An introduction to Old St Paul's
Old St Paul’s is as iconically Wellington as a Cook Strait southerly – in fact, it’s a wonderful place for a visitor to find peaceful refuge from the Wellington weather and a must-see experience on your visit to Wellington.
Consecrated in 1866, the magnificent timber Gothic Revival pro-cathedral on Mulgrave Street is not only arguably Wellington’s best-loved heritage landmark, it is intimately linked to the capital’s spiritual, civic and social life, its pews buffed to a high shine by the trouser seats of political colossi and visiting royalty, and its columns hung with plaques memorialising notable local families. Many a Wellingtonian has been married or mourned at Old St Paul’s, and, as its role as an Anglican parish church has wound down, it has become increasingly a place for everybody to share and enjoy.
Photo: Grant Sheehan.
It’s resilient, too. While the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake spelled the end of two contemporary neighbouring buildings, Old St Paul’s, though damaged, held up far better. Following a 15-month closure for strengthening work, it reopened in July 2020, complete with upgraded wiring, lighting and fire suppression systems and a fresh lick of paint on the outside.
That exterior is pleasant but unassuming, apart from a complex and steeply pitched roof system and a façade made up of unexpected angles and planes, it is on the inside that Old St Paul’s comes into its own.
In the 1960s, when a new Anglican cathedral was built nearby and Old St Paul’s was threatened with demolition, one of the church’s many defenders wrote that pulling it down “would be a blow in the face of beauty”. She wasn’t overstating. Looking like an upturned galleon with its soaring wooden arches, Old St Paul’s really does take your breath away. Expertly deployed lighting picks up the varying tones of diverse native timbers, catches the glint of brass memorial crosses and infuses the interior with a warm glow. The church’s myriad stained glass windows, many of which were donated as gifts or memorials, are exquisite examples of the art.
Those windows also have intriguing backstories, so pick up a guide to Old St Paul’s stained glass before you start exploring. You’ll learn, for example, that the big west window was installed in 1869 to acknowledge two Wellington officers killed in the Government forces’ assault on Tītokowaru’s pā at Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu, in Taranaki, making it one of the earliest memorials arising from the New Zealand Wars.
There are stories everywhere you turn, layers of history, intriguing anecdotes. The massive carved oak pulpit, for instance, was installed in 1908 to memorialise Premier and Old St Paul’s stalwart Richard Seddon, whose body had been brought to the cathedral on a gun carriage two years earlier trailed by an enormous crowd of mourners. There’s a private door and little porch built to exclusively accommodate one Governor General who didn’t much care for coming and going with the hoi polloi – or with his own family, for that matter. And, while you may not be able to see it, there’s a panel of wood that was signed by the builder John McLaggan and his carpenters in May 1866 and secreted inside a pillar, to be discovered during restoration work a century later.
Old St Paul's Sound and Light Show as part of Capital 150, 2015. Photo: Paul McGahan.
Stories like these are covered in the self-guided visitor booklet, and if you really want to get your teeth into the detail you can book a guided tour. You won’t find it all necessarily comfortable listening. One fact about Old St Paul’s is that it was built on a piece of the former Pipitea Pā that had been designated as Native Reserve – Sir George Grey made a gift to the Anglican Church that wasn’t his to dispense.
Old St Paul’s is also a popular and much loved venue that routinely hosts events open to the public, from concerts to art exhibitions to choral evensong. The traditional Christmas carol service held each December offers a perfect opportunity to experience the church’s wonderful acoustics in action.
When you’re ready, head on to another Category I Thorndon heritage landmark, Katherine Mansfield House and Garden. The birthplace and early childhood home of the famed author was restored to its original layout and design in the late 1980s and in 2019 underwent extensive maintenance and repairs.