Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St Mary his Mother

WelCom September 2020 Te Wharekarakia Matua a Rohe o te Ngākau Tapu o Hēhu me tōna Whāea a Hāta Maria To Mātou Whare me to Mātou Kāinga – Our House…

WelCom September 2020

Te Wharekarakia Matua a Rohe o te Ngākau Tapu o Hēhu me tōna Whāea a Hāta Maria

To Mātou Whare me to Mātou Kāinga – Our House and Our Home

The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of Saint Mary His Mother – known as Sacred Heart Cathedral – is the Catholic Cathedral on Hill St, Thorndon, Wellington. It is the parish church of the Thorndon Catholic Parish (founded 1850) and the Cathedral of the Archbishop of Wellington. After being closed in 2018 as an earthquake risk, on 7 August 2020 Cardinal John Dew blessed the site ad its project team to begin the restoration work to strengthen the Cathedral.

The Cathedral is part of a Catholic precinct which includes St Mary’s College; Sacred Heart Cathedral School; St Mary’s Convent, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy in Wellington; the Catholic Centre, in which Catholic administration is located; and Viard House, which is both the Cathedral parish presbytery and the residence of the Archbishop. 

The first Catholic church built on the Hill St site, was the wooden, neo-Gothic, St Mary’s Cathedral, blessed and opened in 1851. It was gutted by fire on 28 November 1898. The new church, called the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, was originally intended as a substantial building. Its foundation stone was laid in 1899 and the building blessed and opened two years later. 

The church was known as ‘the Basilica’, because of its palladian architectural style. It was designated as the Cathedral of Wellington in 1984 after earthquake strengthening and the addition of the Blessed Sacrament chapel, foyer, sacristy, courtyard, and hall.

Cardinal Thomas Williams, the fifth Archbishop of Wellington, consecrated the Cathedral on 18 March 1984. In 1985, the building was listed as a Category 1 Historic Place. 

On 13 July 2018, the main cathedral building was closed for seismic strengthening. Temporary strengthening work enabled the opening of the Cathedral Chapel and Connolly Hall for use.

On 7 August 2020, Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, blessed the site to begin the strengthening and restoration work of the Cathedral, and the blessing of those who will work on it. 

The strengthening of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is expected to be completed in 2023. 

A Brief History

1850: Thorndon Catholic parish founded and administered by Society of Mary (Marist Fathers) until 1935. Founder Bishop Viard, and first two Archbishops Redwood and O’Shea also members of Society of Mary. Foundation stone for new church laid.

1851: St Mary’s Cathedral, wooden, neo-gothic structure, blessed and opened.

1867: Cathedral building completed; cast-iron statue of Blessed Virgin Mary, from France, positioned high in church tower.

1898: St Mary’s Cathedral destroyed by fire. Statue of Mary crashed to ground intact. Salvaged with minor damage and stands today in Cathedral cloister courtyard.

1899: Foundation stone laid for new church, called Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Architect Francis Petre, whose family had donated the site, designed new church in Palladian style, in place of Gothic style of time, which he considered ‘old fashioned and expensive’.

1901: Parish church, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, opened to replace St Mary’s Cathedral.

1908: Memorial pulpit installed (still in use today).

1935: Secular or Diocesan clergy take over administration from Marists.

1954: Archbishops and the resident clergy of Cathedral have since been secular clergy. 

1984: Church designated Cathedral of Wellington and of the Archbishop of Wellington, after earthquake strengthening and addition of the Blessed Sacrament chapel, foyer, sacristy, courtyard, hall. Consecrated by Cardinal Tom Williams, fifth Archbishop of Wellington.

1985: Building listed as a Category 1 historic place.

1989: Two-metre-high kohatu whakairo (thinking stone carving) installed inside Cathedral entrance and a pou (carved wooden pole) in piazza, gifted as taonga from Catholic Māori of the Archdiocese.

2007: Icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St Mary his mother by contemporary iconographer Michael Galovic installed. 

2018: Cathedral declared an earthquake risk and closed in July. Temporary strengthening work enabled reopening of Chapel and Connolly Hall. 

2020: Friday 7 August, Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, blesses site and project team for strengthening and refurbishment work to commence.

2023: Strengthening of the Cathedral expected to be completed. 

