced concrete with timber gables and corrugated iron roofing. Interiors with matai flooring, heart rimu and heart totara detailing. Notable stained glass windows in the Chapel.

Lisieux wing: timber with corrugated iron roofing

Coen Wing and gymnasium/classroom extension: brick and reinforced concrete

Historical Narrative

Erskine College Main Block and Chapel of the Sacred Heart were built as part of the Catholic girls' boarding school, Convent of the Sacred Heart (Sacré Coeur). The secondary school was founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an institution of religious women devoted in particular to the work of education. Founded in Paris in 1800 by Madeleine-Sophie Barat, the Society was formed as part of a reaction to the suppression of religious orders during the French Revolution. Focusing on the education of the girls, the convents the society instituted eventually spread throughout Europe and North America, Algeria, Chile and Australasia.

The Society of the Sacred Heart came to New Zealand in 1880 from the St Louis vicariate in the USA. Many of the Society's initial convents in Europe had lately closed due to unstable political environments, and this encouraged their efforts to extend their institutions overseas. The Society extended itself to New Zealand at the invitation of Bishop Francis Redwood, who had four years earlier also brought brothers of the French Marist teaching order to Wellington to set up primary schools for boys. New Zealand's Education Act of 1877 had introduced free, compulsory and secular primary education, removing government support for Catholic parish-based schools and forcing religious schools to rely on their own means and seek other support. Bishop Redwood became very involved in finding ways to institute quality Catholic education in his diocese.

The first contingent of Sacré Coeur nuns was sent to Timaru, and in 1880 opened New Zealand's first convent of the Sacred Heart there. By the 1890s Bishop Redwood, by now Archbishop, expressed interest in assisting the Society to found a convent school in Wellington - a boarding school in order to provide for the Catholic education of country girls - and offered for use a property he had recently inherited. This plan fell through, however, and was postponed until 1902, when the Archbishop again renewed his efforts to have a girls' boarding school of the Sacred Heart in his diocese.

Island Bay was, at the turn of the twentieth century, somewhat of a seaside resort for Wellington residents, with scattered houses, two hotels and a large Chinese market garden along the western side of the valley. The southernmost suburb of Wellington, it was named after the island of Tapu te Ranga (Wahi Tapu, Record no. 7654) just off the coast, which had been an important Ngati Ira pa until the 1820s. Caves along the headland were also said to have sheltered tangata whenua from marauding war parties in times of conflict, and terraces, middens and other sites of Maori occupation have also been recorded in the areas along the coastline. In the 1880s farmland in the area had been subdivided for settlement, and the tram network reached the suburb in 1905, furthering its appeal as the location for the new school.

A two-hectare (20,000m2) site on the eastern side of the valley in Island Bay was chosen by nuns from the Timaru convent and purchased from landowner Samuel Wright in July 1902 for £1000, but for a while it seemed the plans would be postponed in order to establish a school in Sydney instead. The organising clergy then aimed towards a day school, but were finally granted permission to build a new boarding school house on the Island Bay site. While excavation and construction of the new building was carried out an eight-roomed house was rented in Avon Street, and was a small convent and boarding school from 1905-1906. Founding sisters were Mother Spadaccini, Mother Bourdeaux, Mother Maude Lennon and Sister Cullen - women who came from Europe, Ireland and Australia and brought their own international cultural influences to the education they provided.

The new four-storey building was designed by noted Wellington architect John Sydney Swan, who had until then been working in partnership with Frederick de Jersey Clere. The Sacred Heart convent at Island Bay was the earliest in a series of major solo commissions for the Catholic Church for which Swan became well known, including St Gerard's Church on Mt Victoria in 1908-10 (Record no. 226, Category I historic place), Our Lady of Compassion Convent, Island Bay (1908-21), St Mary's Presbytery (1913, Record no. 7756) and Sacred Heart Convent in Wanganui (1911), and St Bede's School in Christchurch (designed with his brother in 1919). In partnership with various others John Swan was also responsible for the design of a number of other significant commercial, educational and domestic buildings, making him one of the more important Wellington architects of the early 20th century.

Builder H. Ranson began work on the convent in December 1904, the contract being worth an estimated £15,588. Archbishop Redwood laid a commemorative marble plaque next to the front door in May 1905. The new building was ready to receive its first pupils in February 1906, but construction was not fully completed until 1909. These final stages of construction were carried out in two stages, in 1907 and 1909, but for the first three years of the building's life the unfinished top floor was appreciated by staff and students as an excellent covered sports venue. At its opening, the convent school became the first Catholic girls' boarding school in Wellington, and only the second Catholic girls' college in the region.

