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Church stunned by $8 million bill for earthquake upgrade

By Andrew Laxon

Richard Hurley says about 700 people are in St Benedict's every Sunday. Photo / Richard Robinson
Richard Hurley says about 700 people are in St Benedict's every Sunday. Photo / Richard Robinson

Only 10 years ago members of the congregation at St Benedict's Catholic church in inner-city Auckland raised about $2 million to lovingly restore their Victorian red brick church.

Now they face a bill of up to $8 million to do the same again, in order to meet new earthquake standards which the church's finance committee chairman, Richard Hurley, describes as a joke.

Mr Hurley said the Newton church committee spent six years planning its restoration project, which included replacing the slate tile roof and restoring the historic pipe organ and ornate wooden ceiling.

The result brought the 1888 building up to 33 per cent of New Building Standard (NBS) for earthquake strength, fractionally below the 34 per cent now demanded by the Earthquake-prone Buildings Amendment Bill due to become law this year.

Mr Hurley said assessors told church leaders it would cost a further $3 million to just meet the standard and about $7-8 million to do the job well.

He said the parish, which leases next-door land for car parking to pay its bills, was not poor but could not possibly find that kind of money.

"That would sink us. We just can't do it ... If things aren't broken, why should you need to fix them?"

Mr Hurley described the bill as Orwellian and political correctness gone mad.

He said people had been coming to the church for more than 120 years without any fear of major earthquakes, which were unheard of in Auckland. About 700 people used the building over three services every Sunday. "I have absolutely no concerns about it whatsoever. I think you're at more risk driving to church in your car."

Mr Hurley called for the bill to be amended "so that places such as this are not caught by an unintended consequence, which is to shut the whole show down. Somebody has to listen to the voice of reason. The country can't afford what's going on".

The church is one of about 30 out of 50 church-owned buildings surveyed by the Auckland Catholic diocese, which would be classified as earthquake-prone under the bill. Thousands of other church buildings are thought to be at risk, including Hamilton's Euphrasie House, a Spanish Mission-style convent which could cost up to $7 million to strengthen, and Auckland's landmark Baptist Tabernacle at the top of Queen St.

Auckland Catholic diocese administration board member Paddy Luxford, who is a geotechnical engineer, said the church accepted that some buildings would have to be upgraded but it would struggle to find the money for many others.

"We cannot afford to upgrade these, so we'll have to vacate them. If they're historical, as I understand it, we might not be able to demolish them so they might end up becoming derelict."

Don Baskerville, chairman of the AllChurches Bureau, which represents most major Protestant denominations, estimated about 10,000 Protestant and Catholic church-owned buildings would have to be checked, including halls and administration buildings.

Early estimates suggested at least half of all church buildings could be classed as earthquake-prone under the bill. Many churches would have to close, especially those with declining, ageing congregations.

He said church trustees reluctant to pay for strengthening needed to consider their moral responsibility to protect people's lives in the light of the Christchurch earthquakes.

"How are the trustees going to turn round, when they have deliberately done nothing, and say to someone; 'Oh, we didn't realise, here's a couple of dollars towards the funeral'. The problem is Christchurch has shown us you don't have to be inside a building to be killed by it."

- NZ Herald

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