Cathedral and People – Beautiful and Sacred

Cardinal John Dew, with Vicar for the Archdiocese, Monsignor Gerard Burns, blesses the Cathedral site to begin restoration of the 120-year-old building.

At the site blessing, 7 August, which began the restoration of the 120-year old earthquake-prone building, Archbishop Cardinal John Dew said, ‘Our Cathedral is very small in comparison with many around the world. But it is what a cathedral stands for and what is generated from it that determines its significance.’

Cardinal John described the Cathedral as a gathering place for prayer, for marking special moments in the life of people and the diocese, and especially for preparing and empowering people to witness the gospel in their daily lives.

‘The Cathedral is a place of great sacredness. It represents the entire Church as the body of Christ. Through baptism we are members of that body, living temples of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Cathedral re-introduces us to ourselves.’

Encountering this image of being part of the whole people of God makes us feel different about ourselves, more responsible, more committed.

‘Touched by God’s presence, a person finds her/himself ready and eager to be sent out to love and to serve.’

The Cardinal described the Cathedral by the title of a book that graces his office: Ars Sacra – Sacred Art. It contains illustrations of magnificent buildings and architecture throughout the world. But, he said, it was the title that he associated with Sacred Heart Cathedral and its people.

Building and people – ‘We are indeed, all of us, sacred pieces of art’.

Blessing prayer for site and workers

Cathedral Parish leadership, Archdiocesan representatives, Restoration Committee members and L T McGuinness contractors gather with Cardinal John for the site blessing marking the beginning of the earthquake strengthening project.

Prayed by Cardinal John Dew

All powerful and merciful God, you have created all things through your Son and have made him the unshakable foundation of your reign. Through the gift of your eternal wisdom, grant that the strengthening work we begin today on this Cathedral Church may progress to its successful conclusion. We pray your blessing on all who work on this site; may they recognise the holiness of their skills and their craft. Bless, too, all who assist this work by their gifts and by their talents; may they recognise they help your People, the People of God, gather here well into the future. 

Blessing with Music and Song

The singing of Franz Schubert’s, Ave Maria, proved a fitting introduction to the formal blessing opening the way to the restoration of Sacred Heart Cathedral.

This enduring prayer of praise and petition was sung by Caii-Michelle, as a waiata to her husband Neville Barker’s whaikorero (welcome speech) and set the scene for a memorable celebration in the Cathedral Chapel on the morning of the site blessing.

The moment also acknowledged the Marian link to both Cathedral and Archdiocese. The full title of the Cathedral is The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St Mary his Mother. The Archdiocese is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

A combined choir from the Cathedral School and St Mary’s College, with the Cathedral’s Music Director, Michael Fletcher, led the hymn that captured powerfully the significance and purpose of this place of worship:

Let us build a house where hands will reach
beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
and live the word they’ve known.
…all are welcome in this place.

Parish and City Council united in joy

Suzie Morrissey and Jane Kelly.

‘Thrilled’ and ‘Excited’ were spontaneous and joyous reactions of two Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioners at the site blessing on August 7.

Jane Kelly, Parish Finance, and Suzy Morrissey, Pastoral Council, said they had prayed for this moment since the closure of the Cathedral in 2018.

‘Today’s blessing is a confident statement that we’re going to get our home back,’ smiled Suzie.

Jane, working through Bell, Kelly & Beaumont, Team Architects, has taken special interest in the Cathedral over many years and is fully involved in the restoration work.

‘It is wonderful to know the long-awaited work to strengthen and thereby reopen the church so important to both Parish and Archdiocese is finally underway,’ she said.

The comments were echoed by Wellington’s Deputy Mayor, Sarah Free, and Councillors Sean Rush and Simon Woolf, representing the City Council at the blessing. 

Each noted the significant role of Christianity ‘in our nation’s foundation’. 

Sacred Heart Cathedral, now 120 years old and built on the site of the first Cathedral, St Mary’s, is a powerful reminder of ‘values that have helped us grow as a nation’.

The site blessing helps anchor those values.

‘I’m delighted you have reached this point,’ said Sarah Free. 

‘It’s our place’

Colleen and Dan Kelly are celebrated as being parishioners of Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish for the longest time and among the most faithful.

Dan and Colleen Kelly are celebrated as being parishioners of Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish for the longest time and among the most faithful.

They describe their long association with the Cathedral as ‘life-giving’ and regard it as ‘acoustically brilliant and prayerfully inviting’.

