Churches were established early in the life of communities during European settlement of New Zealand in the 1800s.

Napier's first Anglican church, St John the Evangelist, opened in 1862.

The growth of Napier and the importance of the faith to many Anglicans, meant a grander replacement was considered in 1885 - a cathedral made of brick and stone.

Despite some warnings against building in these materials - due to New Zealand's history of large earthquakes - St John's Cathedral was built to the design of Christchurch architect B W Mountford (also of the Christchurch Cathedral, which collapsed in the 2011 earthquake) and was consecrated in 1888.


In 1931, the cathedral collapsed in the 7.8 Hawke's Bay Earthquake, and a wooden, temporary replacement church was used for 28 years until 1960.

Planning finally got under way for the replacement cathedral in 1947.

Christchurch architect R S D Harman (1896-1953) was appointed in 1949 to design the cathedral.

Local architect Kingwell Malcolm (1912-2010) had been asked in 1947 to submit a sketch and concept for the cathedral, but R S D Harman, who had "considerable experience of church architecture and who was a devout churchman" was chosen instead by the building committee.

Kingwell would, however, act as Harman's local representative.

More land was needed for the larger cathedral, and at the time of the 1931 earthquake the Bank of New Zealand and another business occupied the sections fronting Hastings and Browning streets.

These sections were acquired in 1951.

It looked as if the process of completing the new cathedral would be a smooth one - until architect R S D Harman died in 1953.

The building committee had received R S D Harman's design, which they thought was "simple, dignified, and attractive, as well as being likely to avoid unnecessary expense".

However, they needed to secure the services of another architect to complete the project.

Attempts were made to engage one from England, but instead they ended up appointing local firm Malcolm and Sweet, and Kingwell Malcolm, who had submitted an outline sketch six years before would now oversee the building project.

R S D Harman's estimates of the cathedral's cost were between £60,000 (2017: $3.2 million) to £80,000 ($4.3 million) - but Malcolm and Sweet costed it at £141,800 ($7.6 million).

Kingwell said in 2007 that R S D Harman's was a "common, but expensive cathedral design in England" and that "what Harman did for me was to put the price up so that I could build the large impressive cathedral that Napier deserved".

R S D Harman's design was abandoned and Kingwell's new one adopted.

The foundation stone was laid in 1955 - half on the old site and half on the new land acquired.

The successful tenderer was A B Davis & Son at £63,844 ($3.2 million).

The generosity of Napier businessman Henry Charles ensured that any shortfall of funds would be covered by him.

The existing wooden church had the shell of the cathedral built around it, so it could be used close to the new cathedral's opening.

The church was then pulled out from the shell and removed to Marewa.

Upon digging out the foundations on the new land, the builders found the remains of an air-raid shelter, ancient horse stable, earthquake relics and other effects.

When it came to constructing the large cathedral walls, the architect specified the use of concrete, and not veneer over brick, therefore the expense of the walls was considerably reduced.

This technique required absolute consistency of the six-inch (15 cm) thick concrete, so Kingwell became an unpaid clerk of works and supervised every pour.

An emphasis on safety for the new cathedral had special meaning for Kingwell - he had seen the 1888 cathedral's collapse during the 1931 Hawke's Bay Earthquake.

He recalled in 2007 "From my office window I saw it fall down. It was quite astounding, because the walls fell out at the bottom and the building collapsed, but the roof stayed intact until it got to the bottom and then it spread".

The cathedral was dedicated at the completion of the first stage of building in February 1960.

Another dedication was performed in 1965 when the cathedral was completed - which included the 125-foot (38-metre) tower.

The cathedral was at this point debt-free.

Many objects and plaques of the original cathedral were salvaged and included in the new building.

This weekend marks 50 years since the consecration (solemn dedication of purpose) of the cathedral on October 8, 1967.

Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, leader of the Opposition Norman Kirk, past prime minister Walter Nash and the Hastings and Napier mayors attended, with 1800 others (many standing), to see the Most Reverend N A Lesser perform the service of consecration.

Activities are planned to commemorate the consecration, including Bishop Richard Randerson's workshop today at 10am on Social Need; this afternoon there will be the Bishops' Hill walk for those interested in history, and a Sunday Service at 10am.

• Michael Fowler ( is an EIT accounting lecturer, and in his spare time a recorder of Hawke's Bay's history.