The main building shows influences of Gothic, Tudor, Edwardian and Romanesque architectural styles, adapted to include a New Zealand colonial touch - for example the wooden verandahs which feature on the main west elevation. The interior makes extensive use of native and imported timbers and the banisters of the main stairwell feature cross motifs carried through from exterior of building. All windows on the south face of the building were glazed with double-sash windows, as extra protection against the southerlies blowing in from Island Bay. However, alumnae still remember the biting cold of winter and how they made their way down the corridors by running from one gas heater to the next. The character of the building design also made an impression on generations of its inhabitants, many of whom have fond memories of its grand scale while others recall the school building as being a 'stern' 'Peaked Grey Fortress', perhaps associating it with their homesickness or the general discipline of boarding school life.

The Convent of the Sacred Heart at Island Bay followed the standardised education plan that was drawn up by Mother Barat as early as 1805, and in this way was linked to all Sacred Heart schools worldwide. The plan of studies was periodically revised but remained in worldwide use until 1958, when national requirements and cultural variations saw its role reduce to more of a spiritual influence rather than educational prescription. However, the hallmarks of a Sacred Heart education were consistent at the Island Bay college from its beginnings, with an emphasis on religion and character and classes in logic, ethics, history of art and architecture, philosophy, astronomy and ontology offered in addition to the standard academic subjects. The French cultural influence was strong, even in the everyday vocabulary of school life, and music and drama 'played such a large part in the life of the school that justice cannot really be done in words.' As well, physical education was provided for and encouraged, with the cricket pitch playing ‘a vital part in school life.'

Boarders and day pupils also made good use of the surrounding environment, regularly making climbing expeditions around the gorse-covered hills of Island Bay and swimming at the beach. The Society eventually obtained all of the land in the block now formed by Melbourne Road and Mace, Avon and Volga streets. Early photographs show the convent building (with the associated primary school of St Madeleine Sophie adjacent to the west) surrounded by undeveloped hills, and over time the nuns developed the grounds to incorporate large gardens and a farmyard area for the cows and other animals kept help to support the school. Students of the college, which was a private school, came from affluent families from all around New Zealand, and the farm surrounding helped to assuage some of the homesickness of children from rural areas.

Many past pupils have especially vivid and fond memories of the many feast day celebrations, including the processions to Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the school grounds, the feast of the Society's own Madonna, Mater Admirabilis, who was honoured with her own chapel in the college, and the Procession of the Lanterns on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. The feast of Christ the King was one on a grand scale, involving the wider community from parishes and Catholic schools all over Wellington, who would process around the Sacred Heart grounds attending Benedictions at three altars prepared by the children. Throughout its operation at Island Bay the Society of the Sacred Heart maintained a strong relationship with the Wellington Marist community. School chaplains were Marist priests who split their chaplaincy with that of St Patricks Catholic boys' boarding school, and the two boarding schools also maintained an intercollegiate bond.

The original convent building has been added to over the years. The first addition to the building was a two-storey extension to the north façade, known as St Anthony's Block. Completed in 1916, this area was used mainly for recreation, with the upper floor containing a series of cells for students to practise the piano in. An earthquake in the early 1940s reportedly ‘shook the piano rooms block off the main building by about one foot.' Parents gave generously for other additions, such as a two-storey addition to the east side of the convent building in 1921 (which later had another story added to it), and as the school grew the facilities were expanded further by the addition of a wooden accommodation block, known as the Lisieux Wing, in 1949; a gymnasium and classroom block in 1957; and the Coen Wing of accommodation, science laboratories and kitchen/laundry was added in 1967. A cage lift was installed in the main building in 1927 and is still in operation today.

Perhaps the most significant addition to the school complex, and certainly the most celebrated, occurred in 1929-30. From the founding days of the school, a large chapel space had been included in the main building, as well as a smaller chapel dedicated to Mater Admirabilis. However, in the late 1920s a much larger chapel was designed to adjoin the original school building to the south east, with access only through the corridors of the main convent building. The foundation stone was once more laid by Archbishop Redwood, on 5 May 1929, and the Opening Mass was celebrated by Archbishop O'Shea on 26 October 1930.

John Sydney Swan was again called upon to design the new chapel, and his design was reportedly influenced by the Sacré Coeur Sisters who were ‘steeped in the knowledge and love of French Gothic architecture as a fitting temple of God.' The finished structure today still has a deserved reputation as ‘one of the finest Gothic spaces in New Zealand.' The soaring vaulted ceiling forms a high ribbed canopy over a light and airy space of undeniable beauty, the impact enhanced by the elongated stringers and slender half columns spaced along the walls. The twelve stained glass windows along each side were brought out from Mayers in Munich over several years, once donations were raised for each. John Sydney Swan himself donated the central window, above the magnificent white Carrara marble altar, demonstrating his attachment to a complex which he had designed much of over the years.