‘It’s a simple building,’ says Dan. ‘Architecturally sound, but also open and plain, and attractive because of that. It’s our place.’

Dan, born in Greymouth, came to Thorndon at the age of six, living in the Guilford Terrace home of his mother’s Milligan family. Now in his 93rd year, he describes his long association with the Cathedral as ‘something I just grew in to’.

Living ‘less that a stone’s throw’ from the church, it was ‘hard to escape’, and being an altar server and later joining the choir anchored him very easily. The whole family had a connection. His aunt, Josephine, was organist for the Basilica – as the Cathedral was then called; a service she gave for many decades.

Married to Colleen, who had attended St Mary’s College, in 1961, they will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year.

Dan and Colleen consider the decision to strengthen and refurbish the Cathedral as the only way forward. ‘It is a beautiful building that has touched the lives of thousands and stands as a beacon of faith for the city.’

In retirement, after careers in public service and teaching, Dan, supported by Colleen, spent two years researching and writing the history of Thorndon Parish, marking its 150th anniversary in 2000 with the publication of On Golder’s Hill.

Cardinal Thomas Williams described his contribution as ‘outstanding’, writing that both ‘Parish and Archdiocese are deeply indebted to Dan for his painstaking research and writing’.

Though now living in the Village on the Park retirement complex in Berhampore, Wellington, Dan and Colleen have continued to be regular members and supporters of Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish. The Parish salutes and thanks them for the gift of themselves in the building up of Sacred Heart community.

A Family Connection

Peter McGuinness, (pictured second from right), representing the main contractors for the reconstruction, L T McGuinness, at the site blessing on August 7, has a personal interest in the project. 

His boyhood home was at 64 Hill St and he remembers being an altar server in the Basilica, serving Mass for Archbishop McKeefry, ‘just two doors down the street!’.

‘Many Catholic families have passed through Thorndon and still feel a link to the Cathedral.’

Peter is aware that much work has already gone into ‘preparing to get started’ and says he is ‘extremely happy for parishioners and the Archdiocese’ that at last a start is being made.

Good will and affection funding Cathedral

Closed in 2018 as an earthquake risk, Wellington’s Sacred Heart Cathedral is suddenly showing signs of new life.

Efforts by the Cathedral Parish in partnership with the Archdiocese, raised an initial $3 million and work on a major part of the restoration began last month. 

While the total cost of the project is estimated at $16.5 million, a huge boost was received in August with a Government grant of $8.5 million from its Covid-19 ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure fund. A grant of $120,000 was also recently made by the Wellington City Council Heritage Fund.

This leaves over $5 million still to be raised.

Cathedral Campaign chair, Fr James Lyons, is confident the Catholic family and wider community will continue their support.

‘Certainly, people’s lives and livelihoods are troubled by the pandemic, suggesting this is not a good time for fundraising,’ he admitted.

‘But the Cathedral is linked to the birth of the Archdiocese, and affection for it runs deep. It needs to be preserved for future generations.’

Fr James noted the importance of the investment of public funds – a strong indication that the spiritual and cultural values represented by the Cathedral need to be strengthened and protected.

‘There is much good will and affection for the Cathedral in the wider community,’ he said. ‘We also have a responsibility to honour the trust already shown.’

Fr James wanted to correct rumours that the current reorganisation of parishes, likely leading to the sale of surplus churches and other buildings, will help fund the strengthening costs of the Cathedral.

While the Bishop had overall responsibility for property within the diocese, there was a certain independence given to parishes to make their own pastoral decisions. It was not the practice for a Bishop to demand the handing over of parish assets.

In the Archdiocese, for example, when the parish of Hataitai closed, its assets were divided between the neighbouring parishes of Kilbirnie and Mt Victoria. They were not taken over by the Archdiocese.

Similarly, with the closure of Te Aro and Waikanae parishes the beneficiaries were the neighbouring parishes, not the Archdiocese.

As campaign chair, Fr James said he was very aware of the necessity to seek funding from throughout the Archdiocese.

With the support of the Council of Priests, he will begin visiting parishes in October to encourage individual donations.

Project timeline

  • Now until next May, roof-strengthening work.


  • Base-isolation work
  • Organ work
  • Refurbishment work inside and outside
  • Expected completion date, May 2023.

A special website is being developed about the Cathedral project. In the meantime, visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart website: