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In Christchurch, New Zealand: shattered churches, grieving parishioners

February 25, 2011

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand

In a city named after a place of faith, churches shattered by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake were yielding up their dead on Feb. 25 as clergy and parishioners grieved and searched for places to worship on Sunday.

The overall death toll from the Feb. 22 quake reached 113 on Feb. 25, with more than 200 people missing and hundreds injured. About 600 search and rescue workers, who failed to find any survivors overnight, were working in shifts searching the central city, where several major office buildings were completely destroyed, according to media reports. Estimated damage is $10 billion.

Rescue workers on Feb. 25 began the grim task of removing bodies from the Anglican ChristChurch Cathedral as hopes of finding survivors faded, according to Anglican Taonga, a publication of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia), and press reports. Search and rescue experts lowered a camera into the damaged nave but found no signs of life. The cathedral’s spire crumbled in the quake, collapsing into a stone tower.

One rescuer, who did not want to be named, said stone and rubble filled the building to a height of around 20 meters, according to Anglican Taonga. “We put a camera in but there was nothing,” he said. “No sound, nothing.” Up to 22 people are believed to have been buried in the rubble of the cathedral after the spire collapsed. Cathedral staff were safe, but the church and spire are a major visitor attraction.

Church leaders were searching for alternative places of worship ahead of Sunday services to accommodate parishioners whose buildings are either damaged or in ruins. As many churches are inaccessible, a range of worship options were being considered, from schools to churches that are safe, to open air meetings.

“The bishop is working on that at the moment,” said Yvonne Beck, spokesperson for Anglican Bishop Victoria Matthews. “There has been a request for outdoor services, but I don’t think that will happen this weekend.”

Matthews is offering suitable churches for funerals and has alerted funeral directors, and is involved in planning a non-denominational service in the city’s biggest park, Hagley Park, next month.

Mayor Bob Parker said that the Anglican cathedral would be rebuilt. “There is some discussion that that is a building we could rebuild brick by brick, stone by stone. We need to find some symbols like that,” he said, according to Anglican Taonga,

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, sent a message of support to Matthews, saying, in part: “We thank God that you and your people are there to offer strength and comfort to all those caught up in the personal suffering this has brought.”

Churchill Courts, one of three church-run homes for the elderly in Christchurch, was permanently closed, its 50 residents moved to other facilities and its 60 staff laid off, according to Anglican Taonga.

Its chapel had to be demolished after the September quake. Walls and ceilings cracked and hallways sagged. The building also lost water, electricity, phones and sewerage. Matthews and Archbishop David Moxon were at the site to pray with residents and staff. Residents of a second home, Bishopspark, were also evacuated to the homes of families and friends. A third site, Fitzgerald, remained habitable.  

Members of at least ten damaged Catholic parishes will be celebrating Mass at schools and other Catholic and Anglican parishes. All parishes in the city are being inspected and Bishop Barry Jones’ spokesperson Mike Stopforth says that all parishes are affected. “The bishop has said that no Mass can be conducted in a parish without an inspection, even if there is no damage,” Stopforth said.

While changes are progressively being notified on the church’s website, Stopforth acknowledged a problem is communicating changes to older parishioners who have no internet access, particularly as Mass times are also changing where Anglican churches are being utilized in the interim.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the city’s biggest Catholic church, was damaged beyond repair, and Mass is being celebrated at the nearby cathedral college hall this weekend. Three parishes are likely to be partially reopened in coming weeks.

Other smaller independent churches are considering cancelling services this weekend, primarily because their church has either no power or water. Leaders of one Open Brethren church in a cordoned off area in the centre of the city have  advised members by telephone that services will not be held due to low water pressure.

Some Presbyterian and Uniting congregations are unable to meet due to extensive damage to church buildings and to surrounding roads, and continual disruption to power and water supplies. The church has launched a special offering for Christchurch.

  1. We were at your church two years ago in january. George and Nerole were so kind to us. We are stll praying for your town and church and for these dear people who took us to the square and to the cathedral. with our prayers. Andy and dEE jARVIS.

    by Andy Jarvis

    March 1, 2011

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