Topic: A Chapel for a College by Jeanette Knudsen

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Jeanette Knudsen's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition is about the iconic Chapel located in the Bethlehem College grounds.

Archived version here.

Bethlehem College’s chapel is strategically sited at the bottom of Elder Lane.  You might be mistaken into thinking it has been there since it was first built in the nineteenth century, similar to the Moffat colonial villa nearby.  But no, the chapel arrived on the back of three trucks in the darkness of a mid-winter morning in 1990, providing the two-year old school with a significant historic Tauranga building, now 125 years old.  The chapel is the first building you see as you enter the school, a visual statement about the intent of Bethlehem Collegeto provide Christian education for its students.

The chapel used to be the old St Mary’s Catholic Church on Cameron Roadin Tauranga, the city’s third Catholic place of worship[1].  Local priest Father James Mahoney returned to Tauranga in 1880 after a few years away, determined to replace the existing church on the site.  He called for tenders for the building of the church in May 1887 and the winning contract, amounting to £313, went to Mahoney and Son, architects from Auckland, probably with family ties to the Irish born Father Mahoney.  The builders, brothers Peter and John Mannix, were expected to produce a ‘pleasing appearance’ inside and out, using only heart kauri throughout the construction. This more expensive option produced greater durability[2].

The church, in gothic revival architectural style, was built on a rise on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Cameron Road, first named ‘Our Lady Star of the Sea’, with uninterrupted views of the harbour on all three sides. Hard to believe in today’s urban landscape. 

Crowded to overflowing for the opening on 9th January 1888, the Reverend Dr. Luch officiated, assisted by the Rev. Fathers Mahoney, Madden, O’Reilly and Becker.  The bishop determined to honour the priests by making the building debt free and asked for donations. The resulting collection covered the full cost of the building.  In the 1950s, when congregational growth demanded a new place of worship, it was shifted to faceFirst Avenue and used as a hall. For one hundred years it formed part of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church complex.

In March 1990, with impressive plans to upgrade their facilities, the church put the old building up for tender and removal.  When Graham Preston, BethlehemCollege’s Principal, heard about it, he knew the building would be a valuable asset to the college.  He was keen to enter the tender process immediately, even though the school had no money.  The Christian Education Trust[3], under John Donald’s careful economy, stipulated that $20,000 must be given or pledged in donations before the tender could be placed. 

Graham sent a letter home to parents presenting the need and asking for donations. Within two weeks, his target was almost reached, about $800 short.  When one generous parent offered to provide the site bulldozing free of charge, Graham knew he had the required amount to make an offer.   In the end, he received a total of $22,000 in donations and gifts-in-kind.

The college tendered the sum of $5000, submitting that the building would be placed in the heart of the school and would continue to function as a chapel, in keeping with its history and tradition, but would also serve as a much needed assembly and activity hall.   Other groups placed tenders, including the local car club. 

The church authorities viewed the college’s offer with favour as the building would continue to have a spiritual function and they suggested the tender amount be increased.  In April the CET offered a revised bid of $9000.

BethlehemCollegewon the tender, and removal contractors moved in, separated the roof from the walls and shifted the building onto three trucks, for transportation to the school on Sunday 17th June. It was exciting to walk down First Avenue during the day and view the forlorn V-shaped roof and denuded walls sitting high on their trucks waiting for their midnight journey. They arrived at Elder Lane in the gloomy dawn of Monday 18th June, the roof placed on the sports field and the walls positioned almost on their final site.

The ceiling was sand-blasted to remove the paint and expose the original heart kauri.  Once the body of the chapel was on its foundations, giant cranes lifted the roof back to its rightful place a few days later. An admiring audience of primary pupils and staff looked on from the bank above the chapel as the cranes lowered the roof ever so slowly. 

It hovered above the walls as the workers lined up the four corners with the walls, and smoothly and gently settled it in place.  The children clapped in appreciation.  They and their teachers saw it as another milestone in theBethlehemCollegestory.

Structural strengthening and painting followed, with the full cost of shifting and upgrading the chapel to modern building codes reaching $36,000.  Sunday 19th August 1990 was a special day of celebration, with the college open to the public and a service of dedication for the new chapel.  Member of Parliament Graeme Lee, newly-appointed college chaplain Ron Collingwood, John Gooch from St Marys and Chair of the Board of Governors, Dudley Moore, helped in the official ceremony. 

Guided tours around the school and the classroom displays gave the public an indication of the rapid growth taking place and of the future development envisioned by the CET.

In the early years, the chapel was used daily for many activities – chapel service, drama, assembly, choir, gymnastics and folk-dancing; it was the only large indoor space available for extra-classroom activities.  The chapel also served for weddings and funerals of past students, as well as for regular worship services on Sundays for local church groups.

The chapel has been provided with beautiful stained glass windows in three of the lancet sash windows.  The first was added to the west end in 1992.  Two Standard 4 children raised $500 through a garage sale and the selling of sweets to provide a memorial window to a fellow pupil who died in 1990.  Designed by Principal Graham Preston and art teacher Ann-Marie Denny and created by parent Janet King, the window included meaningful symbolism like the cross, the dove, the central walkway of the school and the blue figures, students in school uniform.

The front left hand side window, produced to mark the 10th Anniversary of the college in 1998 was designed by Brienne Welsh, a 15-year old student at the school, and winner of the design competition held in conjunction with the celebrations.

The third window at the front right marked the 20th anniversary in 2008, the design work by art teacher Stephen Crowther and Year 10 students.

After 1990 some refurbishing such as carpeting and re-painting took place but by 2012 the historic church looked tired and in need of upgrading.   In fact, in all its years atBethlehemCollege, there had not been a toilet attached to the building, a disadvantage to those hiring it, or a new kitchen. 

By 2009 the school had acquired the facilities of the Events Centre and the Performing Arts Centre, making the chapel less needed for day-to-day college activities, but the demand for a past student wedding venue had increased.  Therefore, in 2012 the CET made the decision to undertake sensitive restoration of the ageing building.

Don Ackland, the campus manager, consulted with a colleague who was an expert in historic buildings and restoration and they drew up plans.  Builders removed the narrow upper gallery at the back, reached by unsafe stairs and not part of the original building.  They added steel portals for earthquake requirements, and a new porch, its gable matching the slope of the main roof line. The old kauri floor was repolished and a small new kitchen and toilet area added on thenorth westcorner under a new roof. 

A lectern and pews, in a style in keeping with the chapel, were purchased from St Columba Presbyterian in Christchurch, devastated in the earthquake of February 2011.  New lighting and outside landscaping finished the presentation of the historic building. 

At a service on Sunday afternoon on 11th November 2012, the chapel was re-dedicated, its new glory a source of pleasure for the school community and all those who had taken part its restoration.

[1] After one in Otumoetai and another on the Cameron Road site

[2] Details in this and the following paragraph were provided by St Marys to BC when the chapel was purchased

[3] Hence CET



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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A Chapel for a College by Jeanette Knudsen


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A Chapel for a College by Jeanette Knudsen by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License