The altar is finely detailed, its high quality Gothic-styled carving crafted in Italy, and houses relics of several saints, including St Madeleine Sophie. The gilded tabernacle door is inset with rubies, diamonds and moonstones, and finely carved marble shrines, Gothic-style timber panelling, pews and stalls, and statuary from Mayer of Munich add to the awe-inspiring and elegant richness of the chapel's interior decoration. The immaculate proportions of the interior have created a space still widely renowned for its acoustic excellence, with many noted performers, including the Vienna Boys Choir, appreciating the ‘extraordinary clarity and long reverberant time' of the space over the years. As well as being the location for countless First Communions and other individual and collective celebrations, the chapel spaces have also been witness to ceremonies celebrating two members of the Sacré Coeur order: foundress St Madeleine-Sophie Barat was beatified in 1908 and canonised in 1925, as was St Philippine Duchesne (beatified 1940, canonised 1988).

The 1960s heralded a change in the Sacré Coeur school culture. One of the changes proposed by the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II, 1963-1965) called for more collaboration with lay people, and at the Island Bay convent school this was reflected in increased numbers of lay staff. Increasing confusion with Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt led to the change in name for the school, and in the late 1960s ‘Erskine College' was chosen in honour of former Superior General of the Society, Mother Janet Erskine Stuart, who had visited the Island Bay campus in 1914 and planted a Norfolk pine, which still flourishes in the Reverend Mother's Garden today alongside other well established trees planted in the early days of the school.

From this time onwards, Erskine College became more integrated into the state schooling system. Reflecting the winds of change, the Society of the Sacred Heart also became more open, with the relaxing of the nun's lifestyle of enclosure (which previously had rarely seen them leave the confines of the school grounds), and eventually granting permission to wear ordinary dress instead of the traditional nun's habit. Financial strains were beginning to become more serious, however, and although school fees were not cheap, being a private school meant that the school was largely dependent on funding from these and donations. Declining rolls added to the pressure.

The first announcement of Erskine's closure came in 1970; a strategic decision not lightly made by the Society of the Sacred Heart, due to lack of resources to maintain the teacher's college, three independent schools and two parish schools they were at that time maintaining in New Zealand. However, in a precursor to the massive community support that would be later demonstrated in the battle to save the Erskine convent building from demolition, a large community of parents, college staff, alumnae and friends rallied in a show of ‘incredible dedication' to keep the school running. This was achieved through the formation of an Incorporated Society (Erskine College Inc.), managed by a Board of Governors, which ran the school for another 15 years until its final closure in 1985.

The catalyst for the ultimate closure of Erskine College was apparently the proposed cost of strengthening the main college building against earthquakes, which was considered to be insurmountable. Thus ended the 79-year operation of a college that, at its time of opening, had been one of the few secondary schools in Wellington, and in which nearly 3000 girls had been educated - many of whom had become prominent in the community after their graduation. A 1993 feasibility study for the future of the convent building expressed that ‘Erskine College has played a leading role in the education of many New Zealand women - including members of some of the nation's most prominent families - whose combined, cultural, economic, social and artistic contribution to the development of Aotearoa is inestimable.'

Today the scale and stateliness of the Erskine College complex stands as a lasting reminder of the community of Sacré Coeur girls' boarding schools in New Zealand. The original Timaru convent had closed its doors in 1933 and has since been demolished; Cottesmore College in Christchurch was only in operation between 1963 and 1976; and today the Society's educational work is only continued in New Zealand by Baradene College in Auckland, which closed its boarding section in 1985. All of the founding buildings of Wellington's other historic secondary schools have since been demolished, leaving the Erskine College main convent building to now be the oldest surviving purpose-built secondary school building in Wellington. A reunion of Erskine alumnae held in 1998 was attended by 800 old girls and resulted in the publication of two books, both of which include reminiscences arranged by room or areas of the college, demonstrating the depth of their emotional connection to the fabric and spaces of the complex. Kennedy writes that:

‘The dramatically successful reunion of religious, staff and alumnae in June 1998 confirmed the enduring legacy of Erskine College/Sacre Coeur...[celebrating] friendship, shared memories, certainly, as well as customs and traditions, within a great Tradition. Most of all, though, we celebrate an education that encouraged us to think and question, to look beyond the immediate fact or event for a deeper and broader meaning.'

Walsh also records alumna Claudia Wysocki's Reunion Address, in which she expresses the continuing attachment of many to the place: ‘I feel too, that since the closure of Erskine in 1985, perhaps our sense of belonging to the school has grown stronger, often it is those things in life that we no longer have that we come to appreciate the more.'

