Gordonton’s St Marys Church is closed temporarily. The building, built in 1934, is deemed at high risk from earthquakes. Now the congregation is meeting in the old school rooms, Hukanui Park, until strengthening work is complete. Rev David Smithson tells N8N’s Annette Taylor more.
“ABOUT TWO years ago, the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki advised that churches were to be checked for seismic weakness due to New Zealand being a seismically active country. A preliminary check was undertaken, then over a year ago, a more detailed check was undertaken by engineers, and the parish awaited this detailed analysis report.
As the preliminary report stated that the gable ends of the church possibly could be a risk in an earthquake, the vestry (church council) knew that it was likely that, at some stage, strengthening work would be required.
For several years the parish had been fundraising to raise money for a new church hall and the vestry decided that the priority would be in strengthening the actual church instead of building the hall. Vestry then transitioned the Hall Fund to a Seismic Strengthening Fund and contacted major donors for their approval of this new use of their past donations.
It all then happened very quickly. On July 15 July I finally received the Detailed Analysis report. It was found that there were serious weaknesses in the design of the church, especially where the roof is joined to the walls at the corbels. The gable ends were indeed confirmed to be a weakness as well.
The report did state that the church was actually in a very good condition (we take such care with our church!) but it was the way churches and buildings were designed and built in the 1930s that could be its actual literal downfall in a quake!
As the report deemed our church to be not a low, but very high risk, the Diocese policy was to temporarily close the church immediately until strengthening work remedied the weaknesses. I received this report as I was heading out the door to the Coromandel for annual leave, and I went through a range of emotions!
As I gazed out the window at the beautiful but rain-sodden bush in the Coromandel I was in two minds about this all – as it was a design fault, the church had actually been an earthquake risk since the day it was built and consecrated in 1934, and many generations up to today had worshipped in it so why the rush to close it?
A parishioner calculated that the chances of being killed in an earthquake in St Mary’s would be one in 800,000. On the other hand, who knows when a quake would occur? As well, there were Acts such as the 1992 OSH Act, the 2004 Building Act, as well as Church Policy that I could not contend against.
Other churches such as St Paul’s in Huntly, St Mark’s in Te Aroha and St Peter’s in Raglan have also suffered the same temporary closures, but they are fortunate to have church halls to quickly relocate to, whereas St Mary’s does not. But we are blessed in having the use of a room in the Old School down the road in the Village’s Hukanui Park.
We will need to get this room shipshape and transfer some of the church furnishings like the font, altar candles and cross, our screen and projector etc to make it functional, as well as to give us a sense of continuity.
St Mary’s is a much loved and known building not only in the Gordonton Community but of the Waikato. At the end of the day, it is people that breathe life into the building.
We need to get our church back up to scratch as soon as possible for ourselves and future generations, so it is not sitting there for years as a beautiful but sad and empty edifice.
Where to from here? Well, the next stage would be to engage with an engineer and contractors who can advise on how the work will be carried out, the cost, and the time frame – all of which at this stage are unknown.
We do have some money put aside in our Seismic Strengthening Fund, and we can apply for funding from a Heritage Building Fund, but this is not guaranteed with so many earthquake effected or risk buildings around, as so I am sure we will have to raise a considerable amount, if not all of it, ourselves.”