Post-Erskine College

The Erskine complex was purchased by the New Zealand Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society in 1986, which parcelled off land around the edges of the site and sold it for residential housing. The Hibernian Society planned to eventually develop the Erskine site as a retirement village. In the meantime the chapel was used by the Pope Pius X society, the Lisieux block was rented as accommodation, and various tenants made use of the main convent building, most of whom had a common focus on the creative and performing arts. By 1992 the Erskine complex was being regularly used as studio and performance space by a large number of artists, dance and theatre companies, puppeteers, film makers (the convent building featured as a location in Peter Jackson's film The Frighteners), musicians and as a venue for high profile events such as the International Festival of the Arts and the Shakespeare Society's Globe tapestries exhibition, which brought thousands of people to the buildings.

In 1992, however, the Hibernian Society submitted an application for resource consent to strengthen the chapel walls, which would be needed if the other part of the proposed work was carried out: the demolition of the main convent building. This proposal stirred up a huge amount of feeling amongst the community, and local Island Bay residents, heritage professionals, college alumnae, users of the convent and chapel buildings and other appreciators of the heritage of the Erskine complex banded together to advocate for the retention of the convent building and preservation of the Erskine site. Conservation architect Ian Bowman argued that:

‘The removal of one of the main elements of the design would seriously compromise the design of the whole complex of buildings on the site...The removal of the college will sever physical, historical and architectural links which have great significance to the college and will greatly reduce the significance of the chapel. The demolition will remove a building of rare design in New Zealand and by a significant architect of the period.'

Esteem for the main building and whole complex was so strong that a group called Save Erskine College Trust (SECT) was formed, and successfully applied to become the first non-government heritage protection authority under s188 of the Resource Management Act 1991. SECT has since had a heritage protection order placed upon the site, prohibiting the alteration, modification, damage, removal or demolition of any of the buildings, structures or trees, shrubs or natural growth within the grounds, by anyone without their authority. In response to the public notification of this application, 66 submissions were received in support of the heritage order and only two in opposition, again illustrating the huge value the community places on the Erskine College site. The main building remains in situ.

The perceived financial viability of the Erskine site has been demonstrated by the interest shown by prospective purchasers over the years. In 1994 local businessman Victor Cattermole attempted to purchase the Erskine complex, but the transaction was not completed. In 1996 another group of interested individuals, including Jonathan Milne of The Learning Connexion International School of Art and Creativity, also proposed to buy the complex, but could not raise the necessary funds. However, The Learning Connexion leased the college (apart from the Chapel) from 1996 until 2009, utilising the entire campus for a creative arts institution with some accommodation.

Property developer Ian Cassels and his company Property Link (Developments) Ltd have owned the Erskine College site since 2000, and have refurbished the entrance and associated spaces of the Chapel, creating a venue with a large reception room, new bathroom and kitchen facilities suitable for hosting weddings, funerals and other functions. A new main entrance to the Chapel complex - now used separately from the rest of the college buildings - was installed to the south side of the buildings. The main convent building is still in need of refurbishment and maintenance, and it and the Chapel are yet to be earthquake-strengthened, but the future of the Erskine complex is currently in limbo following the end of The Learning Connexion's tenancy.

Completion Date

17th July 2009

Report Written By

Blyss Wagstaff & Alison Dangerfield

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Broadbent, John V. 'Redwood, Francis William 1839 - 1935', updated 22 June 2007, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/, accessed 17 March 2009

Evening Post

Evening Post

'Battle lines drawn over old college', 12 June 1993

New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust

NZHPT file 12015-058 Erskine College Main Block, vols 1-8

NZHPT file 12004-036 Erskine Chapel, vols 1-3, available at NZHPT Central Region office

Waitangi Tribunal

Waitangi Tribunal Report, www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz

Te Whanganui a Tara me ona Takiwa: Report on the Wellington District, accessed 6 March 2009

Kennedy, 1999 (2)

Marie Kennedy, Erskine College of the Sacred Heart 1905-1985: The Seed Never Sees The Flower, The Society of the Sacred Heart, Wellington, 1999.

Walsh, 1999

B A Walsh, Processions: memories from Sacre Coeur, Erskine College, 1905-1985, B.A. Walsh, Auckland, 1999

Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Maclean, Chris, 'Wellington places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 27-Nov-2008, accessed 6 March 2009

'TE KAWAU, Apihai', from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966.

Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 18-Sep-2007

URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/1966/K/TeKawauApihai/en, accessed 6 March 2009

This place is subject to a Heritage Order (1992).

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Central region office.